Nirvana and Samsara Are the Same Thing

Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Robert Thurman. Robert Thurman currently teaches at Columbia University and holds the first endowed chair in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies. A close friend of the Dalai Lama, the New York Times called him “the Dalai Lama’s man in America.” Robert Thurman is a cofounder of Tibet House in New York City, a cultural nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the endangered civilization of Tibet.

Robert Thurman is the author of many books, including Essential Tibetan Buddhism, Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness, as well as many other original books and translations of sacred Tibetan texts. With Sounds True, Robert has published several audio programs, including The Jewel Tree of Tibet, Making the World We Want, and Liberation Upon Hearing in the Between: Living the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Robert and I spoke about bliss and how to tune to the bliss-body in the midst of everyday life. We also talked about the importance for deep spiritual practitioners to find careers that allow them to stay close to the teachings. We talked about reincarnation and what Robert calls “the infinite lifestyle,” and the question of [what it is] in us that reincarnates. Finally, we talked about the Dalai Lama’s eightieth birthday festivities, and Robert shared some of his own outrageous stories about the Dalai Lama, [as well as] why he believes the Dalai Lama really matters. Here’s my wild romp of a conversation with Robert Thurman:

Robert, I feel so honored and happy to be able to talk with you here. Thank you so much for making the time.

Robert Thurman: Nice to be with you, Tami. It’s always nice.

TS: OK. So, to begin, here you’re 73 years old now? Is that true?

RT: Actually, I’ll be 74 on Monday.

TS: OK. So, on the edge of 74. You have translated so many different texts and engaged in so much study and teaching, and I’m curious to know: what are the teachings that have been really the most pivotal to you in your own life [and] that have created in your view the most change in your own life?

RT: Well, actually, all of them in some way—but particularly, I think the teaching of nonduality, if anything, has been the most important to me. That comes from the Mahayana sutras, especially—I was commissioned in the early ‘70s [in] one of my first jobs after I got my PhD. I was commissioned to do a translation of the Vimalakirti sutra. “The Teaching of Vimalakirti,” it’s called. There, there’s a famous thing on nonduality—a famous event on nonduality—where a lot of bodhisattvas give their view of nonduality and then Manjushri asks Vimalakirti what his view is. Then Vimalakirti maintains silence. He doesn’t say anything. Then 84,000 people attain some higher stage of enlightenment than where they were. It’s called “The Lion’s Roar of the Silence of Vimalakirti.”

So, I translated that and I don’t think I understood it that well, but I did translate the words well. Then, my dissertation was a work of Tsongkhapa’s on Madhyamaka philosophy—you know, Nagarjuna’s nonduality and all the complexities of what I call “dialectical centrism.” That was very profound for me, actually, because that’s the teaching of emptiness—or “void-ness,” as I prefer to call it—where you don’t try to escape from the universe.

Our tendency to try to escape from the universe to find a nirvana that’s sort of quiet and peaceful and apart from all this hullabaloo is undermined completely by the realization of the nature of reality. You realize that the wisdom of the nature of reality leads you into compassion for the beings who are here, and the little bit of bliss that you get by understanding that as reality—whatever degree it may be—or the great amount of bliss you may get, depending—then that flows right away toward beings who are feeling very deprived, very upset, and very anxious, and hard to make them happy.

There’s no removal. The [tremendously] sensitive person—the spiritual seeker—the tremendous wish to escape that is reflected in things like nirvana or becoming [inaudible] in the Hindus—or mystics in the deistic religions who want to go into some vast space of God’s heart, and all this kind of thing. It’s this huge, escapist thing.

Whereas nondualism is right here, you know?

TS: Well, let’s go into it a little more, Robert, because I think there’s a lot of confusion when people hear the term “nonduality.” So, I’d love to understand what you mean when you use that word, “nonduality.”

RT: Well, I don’t pretend to be enlightened, so I don’t think I fully understand it myself yet. But, it seems to go deeper and deeper, on the other hand.

On the surface level—or on the level of the great teachings that are there—it’s quite clear, actually. But, what’s amazing to me is how resistant people—even Tibetan lamas—are to this idea that nirvana—you know, Nagarjuna’s great statement that the there’s not the slightest iota of difference between nirvana and samsara They are right here. Nirvana is right here in what seems to the unenlightened to be samsara.

Therefore, the Buddha [actually] becomes everything, and to a Buddha, this is all bliss. [This] of course sounds so difficult—the idea that even somebody blowing up or dying or being burned or whatever it is, is still indivisible from nirvana. But, they are doing some agony out of ignorance, because—not knowing what their true nature is—they have put themselves in a state of agony.

An enlightened being sees their agony without diminishing its reality. In other words, it doesn’t just turn away from it—but, on the other hand, simultaneously sees everything, including that agony [and] including hell, actually, as bubbles of bliss in an ocean of bliss. That’s the kind of cognitive dissonance that the ordinary mind cannot get around.

Even knowing it by inference—which one can do and one can get one’s mind about that—is wonderful because it puts the whole power into compassion. The whole power of the sort of wisdom of transcendental experience, et cetera, brought all these kinds of things we hear about transcending and doing this and that—it all comes down to whatever helps the sensitivity of sentient beings to find happiness and freedom from suffering—that’s what it’s about. You know what I mean? There’s no escape from that.

Now, that is so radical in a way that, for example, when Buddha taught Theravada Buddhism—which he said himself should be the main Buddhism for 400 years after his lifetime. He also taught Mahayana Buddhism—at least, we Mahayanas think so. But, he said, “This is not a general teaching for everybody. After four or five hundred years, it will be—but now, not, because right now people need the idea that nirvana is a place they can get away from to a cessation of misery. It’s a place. They need to feel that and they need to strive to achieve that.”

