Some people report that they have great realizations from simply listening to a lecture by Robert Thurman. His enthusiasm and flights of metaphor have lifted Buddhist scholarship out of academia and pointed it toward the essence of the Buddha’s teaching. Thurman’s ideas about the organic evolution of Buddha dharma in Asia allow us to understand the relationships among the various Buddhist cultures and schools of thought. Currently Professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University in New York, Thurman also heads the American Institute of Buddhist Studies. He was instrumental in preparing the recent American tour of Tibetan art, and he is coauthor of the elegant companion volume to that show, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. The following interview was conducted by Wes Nisker.
Inquiring Mind: Being a Buddhist scholar, you are familiar with all branches of Buddhism, but you seem to have developed a special affinity for Tibetan Buddhism and for the Tibetan people.
Robert Thurman: That’s very true. But in a funny way, I don’t regard Tibetan Buddhism as Tibetan. I first encountered Buddhism through the Tibetans, and in their view they have preserved Buddhism from Ancient India. The Tibetan attitude is that they are doing the sacred work of conserving Shakyamuni’s dharma.
IM: Of course Theravada and Zen teachers would say the same thing.
RT: Yes, and I think it’s good that all of them have that intention.
The way the Tibetan’s view it, and the way I understand it from my studies, is that from around 500 or 600 A.D. to around 1100 or 1200 A.D., during the last phase of Indian Buddhism, a synthesis of the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana schools took place. And it was also during that time that the dharma moved into Tibet. So the Tibetans received the three schools in a package, so to speak. And one of the characteristics of that package is that Buddhism worked its way into every crack and chink in the life of the people in Tibet.
IM: From an outsider’s view, Tibetan Buddhism often appears as something very different from the other schools of Buddhism. It has a “catholic” style that in some sense seems unsuited to the perceived simplicity of Buddha dharma.
RT: That is because Tibetan Buddhism is the Buddhism that is particularly impregnated with tantra. Everything is tantric. And that is looked upon by other Buddhists as something a little corrupted and heretical. However, in the modern era, I think we are coming to respect that tantric aspect of Tibetan Buddhism.
IM: How would you define tantra to a lay person or to a beginning Buddhist who is not familiar with it?
RT: I would define tantra as a technology for transforming the mind and the world away from the mode of ignorance and toward the mode of enlightenment. Tantra especially involves elements of the imagination. First, the imagination is stripped out of the ignorant world through a critical examination of every construct of the mind. Then one reaches the void and discovers that the void is void because there is no self in the void. And then one is involved with the problem of how to reimagine a world where all beings can be free rather than bound. Tantra uses the imagination to restructure such a world.
IM: What is unique to the Vajrayana or tantric aspect of Tibetan Buddhism that is not contained in either the Zen or the Theravada tradition?
RT: This is controversial. Some people will say this or that is unique, but I prefer to say there’s nothing that is unique about Vajrayana. In its essential thrust Vajrayana is exactly the same as monastic Buddhism, just as monastic Buddhism is exactly the same as Mahayana Buddhism. I like to see the three traditions nested within each other. Vajrayana is essential for those of us who are a bit dumb and can’t just leap into samadhi instantly. We need to have every little step explicated, and know what we’re doing. What is special about Vajrayana is that it explicates all of the things that are sometimes left hidden in the other traditions.
IM: So would you say that the tantric practices in Tibetan Buddhism are an elaboration and support of the Theravada and Mahayana teachings?
RT: Yes, and not only that. What will surprise people is that the majority of the Tibetan masters have made great efforts to keep the Theravadan monastic vehicle as pure as possible. In other words, they don’t leave that tradition behind. The cliché about Tibetan Buddhism that has spread through our culture comes perhaps from the story of Naropa, who followed a female dakini and wandered into the mountains to become a wild, naked yogi. But the majority of tantric practitioners throughout history maintained the monastic ethic. That is the preferred path. In fact, some of the highest tantric initiations can only be given to a monastic, because the vows would be unachievable by a lay person.
IM: Are tantric practices unique to Tibetan Buddhism?
RT: In a literal sense, yes. However, I think Zen is very tantric. Take Dogen’s Zen, a practice which says that when you sit you are Buddha. You don’t meditate as a “means-end” practice of trying to attain a buddhahood which is remote from you in time and space. When you sit, you are Buddha. And if you don’t happen to feel like Buddha that’s just a bad habit which you have to pierce or break through.
