Robert Thurman Transcript

Robert Thurman interview

Rick Archer: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer and Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people. And I’m really honored to have as my guest today here at the Science and Non-Duality Conference in San Jose, California, Dr. Robert Thurman. Robert is the Jey Tsong Khapa professor, sorry, of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He’s president of the Tibet House, US, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization, and president of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies.

Robert Thurman: That’s enough. That’s enough. Yeah. Not very awakened, though. He’s more awakened than me.

Rick Archer: Here’s another way of introducing him. I was riding my bike through the park the other day and I ran into an old friend and I told her I was coming to this conference. And I mentioned a few people I was going to be interviewing and I said, “Bob Thurman.” And she said, “Oh, Uma’s father. You’re so lucky.”

Robert Thurman: That’s amazing. That’s most important. Yes.

Rick Archer: So, one more little embarrassing tidbit, a little bit more flattery here. Time Magazine chose him as one of the 25 most influential Americans in 1997, describing him as a larger-than-life scholar activist destined to convey the Dharma, the precious teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, from Asia to America. And the New York Times recently said Thurman is considered the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism. So, thank you very much for doing this.

Robert Thurman: Thank you.

Rick Archer: Now, let’s start out on a personal note. A lot of us were wild and crazy teenagers. I certainly was. I must have given my guardian angels nervous breakdowns. And you ended up, I didn’t hear exactly what happened to you, but you ended up being wild and crazy and losing an eye when you were a young man. And it kind of turned your life around.

Robert Thurman: It did.

Rick Archer: So, talk about that a little bit.

Robert Thurman: My old Mongolian teacher told me that whenever I was asked about it, I should say that I lost one eye and gained a thousand. He said, “Don’t be embarrassed. Just say it.” Meaning the eyes of the Dharma, that is. And of course, have a look at the Teshvara, the Bodhisattva of Universal Compassion, which om mani padme hum is his mantra. His and her mantra, Tara, is also the same. It has a thousand arms with the eyes and the palm of each hand to indicate wisdom and compassion both, reaching into. But I’m not like that. I’m just working for it. I’m around the feet of that entity. Dalai Lama is really like that. I try to help him.

Rick Archer: Good. Oh, and I forgot to introduce my friend Dana Sawyer, who is sitting here. I interviewed Dana yesterday talking about Houston Smith. And I invited Dana to help me interview Robert because Dana’s wisdom and understanding of the types of things that Robert is conversant with far exceeds mine. I thought it might be a richer interview if we both did it. And feel free to chime in any time.

Dana Sawyer: It exceeds mine in terms of Tibetan Buddhism. I know a lot about Tibetan Buddhism, but Robert knows a lot.

Rick Archer: He’s in the big leagues.

Dana Sawyer: He’s the guy.

Rick Archer: Right.

Dana Sawyer: I am not worthy to be bowing. Oh, no. [Laughter]

Rick Archer: So after that eye injury and you went to India and this and that happened, and you ended up going and learning Tibetan in about ten weeks or something, as I understand it, fluently.

Robert Thurman: Well, I’m still trying to learn Tibetan. It goes on for life. It’s a huge, huge civilization because what Tibet has is it’s the repository, the sanctum of the 1500 years of Indian Buddhism that was lost in India with the destruction of all the Buddhist libraries, the Buddhist monasteries, monastic universities and so on, such as Nalanda. And Tibet has preserved that, including the curriculum and the living transmission and so forth. So although it was a country of a small number of people, around 20 million at some point, and then decreased to around 6 or 7 million due to the wonderful birth control properties of monasticism. [Laughter] And the very nice thing to keep a balanced population is take some people out of the reproductive pool and let them reproduce in some sort of a dharmic way. And so it’s an amazing thing. But I was fluently speaking in about ten weeks, and I was already annoying some of the Tibetan scholars at the place, monastery, perhaps, if I wanted to argue and debate with them about emptiness and selflessness and all this sort of thing. So it was like a duck to water, absolutely.

Rick Archer: And you became a Tibetan lama. You were ordained as one.

Robert Thurman: I did. I was ordained. Well, lama doesn’t mean monk. Tibetan, gelong, which is the word for bhikshu, lama means a teacher. And there are some late teachers as well as monastic teachers. And I became a monk against the advice of my original guru, who said, “I know you want to be a monk. You’re very sincere. You know that that’s the way to a lifelong free lunch. And you can study the whole time. But you’re not going to be able to stay a monk. I can predict. It’s not your destiny or karma.” And then I kept bugging him, bugging him, so he took me to Dalai Lama. And he told Dalai Lama, “This boy is good. He wants to study, blah, blah, blah. But don’t make him a monk because he will not be able to stay as a monk. But I’m just an old monk. Only in here, Dalai Lama, you decide.” So then Dalai Lama did make me a monk after a while. And then I was a monk for three or four years. And he was my original guru, was correct. Dalai Lama was too young and I was too young and came back here in the mid-60s. And monks at that time were burning themselves to try to stop the Vietnam War. So my activism emerged and I resigned. And luckily I resigned just in time to meet the love of my life, who has been my wife now for 49 years. And then Uma came to visit us along with three boys to be a “Driving Her Chariot.”

