Circle of Enlightenment: Tibetan Buddhist Sand Mandala

Buddhism, Meditation, and the Psychology of Self
Lecture by Robert A. F. Thurman

Robert A. F. Thurman is a scholar, author, former Tibetan Buddhist monk, Director of Tibet House in New York City, a close personal friend of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, and father of five children including the Hollywood actress, Uma. He has lectured all over the world; his charisma and enthusiasm draw packed audiences.

Robert Thurman's flair for the dramatic may be attributed to the weekly Shakespeare readings hosted by his parents, in which Robert participated alongside such guests as Laurence Olivier. He managed to get himself kicked out of Exeter just prior to graduation for playing hooky in a failed attempt to join Fidel Castro's Cuban guerrilla army in 1958. Harvard University admitted him anyway, but a deep dissatisfaction and questioning led him to drop out and he traveled on a "vision quest" as a pilgrim to India. Returning home to attend his father's funeral, he met a Mongolian monk, Geshe Wangyal, and thus began Thurman's life-long passion for Tibetan Buddhism.

In 1964, Geshe Wangyal introduced Thurman to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and described Robert as, "...a crazy American boy, very intelligent and with a good heart (though a little proud), who spoke Tibetan well and had learned something about Buddhism [and] wanted to become a monk…. Geshe Wangyal was leaving it up to His Holiness to decide." Thurman became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He was 24 and the Dalai Lama 29. They eventually met weekly and His Holiness would quickly refer Thurman's questions concerning Buddhism to another teacher and turn the conversation to Freud, physics, and other "Western" topics of interest to him. Thurman describes this phase of his life: "All I wanted was to stay in the 2,500-year-old Buddhist community of seekers of enlightenment, to be embraced as a monk. My inner world was rich, full of insights and delightful visions, with a sense of luck and privilege at having access to such great teachers and teachings and the time to study and try to realize them." But when he returned to the United States, Thurman found that his career as a monk was not viable, so "I decided that I wanted to learn more Buddhist languages, read more Buddhist texts.… The only lay institution in America comparable to monasticism is the university, so in the end I turned to academia."

Robert Thurman currently holds the first endowed chair in this field of study in the United States; he is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. He is a prolific translator and writer of both scholarly and popular works, including Tsong Khapa's Speech of Gold: Reason and Enlightenment in the Central Philosophy of Tibet, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Essential Tibetan Buddhism, and his most recent, Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness.

Thurman is not only a scholar, but a champion of the preservation of Tibetan culture. In 1987, he and actor Richard Gere founded New York City's Tibet House, a nonprofit institution devoted to preserving the living culture of Tibet. Thurman writes, "What I have learned from these people [Tibetans] has forever changed my life, and I believe their culture contains an inner science particularly relevant to the difficult time in which we live. My desire is to share some of the profound hope for our future that they have shared with me."

-- excerpts from Inner Revolution

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