The tendency in a human being for escapism is so strong, and the inability to understand even awful things as really, ultimately bliss, is so difficult. It also can be so misunderstood—as to lead to some kind of callous disregard for the suffering of others—that we don’t want to spread that teaching for a couple of centuries, until people are ready for that.

So, that to me is what I’m always working on because I had an experience that I can tell you—maybe make it more clear in a personal example. When I was first studying Buddhism with my great teacher, the [late] Reverend Geshe Wangyal—a Mongolian lama who studied in Tibet for 35 years—when I would come to meditation sections in the teachings—he read me a book in Tibetan by Nagarjuna. I learned the language while I learned the teachings of Nagarjuna’s book.

Every page was like a golden letter. It was like a release for me. It was such a wonderful thing. But when I would get to the meditation parts, I would immediately get into that. He had [something] like a telepathic radar, that lama. He was so great. I would reach these points where I was about to go into a quiet space—probably one of the dhyanas or another—and the body would become less relevant. I would just be floating.

He would inevitably show up and he would say, “Hey, what are you doing?” Even at three in the morning, say. “If you’re having trouble sleeping, me too. Let’s have some yogurt.” [Laughs.]

I would sneak out in the woods outside the monastery to try to get into a space outside of everything. He would interrupt it every time. Finally, in exasperation, I would say, “How come you’re not letting me meditate?” He would say, “Oh, you’re not ready for that yet. You have a lot more to learn.” He would come up with a thing like that. But, he wouldn’t articulate his reasoning as much as I could articulate it now.

Then, later, I did a lot of meditating. But, later on, [in] the place where I was, I wasn’t really so tempted to really disappear and become addicted to a quietized state—like a trance state or something like that—which I think I would have been had I gone into it at that first blush.

That’s what I mean. Nonduality—like, in Tibet, for example. After some radical teachings of nonduality, some other lamas got into it and said, “No, no. Emptiness is not really empty. Emptiness is nirvana and it really is apart from the world. It’s separate from the world. You get there and you’re a buddha, and you don’t need to worry about the world. Everything happens automatically and everybody’s saved automatically. You don’t really have to worry about it.”

In other words, buddha-hood itself is an escape. They can have some places in some texts where they can find leverage for that, but basically that’s a terrible misunderstanding. And these are important lamas who are doing that, and who really don’t like the idea of this radical nonduality of the Buddha.

And then in Hinduism, you have Vedanta—you know, advaita. Advaita doesn’t really mean “nonduality”—it means “un-doubled-ness.” Advaita—the “ta” part is the past participle, so it really means that reality is one is without a second. So, in a way, again, it’s a crushing of the relative reality where beings are left behind suffering—rather than seeing nirvana as entangled with all the beings and having to bring them with you, like the bodhisattva way.

[This] is where—the Brahmans didn’t want to do that. They wanted to keep their High Brahman status. They thought that they tasted these great, vast experiences of being one with Brahma. They sort of said, “It’s all one. It doesn’t matter that somebody—no, that’s just a dream. People are suffering and we don’t have to—God will take care of that type of thing.”

So, that’s why nonduality is so challenging. True nonduality—which means that freedom has to be right here while totally committed to other beings and totally connected with them. There’s no freedom apart from that. That’s a delusion. That’s a relative state of temporary freedom. But, the full, final freedom has to embrace all of the beings or it’s not the genuine one.

TS: Now, I think it’s helpful that you brought up advaita and this idea of “one without a second,” because I think many people who hear the term “nonduality” in today’s culture come to it through an advaita teacher or teaching of some kind. I think that is part of what’s generating a lot of the confusion—that there’s no real respect or interest in relative life, because it’s just oneness, oneness, oneness.

So, I think that—yes—

RT: Right. Another concrete example that might help, which recently happened to me: As I say, I don’t pretend to fully understand all of this. If I did, I probably would maintain you’d have a thunderous silence for an hour. [Inaudible.]

But, it goes deeper and deeper. I was in Switzerland briefly. I had some reason I had to meet His Holiness, who was giving a big teaching somewhere between Geneva and Zurich, near Lausanne someplace. There were about 8,000 [or] 9,000 people in the giant auditorium, and I had to have a meeting with him about some later trip or something, so I wasn’t there for the whole teaching unfortunately.

But, I got there for the one part of it. I was sitting onstage because I didn’t have a proper seat, so I was there with the lamas on the stage—on the side. His Holiness was doing this thing he does about how—he’s always emphasizing how people have to learn something and they have to change their mind initially by learning some new view of the world. Then they do ethical practice and action and compassionate deeds, and then they meditate. So, it’s sort of a sequence like that, but the key is learning something. He always makes a big emphasis on that.

So, then he translated this verse—a very famous one—where Buddha says to his disciples, “Disciples and mendicants—wise people accept my words after thorough examination with their critical wisdom, like a goldsmith buys gold after melting it, cutting it, and rubbing it on a touchstone to make sure it’s genuine. Such wise, do not accept what I say just because I said it.”

“Buddha said so, so that must be true.” No—they chew it up in their own critical thinking and they really work it over, and either reject it if they don’t like it or make it their own.

As he was giving the description of that—of how they have to listen and therefore learn very actively, and use their mind—he leaned forward. He was on one of those Tibetan teaching throne things—that the hosts had made for him—and the lamas were onstage, and then there were these vast hosts of people. He leaned forward and he said, “And I can just see Shakyamuni Buddha begging these mendicants—these monk students of his—to really listen carefully and not just be dogmatic. ‘Oh, Buddha said . . .’ and then that’s what he said, and passively accept it. But, really think it through and make it an understanding in their own mind, and deal with their own inner doubts about whatever it was that they heard.”

