Read an Excerpt
“A wonderful introduction to the entire sweep of Buddhism, pointing out its continuing, powerful relevance for today’s world. All of Buddhism’s breakthrough realizations are carefully explained, along with their direct application to our own experience and awareness right now, so that the Buddha’s radical enlightenment can be our own, here in the midst of ordinary existence.”
—Ken Wilber, author of
A Brief History of Everything
“Thurman shows how self-examination, far from miring the seeker in navel-gazing, can lead to an expanded sense of connection with others.”
“The book addresses the corrosive cynicism of our age, which Thurman attributes to a misinterpretation of reality.... Clear, accessible writing.”
ALSO BY ROBERT THURMAN
Tsong Khapa’s Speech of Gold: Reason and Enlightenment in the Central Philosophy of Tibet
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Essential Tibetan Buddhism
To Shakyamuni the Buddha,
Founder of the inner revolution in our world,
In deepest gratitude and ever-growing admiration.
Your champion insight into selflessness,
Inexhaustible love for beings,
Powerful comprehension of the minute processes
Of history as theater of human evolution,
And inconceivable competence in freeing beings—
All moved You to teach deep relativity
And begin the cool, inexorable, inner revolution;
Founding the Jewel Community for love of freedom,
Introducing generosity, justice, and tolerance,
Enterprise, concentration, and creative genius
To truly civilize our planet home of living beings
In Your Buddhaverse You called “Tolerable”!
And at our postmodern end of history,
to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama,
Prince of Peace and Philosopher King of Tibet,
In amazed appreciation of Your creative effort.
For the people of Tibet and of the whole world—
Champion of the teaching, deep, vast, and exquisite,
Simple Shakya monk, Shakyamuni’s devoted heir,
Upholder of the common human religion of kindness,
Explorer of the sciences of mind, spirit, society, and nature—
You exemplify the fine intelligence and the good heart,
You bring hope and boundless positivity when all seems doomed,
You make peace the path as well as thus the realistic goal,
You live again and again to continue inner revolution,
Effectual for all beings, believers or nonbelievers,
From all world religions and all world sciences,
Blessing other species and all of nature!
I have been working on this book since my address “The Politics of Enlightenment” to the Lindisfarne Association in 1976, so the list of those to whom I am indebted is a long one.
In the process of writing, I have had the instruction of many people. To thank those whose teachings and writings have been crucially helpful: Vimalakirti, Nagarjuna, Asanga, Shantideva, Tsong Khapa, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Plato, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Max Weber, Buckminster Fuller, Peter Berger, Philip Slater, Riane Eisler, Ken Wilber, Jeremy Rifkin, William Greider. To thank those who have personally inspired me on this topic: David Wills and David Little, who helped me learn so much from the inimitable Max Weber; Peter Berger, who helped me with his challenging inquiry; David Spangler, who helped me see the positive potential in the future; Tara Tulku Rinpoche, who made old doctrines new and creative; my friends Joel McCleary and Toinette Lippe, who helped me think about effective action and practical compassion; and, most important, my wife, Nena, my continuing teacher, my eldest son, Ganden, who helped me put this book together. I must also thank the many students who have attended my classes and lectures on this and related topics over the past twenty-five years—the great privilege and joy of teaching is to see new things about what you thought you knew when you reinvestigate them in the light of others’ need to know.
For their indispensable help in getting this book written in its final form, I must thank my agent, Lynn Nesbit, for keeping things moving during the ups and downs of the process, her keen eyes always clear on target. I sincerely thank my consulting editor, Jisho Cary Warner, who has ably helped me with several previous books as well, for all her thoughtful help and hard work. Most important, from the beginning of this project, my special thanks to my good friend and long-term editor, Amy Hertz, for her faith, patience, persistence, critical and creative intellect, and strenuous effort. I also thank everyone at Riverhead Books, especially Susan Petersen, the publisher, and Jennifer Repo, editorial assistant.
Finally, first and last, I have to thank Shakyamuni the Buddha and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, without whom I would have nothing to write about; the Venerable Geshe Wangyal, without whom I would not have been able to write anything; and again, my beloved soul mate, Nena, without whom I would not have wanted to write anything; and all my beloved five children, Taya, Ganden, Uma, Dechen, Mipam, and three grandchildren, without whom I would not have such a clear sense of whom to write this for.