IM: So tantra is really a creation and projection of a purified state of mind.
RT: That’s right. Tantric initiation is an opening of imaginative space where you have a vision of potential perfection. You may still feel like a “schmo,” but that’s the dynamic tension. Your habitual imagination of yourself as an unenlightened schmo is brought into tension with an artificially constructed imagination of yourself as a perfected being.
IM: How does one get to those tantric practices in Tibetan Buddhism? Aren’t there many other levels of training that one must go through first?
RT: The Tibetans use the so-called graduated path, which is a synthesis of all the teachings of the different sutras. Before you get to meditation, first you have to adopt an ethical life style. The Tibetans favor being a monastic if possible because that simplifies your life: you don’t have family problems and mortgage payments so you can concentrate on your spiritual practice.
Secondly, you cultivate wisdom; this is very crucial to direct your path of meditation. Just to start sitting right away, without learning about what it is you are doing is not recommended. Then, given a certain wisdom orientation, the Tibetans enter onto a path of meditation which is structured around what they call the three principles.
The first principle is renunciation, which includes the themes of the suffering of samsara, the fruition of karma, the different realms of rebirth that one can be born into, and the understanding of how unfortunate it will be if one doesn’t attain enlightenment. This first principle emphasizes the value of a human life, especially if that human life has come into contact with the dharma and can attain enlightenment. This phase emphasizes an appreciation of the biological achievement that is a human being, as well as meditations on death and the fragility and impermanence of human life. If you meditate on this combination, you become both very delighted that you have the life form that you do for the moment, and paranoid about losing it at any second. This creates determination and intensity in your practice.
The second major principle of the meditation path is called the bodhichita, or spirit of enlightenment, which involves love and compassion. It’s the method of generating the messianic resolve to achieve enlightenment for the sake of everyone and not to abandon anybody in a non-nirvanic state. In this phase of the path you learn to be oriented toward all sentient beings as if they were your mother. You draw on the beginning lessons about samsara and remember that everyone has been reborn as one’s mother at some time or another, and therefore you owe every being the same debt of gratitude that you owe to your mother in this particular life. In this way, you become biologically connected to all of life and want to liberate all beings. When you get to that real messianic vow, where you say “I am going to do that,” then you generate bodhichita.
The third principle of the meditation path is basically vipassana, the inquiring mind looking into selflessness; into the true cold selflessness, the selflessness of persons, subjective selflessness, and the selflessness of things, objective selflessness. This meditation and inquiry is the most important of the three principles, the liberating one. Renunciation is preparatory in the sense that it frees you from desires. The love and compassion work is preparatory in that it frees you from excessive aversion and excessive alienation. But only vipassana can liberate; only the realization of selflessness can liberate. After failing to find any self in the subjective person or in objects, then one becomes truly liberated and attains nirvana. That’s the third principle of the graduated path.
IM: Let’s go back to the messianic ideal for a moment. Some people would say one of the main differences between Tibetan and Zen Buddhism, on the one hand, and the Theravada tradition, on the other, is that there is no bodhisattva vow in Theravada.
RT: Well, in the sense of having a formal bodhisattva vow, there is that difference. But this is one of those issues which may be understood through the theory that each vehicle contains explications of what is already in the other vehicles. So, for example, in Theravada you have the metta or lovingkindness meditation and the mudita or compassionate joy meditation. The Theravada practitioner also learns through the Jataka tales to admire the Buddha for all of his bodhisattva trials and struggles. The societies which preserve the Theravada also have this social ethic of love and compassion among the people, so there is a definite altruism practice in the vehicle. However, monastic Theravada Buddhism does not push on the individual to explicitly take up the cause of all beings. It emphasizes straightening out your own head first.
Of course the Mahayana does not say you must go and take up the cause of everybody else without straightening out your head first, because that would be impossible. So the Mahayana takes for granted all of the achievements of monastic Buddhism: that a person has practiced renunciation, has realized how screwed up the ignorant egocentric mind is, and wants to transform it. The Mahayana then explicates the fact that nirvana is not a state of annihilation; it is not a reified nothingness into which you can go and hide. It explicates what is implied in Buddha’s original teaching about nirvana, which is the teaching of selflessness, that people are interconnected with other beings and are going to have to take up their cause.