Dana Sawyer: So what was the activism that you said you came back and you pledged against the Vietnam War? Well, you know, that was the middle of the ’60s with the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movement. And I was deeply engaged in both. I left high school, which you did mention before. I was in a prep school at Phillips Exeter, actually. And in my senior year I left high school to join Fidel Castro’s revolution. But luckily for me they wouldn’t accept my recruitment because I was 17 and I was 6’3″, 145 pounds. And I was with a Mexican guy who was 5’3″ and 175 pounds. So they said, “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza have arrived.” But maybe you have your head blown off in five minutes, so maybe you could help us some other way, you know. Or I would be dead, you know, at this time. But I always had a wish to change this world, you know, which I retain and which Buddhism has helped to foster. And I haven’t given up hope that we will be changing it, and I think we are changing it. And I followed Dalai Lama’s idea that the 21st century has to be a less violent century or a non-violent century, a century of dialogue. In spite of the coup d’état in our American country in the year 2000 that caused a ridiculous waste of everything for those 15 years since. And that can be repaired, I think, and we will move ahead, I hope. I believe so.

Rick Archer: These days I often hear you, you know, clarify when you speak publicly that you don’t consider yourself enlightened or awakened or anything like that. And as I understand it, no true blue…

Robert Thurman: I’m too scared of my wife to go around proclaiming that I’m enlightened.

Rick Archer: Yeah, she’ll kick you out of the house.

Robert Thurman: And my children.

Rick Archer: But, you know, these days, especially at conferences like this, there are all sorts of people that refer to their awakening rather matter-of-factly. “Oh, I had my awakening in 2006 and then I had another one in 2008.” So how do you relate to that? What do you think they’re saying? Have they got something you don’t have?

Robert Thurman: Well, first of all, the first thing I want to say is I awaken every morning, unfortunately. I do. And second, and so do they. And second, of course, there are degrees of awakening who have epiphanies and moments of understanding. But the way that I have been studying the Buddhist sciences for a long period of time, the definition of what really full enlightenment is, is very, very advanced and exalted. And that is a problem, A. And maybe generically even, you know, in Zen, for example, they feel that someone who has an experience of disappearing, of melting into emptiness, or what they think of as melting into emptiness, and then thinks that was the ultimate experience and they’re like really done, you know, just all set, just wait till they die and then they’ll stay there. They are trapped in the demon-ghost cave, they say. Because, you know, if you go around thinking you’re enlightened, you’re in the terrible problem of you have to fart Chanel number five. I’m sorry, I hope you can censor it if you want. But it’s so silly, you know, unless of course you have a definition of enlightenment that enlightenment is just being resigned to being really ordinary, which is actually another misunderstanding, I believe.

Rick Archer: In Buddhist understanding, Buddhist traditional understanding, is it kind of recognized that there can be a tendency for various stages of awakening to be so gratifying or to feel so complete that one feels one is done?

Robert Thurman: Absolutely. And therefore, the protection against that, the immunization against that is the understanding, the inferential philosophical, critically rational understanding of emptiness, which is called the royal reason of relativity. In other words, anything that a relative being can experience is relative, and therefore it cannot be an absolute state. So there is no state of enlightenment, something like that, but there is somehow this very strange thing that is inexpressible, like non-duality where you have to maintain silence, etc., because it’s inexpressible and inconceivable and unthinkable, and therefore they talk about it all the time, you know, with vast reams of text and literature, but it’s a pure negation, you know. It’s a negation, it’s an opening the mind, like a negational understanding. And then I think the enlightened state is something very complex, actually, rather than we would, we sort of think, you know, we are sort of awake, and then we’re sound asleep and unconscious, and we think it must be one or the other. And mostly we think it’s something like being unconscious because that’s the time when we get some rest, you know, and nobody bugs us temporarily, you know, except in a dream maybe. And whereas the enlightened state, I think, is where someone realizes the sort of absolute relativity, and so therefore they experience the relativity sort of like you would experience living in a mirror surface. And the mirror surface is this incredibly complicated thing, including everybody else’s body and mind and everything in the universe and the galaxy and the multi-galaxy and time and space, and yet being interrelated with specific differentiated things at the same time. But that interrelatedness in the specific differentiated things is like as if you were, you know, looking at your, you know, shaving in the mirror or putting on your face if you’re a female in a mirror where you shift left and right without thinking. You have an intuitive awareness that each of these things that seems to be a thing in itself is actually empty of anything in itself-ness. So it’s a complicated cognitive dissonance transcending or tolerating or maintaining or sustaining or whatever you want to say. Since you can’t say anything, you can say a lot of things. And it’s that kind of awareness. By definition, I know, I don’t know it, I don’t claim to know it completely by experience, but some taste of that, you know. And that’s why I said this morning, that’s my consolation to myself and to people who ask me, “Are you enlightened after 50 years of more of study and experience and meditating and being a monk and everything?” If you say, “No, absolutely not,” which would be true, then they get very discouraged. They think, “What’s the use for me?”

Rick Archer: Why bother?

Robert Thurman: Yeah, what’s the point, you know. And then if you say, “Yes,” then they go like, “Huh?” And then they think you are and they aren’t. And so middle way there is what I call my consolation prize, which I’m very pleased with, which I got from looking at family pictures, you know, of what we call memory lane on Thanksgiving dinner or whatever it is. Memory lane, you know, where you look at those things. And I got really tired of seeing myself in those pictures. Usually I was taking the pictures, so I’m not luckily too much there. But when I see myself, it really irritates me because there I was in paradise with the small children and happy and having it. And then when I see my face, I get – I remember my mind that was worrying about my credit card and my visa and my passport and whether someone would fall off a cliff. And I wasn’t in that moment. So I got sick of that. And then I realized that – and then you get in the moment looking at the picture. So then I realized that when you attain nirvana, then every moment in the past will be nirvana, you know. And, you know, one guy said this great thing about the reintegrating of memory today, that Doblin or whatever his name is, the guy, this ecstasy guy. He said that people have to reintegrate and reconstruct the memory after they have the memory in some sort of a state. And that’s my thing about Buddha. When Buddha attained enlightenment at the event horizon of the full enlightenment where he became infinite as a being, he was able to remember infinite previous lives. Because he reconstituted those memories by realizing that even though he was in hell in one of them or in an animal form and being eaten by somebody or whatever it was, or in a human form being killed or giving his body away, he realized he was already in nirvana then. So then he could clearly remember it all. We don’t remember our previous because we suffered so much and we didn’t enjoy dying, you know, and giving up our cherished body many, many times that we did. So there he’s reintegrated. When you attain nirvana, apparently you reintegrate all your memories where it’s just one uninterrupted flow of bliss. So they define it and that’s my consolation then. So I’ll be with you in nirvana later.