Bob Thurman is one of my oldest Western friends. He has been thinking about this Inner Revolution for a long time. I remember we had talked about it in Dharamsala years ago.
For Tibetan Buddhists, these ideas are not revolutionary; naturally, when you transform your individual mind, the whole society is transformed. As Buddhists we believe that the Buddha had the compassionate plan to help all sentient beings, as well as the wisdom to understand how it works.
Thurman explained to me how some Western thinkers have assumed that Buddhism has no intention to change society, since the Buddha left his throne and created monasteries, and renunciation is fundamental in the Buddhist path. Thurman’s book provides a timely corrective to any lingering notions about Buddhism as an uncaring religion.
I think Thurman gives new insights into the Tibetan society and its special Buddhist culture. Thurman pointed out to me the essential difference between the highly militaristic European, Russian, and Chinese feudal societies and our peaceful, monastic, happy—though not materially developed—traditional Tibetan lifestyle. Thurman is keen to challenge the modern notion that material progress is the ultimate good.
I have noticed that Westerners tend to become cynical about politics and lose hope that any political leader will ever do anything useful or even intelligent. Perhaps reading about the history of some of the leaders of Buddhist societies, such as the Indian kings Ashoka and Udayi and my predecessor the Fifth Dalai Lama, may encourage people that politics can be a Buddhist practice too, and that benevolent and skillful social action can be a path toward enlightenment. It is important that we do not become discouraged and that we shoulder our responsibility for this world and its future generations with great determination and foresight. Thurman’s book attempts to present this aspect of the Buddhist concept of serving others. I commend him for his careful study and clear explanations, and I recommend his insights for your own reflections.
October 8, 1997
I was born in the summer of 1941, and my first memories of the world beyond my family have World War II as the backdrop. We crossed over from Manhattan and went down to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to see off my uncle Byng. He set sail in late 1944 on his tanker ship, a proud captain finally getting away from his shipbuilding duties to see some action. I felt left behind as this man I hardly knew patted me on the head, walked up the ramp onto his ship, and went away. I remember afterward a collage of incidents reflecting the anguish of my mother’s parents, who lived with us, when Byng’s ship blew up in the English Channel, torpedoed by an uninformed submarine the day after Germany surrendered. He was carrying a cargo of aviation gasoline, and no survivors or remains ever were found. Purse and Dunie, as my grandparents called each other, departed in disbelief for coastal England and France, looking in camps and hospitals, hoping desperately to find an amnesiac but living Byng. They continued their search for several years after the war amid the confusion of displaced persons. Dunie had a stroke and subsequently lost her mind, and Purse eventually gave up. Byng’s was an innocent death, preventable but for a trigger-happy hand behind a powerful weapon.
During my teens in the fifties, I remember air-raid drills, the sirens on top of a pole at the corner of Eighty-first and Lexington going off at regular intervals. We were told that there was a danger of atomic war with the Russians and that New York City might be a target. I remember the joy of celebrating my birthday being clouded by images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At my Anglophile private school, I pursued my studies of French and Latin, algebra and English history, Shakespeare, Homer, and the Bible. I skated along on a surface of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed enthusiasm for life and Western culture that bubbled above the dark currents in which lurked the sudden end of the world in nuclear holocaust. Finally the ice cracked and I could do nothing but face the existential crisis the world had brought itself to. I needed answers to both the world’s danger and my own fear of the potential for devastating violence.
I questioned everything said by everyone after that realization, except the one continuous report to myself that I was “me.” I questioned who I was and why I held the opinions I held, feeling an urgent need to pin down my identity, but I never wondered if I was at all. I wanted to get to know myself, whatever happened to the world. I encountered my own mortality when I lost one eye in an accident, and remained focused on myself. I went on vision quests; I traveled as a pilgrim all the way to India, pursuing myself, giving up everything to get to the land of holy gurus; I suffered my father’s death and became ever more determined to find myself. Briefly back in New York for the funeral, I met Geshe Wangyal, a Mongolian monk living just down the road in New Jersey.