And he said, “I can see Shakyamuni begging his students to listen actively.” He was leaning forward in this way where he was begging the audience to actually do the learning. The posture—the body language—was like he, the teacher, was serving those students. He wasn’t the big authority telling them where it was at, if you follow me—even though the stage was set like that.

I was looking across, because I was on the side, and I saw a bunch of gurus—some lamas and some Zen people; some Christians, because it’s always what it’s like [in] a multi-faith stuff—and different kinds of people. Some swamis. There were a bunch of people across the stage on the other side. They were looking alarmed. They were kind of digging it, but they were also looking a little freaked out, I noticed, because he was up-ending this idea of the teacher as the highest authority. Do you follow me?

TS: I certainly do. Yes.

RT: Guru as big boss—the big daddy. You just listen to the guru and you follow the guru, and you’ll be fine. You know?

I think that spiritual teachers like to feel they are higher than the student. There’s a lot of stuff in Indian patriarchal culture—the word “guru” even. It means “heavy.” It comes from the word that means literally “heavy as opposed to light.” Guru.

So, it’s like a heavy weight of an authority from within a patriarchal society. The guru is like a father of the disciple and the disciple is supposed to be obedient.

But, Buddhism overturns that. They say the teacher as a friend—the kalyanamitra—the virtuous friend, an inspiring friend. [This is because] you—the one who are going to understand—you’re the important one. If the guy understands more, then he’s there serving you to try to elicit your understanding in yourself. He can’t give you his understanding by just giving you some orders.

The Dalai Lama really lives that, you know. I think that—in the history of why people have resisted the radical nondualist teachings and kept insisting that emptiness is somewhere else or nirvana is some other place—the basic thing is to get out of this world because this world sucks. “That’s what Buddha taught, really.” A lot of people say that because—and then if they have an experience and if they leave their body—leave the world—they then come back. There’s a certain person I won’t mention by name who goes around doing kind of silly things and has caused some damage, but says that they can do whatever they want because they realized emptiness. So, in other words, “I’m enlightened.”

That’s a disease! If you think you’re enlightened, then you rationalize everything that you do. Of course you think you’re higher than other people who are unenlightened. Then, actually, you’re caught in what—Zen has a great expression for that. They say, “You’re caught in the Demon Ghost Cave.”

But, you think you’re in this high place where, well, yes, you disappeared at one time but now you’re back—kindly helping others. And then when you die, you’ll finally disappear into parinirvana, and you’re totally cool.

Meanwhile, people should do what you say and you can do whatever you like. That’s so misleading and so dangerous and difficult. All the scandals and difficulties we’ve had in spiritual groups come from gurus who think they’re enlightened, and they can just break every rule and act crazy.

TS: OK, Robert. So, I think you’re making a very important point about nonduality—when it’s distorted and then turned into this position of being [a] better-than [and] higher-than guru. I think it’s a really important point.

But, what I want to circle back around to is: I began by asking you what teachings or texts have meant the most to you and have changed you. I’m taking from your answer about nonduality that there’s a kind of respect and reverence for everything in the physical world. But, I don’t want to over-interpret how this teaching of nonduality—yes—

RT: No, no, that’s true. It’s physical and mental. But, basically, the world of other beings. I mean—physical in Greek—I think physics just means “reality.” It doesn’t necessarily mean the material. It means “whatever really happens”—I think, [is what] originally “physical” meant.

And emptiness is physical in that sense. I argue that the Buddha was a physicist—he was a scientist. I’m totally into that.

But, all of this comes from my slowly deepening, rather poor, not complete understanding of nonduality in the sense that I myself have this kind of escapist psychology, where I will want to get away from difficulties. We all do.

Actually, Buddha’s analysis—his Second Noble Truth—his analysis of what’s wrong with the unenlightened person is that that person thinks that their real self is a kind of identity that is an independent, separate thing in the depths of their heart or something—like a soul thing. But, a soul that never changes—that’s sort of an absolute, [and] that’s apart from all of the plasma and even apart from all the functions of the mind. It’s sort of this witness or register. You get all different soul theories that are like that.

So, that’s the sickness. It’s a kind of psychosis—that what I really am is something that isn’t here, because it’s an absolute. So, it’s not part of this relative mess that’s me.

So, that’s what leads to all this anti-body, anti-society, escapist conceptions of the absolute, or even the projection of God as the ultimate psychotic, actually. That is to say: someone who creates the world but He is not in the world. So, He makes the world for whatever reason—nobody can quite figure [it] out—and He’s not part of it, because of the absolute otherness of God. You know that kind of doctrine?

TS: Yes. Yes.

RT: That’s a psychotic God in the sense that He’s doing all these things—which are impacting people, causally speaking—and yet He’s not there. Well, he’s immune to the consequence of doing that, which is how we would define some person who is a psychopath, actually.

As Shelley once said about the normal monotheistic idea about God—that God was some kind of Greek monster. Shelley and Keats used to write stuff like that, which I appreciated.

But, I think there are nice gods, myself. I don’t think God’s like that. But, that’s a projection of this psychotic structure. Since I don’t claim to be enlightened—I would never dare—I think that I still have some vestige of that sense that there’s some separate me someplace.

So then, these concepts of nirvana—like the Theravada concept of nirvana—is a dualistic Buddhist concept of nirvana. [It’s] that in someplace outside the world of life—which is just samsara. That’s a projection of wishful thinking—that inner space inside that’s the real me is the really final destination, and I can withdraw there and hide from people.

