Bob Thurman, Tibetan Monk
April 9, 2009 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Tenzin Bob Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. He's a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, the first American ordained by the Dalai Lama. Here is his TED talk. If you are really interested in Tibetan Buddhism, check out his many podcasts.
posted by RussHy (30 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Oh yeah, he's Uma's dad, too.
posted by RussHy at 7:51 AM on April 9, 2009

Uma's mom, Nena von Schlebrügge, ain't half bad either. And before marrying Bob Thurman, she was the former Mrs. Timothy Leary.
posted by jonp72 at 8:07 AM on April 9, 2009

I see why he gave back his robes.
posted by milarepa at 8:13 AM on April 9, 2009

Your religion sucks.
You know who else was into Tibetan Buddhism?
All joking aside, this sounded like that standard Buddhist spiel to me.
posted by idiopath at 8:21 AM on April 9, 2009

He's a Tibetan Buddhist, what else would you expect?
posted by RussHy at 8:27 AM on April 9, 2009

that standard Buddhist spiel to me

There's a lot of variety in Buddhism (especially American Buddhism) on a wide variety of topics, including big ones like reincarnation and other supernatural claims.
posted by Pants! at 8:29 AM on April 9, 2009

What I meant was that seeing that this was a TED talk, and seemingly worthy of a FPP, I expected a bit more from it than I heard. Maybe the connection with Uma is worth something, or most people are not familiar with the Buddhist concept of compassion.
posted by idiopath at 8:38 AM on April 9, 2009

The real goodies are in the 70+ podcasts, but only if you are interested. If you aren't, then find another thread.
posted by RussHy at 8:41 AM on April 9, 2009

I appologize for the snarky derail, commenting here was a poor choice.
posted by idiopath at 8:48 AM on April 9, 2009

Apology accepted.
posted by RussHy at 8:51 AM on April 9, 2009

Three years left for me to decide whether I want to become a monk.
posted by shii at 10:13 AM on April 9, 2009

The publisher I work for publishes his English translation of the essential Tibetan version of the Mahāyāna scripture of Vimalakīrti Sūtra. You can read a pirated version of the Sūtra here, and read about why I think it's bad karma to pirate it here.
posted by Toekneesan at 10:20 AM on April 9, 2009

He has a lot more credibility than other so-called lamas that came from the West.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:44 AM on April 9, 2009

When Thurman dies he will eventually pass through the fifth bardo where demons will scare and taunt him by repeatedly saying "look, it's Uma's dad! Look it's Uma's dad!"
posted by twoleftfeet at 10:57 AM on April 9, 2009 [5 favorites]

I love it when people's complaints about Buddhism consist of "I've heard this before."
posted by mhoye at 11:24 AM on April 9, 2009

I was not complaining about Buddhism, but about the post. If someone had posted an FPP which seemed to basically explain the ten commandments or the communist manifesto or an outline of natural selection, which, like the Buddhist doctrine of compassion I would expect people to already be familiar with if they are hanging out here, I would have had the same complaint. I retract my complaint because I had overlooked the podcast link, which may very well have something more interesting to say. Hopefully someone will listen to some of the podcasts and point out anything particularly interesting that they have to say.
posted by idiopath at 11:43 AM on April 9, 2009

I'm too sleepy to watch the talk, but thought I'd chime in to recommend Robert Thurman as a lecturer, in general. I've been to a few of his talks, and he's a lot of fun. As someone who has both been a monk and a sort of spirituality rock star (married to a super hottie!) he's got an interesting perspective on the balancing act between the transcendental (possibly, opinions vary) ideals of Buddhism and the basic human needs of your average Joe/Jane.


That's cool stuff. I actually went to this last year at Emory, when the topic was meditation/compassion in the treatment of depression. Highly recommended. The dialogue makes both Buddhism and cognitive science and its ilk more relevant--to my mind, anyway.
posted by flotson at 7:44 PM on April 9, 2009

I strongly dislike Robert Thurman and some of the people he hangs out with, such as malignant cult leader and sexual abuser, Sogyal Rinpoche.

Thurman's confused and confusing hogwash consists of some sort of attempt at mixing psuedo hip-techno-science and snippets of Buddhist dogma into something really meaningless. His gibberish is a "nostalgic prescription to return to faith in special people and magical doctrines, and is marked by yearnings for supernatural solutions to concrete problems."
posted by nickyskye at 11:51 PM on April 9, 2009

Who are you quoting, nickyskye?
posted by RussHy at 4:39 AM on April 10, 2009

I have only listened to the first 10 podcasts so far, and haven't heard anything to object to, but I'll be wary of any attempt cultivate me.
posted by RussHy at 5:42 AM on April 10, 2009

The CIA started Tibet House, using the Dalai Lama and his first ordained Western monk, Robert Thurman, now president of Tibet House in NYC, to do the job.