Rick Archer: Right.

Robert Thurman: But then I’ll be here too because then you’re in all moments of time.

Rick Archer: I’ll mark it on my calendar.

Dana Sawyer: Rick stole my question because that was going to be one of the questions I wanted to ask you because, you know, Vajrayana Buddhism sets the bar very high for enlightenment. You know, Jack Kerouac said once that walking on water wasn’t built in a day. And that, you know, you’ve got to perfect the six paramitas and all of that kind of stuff. And my own teacher, my primary teacher is Kensur Rinpoche, Lobsang Tsong.

Robert Thurman: Oh, he’s so nice.

Dana Sawyer: Yeah, he’s a wonderful guy. But he’ll often say when I’m helping him do a teaching or something, somebody will say, well, are you a Buddha? You know, are you enlightened? And he’ll say, no, if this is a skyscraper and the Buddha is here, I’m down here on the first floor. And I always think, well, where’s that put me, man? I’m like in the 50th basement somewhere, you know, with the old last year’s gloves or something like that. And I think from spending so much time in India that, you know, here a Baba, there a Baba, everywhere a Baba, Baba. There’s so many Babas there claiming enlightenment.

Robert Thurman: I know.

Dana Sawyer: Do you think that might be even part of the wisdom of Vajrayana to set the bar so high that you have less chance for charlatanism?

Robert Thurman: Yeah, I think so. But it’s not just Vajrayana. It’s even Mahayana, you know. In other words, for example, in academic Buddhist studies realm, the big industry is to prove that Buddha was just an ordinary person. You know, he was like a Socrates and he just dyed his toga orange, you know, and he didn’t drink vatina. But otherwise, he was just wandering around talking to people and he didn’t know anything. You know, and therefore, enlightenment, the final goal of enlightenment is like, “Duh!” You know. You don’t know anything, which is really, it’s really our hang-up, the modern Western hang-up that we think we’re so advanced and we have all this great science, etc., and we’re so neat, our great culture, blah, blah, blah, which is just total delusion. We’re driving the planet over the cliff, we’re crying out loud. We’re the first group in written history that is really ready to destroy everything. And actually, we’re all sitting here, not out there stopping, you know, the Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers and things. We’re not stopping them because we just think nobody can. Everybody secretly thinks, “Well, maybe we’ll muddle through, but there’s nothing I can do.” You know, that’s where we’re conditioned to think that. And so, the idea that there is this completely vast consciousness and that there is a being who is never omnipotent. Mahayana Buddhism never claims omnipotence for Buddha, but they claim omnicompetence to deal with this difficult karmic situation that we’re all co-creating. Elizabeth is always saying how we co-create it, but that’s the karma theory. And actually, God, in the Buddhist literature, God tells Buddha, he says, “Go teach, man. It’s great that you understand how things work. Please go tell the human beings when something really terrible happens to them, it’s not my fault. I’m not omnipotent. I didn’t create it all. I’m doing my best for everybody. I’m a really cool guy. I’m Brahma, you know, like I’m a big energy field. But I can’t control everything because I’m not omnipotent. So please tell people that. Here, here’s the Dharma wheel. Go teach people.” There’s an actual thing in Buddhist sutra like that from God. Buddhists don’t disbelieve gods. There’s plenty of them, but none of them are the big boss. And neither is Buddha the big boss. But Buddha is the great teacher of how each one of us to boss our own world, take responsibility that we’re inter-bossing. And the real way of taking full responsibility that to save this planet is to let the women be a bigger boss. That’s the same thing. Look at that. And that’s not just pandering to the California women. I really mean it. I really mean it.

Dana Sawyer: It was mostly men clapping, I saw.

Rick Archer: The point you made about Exxon Mobil and the Koch brothers and all that brings up an interesting point, which is that what is the utility of spiritual flourishing and awakening for bringing about real social change? Is it just we’re marinating in our own subjective bliss or can we really actually, by working on such a fundamental level, and this would be the most fundamental level one could work on, we know that more fundamental things are more efficacious in bringing about changes on less fundamental levels. Is this the ultimate fulcrum through which we can modify the society profoundly?