I think it was a form of Buddhism that Buddha taught to the male chauvinist Brahmans who were the dominant ascetics and seekers of his day. They were the educated, privileged people—some of whom got tired of doing rituals in the Vedic ceremonies and wanted to actually find the nature of reality. They were chauvinist and they were psychotic in that sense of having a separate self. They wanted to get away from the world. They didn’t want to have be in the kitchen with their wives. They didn’t respect the women.

Those early Sankhya teachings, for example—you know, Sankhya yoga teachings—the word purusa, for the soul, is a word for the male. And maya and prakrti—nature—is female, and she traps the soul in suffering. The idea is to get the male soul away from the female. I mean, it’s so chauvinist you can’t even believe it.

And Theravada Buddhism [actually] appeals to them as well, but leads out of the idea of the teaching of self. Then, when they have an experience of being out of the world, they somehow realize that, “This isn’t really a place I can stay. This is just my experience of not having that kind of a Self.” Then it heals them and leads them back into the world and the world of compassion.

So, I’m not avoiding what personally deals with me. This nonduality constantly forces me to get back to the ground level and try to listen to my wife and my children and my colleagues, and try not to lose my temper, and try not to run away and act like I’m all holy and spiritual, and try to deal with reality and remain engaged with it, and somehow bring a little bit of a feeling of bliss, a little bit of feeling of something extra special about it—nirvanic, a kind of tinge of nirvana—to it so as to not let it get you down. But, to resist that temptation to get away from it all and keep investing it. It’s like: keep investing your profit back in the business. And the business is the bodhisattva business of making this a better world—not just seeking my own meditative pleasure.

TS: Now, you mentioned bringing a taste of bliss, if you will, or a sense of bliss to all of our life—to everything that’s going on. Tell me a little bit about how that works for you.

RT: Well, then we’re talking [the] tantra area—the wonderful, brilliant, marvelous, innermost teaching of Buddha, which is Anusara yoga tantra, particularly. There, they get into this thing that the same emptiness—the same nondual emptiness and relativity, I should always say—the same nondual samsara/nirvana, wisdom and compassion, et cetera—is mobilized to be understood by the subtle consciousness—the super-subtle consciousness.

In other words, when you understand it inferentially, which is important to do—it isn’t like reasoning and inference is useless at all. It’s very important. When you understand it inferentially, the subjectivity you’re bringing to it is what they call your “course mental subjectivity.”

To get down to your visceral understanding, you have to get down to the super-subtle consciousness, which is actually bliss. You have to understand it with the deeper bliss of your nature. That bliss is not just—it is sexual—sexuality is powerful because it touches that bliss.

But, it isn’t just sexual bliss, actually. That would be a mistake. People who misunderstand tantra and think it’s just like having a lot of orgasms or something [are] incorrect, because the ordinary, genitalia-organized orgasm—or the procreative orgasm, or whatever—the “armored” orgasm, depending on which system we talk about [it] in terms of—is not that.

When the winds and the drops go into the central channel, there’s this total nervous system thing which is not dissipated and connects to what I believe—in Buddhist medicine, for example—is actual health of the cells of the being.

Why do our atoms hold together in the form of molecules and DNA and the healthy cells, et cetera? Because they like each other! They fit into each other.

That’s what bliss does. Bliss wants to expand and connect to things. It melts into them, you could say.

So, that’s why it’s so stupid of someone to think that they realized emptiness as if it was an object they understood with their subjectivity, and they mastered it and they own that—and they own that understanding. [However,] the only way you can realize emptiness—or you can wholly understand the emptiness—is when you lose yourself in reality and you melt into it. When you do that in a deep meditative state, with your super-subtle mind—that is to say, you realize it not just with your brain. You realize it with your whole nervous system—with your fingertips, with your fingernails, with your bones. Every cell melts into clear light, you could call it.

That’s the bliss that everything is made of in the tantric vision. That’s why nirvana and samsara are the same—because in a way, samsara is made of nirvana . . . from a point of view.

When you fully understand that—of course, you can’t fully understand that unless you become a perfect buddha—which, again, I don’t pretend to be. But, you get into that world and you feel the reverberations of it, so to speak. You see the art of it. You see the beautiful forms in it. You meet the great masters who really themselves have melted in this way, and who therefore are completely, blissfully present in an ordinary manner as well.

Then, on the other hand, there’s a very big misunderstanding that some people have [and] who try to get all enlightened—and then they’ve found themselves somehow still losing their temper, still sort of bothered by this and that. Then they act like, “Oh, enlightenment is just hanging around town, and everything is ordinary.” They misunderstand that Zen teaching about, “Mountains are mountains. There are no mountains and no rivers. And again, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.” Or, “First you hew wood and draw water. Then you don’t do it. Then you do do it.”

It’s just being really ordinary is enlightenment—and that’s wrong. Being ordinary as a blissful—with ordinary now seen as a total field of bliss, is what enlightenment is. It’s not just some aftermath where you just resign yourself that there is no different thing than the ordinary thing. There are some people promoting that kind of idea. That’s really not correct either.

So, I think the real exciting thing is: bliss is actually our deeper nature. Human beings are sensitive. The reason we are sensitive is that we have chosen a life-form that is close to bliss. We’re mammals. That means we take our own young. Some higher forms of the mammal—which I consider the female to be—opens her body for a stranger. They have no idea who that person is. And yet, they share their body and their bloodstream and their vitamins and calcium and what-have-you with a total stranger for nine or ten months. Then they become the slave of that stranger for ten years! That’s a really altruistic way to behave.

That’s why men are more backward. They couldn’t dream of doing a thing like that. They wouldn’t even want someone to stand on their toe, much less live in their belly.