I felt a power, an intensity around him in his pink house with its crude and colorful chapel; on his small acre next to a concrete Russian Orthodox church. In his presence it was hard for me to speak; my knees felt weak and my stomach unsettled. Yet the amazing thing was that Geshe Wangyal himself seemed as if he were not there. He had nothing to do with me, to me, or for me. He seemed fully content and unconcerned for himself. When I couldn’t find “him,” I was forced to ask myself, Who is this “me” I’ve been pursuing? At twenty-one years old, after dropping out of college, leaving a new marriage, barely able to take care of myself, I felt a hint of something beyond my self.
Geshe Wangyal was unlike anyone I had ever met. As a teenaged monk he had nearly died of typhoid in the hot Black Sea summer. His mother heard that the monks had given him up for dead, so she came to the monastery and spent three days sucking the pus and phlegm out of his throat and lungs to keep him from suffocating. When he awoke, the first thing he was told was that she had succumbed to the disease she saved him from and died on the very day he recovered. He was appalled when he observed that though he felt grief at the news, another current in his mind would not let him think of anything else except his overwhelming thirst after his ten-day fever. Noting this dreadful degree of selfishness, he resolved then and there to give his last ounce of effort to freeing himself and others from such involuntarily selfish impulses. I had never encountered directly such unconditional compassion in my entire life. I was hooked.
Geshe Wangyal told me he wouldn’t be my guru, since he felt he was no high being and that I was not capable of traveling the difficult path of spiritual development. But he conceded that whatever he had learned of value in his life had come from Tibetan books, and he had an inkling that I might find something of value in them myself. Since I was not a monk, I couldn’t stay in his monastery, so I would have to find my own lodging. He agreed to feed me and to teach me to read Tibetan if I taught English to some young monks he had in his care. One week later I was back in New Jersey, cleaned up, and ready for studies, having sold my ticket to New Delhi to pay the rent.
During the first Tibetan lesson, Geshe Wangyal spoke of suffering, and my world shifted dramatically. We’re born, we get sick, we get old, we die. We crave comfort and happiness but never seem to find it. We fear losing what little we have. It was a mind-opening experience for me to learn that living without knowing what I was doing and why I was doing it was causing me to suffer. Living with the fear of the world blowing up; chasing after knowledge, sex, pleasure, and myself; and trying to escape reality certainly left me coming up empty—all I did was crave more of everything. Before this lesson, the answers to my questions seemed to be just around the corner. I’d turn the corner only to find something else to desire, and the chase would start all over again. It was the chase that was making me miserable, and somewhere inside me was an idea that was driving the chase. For the first time, someone was telling me that there was a way to free myself from the whole chase. I was being asked to face suffering, but at the same time, I was discovering that there was a way to end that suffering.
Preoccupation with myself was the core problem, the center of the malfunction in my mechanism that prevented me from enjoying life as much as I felt I could, from being as good to others as I wanted to be, from understanding all I wanted to. I began to see meaning in reorienting my life toward freeing myself from “me.”
From 1962 until 1966, I lived on almost nothing, maybe a hundred dollars a month; I wore jeans and T-shirts for the first two years, and then, after being ordained, the simple Buddhist monk’s robe—threefold in the Tibetan tradition, including a maroon skirt, a maroon upper shawl, and a yellow overshawl for special occasions. I didn’t spend a dollar on consumer goods, rarely watched television, listened to no music, read only Dharma books belonging to monasteries, and meditated a lot. No longer did I worry about cars and motorcycles, suits and good-looking shoes. I shaved my head periodically. I never traveled unless someone requested me to do so and paid for it. I was a vegetarian for several of those years as well.
When I look back at my experience during this time, I feel as if I existed in a state of orgasm that was diffused throughout my body and throughout my day, rather than concentrated in the genitals and focused on fleeting moments of intense excitation. I had a great sense of inner well-being, for a change, after having been a teenaged love-seeker and then a married man, never getting enough in either case.
I did not concern myself with money, family, future, career, or competition in any area of life. I had less than ever, yet I was far more content. 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. Such longing as I still felt was directed at inner states that I imagined lay farther up the path toward enlightenment.
I wanted nothing more than to follow Geshe-la’s example. He, however, insisted it would be better for me to continue study and meditation without becoming a formally ordained monk. I was persistent, and he finally agreed to take me with him to India, to introduce me to monastic teachers there.
