Robert Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University, and co-founder and President of Tibet House US. A personal friend of the Dalai Lama for over 40 years, his latest book is Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet and the World. Recently we were able to chat about the Dalai Lama’s retirement, the future of Tibet, his relationship with HHDL, and the importance of putting practice into action. This interview was conducted over email, as Thurman is currently “inbetween things” while traveling in Bhutan. He will be teaching at InsightLA on April 30. —Sam Mowe

The Dalai Lama recently retired from his political duties. What does this mean for Tibet? He has already been semi-retired for a decade, delegating political decisions to an elected prime minister of government in exile. He is delighted now, at 76, to fully and formally retire from his political role and execute the constitutional clause that future Dalai Lamas will have no political role or responsibility, either in exile or in Tibet upon reconciliation with Chinese government. This puts the responsibility upon the Tibetan people to exercise their democratic responsibilities. This means that Tibet in exile is now, and autonomous or independent Tibet in future will be, fully democratic, and Buddhism and state will be legally separate. Of course, the Dalai Lama will continue to be an important spiritual leader of Tibetan people and indeed of all peace-loving people worldwide who have realized that nonviolence, as a subtle and sophisticated and effective way of resolving conflicts, is the way forward in our global crisis.

What is the Dalai Lama’s role now in helping to resolve China-Tibet tension? He is the spiritual leader of the nonviolent movement in the world, as a Nobel Laureate, and he joins other nonviolent leaders in spreading that method of resolving conflicts worldwide. The fact that he has renounced his political authority and “power” is all the more threatening to the Chinese politburo, whose main fear and concern in life is how to hold on to their power at all costs, for which, since they are really obsolete in a democracy-inclined nation and world, they must resort to violence, first upon their own people with the People’s Armed Police, then upon their occupied neighbors, such as Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongolians, and Manchurians, and then upon their not yet occupied neighbors, such as the rest of the neighboring Asian nations, from Vietnam in a clockwise circle via India all the way to Outer Mongolia and South Korea. They also are intent upon supporting dictators such as the North Korean Kims, the Burmese Than Shwe, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Bashir of Sudan, Chavez of Venezuela, who survive by the PRC Politburo’s support and violence upon their own people.

In this context, the Dalai Lama’s joyful release of “power,” even in the microcosm of the unrecognized, except by the Tibetan people and by Tibet supporters worldwide, Tibetan government in exile is a mortal threat to the paranoid agenda of the PRC’s politburo standing committee.

The Tibet-China tension can be easily resolved, as I point out in Why the Dalai Lama Matters, if the PRC leadership would simply follow the Dalai Lama’s example, relax their grip, trust their own people, trust and befriend the Dalai Lama, return to the loose-reins patron and protector relationship all Chinese governments have enjoyed with many Tibetan governments and let the Tibetan people manage their high altitude environment in an efficient and constructive way, contributing to the Chinese federal union in the way Hong Kong does, as part of a brilliant, world-honored, United States of China!

Do you have any insight on the question of who will succeed the 14th Dalai Lama? Of course his own reincarnation will succeed him, found in the proper way by the spiritual adepts, and the huge weight put upon it by the frightened Chinese leadership will be lessened because it is a purely spiritual matter with no political role in the offing. He is presently now succeeded in political power by an elected prime minister and government in exile parliament.

Sometimes I’ll hear somebody say “Bob Thurman is friends with the Dalai Lama,” but I never really know what this means. What is your relationship with His Holiness like? When is the last time that you spoke with him? What did you talk about? I don’t know what it means either! Except I love the guy, and he stated the other day in a teaching that he “loves to tease this professor, having done so for almost fifty years!” Actually it has been 47 years, and we started off as sort of schoolmates and pals, under his senior teachers and tutors, then I became one of his ordained mendicant bhikshus, then I defected back to lay status and became one of his translators as well as continuing student, and then moved on into being one of his tantric initiates, and then was asked by him to work in the Tibet House movement to preserve the precious Tibetan Buddhist culture. All along I have been promoting, in my way, the right to recognition, freedom, and support of the Tibetan nation. We last talked about some questions of dharma, about the scientific aspects of Buddhism, that it is not only a religion, about the mind-body relationship in philosophical terms, about the sad obduracy of the Chinese leaders and the ongoing crackdowns on the Tibetans in Tibet, about Obama and the uncontrollable wars, about the rich-poor polarity in the world as a whole, and so on. He always reinforces my optimism that no matter how dark it seems, things will work out for the best, and I try to do my best igualmente, as the Spanish say. We also laugh a lot.

What are you reading these days? I am reading the works of the 75 peacemakers who are gathering around the Dalai Lama at Tibet House US’s Newark Peace Education Summit Conference on May 13-15 in Newark at the invitation of Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker, fascinating stories of death-row residents eventually exonerated, Cambodian women liberated from sex slavery, child soldiers redeemed and turned into peace heroes, gang members become peace guardians, celebrities devoted to peace and education like dear Goldie Hawn, nuclear nonproliferation experts, poverty alleviation folks like Jeff Sachs of Earth Institute, South American Kogui Mamo shamans brought by explorer Wade Davis to call upon our industrial barons to top destroying the earth, animal rights people, and so on and so on.

I must say, I am a bit frustrated about many of my fellow Buddhists who seem exclusively focused on attending more and more teachings for themselves, all of which tell them to develop their enlightened compassion and get out there and help the suffering beings, and yet who find it difficult to join the Dalai Lama when he is doing just that in Newark, and so finding out more about action, actually putting into practice the universal compassion teachings of the altruistic bodhichitta spirit of enlightenment on the street, so to speak! We are therefore having a surprising and unusual difficulty in filling the Tibetan compassion tent in Newark. I hope that will change and lots of Tricycle fans will join us for that amazing conclave.

I am also reading about the Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness, and how hard a job it is to realize it in the midst of today’s cultural and economic pressures, which involves Joe Stiglitz’ critique of the GDP growth focus of the out of control global industrialization and development juggernaut.

I am focusing also on my effort and duty to translate the resource works of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Sciences of the mind and spirit, the long lost Jewel-Ocean Library of Nalanda University, which mainly exists in the Tibetan collection of translation of around 5,600 works by 700 plus authors of ancient India’s golden age, which now need to be available to the post-quantum, post-neuroscience scientific tradition, by being well translated into English and other European languages, Chinese and other East Asian languages, the Indic languages, and Hebrew, Arabic and African languages. I hope before I go on to the next life to have helped establish a Center for this effort in Sarnath, India, with affiliations to my own Columbia University Center for Buddhist studies, and other such university centers in Europe, Russia, China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Latin America, and South Africa, etc., hoping also to have global internet companies such as Google etc. facilitate the translation and dissemination process. This is not an effort of religious mission work, but rather a scientific rediscovery project. To understand this people must understand the nonreligious and scientific thrust of the Buddhist movement from the beginning—I have a book on this in the works.

Finally, I am researching the true costs of war and weapon industries worldwide. There’s a figure of $1.6 trillion in new arms sales in 2009! This is proportionally more in global GDP terms than in WW II and in the Cold War. This research is in preparation for a project with HH the Dalai Lama focused on reining in the escalation of international and intranational violence and making the nonviolence dialogue and reconciliation movement so needed by the world’s people. So I am reading the literature available on that subject.

UPDATE: Thurman in the LA Times

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