But, this is all because bliss is our true nature—[it’s] Buddha’s real view. Even in the Four Noble Truths of Theravada Buddhism, he’s telling people that, but they just don’t hear it. They get all involved in the Truth of suffering. “Oh, I’m suffering! I’m so happy Buddha recognizes my suffering!” He recognizes it, but what his main message is, is the Third Noble Truth: you can get free of that suffering. You understand the cause of it and you undo the cause of it, and you’ll be blissful.

That’s reality, actually. Suffering is based on ignorance, and when you’re stuck in unreality, you suffer.

So, anyway: Whatever I glean from that and get encouraging me to spend a minute looking at the flower, be in the moment, or whatever, that’s where I feel so reinforced—by the beautiful, brilliant teachings of the Samadhi Tantra or the Cakrasamvara Tantra or the Kalachakra Tantra. They’re just so—Vajrayogini Tantra. They’re so awesome. They really are.

TS: Mentioning—you know, whether it’s being with a flower for a minute—part of what I’m curious about is: how, in the midst of your everyday life, you experience—you tune to, if you will—these experiences [and] this halo—yes—?

RT: Of course, if you are a really great tantric practitioner—which I don’t claim to be—you sort of carry this mandala with you all the time in your heart. You see the world this way. But, you do it in the non-psychotic way.

That is to say: you don’t do that where you don’t see how others see it, which is in an ordinary way that they see. Like, I know some people who say, “Oh, I’m an initiate. I’m a tantric. I don’t wash dishes.” Or, “Don’t give me a parking ticket and don’t ask me to do this and the other thing, because I’m here in my mandala.”

[Tami laughs.]

RT: I mean, that’s not what I’m talking about. That’s not what I’m talking about. That’s creating a big duality.

So, the idea is: you do some retreats—I mean, ideally; I haven’t taken a three-year retreat. And I think if I had tried to take it—but I don’t approve of people who take it right away when they first get into Buddhism. Some people think it’s just great and they shove all people into that. I don’t agree with that. I think that they first should learn something for many years—or at least three or four years.

And then, in their late twenties or early thirties—if they get started soon—maybe do a really big retreat with a great master who thinks they’re ready for it and really go full into those mandalas in a withdrawal for a long time. I did not do that. I had about a year while I was a monk, and then I do a short month here and a month there.

But, in a way, one of the things [is] that I’m very lucky to be a professor and a teacher, because I get to read, reread, read to others, and share with others these different things. If you go back over the same thing again and again, it goes deeper and deeper. That’s really a privilege—to have that connect to your livelihood.

So, the more you can align your livelihood with what you love—if you have to have a livelihood and you’re supported just to be a meditator or practitioner all the time—then that’s great. But, then we do have wonderful people like Matthieu Ricard and others who—they can take six months. I don’t think he ever did a three-year retreat—not that he said—but his living with those lamas for so long was almost virtually the same. He does periodically take few-month retreats. But then, of course, he produces these huge, vast tomes. So, I think he’s writing [during] a lot of his retreats.

So, in a way, the mind can be your retreat when you live in the teaching. In a way, that’s really good. You also learn a lot by teaching someone else. You find out what you really think—or you make your thinking more deeply—when you have to explain it to somebody. If you remain fresh and don’t get stuck in some idea of, “Oh, I already knew that and I said it yesterday,” and you keep thinking about it as you look at it again, then you learn more and you get deeper.

That’s really great, and I think there’s no limit to it. I look forward to the next life. The president of Columbia told the Dalai Lama—to my great disappointment—that they don’t have a reincarnation system in an endowed faculty chair.

[Tami laughs.]

RT: So, I can’t reincarnate in my chair. It’s really backward of America, really.

But, I don’t know if I’d be capable of doing it. But, maybe with this whole [inaudible] help thing. But then I’d have to work my way up from the trenches [in the] next life—if I get to be human, even. I don’t know. I don’t know, Tami.

I miss you in Boulder. By the way, Tami, I miss you guys in Boulder.

TS: You’re going to have to come visit! Come visit!

RT: My friend Eddie is there and my beloved Richard Freeman is there. There’s a lot of dharma people there. Woodstock is sort of the East Coast Boulder, but I do miss getting out there sometimes. Maybe when I retire after next year—or year after that, or 2019—I’ll spend some time in Boulder. We’re going to have a great time out there, right?

TS: We all want you to come visit us. So, [I’m speaking here] for the entire town of Boulder.

RT: Oh, that’s nice! Thank you!

TS: OK. Now, Robert, you mentioned about having a profession that keeps you close to the teachings. I read something in an article online that you wrote where you talked about how it’s a potential career path for people to actually—instead of becoming “spiritual teachers” in the way we think of spiritual teachers—that you were recommending that perhaps people look at professions like psychotherapy, where they’re helping and engaging people in their lives, but not getting into all the traps of becoming a spiritual teacher.

I wanted to hear more about that—what you think the traps are of becoming a spiritual teacher.

RT: Well, that came up when I was visiting in Bhutan once with the great Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche, who was a teacher of Surya Das and a lot of other people. Also, he was a teacher of [inaudible], who runs a lot of retreats in France. I was saying to [inaudible]—I was saying that it had to do with some friends of mine who had taken two-year retreats and who were really not that happy afterwards. They didn’t really know what to do with themselves, kind of.

[This] is not everyone. A lot of people who have taken two-year retreats have done well. Someone like Surya Das—who I think had six years or something—he’s become a teacher, and he’s had ups and downs in that way, but I think he’s done a fairly good job overall. He had a few lapses, perhaps. There were a few things. But nothing too noisy. Nothing really horrible, like some of the gurus. And he’s a nice guy. Good sense of humor.

So, anyway, I was worried about him. So, I said to [inaudible], “Why couldn’t you guys—instead of jumping these people into these three-year retreats right away—when you get someone who you feel is a really correct candidate for that, we raise the money. If you join me, we could probably raise the money to give them some scholarships and have them go to Naropa for two years or three years—or to CIIS in California. Or, maybe we could get some conventional college to take them in a graduate school if they have a BA.”