A few links about the darker side of Buddhism.

RussHy, I'm quoting Tara Carreon's essay on Robert Thurman's Inner Revolution. It's only readable if you're a member of American Buddha OnLine. Should anyone be interested in reading the whole essay I can forward it to you by memail.

I also recommend having a look at " Fantastic Buddhaverse of Robert Thurman" (PDF) Illustrated by Nadir Balan, "a cartoon satirizing Robert Thurman's "anything goes" version of Tibetan Buddhism".
posted by nickyskye at 9:20 AM on April 10, 2009

Thanks for the background. I was interested in listening to his podcasts because I don't really know anything about Tibetan Buddhism. If he isn't a good purveyor, who is?
posted by RussHy at 9:56 AM on April 10, 2009

If he isn't a good purveyor, who is?

Tenzin Wangyal. Seriously top-notch teacher. Start with "The Wonders of the Natural Mind" for not only expositions of Tibetan Buddhism, but clear and concise and usable explanations about what things like "karma" mean from an psychological and practical viewpoint.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:00 AM on April 10, 2009

RussHy, you're welcome for the background. Been thinking about your question since last night. hmm. Short answer: I do not know anyone teaching a decent introduction to Buddhism on video, who I think is a sane person. All I know is reading the basics online, here on Buddhanet for example. Or here.

My axe-grindy anti Tibetan Buddhist teachers rant:
For half a century, since Lost Horizon came out, there has been a tendency to pedestalize Tibet and Tibetan anything, perceive it as a Shangri-La of sorts. The truth is far from that Hollywood fiction.

Having been Buddhist since 1975, studied Buddhism for six years with Tibetan teachers of all the four main sects of Tibetan Buddhism, studied the language, lived with the local Tibetan refugees in India, I've been pretty discouraged by most of the Tibetan Buddhist teachers. There is a lot of corruption going on and that has gone on for a very long time.

I think this is due to a number of things. It's a complex story. But a major element is that Tibet was an unwell society which had a theocratic hierarchy, hypocrisy, double standards, secrecy. It was feudal, sexist, mostly illiterate, incredibly superstitious, had almost no non-religious literature whatsoever, no use of the wheel because lamas said the wheel could only be used for prayer wheels, was a theocracy, run by a handful of guys in robes who lorded it over the serfs for a thousand years, using fear of the unknown to do it. Written about in the Blue Annals, the main history of Tibet, there were violent sectarian wars for many centuries in which one faction of Tibetan Buddhists fought another sect, all supposedly for religious reasons. Those wars in Tibet were every bit as backward as the slaughter and religious wars of Medieval Christianity.

Some Tibetan lamas, who came West, in 1959 found that the way they could get money from the West was feeding an interest in Buddhism. A number of them set up cults, a number of them truly malignant and glossed over, endorsed/enabled by the Dalai Lama because of the money that rolls in from these organizations. Sogyal Rinpoche's Rigpa is an example, one that Thurman also endorses.

In my observation of lamas over the last 34 years, few of the lamas practice what they preach, very few are educated in Buddhism or know about meditation. A lot of dogma and doggerel, trite Hallmark stuff is passed off as "teachings". Unsolicited advice: Do not pedestalize a teacher or teaching. Valuing is one thing, adoring is another.

I do think Buddhism is a worthwhile belief system with some excellent elements, not lock stock and barrel though. It has been corrupted and warped by every religious orthodoxy/group/cult that has gotten its power-mongering, unwell hands on it. Some of the elements are most significantly useful and meaningful as a truth path. The trick is to find somebody willing to teach the basics, or the fancy philosophy/meditations without doing it in a cultic style, just pass on the information and let you mull it over, weigh it for meaning and benefit in your own life.

Here's an AskMetaFilter thread with some suggestions.
posted by nickyskye at 8:41 PM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've seen compelling evidence of Sogyal Rinpoche's shenanigan's, so I'm with you there. In general though, I abide by innocent until proven guilty, so, lacking evidence of complicity on the part of Thurman I'm not gonna hold this association against Thurman. I doubt very much that, if he believed S.R. to have abused students, he'd appear on a panel with him, etc. At least, I certainly hope so.

As far as your take on Thurman's Buddhist scholarship--I interpret your remarks to mean, in part, that you dislike gurus/guru devotion as a spiritual practice. I guess I lean in the same direction, but I do think such things are meaningful and positive for some. I'd be interested in unpacking "magical doctrines" and "supernatural solutions to real problems" cause I think there's a good discussion to be had there--could you elaborate?