IM: Do you think there is a difference in the Theravada and Tibetan concepts of nirvana?
RT: Different Buddhists have different concepts of nirvana. The great tendency for a person who is frightened of the world is to regard nirvana as an escaped state, and I think the Buddha purposely created the concept to allow for that interpretation. During the Buddha’s time in India, the intellectual Brahmin yogis were involved in this very dualistic trip of getting their spirits out and away from the world of matter and responsibilities. They were trying to shoot out of the cosmos with intense samadhi practices. So if the Buddha had come and laid a big trip on them about how they had to be bodhisattvas, he would have gotten no results. So instead he said, “Yeah, there’s an escaped state called nirvana. It comes about when you realize anatta, which means that you have no soul, or no self.” Now if you add those things together, you realize that there is nobody who is going to be occupying this escaped state of nirvana. And not only will there be nobody there, there never has been anybody here. So the urge to escape is, in fact, part of the whole neurosis of ignorance.
But the Buddha didn’t just squash that drive to escape. I think that many Buddhists, both Theravada and Mahayana, will sometimes think of nirvana as some black hole that we can go into, thank goodness, and find obliteration. I know I myself did for years, and still do, secretly, when I’m really uptight or feel frightened. But the non-dual understanding of nirvana is that freedom from the self is complete freedom, and is attained by feeling interconnected with all beings in a loving way. This understanding of nirvana is hard for people to really accept, so many Buddhists try to figure ways out of it.
IM: In the Theravada schools, especially as they are presented in the West, people start right out with an attempt to look into that condition of selflessness.
RT: But in the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia, before they go to work on samadhi, they start out by being born into a culture where they absorb Jataka stories and learn the Four Noble Truths like a catechism. The people are essentially directed toward renunciative and ethical themes by their culture; the altruistic ideals are totally embedded in their consciousness.
IM: That seems to be one of the missing links in a lot of Western dharma. We are simply brought up in a culture that does not prepare us for practice in the same way.
RT: Absolutely. And I think we are particularly confused about the issue of selflessness. My teacher used to hammer this home to me a lot. Americans are taught, even as they go to church or synagogue, that the mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain. And the soul is a very old fashioned notion. So when a Western person with a fairly good scientific education is exposed to the teaching of selflessness—the old Brits in India used to call it “soullessness”—they are hearing a confirmation of that materialism. And that’s particularly dangerous, because anyone who is taught that there is no soul or no self has a hard time accepting responsibility, and Buddhism can tend to reinforce that very strongly. You think that freedom is being obliterated in a existential sense.
IM: Buddhism turns into a kind of nihilism.
RT: Yes, and that’s why the teachings of selflessness are considered advanced teachings in the traditional Buddhist cultures. First, you must have some ethical and social foundations, because selflessness is really the brink of the abyss. But in America, everybody is already on the edge of the abyss. America has brought the planet to the edge of the abyss. So, if we do go straight for the selflessness teachings, we had better get them right or else we might believe we are enlightened and blow up the planet to prove it.
IM: There is a common belief that the tantric practices are particularly susceptible to abuse.
RT: That’s why the Tibetans use the graduated path. You must have a foundation before the tantric practices—the ritual, the art, the visualizations—can be employed to deepen the understanding and the realization. The spirit of enlightenment and the will toward compassion must be there because those visualization techniques must be harnessed to the evolutionary goal of becoming a superbeing, an effective messiah for all beings. And the wisdom element must be there because you need a basic knowledge of selflessness before you can jump into your unconscious with the archetypal patterns that tantra presents. If you haven’t dislodged what is called “the rigid self habit,” then you can become a kind of megalomaniac. You can believe that you are God and have created a special mandala world of your own. The mind can get you into a fantasy world where you become attached to this magical and miraculous self.
Tantra comes into Tibetan practice to enhance the basic levels of understanding, and also to bring in elements of the unconscious mind. Your realization is not just in relation to the conscious mind but to the subtle or the unconscious mind as well. So tantra comes in to enhance your realization of those three basic principles: renunciation and acknowledgement of suffering, love and compassion, and vipassana and realization of selflessness.
