by Jane Ratcliffe
I first met Robert Thurman at a repurposed Boy Scout camp in the middle of the Michigan woods in the early ’90s. It was the annual summer retreat for the Tibetan Buddhist center Jewel Heart. My lama, Gelek Rimpoche, and he were old friends, and Thurman—as everyone, including Rimpoche, affectionately called him—was there to give a talk.
Thurman is tall, witty, haphazardly handsome, with books permanently wedged beneath his arm. Despite being surrounded by a perpetual throng, he managed to speak with each of us. I later took one of his classes at Columbia University, where eager young students outnumbered the available seats. Here, too, he orchestrated myriad, at times heated, discussions with the grace of a seasoned conductor.
A professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies for decades, Thurman is now a retired professor emeritus, which, he pointed out, means mainly “unsalaried.” At seventy-nine, he remains president of Tibet House US, an organization devoted to preserving and celebrating Tibetan culture, and which he founded in 1987 with Richard Gere at the behest of the Dalai Lama. He and his wife of just over a half century, Nena (a psychotherapist and a former model), run the staggeringly beautiful Menla retreat center and Dewa spa, a Tibet House outpost in the Catskills, and the most recent enterprise in what The New York Times calls “the long and successful family business that is the Robert and Nena partnership.” Recently, he was awarded the Padma Shri by the president of India—one of the country’s highest civilian awards, which only a few foreigners receive every year—for his work translating some of the roughly four thousand works in the Tibetan Tengyur collection.
But Thurman’s life hasn’t always looked like this. He grew up in New York City and attended Phillips Exeter Academy, in New Hampshire, until he was kicked out for attempting to join Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrilla army in 1958. After that, he studied at Harvard until an accident, in which he lost an eye, prompted him to wander, quite literally, through Europe, the Middle East, and finally India, where he met his soon-to-be friend the Dalai Lama. Within ten weeks, Thurman was fluent in Tibetan, and within a year he became the first Tibetan Buddhist monk born in the West.
Eventually, Thurman returned to Harvard (earning degrees in English, East Asian languages, and Buddhology), relinquished his religious vows, married Nena, and together they had four children, one of whom is the actress Uma. Thurman has translated many complex Tibetan Buddhist texts into English, including the much-cherished Tibetan Book of the Dead, and has devoted his life to heightening awareness of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. He’s written both scholarly and commercial books—including the international best seller Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness and the classroom favorite Essential Tibetan Buddhism—and has been named one of Time’s “Twenty-Five Most Influential Americans” and one of New York magazine’s “The Influentials.”
I met with Thurman in the fall of 2018 at his home in Woodstock, New York, a marvelous, magical, rambling place (which Thurman built himself, adding on rooms as his family grew), full of what he calls “deity tchotchkes,” teetering towers of books, comfy couches, and dogs—one of whom curled up on my lap as we sipped ginger tea and chatted about ecstatic experiences, heroes, and world peace.
I. HEROIN NIRVANA
THE BELIEVER: The last time we spoke was about ten years ago. You were, as you always are, relentlessly optimistic about the state of the world.
ROBERT THURMAN: The grand narrative; very unfashionable.
BLVR: Are you still optimistic? If so, why?
RT: Yes, I am. Part of my thesis about being optimistic about our overall planetary direction is that the leadership structure currently functioning is so asinine and incompetent and self-destructive that it’s just showing its own desperation and its own obsolescence, because the people don’t want that. The people want health care, and nobody wants a war, so they’re unable to brainwash people now in large-enough numbers. They’re obviously still able to brainwash some people, but not a whole nation. To keep doing that, they have to persuade people of the non-humanity of others, [which is] called pseudospeciation by anthropologists: making a false species out of another type of human.
But the majority of us want to have a decent life. We have the knowledge of how to have a decent life. We have the technology to create enough food for everybody, enough health care, enough shelter, everything, if some people didn’t hoard much more than they need. I’m not saying we need communism. We need a kind of socialistic, Scandinavian capitalism that is creative and entrepreneurial, with employee-owned corporations. So when you get to ten or twenty million, you kind of call it a day and go sailing.
BLVR: The First Noble Truth that the Buddha taught is “All is suffering,” but you often talk about how the key discovery of the Buddha’s wasn’t about suffering—it was about nirvana.
RT: Right; he wouldn’t even have mentioned the suffering if he hadn’t discovered that we could get out of it.