The CIA started Tibet House, using the Dalai Lama and his first ordained Western monk, Robert Thurman, now president of Tibet House in NYC, to do the job.

This, however, seems mostly inflammatory. Yes, the CIA got involved in supporting the Tibetan cause in a variety of ways, as a means to gain some leverage with China. This is typical sneaky interventionist US foreign policy and while I have a huge problem with that, what, exactly is bad about Tibet House, or the Dalai Lama, or Robert Thurman? There's a rhetorical implication of something sinister here, but no data.

I agree with you that there are many important criticisms to be made--not of Buddhism, per se--but of Buddhist societies. They, like other societies, are not pure and saintly. However, I am familiar with that site and find it to be a very mixed bag. Some of that stuff is pretty heavy on the rhetoric and pretty light on documented fact. And some is just a bit fruitloopy. Here's the intro paragraph, in full:

Not unlike other religions Buddhism also has “skeletons in its’ closet” which it carefully conceals in the Western world. There are dark aspects in this “philosophy of compassion, non-violence and tolerance”. Zen-Buddhism for example influenced the most sophisticated warrior philosophy of the East: the extremely brutal and suicidal Samurai Ethics. In Tibetan Buddhism one can find believes in spirits and demons, in secret sexual practices, in war gods, in occultism. Lamas search to influence their retinue and the world with all sorts of magical rituals. In Sri Lanka Buddhist violence and Buddhist racism are the order of the day. In Burma and in Kashmir Buddhist armies are fighting. And yet the Dalai Lama has another face that peeks out from behind the mask of goodness, charity and kindness, which gives one pause to think more deeply about the shadow sides of this “man of peace.” Why is Buddhist fundamentalism so dangerous - because it shows a tendency to religious Fascism! It’s not well known that the brain trust of the SS in Nazi Germany was extremely interested in Vedic- and Buddhist- teachings, in the Lamaist culture, and in Zen-Meditation with the goal to construct with elements of these eastern believes its own Nazi-Religion. (See: ) Buddhism - if it will become congruent with western values like democracy, human rights, equality of gender etc. must be “reinvented”. The condition therefore is an open, critical and honest debate.

The last sentence is true, and a good place to start, but much of the rest is pretty over-the-top (Nazis were into Buddhism, therefore. . . what, exactly?!)

It's been a while since I studied this stuff, but I know there's quality academic scholarship that offers critiques of historical and contemporary Buddhist societies and perspectives on the future direction of Buddhism. Donald Lopez comes to mind. Rita Gross and Karma Lekshe Tsomo. And plenty of Buddhist teachers exploring new directions. Stephen Batchelor interests me--I've been wanting to read his stuff. I like Noah Levine a lot--supremely down-to-earth. The Dalai Lama himself is pretty darn progressive. Pretty remarkably open-minded for a fella carrying around such a weight of tradition. Maybe he's still got some distance to come on some issues (mostly the sexual ones) but just compare his views to the Pope's sometime! He's the farthest thing from fundamentalist--pro-democracy and pro-science, and advocates a secular government--is even ready to end the institution of the Dalai Lama.
posted by flotson at 9:44 PM on April 10, 2009

My knowledge of Buddhism is mostly just the 4 Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Those I can and do use in my daily life. It interests me to see how that kernel of Truth get elaborated, layered over with myth and superstition in the 'real' Buddhist religions. I see a similar encrustation in Christianity. I guess it has to happen when humans get involved.
posted by RussHy at 6:19 AM on April 11, 2009

It interests me to see how that kernel of Truth get elaborated, layered over with myth and superstition in the 'real' Buddhist religions.

While, on the one hand, I'm pretty sympathetic to this point of view, on the other I'm interested in poking at it a little to see what it's made of. As with virtually everything, results may very. One man's "superstition" is another's daily experience.

This brings us back to an aspect of Nickskye's criticism of Thurman, which is that he believes, like Tibetans, that the universe contains a variety of "supernatural" entities which one can experience and communicate with.
posted by flotson at 7:50 AM on April 11, 2009

"Truth is not what you find in the end, in the packaged religion, it is a gift you get along the way if the way you practice is moral, elegant and socially sound." - Joe Szimhart, cult exit counselor.

My apology for a long comment/response to flotson.

"The fiduciary duty is a legal relationship of confidence or trust between two or more parties"-"In a fiduciary relation one person justifiably reposes confidence, good faith, reliance and trust in another whose aid, advice or protection is sought in some matter. In such a relation good conscience requires one to act at all times for the sole benefit and interests of another, with loyalty to those interests."