IM: What about the relationship of student to teacher in Tibetan Buddhism?
RT: It is very very crucial. There’s an initiation for entering the path which is known as “the reliance on the teacher.” Some people translate it as guru devotion or teacher devotion, but it really means the art of relying on a teacher. The teacher is the mother and father to someone who wants to be reborn as an enlightened being. The teacher becomes the supermother or the superfather, and that relationship is extremely important. Only when you are really sure about somebody and you yourself are at a certain stage do you choose what is called the lama relationship in which one teacher becomes your channel toward buddhahood. That’s a level where you undertake the practice of seeing the teacher as an embodiment of freedom, and all faults are only faults of your perception.
IM: Does that teacher relationship change at all in tantric practice?
RT: In tantra the student-teacher relationship is most thoroughly explicated, and is of supreme importance. The teacher’s vision is what you’re trying to learn. They say that a teacher may be imperfect and have a lot of faults, but if a disciple is practicing tantra they are visualizing that teacher as the perfect representative of the Buddha. But that relationship creates such a powerful dependency that the Tibetans have built in a lot of safeguards. The teacher is preferably a monk and has nothing to do with you politically. There is a Tibetan proverb, “The best teacher is one who lives five valleys away.” It’s easier when you don’t have to see the daily backside of that teacher. You just keep them in your meditation as a perfect being, and their normal sneezing and nose picking goes unnoticed. In other words, the teacher in the tantric synthesis is like a psychiatrist. There is heavy-duty transference, except it’s not just the psychological material; it involves a spiritual dimension where you project lifetimes of fathers and mothers on this teacher. You project archenemies on this teacher as well. There is a lot of room for abuse in that relationship, but there are a lot of controls built in. The number of bad apples in Tibet was not as many as we might think, considering the number of bad apples we’ve seen over here in the West.
IM: Elaborate on that thought if you will, by commenting on the potential problems as Buddhism is transmitted from Asia to the West.
RT: I totally agree with the Dali Lama who believes that in order to work well, Buddhism in America requires a renewal that harkens back to its original spirit in India. In America people are kind of wild and woolly, just as they were in India in the fifth century B.C. So there’s no point in trying to keep Tibetan Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism or Zen Buddhism intact, to enshrine them here in America. I think those attempts are doomed to failure. They’re not even healthy. Furthermore, in most of the Asian countries the traditional Buddhism is pretty much moribund. It’s either been killed off by Communism or destroyed by capitalism.
When the Dali Lama sends Tibetan monks to visit Christian monasteries, he tells them to offer freely any of the Buddhist techniques and methods. His Holiness does not want to try to convert people to Buddhism. He wants to make it available as a psychology, a science, a meditation practice or whatever. Of course, in free and pluralistic countries, if you want to be Buddhists that’s fine. But the Dali Lama feels that it’s too late in history for there to be more religious conflicts and competitions. Buddhism should just freely offer itself to everybody, whatever they want to say their ideology is. His Holiness doesn’t like it when he sees Americans trying to learn how to bow like the Japanese or to stick their tongues out like Tibetans. It really bugs him. He wants people to find the essence of Buddhism beyond the cultural form. And I think out of that there will arise all kinds of hybrids of American Buddhism. Of course, it’s good for people to appreciate those lineages that have preserved Buddhism through history to the present time.
IM: Isn’t there a danger of Buddha dharma becoming just another New Age fad?
RT: Yes, there is that danger. But His Holiness says that if you take a good look at the Twentieth Century and all of the holocausts that have taken place, we certainly need a New Age. In the Tibetan culture there is this idea of Shambhala, a prophecy which actually comes from India. Shambhala is a kind of New Age, a Buddhist New Age. His Holiness is ready for it, and I agree with him absolutely. I hope to see American Buddhists adopting new practices and having the flexibility to use what works. Put American pragmatism to work on it all. Don’t just adhere to this museum-like business of sitting this way or that way on this or that pillow, or using only this or that mantra. Of course it’s good that we do have people who are learning and studying all of that. But I think we should develop our own rituals and practices. Furthermore, we should give away everything we know to Muslims, Christians, atheists; give them whatever they want. And we don’t have to ask them to sign a receipt that they got it from Buddhism.