In 1964, Geshe Wangyal introduced me formally to His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Sarnath, India, the site where Buddha first taught about suffering. He described me as a crazy American boy, very intelligent and with a good heart (though a little proud), who spoke Tibetan well and had learned something about Buddhism. I wanted to be a monk—I would become the first Westerner to be ordained in that tradition—and Geshe Wangyal was leaving it up to His Holiness to decide. He would leave me in India with the Tibetan refugee community, under His Holiness’s charge, to study more about Buddhism. His Holiness looked at me curiously and asked Geshe Wangyal to bring me up to Dharamsala for another audience. He would personally arrange for my studies.
In Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan exile community, His Holiness met with me frequently to check my progress, but he was not to be my main teacher. A place was arranged for me to stay with Dagyab Rinpoche, one of the highest lamas of old Tibet. He was then only a year older than I but, like most lamas, had been trained to teach since he was a small child. Khen Losang Dondrub, the abbot of His Holiness’s personal monastery, Namgyal College, was assigned to teach me Buddhist philosophy. His Holiness’s own senior tutor, His Eminence Ling Rinpoche, was to be my moral preceptor concerning my wish to be a monk. Rounding out my education was Tibetan medicine, astronomy, and astrology, topics I had not thought I’d need to study on my way to becoming a monk.
I had a fascinating year in Dharamsala, studying and meditating all the time, learning about the Tibetan universe. My meetings with His Holiness soon became weekly occurrences. During these conversations he quickly reviewed my progress and deflected my questions to my more senior teachers. Then he turned to topics in Western culture that interested him, which were numerous. He asked me about Freud, Plato, Jefferson, the United States Constitution, democracy, automobiles, airplanes, and nuclear physics. It was difficult for me to describe these things in Tibetan, and often I had to use English words or coin new Tibetan words as I went along. I thought about liberty and freedom in the context of American society. Liberty to do what? Pursue happiness? Were we really happy? Were we really free?
Finally His Holiness and Ling Rinpoche did give permission for me to be formally ordained as a monk. Ling Rinpoche gave me the preliminary renunciation vows, and His Holiness administered the final ceremony of acceptance of the 252 precepts a month or so later. Ling Rinpoche impressed upon me the solemn responsibility I had as the first Westerner to receive this ordination in the Tibetan tradition of Buddhist monasticism. I was honored, and overwhelmed.
In the Christian West and the Buddhist Far East, monks and nuns enter a life of penance and mortification, dressed in their black, gray, or dark-brown habits. By contrast, the Indian and Tibetan monastic movements are based on Buddha’s discovery of the middle way between hedonism and asceticism and are focused on withdrawing from unimportant pleasures in order to engage in the evolution toward ultimate pleasure—freedom from the prison of the self that pursues suffering. The Tibetan culture had in place a structure of total support for my dedication to the study, practice, and performance of the teachings. I plunged into the community of Tibetans in India who had fled the massacre wrought by the communist Chinese, not realizing then what a unique culture it was for its ability to encourage me.
I discovered in India how little it takes to live comfortably once one changes priorities. The absence of electricity made every evening a candlelight celebration, encouraged me to sleep early and get up with the sun to use the clear daylight and fresh mind of morning. Lack of running water gave me the opportunity to participate in the invigorating exercise of carrying buckets of water from a spring, enjoying the fellowship of my neighbors as I performed this daily task. Lack of telephones enabled me to concentrate on the person in front of me without interruption. This is what my life was like, living in a Tibetan refugee camp. It was a daily illumination.
After more than a year, I had the sense that I had accomplished my mission in Dharamsala, and I began to feel restless in the tiny Himalayan town. I wanted to return to America, to see friends, try out my new lifestyle at home, even though as a monk, my vows, not to mention my robes, might make me a little conspicuous. I felt the monastic discipline could help me adopt a freer lifestyle in the middle of a world that once had brought me so much dissatisfaction, could make me more at ease because I wouldn’t have the pressure of seeking a mate, a job, or any possessions.
The goal in Tibetan Buddhism is that as each individual conquers delusions like hatred, it becomes possible for her or him to help the whole world do it. Freeing other beings from their suffering, I was taught, should be the goal of one’s own meditative practice. Naive and idealistic, I nevertheless held in my mind that I was setting an example about the inner life: to find freedom first for oneself and then for the larger society. It didn’t work out as well as I had expected.
