The Two Faces of Robert Thurman

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How a leading Dalai Lama supporter and Buddhist scholar begged for Dorje Shugden’s initiation.

Anyone interested in the subjects of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama will know of Robert Thurman, a self-professed “personal friend” of the Dalai Lama and prolific writer about the Dalai Lama and his teachings.

In light of the Dorje Shugden issue over the last decade or so, Robert Thurman has remained significantly quiet on the subject, refusing to answer any open letters to him nor engage in debate. He is even known to have launched accusations against Dorje Shugden practitioners, calling them Chinese spies. He seems to be very stoically on the side of the Dalai Lama, and not at all empathetic to the plight of Shugden practitioners suffering under the ban.

Now, we learn that in fact, Thurman was known to have “begged” very prominent high Lamas for Dorje Shugden initiation.

In his paper, “Dalai Lama Dorje Shugden”*, respected translator Helmut Gassner – who worked very closely with the Dalai Lama as his translator for many years – recalls,

For his part, Robert Thurman thought it appropriate to portray for Newsweek magazine a murderous Dorje Shugden cult describing it as “the Taliban of Buddhism.” Yet Robert Thurman, presumably before he begot Uma, had been one of the first Western monks with Buddhist vows and had tried twice to obtain Dorje Shugden initiation from revered masters well before the controversy began. Both masters, however, had refused on grounds of his fickle character. Thurman should know quite well what Dorje Shugden actually is about.

(It is interesting to note also that Robert Thurman was one of the first Westerners to have been ordained as a monk in the Tibetan tradition. However, he was also among the first to disrobe, returning his vows only 2 years after taking them. Fickle? It certainly seems so.)

An online commentator and former supporter of the Dalai Lama who goes by the moniker “Thomas Canada” further confirms that these Lamas who denied Thurman the initiation were the renowned Dromo Geshe Rinpoche and Gelek Rinpoche. He writes,

Gelek told me [...] that Thurman even begged him, and it was no. For however that is decided. [Dr. Ursula Bernis] (personal attendant to Dromo Geshe Rinpoche) told me Dromo Geshe Rinpoche denied Bob several times. [She told me] that Bob used to push and connive for the Empowerment and he was always denied. Dromo Geshe said, Bob crawled across his floor begging and crying for it and he told him no way.

Interestingly, it wasn’t that these lamas had denied everyone the initiation. Thomas Canada himself reveals that he had received the initiation, along with other prominent personalities at the time, such as poet Alan Ginsberg. Also, these lamas did have close connections with Thurman; they were not just lamas that he met in passing.

For example. Dromo Geshe Rinpoche founded the New York and New Delhi Tibet House and Thurman is very much involved in running the New York branch. So their decision not to have given him the initiation cannot have been an arbitrary one, but one they made in full knowledge of how Thurman is or how he would maintain the practice.

Observing the way he now behaves towards Dorje Shugden practitioners, it is clear why the lamas had refused him the initiation “on grounds of his fickle character”. Would he have done even more harm if he had been given the initiation? Perhaps. And if he did, he would have damaged both his own spiritual path and the faith of the many thousands who read his books and follow his writings.

* Download the full paper by Helmut Gassner here

 

The information in this article was extracted from the blog http://robertthurman.wordpress.com For more interesting reads on the subject, please visit the blog directly.

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6 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. No wonder he never get the initiation. These Lamas are Buddhas means they are clarevoyant. So means if they don’t want give to him before, they know it is not good to give because they know what he is going to become.

    If your motivation is not good and you are not in dharma for attain anything, but you only come to make your name look good, then very easy to change your mind all the time. Then becomes your practice is not stable, so you can break your commitment.

    When we see how Thurman is react after he doesnt get his way and he doesnt get initiation, you can what his motivation is.

  2. Two faces? Haha that’s so rude but it’s true, the guy has two different faces, literally and metaphorically. What I find funnier is that Thomas Canada received the initiation, and Thurman didn’t. From what I’ve read online, Mr Canada has been accused of being a ranting fanatic or being under Communist pay. But if he got initiation, and Robert Thurman didn’t…what does that say about the level of Thurman’s practice, and the level of Mr Canada’s?

  3. The guy literally has two faces?

  4. How amazingly compassionate these Lamas were to had denied Robert Thurman his request for initiation for Dorje Shugden practice. Now on hindsight, how much negative karma Robert Thurman would have gotten from the way he conducts himself against the Dorje Shugden practitioners. He has such over the top kind of character, very dramatic. Just like the way he crawled and begged for the Dorje Shugden practice, Robert Thurman is overzealous about putting Dorje Shugden practitioners down to please the Dalai Lama. Not at all trust worlthy. But then again, he associates himself with sex predator like Soygal Lakar instead of condemning and exposing them. His daughter Uma Thurman had suffered in the hands of sex predator too.

  5. Robert Thurman is not fit to be a Buddhist and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s man in the west. He is bringing Buddhism bad name and destroying other’s faith in Buddhism. It is very bad for him to do this.

    I am glad he did not receive the initiation of Dorje Shugden’s sogtae. Those 2 high lamas must have clairvoyant powers to see that Bob Thurman will probably not stick to the practice when the ban is announced by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

    Him prioritising fame and money in his life will definitely stop the practice and join His Holiness’s gang to be more famous. Because of this, he is able to get an endorsement from His Holiness which I think made his book sell much better.

    Now he is calling Shugden people online as Buddhist Taliban when he himself wanted and begged for the practice so many years ago. Such a hypocrite.

