Questions for Robert ThurmanAs a professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University and the first American to be ordained as a Tibetan monk, you don’t need to be reminded that the people of Tibet want to reclaim their country from China. Why won’t the Chinese give it back? The Chinese have been brainwashing their people into thinking that Tibet is an inalienable part of their territory. No Chinese people lived in Tibet before 1950. Zero. It’s absurd they claim that they were there.
We should point out that you’re a friend of the Dalai Lama and your new book is called “Why the Dalai Lama Matters.” Does he ever visit you at your apartment in Manhattan? He used to come to my house in the old days, but nowadays the State Department is all over him, so he stays in a high-security hotel. I get a handshake and a hug in the hall.
Why do you think President Hu of China keeps denouncing the Dalai Lama and has not met with him? Fear. The only reason I see is fear.
Do they actually need to meet? Can’t they just talk on the phone? They haven’t given the Dalai Lama the number. The Dalai Lama would definitely call.
What do you say to Tibetan dissidents who feel that the Dalai Lama needs to be more aggressive with Beijing? I think he’s been a bit too appeasement-oriented myself.
Yet, like him, you recommend autonomy for Tibet as opposed to complete independence, which would leave the country within Chinese borders. The Tibetans have been oppressed for almost 60 years. It’s not practical to demand independence at this time.
In a recent article Slavoj Zizek argued that the Tibetans are not necessarily a spiritual people — that we’ve created that myth out of a need to imagine an alternative to our crazy Western consumerism. Zizek is simply misinformed. It’s leftist propaganda meant to legitimize China’s aggression in Tibet.
As a Buddhist, how do you reconcile your pacifism with the roles your daughter Uma has played in films like Quentin Tarantino’s bloody “Kill Bill”? Quentin is kind of obsessed, he’s a wild guy. But he is very brilliant. We trust that his motive is to show people the foolishness of violence rather than to glorify it. I hope that’s true.
You initially discovered Buddhism after leaving your first wife, Christophe de Menil, of the art-collecting clan, and running off to India. Actually, she divorced me. She didn’t want to go with me to India to seek enlightenment.
Has Buddhism become more accepted in America since the early ’60s, when you first embraced it? People still think the Buddha was some weirdo who said, “Life is suffering.”
What do you think about when you meditate? Usually, some form of trying to excavate any kind of negative thing cycling in the mind and turn it toward the positive. For example, when I am annoyed with Dick Cheney, I meditate on how Dick Cheney was my mother in a previous life and nursed me at his breast.
You mean you fantasize about being breast-fed by Dick Cheney? It’s a fantasy of releasing fear and developing affection. It’s a way of coming back to feeling grateful toward him and seeing his positive side, finding the mother in Dick Cheney.
What would Freud say about that? Freud would freak out. He would say, “Well, you are seeking the oceanic feeling of the baby in the womb.” Infantile regression — that’s what he thought the quest for enlightenment was.
When I want to feel compassion for an unlikable person, I imagine him as someone’s adored son. Some lamas do that. They say that that’s easier for Americans, because often Americans have personality problems with their moms.
Do you consider yourself enlightened? Someone who goes around saying, “I’m enlightened,” is almost categorically not.
INTERVIEW CONDUCTED, CONDENSED AND EDITED BY DEBORAH SOLOMON