Then they do the coursework—two, three years of it—learn the languages, learn the history and the context, and then they come for the three-year retreat already knowing that stuff, and it really becomes fieldwork (from the American point of view). They do a three year-retreat, and then after the three-year retreat they either write a PhD thesis and become a professor or academic teacher, or they get a psych degree at Naropa or something—or CIIS, or someplace like that—and then they can have a career. Their enlightenment that they’ve gained in the three-year retreat can be understood by people who are in a non-Buddhist society like America or Europe.

Otherwise, you see, in Tibet when you had someone on a three-year retreat, they’d already grown up in the Tibetan context and had a Tibetan cultural sense, and they had been educated in Tibetan, and they knew the dharma at a certain level. Then they do a deep meditation. Then they become lamas and then they can teach in any monastery. Some will go back and continue retreating, but many—they’ll be respected and they can teach in a monastery. They’d be a kind of Rinpoche from having had the three-year retreat.

But, in the West, these people can’t do that. “Oh, I had a three-year retreat.” “Well, that’s exotic and amazing,” people will say. “But, you know, I need some carpentry done over here. Can you do my taxes?” Or whatever. People don’t know how to handle it.

Whereas if they were a professor or an instructor of some kind, or a healer, then people would approach them that way. Then their enlightenment would emerge to be really of great benefit. They’d be a great teacher. They’d be a great psychotherapist—like, Ken McLeod is an example. He was Kalu Rinpoche’s student, did retreats, but he also had some sort of California psych degree. His base relationship with people is as a therapist. He also has dharma students, but he doesn’t depend upon being professionally enlightened, if you know what I mean.

TS: Yes.

RT: He can just serve them in a context that’s understandable to the ordinary person in the society. So, it secures against the danger of somebody depending on having a lot of disciples and having them work for that person—abuse of power, abuse of money. All this stuff that has been happening wildly—and actually happened in Asia. It isn’t just that we Americans get into that.

It happened in Asia. It happened in Tibet! There were disreputable teachers who used their status, definitely, in the history. No question.

So, that came out of that context. I said that I thought that would be good. Of course, nobody ever did that formally, but I think some people informally have done that. I’ve noticed a few people who are—like someone I know now, who has been helping a little bit as an assistant but is going off for a three-year retreat soon. She has an MA in environmental science from Stanford already and is going to be able to package herself—at the end of the retreat—in some good way. Whatever she learns in the retreat about her mind and her psyche and her good personality and her mood control—and whatever—will help her in whatever her profession will be.

The point is that this kind of white person can’t be a lama in a Tibetan social context.

TS: It seems like you’re pointing to some evolution, if you will, of the spiritual teacher in the West—that there’s some new way that this function needs to be expressed or could be expressed.

RT: Well, I don’t think it’s really new, in the sense that the great teacher always in Buddhist history has been the servant of the student. It’s just that those more-evolved societies—the Asian societies were more advanced than our society. I’m sorry to say that. That’s my annoying message for my America-first colleagues—that we are actually backward. Euro-American society is relatively backward compared to ancient India—not to colonialized India, of course. They were shoved in the dust by both the Muslim and European conquests, and they’re just recovering bit by bit now.

But, they were more generous. They would support a lot of mendicants and people on retreats and monasteries, et cetera. They got into de-militarizing, pretty much, and they lived the dharma more in their culture.

So there, you can serve as a lama. You can serve as a guru. You can serve as a mahasiddha—although a lot of the mahasiddhas were weavers, tailors. One of them was a wrestler. One of them was a king. One was a minister. There were some monks who were mahasiddhas, but the great adepts of India—they were not all high people being worshipped by other people. They also maintained some relationships in society.

So, I’m just saying that in our society, there has to be a channel through which you can be recognized as serving so that people will approach you seeking your service.

I did a series of lectures in the ‘80s in San Francisco. It was not published. It was going to be published by Parallax Press, but after they heard the lectures they weren’t sure they wanted to publish them, because it was called “Buddhism Without Buddhism.”

Actually, everybody loved the lectures and I loved giving them. I enjoyed it. I love the California audience, too.

But, meaning that Kabat-Zinn is great with mindfulness-based stress reduction, where he’s not demanding people be Buddhists, [but] to help their own mind and psyche. There are Buddhist doctors—Tibetan ones—running around. Ayurvedic people are half-Buddhist, because Hinduism is half Buddhism. Acupuncture people—they sort of come out of Buddhist [and] Taoist culture and context. Dharma center meditation teachers—they’re performing a certain service.

Some may think they are [missionaries] and [are] converting America to Buddhism, but that’s probably not a very good idea because it would just generate a lot of hostility from Christians and Jews and secularists. It’s probably better to serve like they always did, and when you serve people in a society, you have to do it to some extent in the context they expect you to serve in.

So, it’s not really rocket science. It’s not too new, in other words. It’s just adapting to this society.

On the other hand, of course gradually—because we do have religious pluralism, formally speaking, in America—there will be religious Buddhist organizations that will be there and be more recognized. There are four or five million—there are more Buddhists than Episcopalians, I understand. Now, the High Episcopalians have a lesser number than the Buddhists.

I actually think most of the so-called “cultural creatives”—I don’t get depressed by the 55 million or 60 million evangelists [or] fundamentalists. I don’t get too depressed by them, because there are 55 or 60 million cultural creatives—according to the sociologists. Most of them do yoga. They do some kind of meditation. They like Buddhism or Hinduism or Taoism.

