The Slightly Demented Vision of Robert Thurman

Prof. R. Thurman

Fearless Mountain Newsletter (formerly The Sanghapala Newsletter),
Autumn 1996 * 2539 -- Volume 1, Number 4

This talk was given one evening at the first conference of Western Buddhist teachers with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, India, March 1993. The reader should imagine a circle of 25 Buddhist Westerners from several different continents, all of whom have been teaching for some years. During the course of the talk, which is at the end of a long day of discussions, several power cuts occur (this is India. . .), plunging the room into ever deepening darkness. Eventually Robert Thurman, now Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, is persuaded to rise and speak. He is a towering, shambling, golden whirlwind of a man -- the reader should therefore regard some of the sweeping statements and generalizations, as well as some of the liberally rendered scriptural quotes, as part of the ribald gusto and good-humored extemporization on important themes that is the beloved Professor's style ...

I was the first monk that His Holiness ordained. I was his first experiment and, of course, I was a failure because I resigned my vows about a year and a half after I was ordained, although I had lived several years before that as a celibate. I therefore have about three and a half years of monk-time logged, but only one and a half of formal ordination. Then, being an ex-monk, I became a kind of 'anti-monk' intellectually; I decided that the New Age had dawned -- it was the late 60's -- and there was no more need for monks and nuns or monasteries or any of that. Shambhala was just around the corner and all these monolithic institutions could be swept away. . . I then had a long time of studying different things, thinking about engaged Buddhism and teaching things over and over again, as a Buddhist academic does.

I should say before that I had decided that I felt compelled to teach the Dharma since the only thing in life I loved was the Dharma; it had been a saving grace to me and I still think that it is the only thing the world needs. So I figured that the only place left to do it was in the universities, and at least there some people would have a chance to learn something about it and I would have an excuse to keep studying it, too. In the process of studying the history of Buddhism and teaching Buddhist texts again and again, and sending a lot of people from classes to meditation centers, I discovered, in the early 80's, that monastic institutions were to me the most revolutionary and the most important of institutions. When I reported this to His Holiness he just laughed and laughed. "What is this?" he said. "An ex-monk is now going on and on about monasteries? You can afford to do that now. You know, with your beloved wife and your four children, that now you're safe -- you'll never be back! You can go and promote them as much as you want, knowing you won't have to go there -- ha, ha, ha. . ." He thought that was very funny.

We were also talking then about his frustration with the conservatism within the monastic communities -- not only the Tibetan ones but others, too -- and how they were acting as though they were still in their original cultural matrix in Asia and were unwilling to modify things, and so on. He wished to find some kind of basis on which they could improve things but he did not really have the time to do that. So slowly I began to organize, at Amherst, what I called "monasticism conferences." I brought a lot of Christian and Buddhist monastics of different traditions, a few Hindus and a few Sufis, together in conference after conference.

We had over half a dozen conferences and they began to discover, beyond ideology, at a level of practice and daily living, that there was a real commonality. The monastic effort, irrespective of religious ideology, was a globe-spanning effort that had been trying to restrain what I consider has been the arch-enemy of monasticism for thousands of years -- the other global, universalizing institution that started when the Buddha started monasticism -- militarism. Modern militarism also began 2,500 years ago, with Ajatashatru, the King of Magadha, the empire building of the Kamineds, and the Axial Age, the Trojan War and all that. It's actually been neck and neck ever since then, if you look at the planet in a global way.

Discovering that was a terrible shock, because if you follow the traditional Buddhist view that the existence of the Dharma on the planet depends upon its rootedness in a Sangha which includes the four-fold Sangha of Bhikshu, Bhikshuni, Upasaka and Upasika, you see that there is practically no Buddhism left. It was destroyed and wiped out in almost every country -- apart from two or three Theravadan countries and a couple of secularized countries. There are a few monasteries in Japan, for example, but the Vinaya was destroyed there a century ago by forcing all the monks to marry, which was a government policy to disempower the monasteries, though that might be shocking to hear for modern Zen Buddhists. It has become important in my mind that we rediscover this.

* * *

I feel one of the things we have a tremendous lack of in our Buddhism in the West is knowledge. It is very fortunate that Western populations became fascinated with Buddhism through contacting what I call 'the three educations': ethics, meditation and wisdom (I don't like the word training', which I consider an army word, or one for experimental rats or dogs). But the central education of samadhi is the one that has really caught the Western masses. That is very good and very necessary. It is, of course, the central one of the three. There is a great lack of knowledge on the wisdom side and on the ethical side and a base of knowledge needs to be built. I feel that, although I myself do not know that much about the Vinaya, if we learn more about it we will find that just as the Buddhist tradition produced that magnificent repertoire of meditational teachings that have been so illuminating and so liberating for so many of us, Buddhism taught many things about society and about organizations and communities that will also be liberating.