BLVR: You’ve said, “Resistance is impossible. We will all be assimilated by nirvana.” I wonder, How is that possible? Does it just happen, whether or not we are striving for it? I mean, does it happen if you’re a rapist or a murderer or cruel to animals?
RT: Put it this way: We’re raised in a culture that was terrorized. The European and Mediterranean cultures, they were relatively the poorest areas of Eurasia, so there was very little tolerance of nonconformity, and your yogi types, they tended to be burned at the stake. Even Jesus—who said, “Everything is great, every sparrow in the field and lily in the field,” and “Be here now”— he was a typical “Be here now” guy. They took him to mean, Oh, you’re all going to hell unless you join exactly this or that church and obey this or that order.
Therefore, we’ve been threatened in our culture for thousands of years, and now we’re breaking free of that on the basis of the false belief in nihilism: the false belief that we don’t have a soul, so we don’t have to worry about our future lives. But we’re in danger of being reckless because of this false promise that we’ll be nothing, which is like a false nirvana, in the sense of it being pure anesthesia. It’s like a heroin nirvana: no feeling at all, no experience; you just don’t exist. With the doubly depressing message that we don’t exist right now. I would just pull the trigger, bang, and then I would revert to my real nature, which is nonexistence.
So it’s very hard for us to get this. I didn’t really fully feel it myself until after thirty years of studying Buddhism: that, wow, the Buddha is really telling us that nirvana is at hand for the intelligent human being who makes an effort to open their mind and heart. Others can be brought there as well because it’s at hand for them.
BLVR: So you’re not saying we don’t need to do a daily practice.
RT: No, no: we do. But on the other hand, every time we die, every time we have a really deep orgasm or some other self-obliterating sort of experience, every night, in a way, when we fall asleep, we let go of ourselves completely and we do so confidently as we feel a kind of sense of ease. And that’s why the betrayal of the nihilist is based on confusion. It’s so seductive, because when we fall into sleep we think we go into nothingness because we become unconsciousness, and that is experienced as release and relief from being awake and struggling with life.
The deepest experience of this kind is death, and if you have read the near-death literature, you know there are a lot of people who do return from clinical death and say they didn’t want to return; they were feeling bliss there. That’s because the ground is nirvana ground. It’s actually what’s here too—and it’s experienced as nirvana ground when we reduce out of any sense of separateness from it.
BLVR: One of the basic teachings of the Buddha is impermanence and the suffering of change. I wonder if you have advice on how to deal with the suffering of change?
RT: Yes, well, the suffering of change will be there, but only for people who are ignorant. For people who are enlightened, there is no suffering. That doesn’t mean they’re numb; it means there’s bliss, actually. Life is seen as blissful by them, and bliss is the way they share their energy with others who feel trapped in the suffering of change or other things.
BLVR: But most of us aren’t enlightened, so are there practical things we can do to help deal with the suffering?
RT: Yes. The first thing is to shift one’s world view. That’s the first branch of the Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truths. And the first shift of the world view is to get out of the idea that the world is ultimately bad, that it’s hell, that it’s “nature, red in tooth and claw,” that cultures are inherently violent and everybody has to be militarized to the hilt, that we need more nuclear weapons, et cetera. I have to have a big case of guns in my house because someone will come get me otherwise. All of this. Shift to: The world is basically good.
I have a slogan in the back of my book Why the Dalai Lama Matters [: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet, and the World] that says it’s our duty to work on being happy. And, indeed, our goal is to be so happy that even if they kill us, we will die happy.
BLVR: How do we do that?
RT: Well, what makes you happy?
BLVR: Your dog!
RT: Do you have a dog?
RT: OK, so you’re working on it. The point is, if someone has a certain type of ecstatic experience, it can shift their view. Some ecstatic experiences can come from very negative things, like sometimes war. Sergeant York is charging a machine gun nest; bullets go through his leg; he doesn’t notice until later because he’s so carried on this energy. In the pleasure direction, people can get ecstatic in this way where they can overstep pain. And that’s the work.
There are other ways to help with suffering. Yoga is great. Probably a Buddhist invention. Definitely a tantric invention. Tantra doesn’t mean just sex. But it does, of course, mean “the inner-streaming energies,” let’s call it. Do you know Wilhelm Reich’s work?