While I was trying to manifest my ideals, my contemporaries were having terrible identity crises and getting lost in drugs. I had felt sane and happy enough in my monastic retreat, but now I was frustrated that I could not share with anyone else the relief I felt. The Buddhist monk’s outfit had been invented by the Buddha so that people would respect a seeker of enlightenment, but I noticed that although they might have respected a great personage like the Dalai Lama, no one in America really respected an American monk at that time. No one among my friends or family could understand why I was wearing a red robe and wandering around with my head shaved.
By the mid-sixties, the Vietnam War was heating up and I was haunted by the image of Tri Quang Duc, a spry old Vietnamese monk who sometime in 1965 made a decision that would impact millions of people’s lives. Smiling cheerfully at some video camerapersons, he calmly approached a chosen site, sat down in meditation posture, doused himself with gasoline, and was suffused with roaring flames. He did not recoil in either pain or terror, and all the while a slight smile spread across his lips. After fully fifty seconds of blackening, sizzling, charring consumption by the flames, his body lost structural integrity and imploded. He had remained unmoved from the peace he knew.
At least, this is how I remember that famous film clip. It was not just the horror of seeing a human being burned alive: it was the evident truth of his ability to burn yet remain unconcerned with the burning; it was the eerie power of seeing him choose immolation in order to bring to their senses those who were so driven by their passions they were frying children with napalm and annihilating hundreds of thousands of adults.
Most everyone I knew was unimpressed. They thought he was either mad or drugged, but I couldn’t shake the vision of it. His steps in that film were sure, not wobbly. He was an old man, and death couldn’t have been far. He seemed long past fearing it; he understood it and was able to face it. Tri Quang Duc showed his true conquest of anger. He let the flames of hatred consume his body without letting his happiness be disturbed.
Isolated in the middle of all these forces, I felt like a stranger in a strange land—not skillful enough to manifest my dream of bringing happiness to those around me; not wanting to return to my old way of life. There seemed no future for me in America as a monk, no community to support my progress like there had been among the Tibetans, and no way to share with my contemporaries the joy and clarity I had found.
So, after much soul-searching, I left the monkhood. Though I knew I had made the right decision, I still felt a great sense of shame knowing that my teachers, particularly Ling Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama, would feel deeply disappointed. Geshe Wangyal had never recommended my becoming a monk—now that I was one, he would not take responsibility for my reconsideration. I resigned my vows and tried to give my robes back to him, but he referred me to His Holiness. I resolved to make up for my failing by pursuing my practice as ardently as I did as a monk, but at the same time I felt too proud to return to my previous life in lay society. I was caught in the mistake of confusing a modicum of knowledge and a few intense meditative experiences with genuine, stable, nonregressing, enlightened awareness. The question was what to do with myself. While I respected my lamas in India and my teacher in New Jersey, I felt I had nothing to learn from anyone else in the West. Obviously, I had a long way to go.
My greatest danger at this time was the temptation to become a guru. People knew I had been a Buddhist monk, and it was hard for them to distinguish between a monk and an ex-monk. I knew enough of the main teaching systems of Tibetan Buddhism and could meditate well enough to achieve altered perceptions and insights into the nature of mind to have built up a following. Though I was still proud, I did have the example of Geshe Wangyal, who had always refused to gather a big circle of disciples. If he, learned as he was, wouldn’t become a guru, how could I presume to be a spiritual master? It was obvious that I would have to find some sort of profession to earn my living independently so I would never be tempted to use people’s desire for spiritual growth for my own economic gain. I decided that I wanted to learn more Buddhist languages, read more Buddhist texts, and continue to discover the vast new continent of the Dharma. The only lay institution in America comparable to monasticism is the university, so in the end I turned to academia.
Luckily, I found a soul mate, Nena, with whom I fell in love, and began to rediscover family, school, profession, and even America. She also became my teacher, my “show-me” spiritual friend, who was less interested in high-flown talk or abstruse practices than in daily performance of the teaching in positive action. We soon experienced the miracle of the birth of a delightful boy, named Ganden by Geshe Wangyal after the joyous paradise of Maitreya the future Buddha. He was soon joined by his sister, who naturally owned the name of the Indian Mother-goddess, Uma. More beautiful children followed.