A fiduciary trust exists between teacher/student, priest/parishioner seeking counseling. This is why Sogyal had to settle out of court with Janice Doe when she sued him for sexual abuse and physical violence. Thurman is mistaken when he thinks sex between priest (lama) is consensual when the parisioner (disciple) is seeking counseling. It's an abuse of the position of power and fiduciary trust. Thurman is fully aware of Sogyal's history of sexual abuses of his students seeking counseling and he sides with the abuser, Sogyal. He is unable -or unwilling- to see the difference of consensual sex between peers and breach of trust, betrayal of power between spiritual teacher and disciple.

Having been on the receiving end of being yelled at by Thurman on one occasion when I tried to discuss Sogyal's taking advantage of his students, I would say that I believe he sees the disciples who get suckered as idiot groupies who get what they deserved. This is how Sogyal sees disciples, because he told me that when he arrived at Trungpa's place in Boulder in 1976, students were, in his perception, lined up like groupies to see a rock star and he wanted that. He decided then to set himself up in business to get that. And he did.

Is this Buddhist? No. Is it a pathological narcissist cult leader ripping people off? Yes.

The Dalai Lama's schtick is as an innocent gigglepuss, who talks about compassion in adorable ways, Mr. Nobel Peace Laureate. I can only wonder about the public's perception of the Dalai Lama if it were widely known that the Dalai Lama was on the CIA payroll for many years, involved in creating a guerrilla army to kill others or that he has known about Sogyal and other lamas sexual abuses for decades and done nothing to stop it in spite of being repeatedly informed, including by a contingent of people from around the world beseeching him to put some ethical code in place for Tibetan lamas to follow in relation to their Western students.

A commenter, Pete, on another site shares my thoughts and feelings on this matter. "I used to be a student of Sogyal Rinpoche: one of those Tibetan lamas the revelation of whose long-term sexual and physical abuse of their female students was the specific subject addressed during a series of conferences with the Dalai Lama. These were convened in Dharamsala at the request of western Buddhist practitioners. Initially the Dalai Lama appeared to be sympathetic, but refused to actually endorse any public statement to that effect. At the final conference however, he actually arranged for Sogyal Rinpoche to make an unscheduled appearance and looked on silently while the lama arrogantly proceeded to harangue the bemused audience for their 'lack of faith'. (Around this time Sogyal Rinpoche was being sued for sexual abuse by a female student, he then virtually went into hiding and later quietly settled out of court) Fully aware of this, not only did the Dalai Lama take no action, but he subsequently went on to write glowing endorsements for Sogyal Rinpoche's book and appear at teachings organised by him. These endorsements undoubtedly made many more women vulnerable to this sexual predator.

In 2008, the Dalai Lama publicly inaugurated Sogyal Rinpoche's centre in the south of France, where he undoubtedly received a substantial cash 'offering'. This is more than indifference and hypocrisy, it amounts to an active complicity in the abuse of women in return for cash and prestige.

Where exactly is the compassion and altruism in this?"

For Thurman's magical-thinking mumbo-jumbo please peruse the link above to " Fantastic Buddhaverse of Robert Thurman" with gibberish taken from his lectures.

A fun take on the lesser of two evils and the CIA/Dalai Lama.

The CIA created Tibet House as a propaganda cover for their trying to control the Chinese, do the anti-Communist Cold War thing they were doing all over the planet in ugly, brutally dictatorial ways, all while preaching freedom and democracy. The Dalai Lama went to work for the CIA just a few short years after the CIA toppled the benevolent leader of Guatemala, Arbenz, in order to bring power into the hands of the American owned United Fruit Company (now Chiquita), the original banana republic (in which the head of the CIA, Dulles, had vested interests).

The Dalai Lama was on the CIA payroll in 1973 when the CIA connived to overthrow the benevolent leader of Chile, Allende and bring in the military dictator, Pinochet.

The Dalai Lama was on the CIA payroll for decades to the tune of $180,000 (no chump change in the 1960's) to help secretly create an army to kill people. There was an additional $500,000 a year for 2,100 Tibetan guerrilla soldiers , $125,000 a year for "miscellaneous" expenses. Then there was the $400,000 to create a secret covert Tibetan army based in Colorado. Thurman was ordained by the Dalai Lama, took vows of non-violence and put in place to work secretly for the CIA, as the head of Tibet House.

Tibet, over 1000 years, suffered in deliberate isolation under immense poverty and fuedalism up until *1959* when the various Dalai Lamas were in control, one after the other, taxed relentlessly to support a theocracy located in rich monasteries and the gigantic palace of the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, the Potala.

