Robert A. F. Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. A former Tibetan Buddhist monk—the first Westerner ever to be so ordained—he is the cofounder and current director of Tibet House in New York City. For decades he has been a close friend of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a prominent champion of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan cause. He has translated classic texts from Tibetan to English and is the author of numerous books, most recentlyCircling the Sacred Mountain (Bantam, 1999) and Inner Revolution (Penguin, 1999). This interview was conducted at his office at Columbia University.
his past summer the Dalai Lama appeared inCentral Park in New York City. Fifty thousand people were there. It was a watershed event for Buddhism in America. But when the Pope came toNew York he drew a crowd of one million. So how isBuddhism really doing in America?
I think Buddhism is doing pretty well here, although my theory is that Buddhism does best in America when it doesn’t bother to be Buddhism. I don’t agree that Buddhism is going to become a huge religious movement here. I follow the Dalai Lama, who, even though he had fifty thousand people, tells them, “I don’t want you to be Buddhist, necessarily. It’s better if you learn from Buddhism and then keep connected to the religions of your family, of your community, and develop the positive qualities that Buddhism would like you to develop within those settings.” He says that constantly, even when he is among Buddhists. It goes right along with his appeal to other religious leaders, to please stop converting members of other faiths, because we cannot afford a new era of inter-religious competition for market share.
What role will Buddhism play in America in the next century, if conversion is not the aim?
Where I see Buddhism contributing is in helping the Euro-American tradition, which is too outer-materiality oriented. We’ve had a strong focus on materialism since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which has resulted in our having tremendous power over physical nature, which gives us a great opportunity to destroy ourselves. We now need to balance that with knowledge of our mind and how it works. Here at the university, a religion major will take ten or twelve courses, but there’s no course that requires them to do a lab unit of meditating with, say, Jon Kabat-Zinn [author of Wherever You, Go, There You Are] to learn how to withdraw from impulsive violent emotions. Of course that could never be offered as Buddhism because then the Jews and the Christians and the Muslims and the Hindus would be upset—even other kinds of Buddhists would be upset. It could be given only as a kind of physical and mental self-discipline.
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