Everyone who knows the Dalai Lama is most likely to also know of Robert Thurman. Here is a man who has been inextricably linked to the Dalai Lama since the 1960s, when Tibetan Buddhism was just starting to grow in the world. Many well-known Buddhist texts today are attributed to Thurman, making him a leading scholar and authority in the Buddhist academic circles.
Thurman is also known to have been the very first Westerner to have taken ordination vows as a monk in 1964. He says, at the time, “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.”
Two years later, however, Thurman decided that the life as a monk was not what he wanted, so he returned his vows and focused his career instead in academia.
The New York Times magazine refers to him as “The Dalai Lama’s man in America”, he still holds the respected position of Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and is still highly regarded within the Buddhist academic community. Surely this is a person who knows everything there is to know about Tibetan Buddhist practices, philosophies, culture and traditions.
But there is another side to him, revealed through one of Tibetan Buddhism’s darkest hours.
In light of the Dalai Lama’s ban of the Protector Dorje Shugden, Robert Thurman has remained stoically quiet on the subject, refusing to comment nor to respond to any sincere letters written to him on the subject. Is this the behavior of someone who was once a monk and now a leading figure of Buddhism in the West?
Well, perhaps the very fact that he could hold his monk vows for only two years is testament enough to his fickleness. Little do most people know that he is also remembered within Buddhist circles for having begged high lamas for Dorje Shugden’s initiation and was denied, precisely because of his unstable nature.
Thurman is not Tibetan. It may be his personal decision not to continue his practice of Dorje Shugden and that is his prerogative. However, though he seems to be a reputed Western academic, he doesn’t engage in any dialogue or discussion on this with fellow Western practitioners.
Instead he is seen to openly insult Shugden practitioners using greatly offensive terms to speak about them – he has been documented calling Shugdenpas “the Buddhist taliban” and accusing them of being Chinese spies. He seems to be playing into Tibetan politics more than standing up for the modern Buddhist practice of his own people.
Is this the behavior of a former monk and a supposed expert in Buddhist studies? For someone who has made Buddhist teachings and philosophy such an integral part of his life for the last five decades, shouldn’t he at least have a little empathy for the plight and practice of fellow Buddhists – especially those of his own country and people?
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