I found it hard to integrate my Buddhist way of life with the world of modern America and the competitive demands of professional academia. Having a role to play—that of an impoverished young graduate student with a new family—at least provided some cushion. After I finished three years of grueling study of languages, social sciences, Asian history, and world philosophy while trying to learn to be a husband to Nena and a father to two energetic new babies, I got a research grant to visit India. I would be able to see my teachers again. It was 1970, and I had not been there for five years.
I was apprehensive about how the Dalai Lama would behave toward me in the wake of my resigning the monkhood, and I was tense at our first meeting. I approached, bowed clumsily, and before I could make proper introductions, my three-year-old son, Ganden, jumped into the Dalai Lama’s lap, hugged him, and knocked the glasses right off his face. The Dalai Lama burst out laughing—the ice was broken, and we returned to the enthusiastic friendship we had shared five years before. At the end of our long discussion, His Holiness gave me recommendations about whom I should study with for my dissertation, how he could help me himself (the book I was translating was one of his favorites), where we should live, and so on. Then he took my hands and Nena’s together in his, and he gave us his blessing.
When I completed my degree several years later and began to teach, I was appalled to discover in the Western literature and in my colleagues’ minds a massive and systematic distortion of Eastern civilizations in general, and Buddhist civilization in particular. This misinformation came from the European “authorities” Weber, Freud, Marx, and Durkheim and was perpetuated by contemporary writers, even by translators. The basic prejudices I encountered were that Asians have no individualism; that they do not distinguish themselves perceptually, much less intellectually, as individuals; and that they basically believe life is cheap. Therefore they have little interest in ethical systems and give themselves over to “Oriental despotism” without blinking an eye. Among these “Asians,” the Buddhists are the most extreme, teaching the annihilation of self and life as the highest good, being “socially apathetic,” “otherworldly,” “mystical,” “world-rejectors” (Weber’s phrases). Though these prejudices are utterly absurd to anyone who has ever lived within an Asian culture, I found that they were entrenched in my colleagues’ minds and spread routinely to students, infecting the entire body of Western culture. I had seen firsthand just the opposite behaviors exhibited by a people in exile. I had watched my own teachers work tirelessly for the sake of others. I had experienced the support of an alien community in my endeavor as a monk. I had seen—through modern vestiges of that ancient way of life—a movement that began 2,500 years ago with the enlightenment of the Buddha to create a pure world of which the foundation is helping each individual transform into his or her full potential. That full potential is nothing less than becoming a totally enlightened being, a buddha just as great as the historical figure. Never has there been, before or since the Buddha’s teachings, a more positive philosophy nor one that cherishes the individual quite so much. I had to set the record straight.
My battle went on against a backdrop of being a young professor struggling to get tenure—a drawn-out campaign that is enough to ruin the psychic integrity, family life, and personal health of anyone. You have six years in a profession that is underpaid during which you must illuminate hundreds of students; please all your colleagues around the country with your brilliance, moral fiber, charm, and service to the profession; make your mark on your community with special events; publish at least two books, half a dozen articles, and a number of reviews in leading journals; and generally become indispensable to your school. You must be careful not to be too popular with the students, not to out-shine your colleagues too much, and not to be too controversial in your scholarship. If you do not get tenure in your sixth year, though you may move and in another couple of years get it at a less prestigious institution (usually somewhere far away from where you and your family have made your home), more than likely you never will get it anywhere and will have to go back to some sort of professional school and retool for another career.
Whatever the source of the miracle, in December of 1978 I was granted tenure, the first Buddhist in the history of the Amherst College Religion department to be so honored.
My commitment to helping others end their suffering only intensified, and I very much wanted to expose people to the great teachers I had met in India so that they could experience firsthand what it’s like to be in the presence of someone dedicated to your happiness.
His Holiness has always been dignified and magnetically charming. During the seventies, he performed many formal retreats, mastering the various rituals of tantra, a precious form of Buddhism protected and preserved by the Tibetans after it was nearly wiped out of India more than 1,000 years ago. In this tradition, the individual literally reinvents the world as a place inhabited by enlightened beings in an enlightened environment. This, I believe, is the source of the charisma most people feel around him now.
Through most of the seventies, the Dalai Lama was blocked from teaching the world because of an agreement between the Nixon administration and the Chinese Communists. During the Carter administration, it finally became possible for him to visit America.