RT: He was a tantric theorist, without really realizing it. He was Freud’s second-greatest disciple. One was Jung and the other was Reich, and both turned against Freud for different reasons and both went in different directions. Jung went into the collective unconscious, and Reich went into the body. He said neurosis and trauma and repression and so forth are encoded in the neuromuscular armature of the body. You know what Rolfing is?
RT: Rolfing [a form of bodywork invented by Ida Rolf] comes from Reich’s theory of the “emotional plague,” which comes from militarism and patriarchy. He wrote the book The Function of the Orgasm, but this was not a Kama Sutra–type thing at all. His idea was that even ordinary sexuality, basically procreative, is what he called “armored sexuality,” and that’s why it’s not that powerful. Ejaculation, fertilization, et cetera: they could still be pretty powerful, but not that much, and then it’s over, right? It’s the suffering of change.
His definition was that a loving couple form a dyad, but it isn’t necessarily penetration, and they just lie together and let go of their sense of separateness, and eventually they’re swept up in a blue wave of a kind of enduring whole-body streaming. And this is our nature as human beings; this is the nature of our embodiment. The healthy human being has inner pleasures that aren’t just genitally organized, in a Freudian expression. It doesn’t exclude the genital, but it’s not focused only on that.
The “emotional plague” pertains to the military posture. He had this brilliant recognition: [in that posture], the diaphragm is sucked in and cramped muscularly, the chin is jammed down in the throat to shut off sensation coming up the neck, and the pelvis is drawn backward, the butt down, so the streaming level of the central nervous system is cut off. These people feel they’re tight and in control—they’re armored and therefore they won’t feel compassion when their victim is screaming, “Don’t do this,” and they’ll kill. And they don’t feel fear when they’re going to be killed; they shut off their inner sense.
And this is the brilliant part: When these people meet Jesus—a person whose neuromuscular armor is open and who is streaming and creating a field of streaming—the people who are armored start feeling the streaming, and they feel like they’re going to lose control of themselves; they feel it like a sickness, like an alien is going to be reborn in them; something bad is going to happen to them. Then they want to stop the streaming, so they go after the streaming person and they crucify them or burn them at the stake or put them in the Inquisition and say that Satan has gotten them.
The hatha yoga tradition is based on that, you see. It has to do with your body itself being an instrument of developing awareness and enlightenment, so you remove the blocks and the armoring. That’s what yoga is really about. It’s not just calisthenics. That’s why it helps you to not have arthritis in your old age: it lets your energy stream; otherwise, you get locked out by different neuromuscular rigidity. So what can we do? Yoga, we can do.
Meditation, if aimed in the right direction, can also be helpful, but I’m against the meditation panacea vendors. I love the mindfulness movement, and I absolutely agree that it doesn’t need to be seen as something religious. Buddhism is not primarily religious, actually. It deteriorates into that if someone doesn’t use its educational methods. It deteriorates if someone believes they will get to nirvana if they just worship the Buddha. But the Buddha was saying, “Worshipping me is not going to get you there; you have to do something.” So if it’s used as an education, that is not religion.
Ethical education, psychological education, and scientific education about the nature of reality are what the three higher educations of Buddhism are. That’s what the Eightfold Path is teaching. Therefore, the mindfulness movement is helping people become more aware. But truly speaking, mindfulness is not meditation. Mindfulness is remembering to be more conscious about what you’re actually doing, whatever you are doing. It can be about what you’re thinking, but it’s not trying to think just one thing. Meditation really means focusing on one thing and shutting the mind off. Mindfulness is not doing that; it’s observing what the mind is doing and trying to focus on, say, breathing. Then you see all the other things the mind is wanting to do when you don’t want it to do anything. And then you become more aware internally. It’s also being more aware of how you behave, and how you manifest, what you say, and your biases.
Mindfulness is self-assessment. So that’s something people can do to help with suffering: for example, people in the upper 10 percent right now in this country, who don’t have it so bad economically, and are really nervous about that 90 percent who do, and resent the 0.1 percent who are above them. They can assess: Which stocks do they own? Did they buy gun stocks? Did they buy military stocks? Are they still invested in Exxon? In other words, do they expect to be really happy at a yoga center without seeing what they’re living on? Are they going to eat processed foods full of chemicals and sprayed with Roundup? And so on. Mindfulness is becoming aware of your whole enfoldment in your process and trying to clean it up, and get out there and work for that 90 percent.
II. “I MEDITATED ON DICK CHENEY AS MY MOTHER IN A PREVIOUS LIFE.”
BLVR: A lot of people, perhaps inadvertently, use meditation and spirituality in a general sort of way to check out rather than check in.