So, without formally, nominally acting like card-carrying anything, they are sort of adopting that kind of sensibility. They care about the environment and they want organic food and they don’t want crazy oil companies—of course, we haven’t figure out how to control them. But, they’re all good people.

TS: OK, Robert. I want to pull something out. You talked about your next life, and [if you] would come back to the Columbia professorship and continue and that there’s no—

RT: I don’t know about Columbia, though.

TS: No endowed chair. OK?

RT: Maybe Naropa or maybe UCSS or something. UCLA. I don’t know. It’s not come up yet. Maybe [inaudible]. I love New York.

TS: One of the projects that you have created with Sounds True is an audio series called Liberation Upon Hearing in the Between: Living with the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about this. You often talk about reincarnation, and what I’d like to understand better is your understanding of: when we die, what reincarnates?

RT: Right. So, what that is, is the super-subtle body-mind. The mind of it is the clear light of bliss—the blissful merging with the clear light. That’s the mind of bliss. The body of it is the super-subtle energy that is the vehicle of that bliss—like a sort of matrix-body, super-subtle energy. What they called in the first Matrix movie “digital residual self-image,” which is like a very subtle energy that holds the consciousness of the clear light of bliss.

That’s what gets reincarnated. It’s not a fixed thing. It’s not like a barcode or a fixed “Tami” or “Bob” identity. It’s a continuum. It’s a thread of blissful awareness.

Anyway, it’s ultimately [kind of] indescribable because, in a way, it seems like a micro-thing. Yet, it’s macro. It’s as vast as the universe. Anybody who’s fully conscious from that level has to be a buddha or enlightened, actually. Another name for it is “buddha nature.”

But again, we mustn’t think that’s a fixated thing, like a little mini-buddha homunculus or something. It’s very hard to describe, but it’s a thing where mind and body are one thing, actually.

But therefore, materialistic reduction can be useful—Buddhist science doesn’t mind it except when it becomes a dogma—but there can also be mentalistic reductionism. So, you can say, “All matter is mind.” You can do either direction, because all theories are just theories and reality itself is ultimately inexpressible and indescribable.

So, that’s what continues. The thing that’s great about it is—and then that’s a really big thing. Actually, that I consider a little bit of a success in my life, personally. In the old days, when I used to present to audiences and people and students about the scientific proposal of the continuum of lives of living beings—of an individual continuum that they have as citta-santāna—even esoteric Buddhists call it citta-santāna. When I used to do that, I used to get a lot of resistance—and you still can get it from materialist scientists. “What’s our evidence there’s such a thing as former and future lives?” and all those kinds of things they say.

But actually, nowadays when I dialogue even in large groups, I don’t get much resistance. I find that people as a whole are more ready to deal with it, actually, and are less scared of it—although it is scary. The reason that materialists are so fanatical in their materialistic dogmas is that they’re scared of a future life because it’s a loss of control. They don’t know what’s going to happen to them. They don’t have a good Book of the Dead understanding, and they don’t know what’s going to happen to them when they lose control over their body and their senses. They don’t know how to lucidly dream, so they can have a nightmare in a dream or they might have a pleasant dream, but they have no control over it.

So, they sense that some further state—the between state—is going to be like a dream state. If they haven’t learned to control their unconscious in this life, that their unconscious will drag them somewhere that they might not like [how they] end up being.

So, they’re very scared of it. But, my point nowadays that I make and that I make in that tape that we made—that you so lovely and nicely made with me—is that the evidence for former and future life is—one of the main ones is the memory that people have of previous lives, which are quite widespread. There’s lots of people—a lot of children—have that memory. They can try to debunk that and they can try to—if it’s a specific case—they can try to say, “This doesn’t seem genuine to me,” or, “In principle, it doesn’t seem genuine.” They can say that if they examine it. But, they can’t say there’s no evidence because that’s evidence.

And then the great thing that I discovered to emphasize lately is the seeming-scientific dogma that you’ll just be asleep forever when you die—you will become nothing. Nothingness. You will go into oblivion, where your continuum will be nothingness. I.e.—that something, some energy process, will become nothing. There’s no evidence for that.

Not only is there no evidence for that, but there never will be. Carl Sagan or Daniel Bennett—after they died—are not going to report back in, “Hey guys, we don’t exist anymore! It’s proof!”

[Tami laughs.]

RT: There’s no one ever that’s going to do that. They’re not going to be able to do that.

So, therefore, in principle, there cannot ever be any evidence that the law of thermodynamics—that there is no destruction of energy and energy always continues into another form—which they will deal with in regard to matter and energy, but somehow they make the human consciousness—simply because they’re so scared of the Church and the Inquisition, for which I don’t blame them. You know—the way they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake and they muzzled Galileo, and all this bunch of lunatic religious people.

So, I don’t blame them being scared of that. But still, they just came up with this blind-faith article that, “I’m going to be nothing after death.” Which means, essentially right now I’m nothing because I could take a bullet and put it through my brain. Pull the trigger and I’d revert to my deepest state, which is nothing.

So, that means these people are running around with a little vial of nihilism in their heart. No wonder their depression is an epidemic in this country—people who think they know what reality is, those psychotic scientists. They don’t.

So that I am really happy about, in that I think that—why? Because, you know, in ancient times, the Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Ajivikas—whatever different spiritual traditions existed in India—they disagreed about a lot of things, but they all agreed that the Indian materialists of the time—who said there’s no future life and they’re just living to enjoy this life—if they ever got in charge of society, they would make a mess, because that worldview makes you irresponsible. It makes you [think] there’s ultimately no consequence to your life. If you’re Stalin and you killed hundreds of millions of people, or Mao with tens of millions of people, there’s no consequence to you. The people even—once they’re dead, they don’t even regret having walked their lives because they don’t exist either.