Amherst College, as well as Harvard University, where I moonlighted as a visiting professor, became the first schools to host His Holiness during that visit in September of 1979. When I greeted him in America that fall, we had not seen each other for eight years. He was the same cheerful, lively person I had known. But there was something new and awesome about him. The night before he landed in New York, I dreamed he was manifesting the pure land mandala palace of the Kalachakra Buddha right on top of the Waldorf Astoria building. The entire collection of dignitaries of the city, mayors and senators, corporate presidents and kings, sheikhs and sultans, celebrities and stars—all of them were swept up into the dance of 722 deities of the three buildings of the diamond palace like pinstriped bees swarming on a giant honeycomb. The amazing thing about the Dalai Lama’s flood of power and beauty was that it appeared totally effortless. I could feel the space of His Holiness’s heart, whence all this arose. It was relaxed, cool, an amazing well of infinity.
I returned to India with His Holiness and my family for a year-long sabbatical in 1979. During this time, he opened my eyes to the tragedy and preciousness of Tibet itself. It is a nation of six million souls, an occupied country of one million square miles at an average altitude of fifteen thousand feet. Tibet can seem to be a lost cause, a remote Himalayan fastness overrun by the most populous nation on earth—a nation bent on destroying a precious culture and a special people with a rich tradition for helping us deal with the difficulties we face in the late twentieth century. I had lived with Tibetan refugees in the sixties in the early years of their diaspora, shared tin houses with them in Dharamsala. I thought the tide of Chinese expansion was irreversible, and I had brashly advised His Holiness to abandon his political responsibility, to give up his kingdom, and to present himself as a world leader of Dharma. With superhuman patience, he said he admired the idea but could not follow it in the real world, since his people depended on him too much. Tibet was his responsibility.
I remembered my dream of the Dalai Lama manifesting a pure, protected land even in the middle of New York City, and I realized that it was indeed possible for Tibet to become free once more. Not only possible, but necessary and inevitable. Size cannot make China right. Little Tibet has the power of truth on its side.
In 1987, Nena and I went to Tibet proper for the first time. What a revelation! It was a shattering experience for us to meet the Tibetans who had never made it into exile and had known unremitting and horrendous suffering for almost forty years by then. When they heard me speaking Tibetan, people would rush toward me to tell me their stories. Their parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, nephews, children had been arrested, tortured, imprisoned, beaten, maimed, and killed. Their temples had been dismantled, their family rosaries destroyed, their lamas clubbed to death in front of their eyes. They would urge me, “Tell the world what you have seen here! Give this letter of mine to His Holiness, to President Reagan, to the U.N.” The emotions were so deep, it was impossible for me not to weep while they told me their troubles.
In 1989, Nena became dangerously ill and our whole family went into crisis mode. A few days after visiting what some thought might have been her deathbed, His Holiness was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It was an amazing year: Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland were liberated; the Soviet Union began to dissolve. There was an apocalypse in our family and in the world. Fortunately, Nena soon made a miraculous recovery.
Thinking more than ever about the persisting agony of Tibet, I was at the same time tremendously buoyed up by the positive changes in the world, as well as by the West’s growing awareness of Buddhism. The strange thing about the messianic ideal of liberating yourself so that you can free all others is that just trying to adopt it makes you feel happier. Even though you know on some level that there is only so much you can get done in any given period of time, the fact that you do not let go of the determination to do everything gives you immense good cheer. This, I found, was the source of Geshe Wangyal’s peace, the bottomless kindness of my teachers in India, and probably the cause of the smile on the Vietnamese monk’s face as he was consumed by the flames.
Our lives remain a bundle of contradictions. We have a hard time living up to our own ideals, but in 1990, with Nena recovering and His Holiness wielding the Nobel Peace Prize, it seemed as if anything were possible, now that the senseless destructiveness of the Cold War was coming to an end, against all bets.
The tradition of nonviolence, optimism, concern for the individual, and unconditional compassion that developed in Tibet is the culmination of a slow inner revolution, a cool one, hard to see, that began 2,500 years ago with the Buddha’s insight about the end of suffering. What I have learned from these people has forever changed my life, and I believe their culture contains an inner science particularly relevant to the difficult time in which we live. My desire is to share some of the profound hope for our future that they have shared with me.