Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Buddha-Love and Words from the Wise: An Enlightening Interview with Robert Thurman

Robert Thurman

All you need is love. The Beatles got it right, but to set us on the path of enlightenment, wisdom must play an essential and significant role as well. And no, ignorance is not bliss; we have more than enough of our share of ignorance in the world today, and it is certainly not bringing about bliss. Quite the contrary, in times like these, what we need most and more than ever is reason and wisdom to guide us through our own dark ages.

And wisdom is not repeating and merely uttering the words of others, nor is it blindly following dogma, religion, or philosophy. What we need instead is - in the words of Robert Thurman, Tibetan Buddhist scholar, ex-monk, a personal life-long friend of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, enlightened activist, and just wonderful and amazing person overall - is a reasonable Buddha-empowered faith. I had the amazing privilege and honor to talk to “Buddha Bob” not only about his latest mind-blowing and -expanding book Wisdom Is Bliss: Four Friendly Fun Facts That Can Change Your Life but also about happiness, psychoanalysis, and yes, Buddhism.

The latter - which is more a way of life combined with science and philosophy and certainly not a religion to convert to or fall into - was actually not the main motivation for writing his book. Instead, he wants to ignite and stoke the joyful flames and fumes of happiness, compassion, science, and enthusiasm to push for a radical - and much-needed change – across the globe to save the climate, the animals, ourselves, and all our future generations and incarnations.

When the house is on fire, you cannot and will not extinguish the flames of destruction by ignoring them and by doing nothing, the same way you cannot solve deep-seated issues by looking up to the sky and pray for a miracle to come; you yourself would have to make things happen. And with this book in hand, you can have the necessary guidance to do so, and then some.

Although I am not new to Buddhism myself, the book by and even more so the conversation with Robert Thurman and his cleareyed clearlight views on life and Buddhism put things into perspective for me. I was comforted by the fact that in his youth, he had gone through somewhat similar trials and tribulations and he clarified the concept of ego and nirvana to me alongside the conception of authentic and realistic living.

First off, the ego is an illusion in the sense that it is the relative and limited experience of a larger and more encompassing Self. It is the illusion and the paradox of mountains being mountains. They are, and at the same time, they are not. The sky is blue to our eyes and perception, but it is not blue but purple. When we hold onto a limited concept of the self and do not see the forest from the trees, we tend to suffer. But life is definitely not suffering even though we may perceive and experience it as such.

In reality, life is joy. And so, to me, Buddhism was confusing as it seemed to imply, in my naïve and misguided understanding of it, that life was indeed suffering. But it is far from it. Buddhism presents the option of freedom, of freeing yourself from suffering through awakening to enlightenment. In other words, by awakening, you realize that what you took for reality up to then was merely a dream, or rather a nightmare. Once that occurs, you can and will experience bliss.

Religions often fail to foster that sense of life-affirming exuberance and enthusiasm. Instead, you are presented with heavy muck of sin and suffering and that you are meant to go through hell in this life so that you may have a shot at paradise in the afterlife. But what good is it to postpone and delegate bliss and happiness to an uncertain and potentially non-existent place and time when you could have it all right now, in this moment of your life?

Your paradigm shifts, and suddenly, what you took for mountains were not mountains after all, and they become transparent. And yet, you realize that they are mountains but thanks to this experience, you now have the superpower of switching between two worldviews, one of relative truth and an absolute one.

The same happens to the perception of oneself, one’s ego alongside the infinite array of potential energy and possibilities of being. For instance, as Bob explains, we see ourselves in the mirror, but it happens in a distorted way. Left is right and right is left, while the writing on your shirt becomes gibberish.

And yet, we correct this in your mind, and we can see it wrong and see it right simultaneously. This is the non-dual worldview where logic must accept the fact that two opposing views can be both applicable to a given situation, the same way, light in quantum mechanics can be represented as either as a wave or as a particle, whereas both mutually exclusive assertions would be equally correct. 

This is not unlike optical illusions that play with two ways of focusing, perceiving, and looking at things in which either one can be applied, and neither is wrong nor right on its own. Yet the ability to switch back and forth between mountain and non-mountain and limited relative self and all-encompassing absolute Self is a truly magical feat and miracle.

When this occurs, you become transparent to yourself. Transparency can be used and understood in different forms and manners. On one hand, it can be an invisible glass shield/filter through which you see the world. We may forget that it is there, but it is always see-through. But transparency can also be conceived as being exactly who and how you are, in other words, a synonym for authenticity and the deepest form of self-knowledge and self-acceptance possible.