RT: That’s the danger.
BLVR: So how do we know when we’re using it for escapism versus enlightenment?
BLVR: Interdependent arising? [The concept that nothing has an independent, permanent, or absolute existence; everything depends on something else for its existence. All existence is relational.]
RT: Yes. And that you can know by common sense. Therefore, it’s perfectly all right for some sensitive person—who has awoken to the unsatisfactoriness of the normal self-centered way of behaving and living, driven by delusion, greed and hate and anger and irritation and fear—to say, “I’m getting out of this.” And in a sense, they’re revulsed by and are rebelling against being caught in a certain way of life, and they want to find a different one. That’s fine. The fact that what they will end up finding is what they already are is a later wrinkle.
At first you just renounce. Renunciation is really foundational. It’s strangely often misunderstood as self-deprivation, but actually it’s self-compassion, because so much of what we put ourselves through is for objectives that aren’t going to be satisfactory. You know, I’ll get a million dollars and I’ll be fine, but then we just worry about losing it when we get it. Or we overeat or overspend, and we get sick or we lose our friends because they want to share the money with us and we don’t want to share it.
Renunciation means you shift priorities to doing what makes you really happy. If you like petting dogs, then pet dogs. Open a dog pound or something rather than becoming a great novelist. That’s just an example. They say that when you die your life flashes before your eyes in a split second. Could that be the case for people who have had only a few seconds of quality time in their whole life? So they remember only the feel-good moments, because there weren’t many? Because they were always rushing to get to a good moment, but they were imprisoning themselves in stress?
BLVR: Does everyone have reliable common sense?
RT: Well, pretty much. Red lights and green lights usually work in the vast number of cases. I don’t charge out into the street. I might have seen too many movies where James Bond shoots his car through the middle of the street and misses all the cars, but I’m not going to follow that example; that wouldn’t be common sense. We get up in the morning; we don’t eat three pounds of ice cream a day. Some people get demented. But for most of us, the human form has a kind of good common sense.
BLVR: How well do you think you live what you teach?
RT: Who, me? Not that well. I was a product of the Protestant ethic. Although I must give myself credit from my former life. I never believed in an omnipotent god, even the one they kept trying to sell me in the Presbyterian church in the little bit of Sunday school I did, which wasn’t much. My parents were not too fussy about that because I was arguing with the pastor from a young age. Actually, my mother told me this only when I became ordained as a Buddhist monk. She said, “I should have known. When you got baptized, you kicked over the baptismal font and drenched the priest, and he was so annoyed, he wrung a few drops at your flailing feet. You were resisting even then.”
Actually, I really like Jesus, and I’ve always liked him. I couldn’t stand that crucifix they shove in your face, though. I wanted to see—which I did get to see when I started seeing Russian icons—the Risen One. The whole point was that Jesus showed that: You do your worst to me and I can rise up from it because love is more powerful. But my parents were into that Roman thing and I hated that. I thought God sucked; he was nasty. I would tell the priest that, and he’d get very upset. He’d say, “You can’t say that.” I’d say, “Look at what he’s doing.”
BLVR: So you yourself struggle to live by the Buddha’s teachings?
RT: I was indoctrinated in the school of: Achieve. Get good grades. I broke out at different times. I tried to join Fidel Castro before I knew he was a communist; I thought he was just a revolutionary, and luckily I failed or I’d be dead. I was always uncomfortable, and only when I met the Tibetan alphabet was I finally really happy. I learned the Four Noble Truths and began to cheer up. But then, of course, I went at it in a typical high-achievement way.
Actually, I tried not to. I wanted to be a monk. The great thing about being a monk is you get free food and free lodging and you don’t worry about having a date on Saturday night. You sublimate your Eros into your artistic work, your meditative work, and you can be peaceful. You live within a wall of peace: that robe represents that wall of peace, symbolically. It’s a beautiful tradition. It’s the invention of monasticism as opposed to just asceticism. So I tried. But then the last of the great monastic countries was smashed, and they were the ones with the knowledge. I went back to America and started teaching. Then you have to get tenure and write a book. So I fell back into overachieving.
BLVR: You talk about how, according to the Buddha, the purpose of life is love, and when we’re applying this to people we actually like or only mildly struggle with, it can feel exhilarating and rewarding. But how do we apply that to a school shooter, or to this president?