Robert Thurman: Well, his whole, the Dalai Lama slogan is “World Peace through Inner Peace.” And he’s not a disciple of Rupert Sheldrake, but I consider Buddhist science likes Rupert Sheldrake a lot, and the concept of morphic resonance or morphogenetic resonance. So if you are doing well inside, and you guys, you Maharishi guys, you like that in the sense of, well, you know, MIU, Fairfield, I’m sorry, I apologize, you’re no longer in that. But no, if you have like a 40,000 person meditation squad and they go to Kosovo or they go to Sarajevo. I did that. I was in Iran for three months. And then people calm down, and I’m sure it is true actually, although I think it may not be so quick. They may still squeeze off a few rounds before they cool out, and they might blow away through the meditators. So you have to be very strategic about it. But overall, I mean, what’s wrong with America? America, look, in Tibet, they had no army toward the end of their last few hundred years of their existence. They had been a conquest dynasty, and they had no army. And all the guys, the Rambos, were in monasteries, and instead of beating up somebody else, they were banging their own head against the wall trying to understand shunyata, emptiness, and so forth. And so they weren’t perfect, and they weren’t all enlightened, but they were putting a vibe out about world peace and peace in the society through inner peace, and they were happy, and therefore all that colorful Tibetan painting and the weird chanting and “Om Mani Padme Hum” and all that. And they inflicted that even on the Mongolians who had had the biggest empire in history. So it proves that a country will be happier and better if they demilitarize. Even if they had been a backward conquest country before that, and they’re happier. But, of course, 20th century, they got chewed up by the bunch of fanatic, industrialized, tribal behavior of people, Russians and Chinese and British, actually, in their case. But now we’re in a stage where world peace through inner peace where I think there’s two levels. Like the level of the leadership is still in the 20th century or, I don’t know, maybe 20th century BCE. I’m not sure. But, you know, let’s go conquer somebody, you know, and let’s build some more weapons and do all this stuff, you know. And yet massively incompetent, causing huge damage to themselves and everyone and getting nowhere at all. And whereas the masses of people unprecedented in history before the invasion of Iraq, for example, or the criminal American invasion of Iraq, you know, there were millions of people worldwide protesting that, which I think would have been unheard of in 1938 or ’39 that you would have had such a reaction. So I think in the sensitivity of the masses of the humanity, wherever they’re allowed to express themselves, they’re against all this. And the Dalai Lama’s faith about it is that that will have its impact even where democracy is either non-existent or suppressed, as in our country by Fox News propaganda. We don’t have, we’re losing our democracy. And so that’s where there is a sensitivity emerging. People are becoming more sensitive worldwide, I think, in the masses. And women, wherever they can, are becoming more empowered. And the guys are becoming righteously scared, which is a state of, that’s awakening. I’m awakened about that. I know which side my bread is buttered on. Absolutely. Even though I’m now at a back-end monasticism at my age. But still, you know, that’s a thing. That is a genuine awakening we are seeing on this planet. So that gives me optimism, put it that way. And therefore, the inner transformation that one does, the motivation is key. You know, you’re a Theravadan, from a Buddhist point of view, if you’re meditating to gain your own enlightenment only. You can do the same exact meditation, mindfulness or whatever it is, love meditation, metta meditation. If your motive is, as I’m doing this, as my mind changes, millions of people will morphically resonate with me. Not only what I might do afterwards that would be good, but right now, by changing my mind, different people are changing their minds. Like one person is just slamming that door a little less loud, being a little less violent in that family row, saying a little less nasty thing, and that’s radiating out, and I’m part of the radiation by being a little bit, dealing with my own inner nasty self, you know? The nasty side of my habitual self.

Rick Archer: You answered the next question I was going to ask.

Robert Thurman: Oh, okay. Dana, you have one?

Rick Archer: Hold it close to your mouth.

Dana Sawyer: You know, I was thinking that in whatever year it was, 1960-something, when Houston Smith made Requiem for Faith, remember that? That it was really the, his own heart was broken because he had met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and they formed a friendship, and now he was like, “Okay, we better film this and document it before it’s gone forever, because people don’t even know what’s happening to these poor people.” And then it was really almost like the Chinese coming into Tibet, here was a culture most of the world didn’t know about, and then displacing them to the diaspora was like putting out a fire by, you know, taking the faggots of wood from the fire and throwing them out into the woods, and then, okay, the fire’s gone, but really what you’ve done is set the world on fire, and to a large extent, that’s been true, hasn’t it?

Robert Thurman: That is true. There has been that dialectical thing, but I never liked the rationalization of the invasion and destruction of Tibetan culture about that, because, you know, it would have been, they could have set the world on fire if they had their own passports and visas and get on a plane in Lhasa and fly to Los Angeles and make a movie, you know what I mean? And they could do it without this terrible suffering that they’re still undergoing, actually. They’re still completely locked down, but we have great hope in Xi Jinping, strangely, although other people have already given him up, but His Holiness and I and a few people who know the past history have great hope that Xi Jinping, who has arrested the head of the secret police and a few very, very rough people in China, you know, on this corruption thing, that he might, if he gains full control of a very huge, complicated bureaucracy there, he might actually give the minority people a break. We might be seeing in our lifetimes an embrace between the president of China and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, meaning that they’re going to not try to conquer the world, instead of, they have, because they really have two choices. The heavy-duty people there, the Dick Cheneys of China, let’s put it that way, the Dick Cheneys of China, they plan and intend fully to conquer the world. They feel it’s their turn. It was the Brits in the 19th. It was the Americans in the 20th, and their 21st century is theirs. They have said so. They write books about it in China, these kind of people. But I think World War III is not really a viable option for any sane person because the weaponry is way too powerful. There can be no winner, really, of that. And so that means that the other choice is join the world and don’t just try to, like, make all the iPhones and make all the Walmart products and rip everybody off who are groveling to you to get huge trade deficits so they can all go bankrupt and ruin their labor market in their country and go broke. But then you just trade with them in a fair level field, and then everybody has something to contribute. And there’ll be a great power, and they’ll make great movies. I’m waiting for great, you know, Marilyn Monroe, Miss Marilyn Monroe, making dragons and tigers flying and all that. I’m waiting for that. That’s cool. We don’t have to monopolize anything if they make fun things. I’d like to see a Chinese Doctor Who. Definitely. They make a good one, Chinese sci-fi. You know, it’d be great. And so then they just join up with us, you know. And I think that this Xi guy, Xi, Xi, which means peace in Tibetan, actually, Xi, even though they spell it X-I, but Xi could do it, and we’re praying for him to succeed in doing it. But he hasn’t gotten there yet.