It is our typical Western thing to think, "Oh well, yes, meditation, we've got that from Buddhism but we're Westerners and so we know about organizations, and of course about intellectual matters." We may find that Buddhist civilization has a lot to contribute to us on both of those other levels, just as it did on the meditational level.

So I think we have to work on our own knowledge base. I would therefore like to invite everyone to Columbia University, or to whatever other venue, and to gather some academics, because they too have quite a lot of knowledge about different Vinaya practices in Buddhist countries. The Vinaya was transformed by very enlightened masters when they went to China and to different countries; they modified it to suit the country.

Remember that in the first instance the Buddha refused to establish the Patimokkha in one sitting by just spouting it. He said, "No, Buddhas don't just give a dogmatic set of rules. They wait until problems arise in the community; they wait for the law-suits and then they give rulings which define the focus for the community." That gives the basis for creating a flexible Vinaya. On the other hand, we shouldn't be like modern people and think that we need to reinvent the wheel. We should discover how they were modified in relation to earlier circumstances and then we can extrapolate that into our present circumstance. I would like to offer that as a suggestion, although I think that it is a long process.

* * *

Shakyamuni Buddha was an engaged Buddhist -- there cannot be any question. He was unengaged for about a week or two under the trees in the Bodhi forest. In the Tibetan tradition they have him saying this thing about "How profound, deep, peaceful, untroubled... clear light... how neat, I love this... like an elixir of immortality... I'm totally stoned out here in the woods." And then he says, "Oh, I don't think I should tell this to anybody because whoever I tell it to certainly won't understand it." That was his unengaged Buddhism; he had about five minutes of it. Then Brahma and Indra showed up and said, "Hey, come on, get down there." So he walks to Saranath to found a monastery -- that is engaged Buddhism. We think of a monastery as a place for dead people. We have to realize that our culture is formed by Protestantism. Martin Luther slammed the monasteries, saying, "Shut down all the monasteries in northern Europe." So you shut down the counter-force against militarism on the planet in those countries of northern Europe and what happens? The planet gets conquered by a bunch of berserk militarists. That is what we have been doing, and America is the most rabidly berserk militarist country in history; even with our ideals of liberty, we have the biggest army and defense system and the most nuclear weapons. It's totally unbelievable. Look at the business in Iraq.

I admit it's a weird analysis (and my sociological colleagues blink when I tell them about it) but if you remove monasticism from a social mix, what happens is that all the productive energy of people has nowhere to go but into over-production of everything. So they go out and conquer the whole world. No one wants to produce a spiritual state to invert and internalize the energy, to produce a different, higher world, so they just transform this world and they wreck the whole place -- it is within an inch of being wrecked, as we know.

Therefore, the Buddha was like the founder of a peace corps. We have to stop seeing him as some pious person in the hills, just speaking in dulcet tones. The Buddha was founding a peace corps and was risking being burnt at the stake. He said, "Hey, go out and tell everyone the gates to Nirvana are OPEN. Tell people from any caste." Don't forget that Buddha was a West Point-er. He was 29; he was a military cadet in a palace. Princes in India studied in the army, in warfare; they were Kshatriya -- the warrior-nobles. So naturally when he wanted to conquer the world for the Dharma he wanted an army.

* * *

In the near future there will be more wars like this one in Iraq, I fear. So to meet (Bhikkhu) Amaro and to hear about his community was such a treat for me, because the idea of going back to the primary thing is important. Remember how one was originally ordained by the Buddha -- the Buddha just said, "Ehi bhikkhu" -- that's all. "Come here, beggar. Come here, mendicant."

Now, enlightenment is the deconstruction of identity. If you attain enlightenment, in a way you don't even know who you are any more, much less "Where am I going to wash the dishes?" You might even wonder "What is my name?" If you have no idea of what your name is, you might as well have no hair and wear a weird robe because you don't even know who you are. If he is going to teach you something that will give you the realization of the total deconstruction of identity, he has to take care of you and reconstruct some sort of useful pattern within your own relativities -- because otherwise he is not fulfilling his responsibility.