RT: That’s where you need to meditate for a specific thing. The Tibetans teach, as the Indians did before them, this beautiful practice where you imagine that every being in this universe has been your mother—because of all of our previous, infinite lives. She bore you in her womb and gave birth to you, so every being has done that, even a tiger, even a tick who carries Lyme disease—whatever it is, they have all been your mother. And if you meditate, it becomes sort of plausible because you all lived beginninglessly. They will have been your enemies, your torturers; you’ve had bad rounds with them absolutely, but the ones to focus on are the positive ones. Because the idea is that we all love one another.
BLVR: How do we do that? How do we take someone who has harmed us in some way and generate that toward them?
RT: Think about how in the great dramas, even the bad guys—the Iagos, the bad uncle in Hamlet, the evil people—they all have a good side too. And the good guy has a tragic flaw, and so on. The point is, you have to meditate on them having been your mother, no matter who they are. There’s an interview with me, one of those New York Times Magazine back-page interviews they used to do, and the interviewer couldn’t get over the fact—it was during the Bush II era—that I meditated on Dick Cheney as my mother in a previous life. I tried to make it look like Dick Cheney: it had a little bonnet and breasts and a dress and was cuddling me and thinking I was cute, and I was looking up and nursing. If you actually meditate on that sort of thing, you will get this weird thing where you will still oppose those bad people, but you won’t hate them in the same way.
I do genuinely feel, and I’m not enlightened, but I have compassion for Trump, for example, who is really a bastard. He’s quite evil, actually: destroying the earth, destroying people, being cruel, needlessly ripping children away from their mothers, and so forth. And McConnell. They are truly “emotional plague” people. They have no true feeling; therefore, they’ve never had any real satisfaction in any relationship. They’re so repressed. And they shout and scream and are stressed all the time. I really do feel sympathetic and compassionate toward him, but I would completely throw him out of the White House in one second if I had that ability. I would consider that a compassionate act.
BLVR: If you’re part of the resistance, it’s so easy right now to feel exhausted. Most of my friends are operating with very high anxiety and depression. How do we remain part of the resistance and not get burned out?
RT: If people are getting burned out, it’s because they’re not realizing the prime directive, which is to be enjoying what they’re doing. I wager that if they’re happy when they go out and knock on doors, they’ll have a better impact on the people whom they talk to. If they’re in a good humor, they might have a better shot at getting people to think about something. If they’re staggering all night long to reach a quota, and they’re very sick of it four hours before they quit, their success rate in the last four hours will be very poor, I would think. Because they will exemplify, subliminally, a victim, and this person will feel that they’re crazy. As you know, when you’re feeling a little zing, whatever it is you do, you do way better.
So we’ll not behave and be activists in a desperate manner if we have this larger worldview shift that it’s going to work out. Do you follow? So then we’re just doing our part, but we don’t have to completely go nuts.
III. “A ROBOT SERVING THEIR EMOTION”
BLVR: Could you talk about the Buddha’s teaching on compassionate resistance? Since the people in this administration came into power, I find myself hating them, and that’s not something I’ve felt before. What is the antidote to that?
RT: You can hate them. I’m saying something a little bit unorthodox here. You can hate them if you define hate as a burning wish to see them stop doing what they’re doing. And if you aim the hate at what they’re doing and try to keep some wisdom alive. And the wisdom would say, Well, they would probably rather be doing something else. They’re doing this because they think this is the only way, because of their confusion. They’re being brainwashed by someone.
You must see this person as a robot serving their emotion. Be mindful of when you yourself were strongly angry and you did things you regretted later. You broke things or hurt people or yourself. You might have hit something and hurt your hand. And the more aware of that you are, the more you’ll direct your indignation, your wrath, your fury, and it won’t be something that possesses you.
And you’ll then be born out of despair because you will not feel that the person who’s doing that wrong thing is absolute evil; you will de-absolutize them. And in a way, depending on the circumstance, the person you oppose with a strong, burning energy—but an energy that is paired with a kind of wisdom about the situation, seeing other perspectives in the situation—that person will sense they’re not up against what they would think of as a completely evil thing, which would then make them feel righteous in being evil, out of defense.
BLVR: You’re very close with His Holiness. Of everyone in the West, I think you’re the closest. What’s it like to hang out with him?