Dana Sawyer: You know, one follow-up question on His Holiness the Dalai Lama that I thought of when you were making the comment about women, and this guy said, I said, “I saw only men clapping,” and he said, “We’re all married.”

Robert Thurman: We were what?

Dana Sawyer: Married. He said, “We’re all married. I had to clap.”

Audience member: I don’t know how to interpret what he meant. I’d like to interpret that what he meant.

Dana Sawyer: All right. Recently, His Holiness said – somebody asked him if there could ever be a woman Dalai Lama. Yes. So you know where this is going.

Robert Thurman: Yeah, sure.

Dana Sawyer: And His Holiness said that it would be possible perhaps, but she’d have to be attractive.

Robert Thurman: No, we don’t know what he said. That’s right. But what he said was, he said, “Yeah, I might be a woman,” he said. “I think I might be reborn as a woman,” he said, “because they tend to be more peaceful in their reactions and less reactive than men.” And then he thought for a minute, and then he said, “And in that case,” and he actually made a modeling gesture. He said, “In that case, I’d be much more attractive.” He struck a pose like that. It was in Italy near Pisa, in some town there, and the Italians loved it. They totally loved it.

Dana Sawyer: Well, I’m glad you clarified it as a joke because I know some people just saw it in print and took it wrong. The Tibetans got very nervous, by the way, being a bunch of chauvinists, mostly, because they’re still nomad chauvinists. And to men, women are famously strong, so they’re a little nervous about it. So that Dalai Lama would become one they were a little bit upset about, a little worried. And Dalai Lama, of course, is an institution for women, and people totally misunderstand this Dalai Lama thing about last Dalai Lama and all this thing going on with the Chinese hardliners, because Dalai Lama has to be reborn endlessly. Avalokiteshvara is born infinite numbers of times in the nirmanakaya, body of emanation of Buddha. There’s no question he will not be reborn, but he means the Dalai Lama institution, being responsible for the government, etc. That he’s put an end to. He wants the new Tibet to be fully democratic, as he wants China to be fully democratic, and he wants Russia to be fully democratic, and he’s just hoping that Putin will start drinking a little bit more and relax and stuff. And he’ll go and enjoy his villa down in the south of France, as well as his thing in Sochi next to Stalin’s house. And he’ll cool down, calm down, we’re all hoping, basically. Because that is the big struggle today, is democracy versus these different tyrannies, with theorists like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore pretending that Asian people like the tyranny, and it’s more efficient in industrialization than tyranny is, and therefore that’s the way of the future. And you have people here who don’t like democracy. These are these billionaires who are now funding all the weird rednecks, and it’s really not a good thing. That’s the big struggle of today.

Rick Archer: Since you’re bringing up political points a lot, I find it very interesting, because I am of the opinion that spirituality should, if it’s genuine, ripple up into social change automatically. And when I look at the world events and things going on, I try to see how that might be symptomatic of awakening consciousness in the world. So, for instance, when that guy got shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and then the whole Black Lives Matter thing happened, a tragedy was kind of turned into a tool for social change. And we can think of several other different examples. So maybe you could riff on that a little bit. I mean, you’re passionate about political things, and I’m not saying we should all just sit on our butts and meditate and the world will change. I think you need action on all levels. And one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of people who in the ’60s were just sitting meditating are now more passionate activists, and a lot of people who were, you know, rah-rah activists in those days and thought meditation was a waste of time have turned to spirituality. So there’s sort of a merging of those two things.

Robert Thurman: I hope so. Yes, I do hope so. But, you know, the real activist, in my opinion, is that the quest of happiness, actually. In other words, we need social activism of really happy people. Go down there and tell, like, the Koch brothers or, like, some other turkey, “You are such a jerk, and you are meessing up the planet with a big grin. Why don’t you, like, wear a false nose or be a clown or something or, like, you know, have some fun instead of going around, like, being, like, a tea party, fake tea party guy or whatever it is?” And so there’s a–and they feel that you don’t hate them. You don’t resent the bad guy. You know, Thich Nhat Hanh is so beautiful and brilliant. Somebody read me a thing, and he’s around. He’s in San Francisco now, by the way. And he’s recovering, actually. He’s getting therapy, and he’s, like, getting a little better. He moves his hand now. He had a stroke or something? He’s not talking much.

Rick Archer: Did he have a stroke?