  6. I stumbled upon this article about Professor Robert Thurman, and I must say, I am shocked to learn about this man’s hypocrisy. How does someone supposedly so intelligent, an academic, and a world-renowned Buddhist scholar, behave in such a belligerent manner? One does not need to be a scholar to realise condemning and discriminating another person’s spiritual beliefs has no place in today’s society. This applies even more so to Robert Thurman, who in the past crawled on the floor, begged and cried to receive the very practice he now denounces. It seems since he never received the practice, he now seeks vengeance on those that actually practice Dorje Shugden.

    As a person who is well versed in Tibetan Buddhism, shouldn’t the professor, at the very least be expected to uphold the most basic of the Buddha’s teachings of compassion and kindness, even to one’s enemies? What is most concerning of all is that Professor Thurman, who is also an educator that is morally bound to remain unbiased by right, has made public condemnations against Dorje Shugden practitioners.

    Regardless of whether he agrees or disagrees with the practice of Dorje Shugden, whether he accepts it as a legitimate practice or not, that does not give him or anyone else for that matter, the right to discriminate the teachers and people who follow the practice. Whatever happened to freedom of religious choice? Just because we do not follow the Dalai Lama’s view on Dorje Shugden, we are labelled the “Taliban of Buddhism” by Professor Thurman. Does this mean anyone who does not agree 100% with the Dalai Lama is considered to be a terrorist in the eyes of Professor Thurman? Sounds a little too extreme, doesn’t it?

    I may not be a Buddhism professor, but I’m sure the Buddha never taught how to discriminate another person’s religion if it does not fit your views. If Buddhists can discriminate Dorje Shugden practitioners, then what’s to stop them from discriminating any other religion, creating intolerance and disharmony in this world? Isn’t that against the teachings of the Buddha?

    In the article, The Two Faces of Robert Thurman it says that “Robert Thurman, presumably before he begot Uma, had been one of the first Western monks with Buddhist vows and had tried twice to obtain Dorje Shugden initiation from revered masters well before the controversy began. Both masters, however, had refused on grounds of his fickle character.” 

    “Bob used to push and connive for the Empowerment and he was always denied. Dromo Geshe said, Bob crawled across his floor begging and crying for it and he told him no way.”

    It amazes me that he used to beg for Dorje Shugden initiation, yet now turns around and condemns it. Knowing this just makes one wonder about the psychology of Professor Thurman. Perhaps the Dorje Shugden masters were right after all, that he has a fickle character? Or perhaps he is just an extremely sour grape after being denied the practice?

    So, why is Professor Thurman so angry at Dorje Shugden practitioners? It almost seems like he is out with a vengeance to destroy the Dorje Shugden practice. A thought came to my mind, could it be that Thurman’s ego was hugely bruised when he was denied the practice not just once, but twice?

    It seems like just because the Dalai Lama has expressed dissatisfaction about Dorje Shugden, it gave Thurman the ammunition to call down his wrath, from his position as a professor, upon the practice and its practitioners. None were spared, even the sangha, as evident when he berated the nun named Kelsang Pema (attached a snapshot from an article reporting this incident).

    Would such behaviour be accepted if it was spewed to a person of a different faith? Or did he feel entitled to react in such a manner – because the Dalai Lama said so? The last time I used the ‘someone said so’ excuse was when I was a child and lacked the faculties and experiences to form my own opinion and judgement. For a Buddhist scholar, Professor Thurman is sure not exercising much Buddhist logic when he makes sweeping statements about Dorje Shugden practitioners.

    Maybe this is all about his ego, a personal vendetta against Dorje Shugden because he was told twice, “NO!” Maybe he never got over the fact that, in the opinion of some great Buddhist masters who practised Dorje Shugden, he was thought to be unqualified to be initiated into the practice. Having his gigantic ego instantly crushed twice must have hurt a great deal. What do you think he would have felt? I can imagine the anger that arose would have probably fuelled his long-held grudge against anything Dorje Shugden – the lamas, practitioners, the actual practice and the protective deity himself. Perhaps this is why he transformed into someone so uncouth and unbecoming of a scholar. It is as if he is uneducated in the Buddha’s teachings and is nasty to anyone who is a Shugden practitioner.

    Wouldn’t a more rational, compassionate, kind, and neutral tone have more potential of winning us over when debating with Dorje Shugden practitioners? At least he would represent the Dalai Lama better. But I guess winning over with kindness wouldn’t have quenched his thirst for vengeance.

    There is a question from the article ‘The Two Faces of Robert Thurman’, “Would he have done even more harm if he had been given the initiation?” Definitely. Not damage to the practice itself, but towards himself.

    Professor was one of the first few Westerns to take Tibetan Buddhism seriously as a spiritual practice and made it into a lifelong career. Any English-speaking person interested in Tibetan Buddhism would probably, at one time or another, read the works of Professor Thurman. It is for this reason that his influence in the English-speaking world is immense, propelling him to a celebrity-like status in the Tibetan Buddhist world.

    Professor Thurman’s condemnation of Dorje Shugden shines a negative light on Tibetan Buddhism and discredits him as an educator teaching Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, his readiness to accept just whatever the Dalai Lama says without further investigation, checking or debate, makes his publications questionable. Are the books truly written by him, or are they just the works of a parrot?

    Unfortunately, we live in a world where celebrities have a significant influence on us, whether we willingly or begrudgingly admit it. And Professor Thurman’s intolerance towards Dorje Shugden practitioners has set a bad example in the Western world.

    However, some food for thought to those who blindly follow Professor Thurman; in the East, where Tibetan Buddhism originated, countless great Tibetan Buddhist teachers practice what they preach. And there, Professor Thurman is nothing more than a mere student, just like you and me.

    Thurman_KelsangPema

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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