RT: It’s a privilege and a pleasure. He’s a wonderfully friendly and pleasant person. Of course, he’s also Protestant-ethic busy. And the bodhisattva attitude is that you should do as much as you can to help as many as you can in whatever way is most effective. Bodhisattvas are very much into upaya, or “skillful means”; the better translation is “art.” Make your life into an art of helping other beings.
BLVR: Are there moments with him that stand out?
RT: Once he did a wonderful thing. We were having a conference in Newark, New Jersey, with Tibet House called “Peacemaking: The Power of Nonviolence.” It was kind of a big deal, and somebody said, “Everybody should get rid of all the weapons.” And the Dalai Lama piped up and said, “Well, not quite yet. Not all of them. You guys should keep a few for freedom and democracy. Not quite yet. Eventually, yes, but not quite yet.” There was a big sigh, because there were a lot of, like, super-peacenik people there. They don’t want war, and of course His Holiness agrees with that fundamentally. He’s Gandhian, but he’s practical also.
Another time, I was expressing displeasure at Obama for letting the Russians into Syria when Assad was almost gone. I said, “It will not be peaceful until Assad goes, but this ISIS thing is really awful, don’t you think?” The Dalai Lama said, “No, you just have to talk to them.” I said, “Talk to ISIS? How will I talk to ISIS? They will behead me before I get a word out.” He said, “No, you just have to find out what they want, really understand them.” So sometimes he’s a little more idealistic.
BLVR: I’ve noticed over the years that the Dalai Lama, Rimpoche, and you all have this fantastic sense of humor. I wonder what it is about Tibetan Buddhism that encourages this.
RT: The Buddha allowed his early students the idea that nirvana is right here. People who are very frightened of life and psychologically fearful and timid tend to naturally gravitate toward the idea that the only possible peaceful state will be something other than life. But nirvana is supposed to be the absolute reality, even for the dualists. How can you enter it at a point in time and have it be a place that is spatially apart from this place—you follow me? That makes it relative. It’s said to be uncreated, uncompounded. So it’s what has always been the case. It’s not made of parts and pieces; it’s the absolute.
BLVR: So why does that make you guys have a good sense of humor?
RT: I was denying that we have a better sense of humor than anybody else! Except, I would say, maybe you do when you come around to focusing on the idea that reality is good and that goodness is strong.
That’s why I particularly don’t like the crucifix. I don’t know if you know this, but it’s proven by historians that the early Christians—for three hundred years, they never worshipped any crucifix, not at all. The crucifix was like the Roman electric chair: it was an execution machine. They did not worship it. They worshipped a form of Christ called Christos pedagogos, which means “Christ the teacher,” and who looks like Plato: big hair and a robe, powerful, telling money changers to get out of the temple, a forceful kind of character.
But Emperor Constantine cooked up this crucifix focus; his mother went to Jerusalem and found one. The subliminal message of that is that the good guys are really great and nice and maybe they get to heaven, but they’re weaker than the bad guys. Caesar is stronger. The bad rabbi, the bad Pontius Pilate: they’re stronger, and the good guys are going to get tortured, so don’t mind if you get tortured by us, your government, your high priest, or your Inquisition. It’s a negative political message, an authoritarian political message. Going along with, of course, the sublime idea that God sacrificed himself to share our suffering and all that. They make a theology out of it, which is great. Humans are endlessly creative and inventive. There is no lesser form of evil. It’s all evil.
BLVR: The Dalai Lama has chosen a nonviolent approach to dealing with China. But the Tibetan people are being genocided, the country has been absorbed into China, and no governments are standing by him, so it doesn’t seem to be working. At the same time, violent approaches around the world aren’t working either. So how do we address these conflicts in our lands and cultures?
BLVR: What about a place like Syria? Do we tell the Syrians to be patient?
RT: Yes, of course. The Syrians have to be; they are being patient. Millions had to leave and then they’re patiently staying in the refugee camps. And hundreds of thousands were killed, and they had to undergo that. There were hundreds of thousands killed or who are being killed even as we speak. What they’re going to do later is hard to know, but they will continue to kill one another and die until they decide they have to be patient.
BLVR: Patiently wait for their leaders to come to their senses?
RT: I think they have to flee, unfortunately, quite a few of them. In a way this Assad guy is just so crazy and so vicious, and he’s committed to such a level of bloodshed that I don’t see him allowing someone who once did fight him to surrender and then be accepted again. I think he’s too far gone. I think someone should take him out behind the barn. I’m sorry: a little surgical violence there.