This is the purpose of the Vinaya. He can't just deconstruct your identity and leave you standing in the middle of the traffic. So he would say "Ehi bhikkhu" and your hair flew off and your robes would change. There you were, floating around happily, living your life as a monk, and people would give you a free lunch.

So we have to go back to the primary thing and forget all that nonsense about hierarchy and who is the big boss -- that is all nonsense. The Buddha was deconstructing the serious Brahmanical family/father/patriarch/serious authority/guru business and was liberating people. He was not putting them under rules and authorities at all. In all of the cultures where it has become like that -- if you feel that the Buddhist monastic orders are solely trying to prop up the culture -- I am sure that we are just seeing corruption in the tradition. Essentially, they are all trying to unravel the culture they are in.

My appeal to you is, in the process of your work, please try at least to entertain what is, I grant you, this slightly demented vision: that the most activist thing -- the peace movement, the engaged movement -- would be if one group of Westerners could crank up the generosity to provide a permanent free lunch to any group of people who want to take serious ordination -- even if they're not that brilliant, not that great a yogi, not a great intellectual scholar. Remember that the key to monasticism is that you can be useless. You can be honored and supported for simply restraining certain negativities. By doing that, you represent a channel to Nirvana for other people and the generosity they devote to you is an essential practice for them -- it is not just some side thing they do now, and then later they do real practice. Dana is the first paramita; it is practice.

If you build a monastery at Spirit Rock, I hope it will be called "Free Lunch Monastery". There is almost no such thing in the West. Everyone in a monastery is justifying their existence -- "We are offering services; we are going to do 'Dying'; we will help you; we will have therapy. . ." It is always the production thing of our barbaric Protestant civilization. Everyone has to work and justify themselves because there is no ounce of Dharmakaya anywhere -- that's elsewhere, out there with Jehovah, some place outside. You have to do something all the time -- so if you are going to be a monk, you have got to do something and produce. But the beautiful thing about Buddhist monasticism is the acknowledgment by people that any human being is like a flower, and of total value in itself. Even if they do not do anything positive but just genuinely and sincerely restrain their negativities -- put the iron wall of the monk's robe of corpse cloth around themselves -- they will be developing, and they will represent a point of positive development for the whole community.

* * *

That is a deep, foundational vision, not a superficial, social vision, and I hope that you will all work with His Holiness over the next 40 years of conferences and we will develop one free-lunch monastery in the Protestant West. That would be the turning point for this battle between monasticism and militarism, which monasticism, at the moment, has lost the planet is totally devoted to militarism. When militarism shows its real face, when the Bosnias have spread, people will be ready to go into that mentality of "face your death, drop your identity, drop your hair, get out there on the English street-corners with your bowl and wait until someone drops something other than bird-shit into it or else be willing to starve". That's the key. Your life is on the line, you are not going to produce anything but a spiritual state and therefore people will feed you. That way they recognize the value of you as an individual achieving a spiritual state. That is the foundation of real individualism, real generosity and social Dharma practice, to which individual Dharma practice must lead in order for it to have any positive result.

* * *

Q: How do you see the role of modern lay people?

A: The role of modern lay people is just as it is -- go straight ahead, gung ho. But they are also empowered by having monastics. They can move back and forth between them and they are empowered by that.

Lay people are ready to meditate, to live differently, be eccentric and non-conformist in their Western countries. They are ready to challenge their own mind and go into their unconscious. Why can they not explore the paramita of Dana and try to break out of the mold of the Protestant culture where you never give anybody something for nothing? You give them something for nothing -- just let them wear a rag or two, that's something. Shave their hair and look grubby and then give them something. There are a lot of homeless people in Western countries and the monastics can be like honored homeless people. That kind of generosity will enrich the Western people immeasurably.

"I" am not IT -- "I" am not the center of my community. Why are we supposed to be the center? In Buddhism we are learning not to be the center of everything. We are learning to de-centrify ourselves. Even to have a person who is an idiot and support them with a free lunch because they are doing some minimal, exemplary self-restraint activities and cutting down on the usual reactionaryism of people, is of tremendous benefit to us. To proclaim "I wish to be useless" in the world of samsara is the beginning of liberation. To allow people to do nothing, in a society that is collectivist and demands production and obedience from all of its members in some rigid type of control system, is a kind of total liberation.


Fearless Mountain Newsletter (formerly The Sanghapala Newsletter),
Autumn 1996 * 2539 -- Volume 1, Number 4