Robert Thurman: Oh, he had a tremendous one in France, yes, last summer. Or whenever it was, you know, maybe last spring. And he has this beautiful thing where he says, “I am the poor person whose, you know, whose poor child whose body is like sticks and everything, and I am the dictator who has ruined the economy of that African country and has made that child into things, but I am both of them. I am all of them.” So it’s a new kind of thing. The worst kind of thing is the activist who hates the ruling class and is willing–thinks, you know, he’s a barrel of a gun. And we’ve already seen in the 20th century that those kind of people, when they do get the power, they’re worse than the previous one because they get it by violence, and then they become more closed off from people and more unethical and unethical and make calculations, and then they kill off this people and that people. And they become addicted to the power because they’re afraid if they give it up, someone will get them because they’ve become like that. So we need a happiness revolution. People have to be happily–but happily resisting, happily resisting, happily speaking out, happily voting. In our country, less than 50% of the people vote in the last election. And then the Republicans have 30 states wired to rig the vote, so there’s only 20 states in which the vote was counted properly. So people have to really be happy, go out and get their driver’s license, help people get the driver’s license. They’ve passed the unconstitutional law supported by the Reagan Supreme Court, criminally irrational Supreme Court, self-impeached Supreme Court majority, and happily deal with these people. Go and tickle like Justice Thomas. Tickle him. “Hey, boy, you made no special affirmative action. I’m going to affirmatively tickle you.” And laugh with him and be prepared even to love a terrorist. I have a thing in my Why the Dalai Lama Matters book, which I consider my favorite last book, where I was asked by the publisher to put in ten points of hope. And my tenth one said–which I use to avoid embarrassing standing ovations in lectures– where I say it’s our duty as activists to be so happy that even if they kill us, we’ll die happy. And the people are about to go, “Yay!” And they go, “Whoops.” And I actually added to that–I was recently–I gave a little bit activist speech, which I usually never do, but it was in Kingston, and Ralph Nader came, and Gary Null, who both I admire tremendously, although Ralph really needs to use his Princeton-educated logic to realize that lesser of evils means less evil. He can’t get that into his head, you know? That’s terrible, but never mind. But I love him, otherwise. I love him. So I came up–I elaborated that point of hope, saying that we have to cultivate the ability, if they kill us, to make sure we go out with a “die-gasm.” That’s my new slogan. And the way you cultivate that is you be very generous in your life, and you give away as much as you can give away so that you’re ready to give yourself away. And then you’ll have a “die-gasm,” even though they vaporize you with an IED or whatever these weird things they call it, you know? Whatever they call those bombs, you know?

Rick Archer: So your ten points of hope. I was going to ask you, are you optimistic? I mean, you’re obviously tuned into world events, and there’s a lot of ways of looking at the way things are going, which are not very–

Robert Thurman: It’s immense.

Rick Archer: Yeah, global warming could do us in, loose nukes could do us in, there’s any number of things that could do us in. Genetic engineering could do us in. So are you optimistic?

Robert Thurman: I’m totally optimistic.

Rick Archer: You sort of see a bright, shining horizon there someplace.

Robert Thurman: Yeah, those World War II-type tank-top leaders, you know, like– and Putin, like, who hates gay people, going around posing with his muscles and his bare chest, you know, who wants to be admired by all the gay people he’s going to execute, you know. He is not going to–the fact that his massive incompetence, his ruining of his economy, he’s having to sell his gas to the Chinese at like $0.02 on the dollar, because the Europeans are not going to buy it. I mean, the guy has wrecked everything. Now he’s going to get down there and he’s going to help Assad. That’s a really great guy to hang out with. Oh, yes, Assad is really a wave of the future. Give me a break. You know, I can see in a talk show, you know, with Charlie Rose, Assad, Mugabe, and Putin really having a field day about how great it’s going to be, and it’s just so silly. So in other words–and then Bush and company invading Iraq. Oh, yeah, we’re going to get Iraq. And Cheney’s saying we’re going to pay for it all with their oil. And there’s a total disaster and trillions of dollars of waste, not to mention millions of people’s lives destroyed and ruined by that crime.

Rick Archer: So how does this relate to optimism?

Robert Thurman: No, that’s so massively incompetent. It’s so incompetent and so impossible.

Rick Archer: That it’s doing itself in?

Robert Thurman: I guess the fabric of the human beings and the Arab Spring and the whole thing, they keep desperately getting on their tanks and acting like they’re going to control everything. They are very destructive, but, you know, they can’t escalate. What they would like, that group, which would serve them and their agenda, would be a world war. Marxian analysis is very correct. It’s time for another world war because there’s no demand in the global economy. They have overcapacity. So direct a lot of things, destroy them, then there’s more demand. You have to build them again. That’s the sort of laissez-faire radical capitalist cycle, right? But you can’t have the world war anymore. Everybody’s got a button. They have these things that will destroy. There is no winner. So what are they going to do? They’re going to have to listen to their wives. Honey, honey, if you press that fucking button–oh, excuse me. If you press that damn button–you can cut that out. If you press that damn button, don’t come home. [laughter]

Rick Archer: There will be no home.

Robert Thurman: No, no, nothing for you.

Rick Archer: Have you read–

Robert Thurman: Even the mistresses will say that. Get lost. Putin, I’m not having your radioactive–

Dana Sawyer: Do you think this pressure that–

Robert Thurman: In here.

Dana Sawyer: Did you ever think about– This is the best Buddhist stand-up I ever saw. [laughter] I’m trying to tell you. [applause]

Robert Thurman: It’s advanced Buddhist senility.

Dana Sawyer: Hey, man, Uma’s got nothing on you. [laughter] Buddhism has talent. That would be an interesting show to see. Do you ever think that there’s 7.2 billion people on the planet. We’ve turned the heat up on the planet so high, really, have turned it up, that that’s creating a pressure that we’ve got to– we’ve either got to wake up or self-destruct.

