2016-06-30
Robert Thurman was personally ordained by the Dalai Lama in 1965, making him the first Westerner to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He still holds the first endowed chair in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies, at Columbia University. Author of the international bestseller "Inner Revolution," he is co-founder and president of Tibet House U.S., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture. Thurman's latest book is "Infinite Life."

You've been called the "Buddhist Billy Graham" and a "Dharma-thumping evangelist." What do you think the people who refer to you this way are getting at?

I am not an evangelist in the sense that I'm trying to get people to be Buddhist. But I believe every liberal academic -- not liberal in the sense of liberal vs. conservative, but in the sense of liberal arts -- is an evangelist for wisdom. Is an evangelist for decency and compassion and ethics. Wants to educate people to live a better life and to be better persons, to be more kind, more wise, more intelligent, and to understand the world better.

Buddhism means awakening, so I am an evangelist for awakening. I agree with the Dalai Lama that it doesn't mean becoming a Buddhist; it means becoming an awakened Christian, an awakened Jew, an awakened Muslim, an awakened Secularist Humanist. But awakened meaning understanding what's going on, being kind to others, which is a source of your own happiness after all. I don't mind being accused of being an evangelist for wanting to help people awaken to that.

The Buddha's first noble truth is "life is suffering." How do we overcome suffering?

The Buddha was referring to the suffering of unenlightened living, which means the suffering of self-centeredness and disconnection from others, shutting yourself off in a world of narcissistic self involvement.

The minute you awaken to the cause of suffering, which is your self-preoccupation and your self-misperception, your ignorance, then you'll begin to have a happy time. And the more you awaken to your interconnection with others, the more free of suffering you'll become.

The whole Buddhist path has to do with altruism and loving your neighbor, just as Christianity does. Christianity doesn't mean I love Jesus and he will save me and Jesus will love my neighbor. Christ says, You love your neighbor.

Polls show a majority of Americans believe in an infinite or eternal life, that their soul continues after death. What do you mean by "infinite life"?

Because our lives continue for eternity - each life has an infinite past and future - and all beings are intimately connected to each other, all of our actions have infinite consequences. Our spiritual development is an ongoing process for which we can take responsibility - so that even the slightest word or gesture or action is tremendously meaningful.

Whether or not people consciously profess that they're going to go to heaven (and of course no one believes they are going to hell!), the way they live and the way our society is geared is in a materialist way - we act as if our existence starts when we are born and ends when we die. That I call the terminal lifestyle. Finite and random, we are left living a life seemingly devoid of meaning.

There is no strong incentive to do anything positive since there will be no long term result of it really -- either because you believe you become nothing at death or because you have a short-circuit type of religious belief where, in spite of whatever you do, you'll be taken off to heaven because of your beliefs.

For example, if you ask the pious Christian person, is Jesus your Savior? They'll say yes. Therefore, Will Jesus take you to heaven when you die? And they'll say yes. And that to me is a very disconnected thing in the sense that they could be shooting deer, embezzling at their bank, they could be attacking Iraq, and yet because of their belief in Jesus, the consequences of any of their actions are going to be cut short and they're just going to travel upwards with Jesus.

So they remain disconnected from their world, and they don't take any responsibility for a lot of negative things that are going on -- industrially, militarily, politically, and so on. So they never become really active.

Whereas in the case of karma, what I call evolutionary action, each moment becomes an opportunity in the sense that it's filled with infinity. It's infinite this moment. You know that however you approach this moment can have a consequence either infinitely good or bad. This brings an intensity and a power and an energy to each moment, and encourages you to be your best in any situation.

Do you think this notion of the infinite is something that's missing from a Western perception of Buddhism? A lot of popular books about Zen for example seem to strip everything down to the "now" without implying anything about the meaning beyond the moment.

The American attitude as a whole gravitates towards this notion of "now" because they feel that is an escape from the tremendous anxiety about being an American today. America today is causing tremendous damage on the planet. For example we are four percent of the world's populations, using 25 percent of the world's energy, we're invading Middle Eastern kingdoms, we're extinguishing species, destroying rain forests and so on.

So people say I don't want to really focus on it because it's too depressing and there's nothing I could do about it. So when somebody gives me a nice "now" that I can tranquilize myself in, I am going to jump on it.

But this moment is a very different experience depending on what it's linked to. An infinite now, that I totally honor. Meaning that I honor the here and now that is truly connected to all beings in all moments of past, present and future.

You say that ultimately no individual can be happy until everyone is happy, which seems a daunting idea.

From an infinite life perspective -- if you have limitless time and space in which to accomplish that -- then it's not daunting. If, in each moment, you are focused on that as your goal, you'll never become discouraged or depressed. You'll be filled with a sort of intensity because you realize that the little tiny bit of happiness that you can create in this moment for yourself and others goes on infinitely.

Just as each little drop of water that falls on the top of Mount Everest eventually becomes a glacier, which eventually melts and becomes the ocean, drop by drop - every gesture or act of kindness ultimately becomes the bliss and happiness of all beings - [what I call] the buddhaverse. That world is made up moment by moment by beings who are living in the infinite life commitment.

Can you give an example of how people can implement this insight into their lives-this infinite life perspective?

You wake up your mindfulness, you wake up your wisdom, your insight, and that will wake up your love and compassion and any little bit of it is highly significant.

Say you're walking down the street and a homeless crack addict or beggar approaches you. Thoughts arise in your mind: maybe they're faking and really they're living comfortably somewhere and this is just a scam and they should go get a job. And you feel your change jingling there in your pocket and you feel like I couldn't give the quarters or dimes or nickels or dollars to everybody, or, I don't have any change, I've only got bills.

But then your mindfulness becomes aware of these stingy and disconnecting thoughts and you look more closely into the face of the person and see their suffering and see their existence -- or even see their cleverness or their cunning, whatever. And you restrain your recoiling and you slip your hand in your pocket and you find a dollar bill and maybe even to your horror it's a five-dollar bill -- oh my god! But you vow that whatever it is, you're going to let go of it. And just give it.

Then don't even think that you did a great thing. Be mindful of some sense of pride or some sense of I'm so generous and realize that you really had to fight back a big stinginess and realize how attached you are. You can feel grateful that this person has given you the chance to have that little tiny bit of self-overcoming, and just take joy that you broke through it just a little bit for a split second -- and realize that was practice. That was awakening and that was mindfulness and that was being Buddha.

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