Robert Thurman: American Monk or Tibetan Puppet?

The 14th Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman. Photo from

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?

For more stories about Robert Thurman, visit these comprehensive websites:

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3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. hahaha all these Americans trying to become tibetans and thinking they are so clever about the tibetan situation and tibetan life and culture. Robert Thurman maybe was a monk, but only for such a short time, so who will take him seriously. The shugden situation is so important, so big in the Tibetan world. Why he doesn’t say anything? This is so important. He only writes big books about philosophy and philosophy and philosophy. His philosophy doesn’t help anybody. There is a real issue of Shugden now. Why he doesn’t say anything? He just wants to be good in front to the dalai lama with his big philosophy and books.

  2. DL is like the eye, tibetan is nose, american is mouth, chinese is ears, shugden is the hand, earth is the face amongst the same body liken to buddha nature.

  3. If i were to comment, believe shugden is a well accomplished scholar before his demise from the human world into the world of spirit. well and as to his spirit i am not sure of its good and bad but I remember once, when i was in a tibetan refuge camp in Bylakuppee, a western gentleman who was studying in a nyingma monastery tried to strangulate the very master of the monastery and later found to be one of the shugden followers…. I don’t know if shugden is bad or good buti don’t know it is felt that some of his followers have some how made him the evil.. because it is the subordinates that would determine the image of its head……..well just a personal view…. I dnt care even if shugden is a emanation of Manjushiri…

    no offense please…..

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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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