Dr. Robert Thurman

Dr. L: Bob, your life is a whirlwind! You’re an emissary to the Dalai Lama, a crusader for peace and Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia. On top of that, you are Cofounder and President of Tibet House-US, author of the newly published, Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well and Uma’s Dad! There must be times that you feel overwhelmed or stressed. What do you do to refocus and keep centered?

RT: I keep centered by meditating a little bit everyday, ideally in the morning, but especially at night before bed. It is infinitely relaxing and recharging and I find the minute you feel a bit better yourself, you become more alert to others. Ultimately, your compassion becomes more and more real – without driving you crazy.

Dr. L: What is your favorite simple meditation technique?

RT: The meditation I use is about calming the mind and focusing on the key point of the wisdom of selflessness. This involves seeing through the misleading appearance of intrinsic identity in myself and in things. The focus is on voidness, selflessness, and freedom.

Dr. L: Would you say this meditation helps get “you” out of your way?

RT: Yes, because it involves turning back on your sense of subjectivity, your own point of awareness. When doing this meditation: Open yourself to the echoing space of your inner hearing, where you hear your own voice thinking silently. Turn back your inner seeing and hearing on these points and probe and inquire into just where this is all coming from. See how much of it is really “you.”  Very soon you start to feel a combination of puzzlement and relaxation moving in little increments, toward a feeling of ease and peace. It’s a variant of the “Who am I?” meditation that Ramana Maharshi and Krishnamurti used to recommend, but in my case it comes from the Indo-Tibetan meditational tradition.

Dr. L: That sounds very healing. Bob, you have been traveling and speaking about your new book, Infinite Life. Is this a follow-up to your first book, Inner Revolution?

RT: Yes, Inner Revolution focused on showing the impact of Buddhist ethics and the Buddhist educational (not only religious) movement on the many societies in Asia where it made a big contribution. Consequently, it could and should impact the modern situation in America and the world. My new book continues the journey and takes the process toward Infinite Life.

Dr. L: In Infinite Life,” do you go into depth about inner transformation?

RT: Yes, my new book demonstrates in an accessible and socially relevant way, how the individual can advance the “inner revolution” within herself or himself. This is done by transforming ignorance into wisdom, stinginess into generosity, unfairness into justice, anger into patience, depression into creativity, distraction into concentration, and passive living into an artful lifestyle. These seven character traits are part of the ten transcending virtues of the bodhisattva, the enlightenment heroine or hero.

Dr. L: Can you give us some key points?

RT: I decided to confront some central misunderstandings of the Buddhist movement, and even more important, what I have come to consider the central obstacle to spiritual progress of all individuals in the contemporary situation. This major obstacle is the worldview of materialism. This isn’t just seeking material things or gratifications, but believing that the mind or soul is just the brain and body. This viewpoint accepts that consciousness is a temporary by-product of living cells; that it comes from nowhere else, so that at death it simply ceases. In my book I call this the “terminal worldview,” which is based on the “terminal lifestyle.” This leaves the person imprisoned within it leading the “terminal life.” Sadly, this “terminal worldview” ultimately renders all achievements in life, all positive revolutionary effort, all meaning, and most importantly all spiritual endeavor as meaningless. I was pleased when these phrases came to me, since they so aptly capture this condition.

Dr. L: Do you feel that this terminal viewpoint is contagious?

RT: Well it can be, since it permeates our culture. My hope is to help people free themselves from it. The opposite of the “terminal life” is the Infinite Life the title of my book.

Dr. L: You recently spoke about your book and challenged the audience by saying, “Nobody gets out of here dead!” What does that mean?

RT: Basically it means there is no escape from responsibility just by dying. That may sound harsh, but it is actually a very hopeful statement. When we adopt the infinite worldview and lifestyle, we take responsibility for ourselves and our society. This gives us a sense of hope and meaning, making it compulsory for us to do our utmost in every situation, moment by moment. It becomes obligatory to see that moment become just a little bit more positive, just a little bit less negative–since the impact of each moment will be infinite. The here and now become infinite, within the infinite life-perspective.

Dr. L: This reminds me of the African Ubuntu philosophy, where a person is a person through other people — what makes us human is the humanity we show each other.

RT: Yes, it has a lot of the same principles. On a less serious note, reading my book is sort of like traveling with Bill Murray through the movie, “Groundhog Day.”  You just keep reliving everything until you get it right. It’s also like his movie, “What About Bob?,” where Bill gives the great methodological teaching of “baby steps.”  He explains that trying to make all your progress in short order only stresses you out and sets you up for failure. The best way to progress is in tiny increments, in baby steps, from anger to patience, selfishness to generosity, etc.

Dr. L: Now that we’re discussing movies, I must ask you about your lovely, talented daughter Uma. How do you feel about the violence levels in Uma’s films “Kill Bill 1 & 2”?

RT: We have all been concerned with the intense level of violence that the two films address and manifest. One should acknowledge that the portrayals of violence in films by great artists, such as Tarentino, are made with the intent of teaching about the unpleasant reality of violence. They are motivated by the wish to turn people’s stomachs and attitudes away from it. These films where blood and carnage are graphically displayed, consciously and subliminally frighten the audience and do not glamorize violence. They stimulate aversion to violence and for the most part, they pass the test. The “Kill Bills” have the added special element of parody and irony, since Tarentino is always commenting on other film genres and stereotypes. Anyway, for all the pros and cons one can think of, my beloved Uma is adroit and always human in her handling of the difficult roles she undertakes. She is nothing less than magnificent.

Dr. L: How has Buddhism changed your life?

RT: I understand “Buddhism” to be the matrix of a civilization, in its full form, new to the West. It consists of ethics, politics and a wide array of sciences, as well as religious methodologies and perspectives. I have been most attracted to its sciences, especially its “Inner Science” of philosophy / psychology. Through “Inner Science” one can come to understand reality better — reality of the world and of the self. I have not yet mastered all of this, since it requires (and enables) perfect enlightenment, but I have worked through enough to have a healthy respect, even awe, for the accomplishments it represents. Even from the little I have learned, I am a much more cheerful person than I was, or than my ancestors seem to have been. I am less angry, less frustrated and less confused than I would have thought possible. At the same time I am still open and learning, not fanatical in conviction and more and more astonished as I notice new things about life and about Buddhism every day.

Dr. L: So, it has changed the way you see the world?

RT: Basically I now see the world as a very viable and beautiful place. I no longer see a messed up, inadequate, vale of tears, as the tragic Western view would have us believe. Death does not worry me – though I ignorantly don’t plan on it any time soon. I am more concerned with the quality of awareness in this moment and how that will carry my loved ones and myself through any eventuality, including death. I feel deep gratitude to the Buddha and the many bodhisattvas and teachers who preserved this tradition and made it accessible to me. I am also very interested in reviving and making available the knowledge contained in the Tibetan Buddhist Medicine tradition. My goal is to see it interconnected with modern medicine and other traditional sciences of mind and body.

Dr. L: Thank you Bob, for sharing your wisdom with us. I would like to encourage everyone to read Bob’s excellent, new book Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well, published by Riverhead Books. I found it to be one of the finest guides I’ve read for developing a conscious, genuine understanding of our role in this world and discovering the methods we can use to collectively grow and thrive by serving others.

Palm World Voices, Vedic Path
Archbishop Desmond Tutu