Tibetan-Nazi connection, blessings from the God King in Tibet to Hitler. Who needs a Pope when there is a God-King? The Pope is way progressive compared with Tibetan fundamentalist theocracy in 1959.

He's the farthest thing from fundamentalist--pro-democracy and pro-science, and advocates a secular government--is even ready to end the institution of the Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama role itself is one that believes the insanity that he is not actually a person, he is the embodiment of some other previous person's mind/lifeforce, chosen by an elite group of monks invested in the political and power aspects of choosing the next leader. At age 4/5/6 the kid is ripped away from all family and stuck in a city of thousands of men, supposedly all celibate, no contact with the outside world (and when that happens people come visiting, literally prostrating themselves on the ground) and told to memorize thousands of pages of text without knowing the meaning. And do this for decades while governing people who have families and regular life needs. Manchurian Candidate, Tibet style.

Yes, this role needs to end, immediately, it's insanity. If there has been any sanity or science in the Dalai Lama's life it's because he has had to have that living outside of Tibet or else be seen as a completely out-of-touch-with-reality anachronism. Information about his covering up of Tibetan lama sexual predators with big bucks as their agenda is coming down the pike, just a matter of time until it is widely known. When this information is publicized, the Dalai Lama's role in covering up decades of abuses by Tibetan lamas will not be in his favor.

But he has already a history of doing things in secret, like being on the CIA payroll for decades, which does not tally with being a role model of Living Buddha, who sits on golden thrones, jets around the planet, chauffeured every place in limos, lives in luxury and accepts being prostrated to daily by devotees.

RussHy, you said, My knowledge of Buddhism is mostly just the 4 Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Those are, imo, brilliant, worthy and meaningful. Those very teachings transformed and directed my own life and inspired me to seek out more Buddhist teachings. Part of the journey required learning the hard way how not to become part of any Tibetan psuedo-Buddhist cult or bamboozled by a cult leader. Separating the bs from what is inspiring truth is something each student needs to do. Part of the problem is that the exhilarating momentum of a group's excitement tends to obscure one's power of discernment. This means the journey may be more lonely but wiser. Then again one needs to examine one's belief system in the clarity of open discussion by sharing ideas with others. It's a balance of being personally meaningful but also "socially sound".

There must be some decent videos in English conveying actual Buddhist teachings and meditation in an intelligent, non-bs, non-cultic way. Where they are I don't know but I think it's worth putting the effort into finding.
posted by nickyskye at 10:21 AM on April 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Is Thurman on the record anywhere discussing this issue? And to be clear, are you saying that Thurman's position is that Sogyal R. has had consensual sex with his students? What did Thurman say to you, directly?

As far as the Dalai Lama goes, I think you're way off-base with most of it. As is Michael Parenti, as are Penn and Teller.

The DL is very clearly pro-Democracy. He supported the establishment of the Tibetan parliament, for crying out loud. He supported a referendum as to what strategy the government should take in dealing with China. He supports the dissolution of the institution of the Dalai Lama, if this is the will of the Tibetan people. Connected to his advocacy of democracy and modernity is his criticism of the excesses of the Tibetan social system of the past.

The dude doesn't live in luxury. He works all day, primarily as an advocate for Tibet. Has very little personal time and rarely takes a day off. If you have credible evidence of indulgence in wine, women, jewels, yachts, etc., present it. (And I will eat my hat.)

Yes, the CIA supported some guerrillas in Tibet. And they've probably supported the Tibetan cause in other ways. This is typical of the CIA and US interventionist foreign policy in general. But where's your evidence to back up the claim that the Dalai Lama was a CIA operative who advocates for armed warfare against China?

The stuff on Hitler/ Nazis and Tibet isn't even coherent. What are you trying to say, exactly? That the Dalai Lama is pro-Hitler?

Having said that, I do intend to look further into the issue of sexual abuse by Sogyal R., and other lamas, and what, exactly the Dalai Lama's relationship with these individuals and issues has been. Do you have any specific information about the conference that "Pete" spoke about?

One final thought. It's clear to me that you dislike religious practices involving devotion to gurus. I don't like them either, but different strokes for different folks--I recognize that these practices are positive for others.

It does seems clear to me that there have been some abuses of power by Tibetan Lamas. But much of the evidence is still hearsay, unfortunately. I don't think we have enough facts on the table to be able to form generalized critiques of this form of Buddhism. I'm very interested in getting all the facts, though.
posted by flotson at 6:45 PM on April 17, 2009

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