Robert Thurman: Well, that’s why I’m a big fan of monasticism. [laughter] That’s a way of changing that curve. I was at some conference somewhere with a bunch of these type of people, our elite, and some McKinsey guy got up there who announced himself as, “I’m the most expensive consultant on the planet.” And then he said, “You know, in a few years, we’ll have 9 billion people on the planet.” He was talking to these kind of capitalist types, and he was saying, “Isn’t that great? We’ll have 3 billion more in the middle class.” So then I said to him, I said, “If you had 3 billion people more in the middle class on this planet, the way the middle class’ behavior is defined today, no one would have any oxygen to breathe, and at least 3 or 4 billion at the bottom level would be dead, so you could define the middle class like that. It’s the most silliest, uninformed thing.” And that same guy, later at dinner, my wife got a hold of him, and he tried to claim to her that the Gulf of Mexico is all clean now. “Oh, it’s so nice and clean. And you know, those crayfish, that’s really great. It has a little flavor, you know, like petroleum, like, you know, it’s more flavorful, those crayfish, not just some… What a, like a moron. And the guy, “The most expensive consultant.” I mean, really. We need some Dharma consultants out there. You know? And they’d be cheaper. They’d be cheaper probably.

Rick Archer: As I see it, there’s a kind of… Sorry to be such…

Robert Thurman: I’m sorry.

Rick Archer: No, you’re great. I’m just being the straight man, but you’ll take it away. As I see it, there is kind of an epidemic of spiritual awakening taking place in the world, at least an interest in spiritual awakening, but actual awakenings. I mean, world consciousness seems to be rising in a great many… Collective consciousness in a great many people. And I’m wondering whether you think that that might be some kind of cosmic response to the dire predicament. In other words, that nature has a way of balancing the scales, and things have gotten so out of balance that the upsurge we see in spiritual awakening is actually some kind of divine intervention, some kind of response, in order to avert… Well, heimdukam nagatam, to avert the danger which has not yet come.

Robert Thurman: I do think so, I have to say. I have a kind of dumb faith somewhere in there, along with all the science, that I do think the Cold War, for example, especially when we had such emotional and awakened giants like Nixon and Brezhnev and Mao involved, and Kissinger and others… Well, Kissinger was quite liberal when he was young. I recently found out. I was surprised. But anyway, when we have that kind of people, who didn’t have at least some level of nuclear exchange, I believe there was divine intervention there. And when I say divine intervention, of course, I mean in the Buddhist sense, of what we might think of as angel-type, angelic, very, very powerful being, sort of invisible to ordinary beings, usually, but very, very powerful getting in there. I even had a dream once about it, which was very, very convincing to me, that dream, where a sort of fierce Tibetan angel, like what the Seraphim really originally were. Seraphim and Cherubim in ancient Christianity and Judaism were very ferocious kind of angels. And where one of them, who had this flaming hair, jammed that hair into all kinds of electronic circuits and blocked some button pushers at a certain moment in our history. I saw it in a dream in the year that it may have happened. And so I sort of, you know, I feel that. I feel that there are very fallible, the way our political process works and the way our media works is not good enough to rule out, to really fit with my mother’s faith. My mother had a faith that really bad politicians and bad rulers would be exposed by media exposure. And people would, although they would, maybe some people would get swept away in a McCarthy-type message, they would see the face of the guy whispering to Roy Cohn and being whispered at. And that would then turn people off to these kind of negative people. But I think in her day that may have been the case. But now there’s all this fakery that goes on, that maybe that’s no longer the case. But I do think that we have been protected at that ultimate level by some sort of semi-magical beings. And definitely in the Mahayana Buddhism, not just Vajrayana, but Mahayana, Vajrayana is really just the esoteric part of Mahayana. Mahayana Buddhism, the power of enlightened beings, of compassion, not omnipotent power, but the power to regulate and try to prevent people from harming themselves in the worst possible way, is immense. It’s seen as really immense. It’s like that’s the kind of vision we have right here and now. In every atom of us, in the chair, on the floor, and all the people, there’s a Samantabhadra Bodhisattva who’s saying mantras. And it’s everywhere, every atom here, like a hologram. And that holographic presence of that positive energy, of loving energy, of satisfying people, of getting them to restrain their worst possible actions is really powerfully there to intervene in the worst possible case. And I do believe that. So we’re in good hands, I think.

Dana Sawyer: I don’t know if you heard about this or somebody in the audience did. There’s a book, and it’s called something like “The Man Who Saved the World.” And he was–last week he was at the World Parliament of Religions in Salt Lake City, and I got to hear him speak, a Russian man. And there had been an event where the radar had fed him the wrong information. If you’ve heard the story, I see some heads nodding. And he was in the position of pushing the button, that if you see this radar readout, then that means the United States has launched missiles and you have to take action. There won’t be time to notify the powers that be and get permission. And he claimed he had an intervention. He claimed that a voice came to him, a being came to him, and it’s a dangerous position to go against that command, especially when you don’t know whether the bombs are coming or not. And he didn’t push the button.

Robert Thurman: Oh, good man. Excellent. And so it’s exactly an example.

Rick Archer: You know that verse in the Gita where it says–Lord Krishna says, “I come to uphold Dharma and destroy the wicked.” Do you kind of see mass destruction taking place as society undergoes a big shift?

Robert Thurman: No, we don’t want to destroy the wicked. We never want to destroy the wicked. The Buddhist way is you take the wicked and you chain them in a chair and you expose them to a nonduality conference for maybe six months or a year. [laughter] And you show them all sorts of things and you give them massages and they rolf them. And basically give them some MDMA combined with a little acid and maybe a DMT suppository if they’re really hard-paced. And then they straighten out. They cool down. We don’t want to destroy them. We want to destroy the wickedness and get that out of them. But we don’t want to destroy any wickedness. Sometimes maybe if you don’t have the chair to put them in and they’re about to behead you or something, then you might shoot from the hip.

Rick Archer: Did you ever read Over–?