BLVR: You think there are times when violence is—
RT: Of course. If a poisonous snake bites you on the foot, you’re going to take a knife and cut a wound in your leg and draw out blood. That’s violence against your leg, but that’s necessary to save your life. It’s a very slippery slope. Compassion is always the rule.
Which one of the wars lately has anybody won successfully? Where has there been a final settlement that was successful? I don’t know if you know that in the beginning of World War II, Gandhi said that the Allies should resist Hitler nonviolently. He was scolded by Churchill and the press for that, really badly. But he defended himself very well. He said that people didn’t understand him. That nonviolent resistance is not surrender—that it meant that everybody in France and England and everywhere would not shoot back, would not fight; they wouldn’t work in an office or do anything; they would resist nonviolently, and lots would be killed. He was aware of that. That’s why he said it was the most heroic thing. Surrender and working for the conqueror: he wasn’t advocating for that; that would have been cowardice. He was saying that if you can’t do nonviolence, if your people are unable or unwilling to do that sort of heroism, then you should fight, but that you would lose a lot of people fighting. On top of that—and I think this is really interesting—he said that they would win, but in the process of winning, the Hitler-like people in their own countries would take over. So their war would not be won, actually. The war they were talking about for freedom: it would not be won. Violence will always breed more. Even when we think, Oh, here is a victory for violence, unless it’s merely surgical, only to make a turning point, then proceeding nonviolently—it’s counterproductive.
BLVR: How relevant is Tibetan Buddhism to the feminist movement when so many of the deities and lamas are men?
RT: There’s a #MeToo movement in Buddhism that is going on, because it also needs it. Nobody said Tibet was the perfect place. Tibet had tremendous warriors, and they’re still somewhat chauvinistic. Tibetan Buddhism cannot present the ideal. But enlightenment will bring out the feminine.
BLVR: Do you think there’s anything specific from the teachings that could be applied to the feminist movement now?
RT: Definitely. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the basic statement is: There is no male and female. Ultimately, everything is relative. Every male has a female side; every female has a male side. Every female has been a male in previous lives; every male has been a female in previous lives. The karma theory in general, with the beginning-less lives perspective, breaks down this kind of rigid identity bias. The Buddhists are the top people in the critique of negative identities, the transformation of identities, how identities are constructed: the deep psychology of identity formation is their specialty. And that is helpful, this sort of thing.
BLVR: There’s a lot of anger right now among women, and I think in many ways it’s very helpful. Your own daughter…
RT: Yes, we were very proud of her when she was first interviewed at the bursting of the dam of the Weinstein thing, when she said, “I’ve learned that when I say things when I’m angry, it sometimes has a negative effect, so I’m going to wait until I’m more cool and then I’m going to say what I want to say.” Indicating that she did have some pretty volatile things to say, and then she did eventually give her volatile story about his extreme bad behavior. And we were very proud that she made that example of showing some additional restraint.
BLVR: I think there is this misunderstanding that if you’re Buddhist you can’t be angry, or you’re supposed to figure out how to bypass your anger.
RT: You should be forceful without being angry, like a martial artist, like Grasshopper [protagonist of the TV series Kung Fu]. That’s the essence of tai chi and karate and those forms that can be quite forceful and completely do in the opponent. One of the key strategies in becoming a master of those is to not get worked up angrily against your opponent. To be forceful and furious without losing your control to anger. So you don’t resent the being; there is nothing violent about you; your movements are all using the violence of the enemy against the enemy.
BLVR: You’ve been speaking a lot these days about “cool heroes.” Could you talk about them now and give some examples?
RT: The cool hero, that’s the patient hero. The cool heroes on the planet are the 50 or 51 percent female, where the oxytocin emerges in a crisis rather than the cortisol. That’s the ultimate cool. But I meant also the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Gene Sharp. The cool hero is where you put your life on the line not to kill somebody else. We know people will risk their lives jacked up on hatred. Rambo, get the enemy, that sort of thing. They’ll charge the machine gun and be really brave, though they don’t survive like in a movie: they get shot. We know that the human being motivated by hatred can throw away their life, and that makes them kind of powerful. That’s why terrorism is so powerful. But there are also so many cases in history where love makes a human being do that; mothers will give their lives for love and also fathers will. When more people on the planet will realize, in solidarity with one another, that we will die not to kill, then these leaders cannot recruit armies. Then you will have world peace.
This article originally appeared in Fall 2020 Issue of The Believer, Used with Permission, All rights Reserved.