And when you are at that stage and point, you gain freedom and you have the freedom to engage with things and others as you see fit, and yet, at any time, you could see through it all, if you wished to do so. By being transparent to yourself, you can simultaneously identify with other persons. You see it as a mountain but at the same time you know it is not a mountain, and this frees you to observe it much more empathically like a CAT scan, as Bob says, as clear light of the void or with Superman vision bathed in a bath of infinite energy.

And we all have this inherent power of Superman within us just by belonging to the human race. Yet, due to our experience of the world, due to certain fixated ideas propagated by - undoubtedly necessary and important - acts of language, we have fixated and very limited and restrictive ideas of who we are, who we were, and who we think we should be.

It does not help that everyone tells us how to think and behave, while religion is filled with dogma, rituals, and prescriptions of how and what to think and what to believe. This is why blind faith will not get us anywhere; contrary to what we are often told and led to believe, the enlightened beings would not ask this from us and have never done so.

On the contrary, they have asked us to not take their words as pure gold, but rather as the goldsmith in Bob’s example, not to accept and buy it at face value but to test, melt, cut, and rub it on a touchstone to check and confirm whether it is gold or merely shiny glitter. This is what the Buddha means when he says if you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha, not inciting us to an act of murder, of course, but rather stating if you see the Buddha outside of yourself, you have not yet fully attained Buddha-nature.

Both sweet Jesus and the Buddha were and continue to be fun-loving rebels. Both objected to the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist that restricted and constrained spiritual growth and development. The Buddha rejected the caste system and the patriarchy and military paradigm of his era and accepted everyone as his mendicants, his disciples, including women, whereas Jesus protected and surrounded himself with the poor and the destitute, the sick, prostitutes, and children. In the eyes of the wise, everyone can potentially attain enlightenment regardless of their status, gender, occupation, religion, or what-have-you. As Bob states in his book, “you are already a ‘relatively enlightened’ person just by virtue of being human”.

Moreover, the Buddha and Jesus were fully aware of the limitations of language especially when you are trying to express something that is both inexpressible and inconceivable, an almost impossible double challenge. So the Buddha reminded and encouraged us to be skeptical of his teachings and to follow his footsteps instead of just mindlessly following his words, no matter how beautiful and eloquent they may look and appear to us.

On the other hand, Jesus himself spoke in parables to express his insights and teachings. The same language that gives us restrictions and bounds up our imagination could at the same time free it from the shackles by using poetry and allegory. Art and poetry give us new angles and ways of seeing, feeling, and understanding the reality of everything, but they never exhaust it; they become the tender and magical balancing act that tries to express the inexpressible and inconceivable to the best of abilities.

As Bob himself explains in his book, a person’s life, like that of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, can also be expressed as an illustrious work of art. For those who perceive and appreciate this – and the main thing here is to understand as there is no need to convert and there is no agenda to be worried or suspicious about - it can motivate and inspire us to seek experiential awakenings.

In fact, enlightenment is awakening and blossoming as Bodhi means awakening from sleep and blossoming like a flower. It is not static but dynamic, and it embraces everything including ignorance in a loving and liberating way. At the same time, those infused with wisdom intuitively know that being authentic to your true core self is the path of enlightenment. Nirvana is not far away or way out there. Nirvana is, in fact, closer than you may think both in space and time. But it is also involved with serious soul-searching, meditation and reflections, doubts and skepticism, and a Buddha-empowered faith.

Like the Buddha, Robert Thurman is giving us a manual on how to proceed. He has done the soul-searching, he has studied, lived, struggled with, and relished in Buddhism for over sixty years, and although he cannot hand over enlightenment, he can show us the map, the path as well as where to look and how to proceed to find inner and outer freedom, wisdom, and bliss.

One of the most astonishing realizations for me was his humility and passion for life. In my interview, he could have introduced himself in many different ways enumerating his uncountable accomplishments and successes. He could have gloated about his close bond with His Holiness. And yet, he chose to speak about his family first - wherein he did not mention his famous daughter - and then briefly mentioned the work he does academically, professionally, and personally.

Throughout the interview, he showed energy and zest for life that I do not often see in much younger people. Publishing a book is a feat but doing so at the robust age of eighty is close to a miracle. His passion and enthusiasm for political affairs and his concern about the future of our lives and of all sentient beings as well as the life and wellbeing of our planet are admirable and most noble. A Buddha does not only speak, they act as well. And it is done by opening your heart and mind to the world around you and to see and spread love wherever you are and wherever you go. To come full circle here with another Beatles quote: And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.


If you would like to access the full-length interview (and I highly encourage you to do so!), you can see it on YouTube or listen to it on my podcast.


I would like to thank His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his beautiful being, teachings, and blessings, Robert Thurman for honoring me with his time, light, and wisdom, and for his amazing publicist Beth Grossman for making it all happen! With great love and gratitude!


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