Robert Thurman: And then in that case, if you shoot from the hip, you should engage with their afterlife in the between state and help them get to a nice prep school or something. [laughter] Get to be reborn as the child of Maurizio and Zaya. [laughter] And be a nonduality baby. [laughter]

Rick Archer: We have a few more minutes. [laughter] Stan Grof is coming in after this.

Robert Thurman: Stan Grof is a bodhisattva. I talk about angelic intervention. After Nixon and those weirdos made war on drugs and made acid totally illegal, he kept getting people, alcoholics, stoned in Maryland there, and he cured, like, thousands of them, I think. He’s like a total saint bodhisattva. And then after he didn’t even have that, he got them, like, huffing and puffing for half an hour to, like, simulate the same thing, get their adrenochrome going from their adrenal glands. What a bodhisattva. I admire that guy 100%.

Dana Sawyer: Me too. Well, you know, a question– well, you’re looking for one, Rick– that, you know, going back to the Enlightenment idea and the Enlightenment idea, a lot of times, and especially at a conference like this where people come from different traditions– Sufi tradition, Hindu traditions, Kundalini traditions, various Buddhist traditions– they’re talking about nondualism, but they’re often using the same term but meaning something different by it. And so when we say the Tathagata, the one who’s gone to that, the tatha, then in the Hindu tradition, when we say tatvam asi, thou art that, then where do you see the atman-anatman question there? I’m curious. I’m sure you’ve answered this before. Is it the same that, or is it a different that?

Robert Thurman: Yes, it’s the same. It is almost the same thing. Like all Buddhist questions, yes and no is always the answer. It is almost the same. And, for example, Shankaracharya, as I think I mentioned– I can’t remember where I said what at that age– but Shankaracharya is really very much the same as Nagarjuna, and, you know, with his nirguna Brahman idea, unqualified Brahman, because what unqualified Brahman and sunyata do is they totally relativize all pseudo-absolutes. So therefore, that’s the key, the non-duality is that this relativity is the absolute. So therefore the wisdom becomes total, absolute, dedicated compassion and love for every being. There’s no hanging out in some vast space where I’m God and forget about you untouchables. That doesn’t happen. And therefore, the Brahmins, after a while, they got Vishistha Advaita and finally Dvaita Advaita. In other words, they went back against Shankara because they wanted some absolute, because they wanted to still keep their caste superiority as an absolute themselves. So that’s where there is a difference. And just to give an example from a Buddhism point of view, we have a Tibetan Westerner who was a Tibetan monk for a long time and who then got even a kind of maybe honorary Geshe degree, which is a sort of a study degree. And then he had an experience, because he’d probably never run into MDMA or whatever, but he had an experience where he meditatively disappeared. He totally disappeared. With a space-like equipoise Samadhi he actually achieved. So then, of course, he came back because there is no place to be disappeared, really, except one of those formless realm states, which is just a state. It’s still a relative state, although it seems very absolute. But then he decided he was enlightened because he disappeared. So then, and he was back just hanging out, and then when he passed away, I suppose he’d be permanently disappeared. See, it’s like every materialist scientist is going to permanently disappear just by dying. So I don’t know why he thought that was so great. But then he went around behaving like he was a holy, and everybody should worship him. He was a big guru, because I’m enlightened. In other words, trapped in the demon-ghost cave of thinking, “I’m enlightened because I disappeared.” But I like to say, “Everybody’s enlightened. Everybody disappears every night.” You turn off the lights, you lose consciousness, you don your own conscious. Then maybe you rise in the dream, then again you disappear, then you wake up in your coarse body, as they would say. So disappearing is just no ultimate reality. Now, if you misunderstand who Brahma is, and if you misunderstand who Paramatma is, and you forget neti neti, naeti naeti, that Paramatma is not anything personal. It’s not your personal, absolute, disappeared state, which people do make that misunderstanding. Then they think, “Oh, that Nirvikalpa Samadhi, that time of being extinct.” They even misunderstand nirvana as being extinction. And when I was extinct, then I’m enlightened. So the whole thing is everybody should get extinct. And therefore, I don’t need to be compassionate. When I’m back, hanging out until I die, and then I’m permanently extinct, I’m not going to fix this untouchable. I’m not going to affirm my equality with these less fortunate people. If I’m a male Brahman, I’m not going to have my wife do the Vedic ceremony, because she’s my superior in wisdom. So the non-duality that both the greatest Hindus need, because they are half Buddhists, all of them. Buddha was ninth, never thought of Vishnu. I’m always scolding them. They only go, “Rama and Krishna.” They never say, “Hari Buddha.” But they do, and they can, a few of them. I have seen them do it when they’re challenged. But the point is that the ones we need, both Buddhists and Hindus, are the ones who define non-duality as a non-duality of wisdom and compassion. And they are really bent on changing the status of those who suffer. And that’s what Brahma does. And Brahma wants to do that. He told Buddha, he said, “Go tell people when they suffer it’s not my fault. I’m not omnipotent. Help them.” And Brahma is a great Bodhisattva, actually, usually, most Brahmas. There are many Brahmas in many universes simultaneously.

Rick Archer: We have to wrap it up.

Robert Thurman: I know.

Rick Archer: That’s okay. It would be good to end with one more laugh.

Rick Archer: How about the gas pump?

Rick Archer: No, we’ll do that.

Robert Thurman: I want Buddha to have a Tesla.

Rick Archer: Good idea.

Robert Thurman: All electric.

Rick Archer: Thank you very much, Bob. It’s really been fun.

Robert Thurman: Okay, thank you.

Rick Archer: It’s been great. It’s an honor.

Robert Thurman: I love it. I love it.