So, it’s a very—Sam Harris and those people who go berserk about the destructiveness of the world religions should really take a better look at materialism and communism, and how many people they have killed, actually, in the modern period. It’s not a small number.

And finally, if our scientistic colleagues—people in the natural sciences in all our universities and our laboratories and our corporations—if they succeed in polluting the—global warming and messing up the planetary environment totally, or having a nuclear war or something—then they will have been so irresponsible as to destroy all life on this green Earth.

So, that’s the danger of this, “No, after me, the deluge,” attitude about my life. “I just care about my pleasure in this life and then after that, who cares?” Like George Bush actually said—W said—to Bob Woodward when he was asked wasn’t he worried about his grandchildren since he had the bad reputation of polluting the world and making Texas polluted, destroying the environment, and being an oilman. He said, “Oh, I don’t care about that.” He said, “I won’t be around if I have a bad reputation. I won’t be there to worry about it.”

You notice he didn’t say, “I’ll be lamenting this up in Heaven with Jesus.” He said, “I won’t be there, so I won’t care what they say about me after I’m dead.” So, he’s still dealing with the real reality consensus in our society that we only live this one life—a sort of existentialist thing.

Whereas if people more in general are reading things like Book of the Dead, they’re reading the near-death literature, they’re reading people who have returned from clinical death—which [there] are quite a few of them—and reading about children who remember previous lives, and so forth—and Many Lives, Many Masters sort of thing—reading about regression therapists like Brian Weiss, then this is getting more in the culture and we’re going to live more responsibly. We’re going to take care of the environment, and we’re going to not seek just short-term, immediate profit. We’re going to take care of our grandchildren’s world in a better way, because there is an enlightened self-interest in the mind that, “Well, I might be reborn among my grandchildren.”

So, of course I like my grandchildren and I love them, but I might be there too. So, that gives me a new extra motive.

TS: Yes. So, I think—

RT: Because people are like that.

TS: I think I understand that part of the value of having what you call “an infinite lifestyle.” I think the part that I’m still a little confused about—when I asked you what reincarnates, I’m curious to know: is there an aspect of what reincarnates that’s personal, if you will?

RT: OK, listen. Listen. It’s just that it’s unfamiliar to us, you see. There’s a book I really like by a woman who is trying to debunk reincarnation. It’s called Spooks, and she’s a very humorous materialist but humorous writer. At one point, when she’s running in India looking at some of these children that remember previous lives—and actually being somewhat convinced about, but still trying to find some loophole or something, because that’s the job of her book. But at one point, she says, “You know, at least if these people who talk about reincarnation could tell me the mechanism, I might have a better chance of understanding it. How on Earth do they expect this to happen? What’s the mechanism of how you melt out of one body and then you rise up in another one?”

So, The Book of the Dead—which we describe in our tape and in the publication that goes along with it—it gives you the mechanism. It’s very clear cut. But, I want to say to make it seem less abstruse to you—or to anyone who’s listening to this—it is: the DNA molecule was only discovered by a couple of scientists in some Cambridge laboratory while they were high on LSD, actually, as it eventually turned out (which they denied in order to get their Nobel Prize). But later, some secretary finked on them, I believe—I heard.

So, then they saw that double-helix. They had a deep vision, you know?

Then there’s this unbelievable thing, where you—Tami Simon—the shape of your earlobe and your grandmother’s earlobe or your grandfather’s earlobe or your father or your mother—somebody. Your uncle. [This] is the same—recognizably similar, to put it that way. How did that earlobe hop from that body to your body?

Well, there’s a DNA molecule way down in the microsphere with all this NBNGG—whatever it is—on this spiral helix with these little lines of instructions—is our model of it, [at least.] Something more inconceivable than that if you got to the subatomic wave particle, quantum level underlying the seemingly stable concept of a molecule. Anyway, you can go under it even more abstruse.

But anyway, the coding instructions that put proteins together into cells and then make an earlobe of a certain shape or an eye of a certain color or a nose with a certain shape—a chin, et cetera—that comes from this kind of genetic ancestor through a melting-down to a molecule and a code in a molecule. The molecule then meets another molecule in some kind of moment of passion—or after a moment of passion—and then the two combine. Somehow, that little piece of instructions that builds that earlobe, builds something back up in tissue and there you are: your earlobe resembles your grandmother’s.

That is an inconceivability in a way—and only, what, 30 years old? I forget. Now it sort of seems normal to us. We go, “Yes, of course. That’s a DNA. Yes. We get the gene. We got that, right?”

But, it’s completely inconceivable, really. It’s a mystery how it happens. Remember they got their genome analyzed—23,000 human genes? Then there’s two billion genes in the bacterial genome in the biome—what they call the microbiome—in the gut, that’s essential to our life. So, this community of beings—that’s even a new thing.

The Buddhists knew that long ago. They talked about the 84,000 micro-beings that make up the human body.

So, I’m just saying that in of itself is an inconceivability that we have become used to. So, the idea that the soul is something like a gene—a DNA molecule—wherein your genes of generosity or stinginess, your genes of life-saving or murder, your genes of love or hate are the patterns of that. Open-mindedness or fanaticism. The patterns of that are encoded in something analogous to a DNA molecule—but at an even more subtle plane.

Remember: the idea of a molecule [is] that it has atoms in it, and then we don’t really think about—we think they’re sort of the building blocks. The old-fashioned idea of an atom—whereas the quantum people have already found out for us that atoms dissolve under analysis and they went almost berserk last year thinking they’d discovered a Higgs boson, which accounts for some sort of volume in matter—in material reality. Meanwhile, that’s all surrounded by 97 percent dark matter and dark energy, which was discovered by a woman physicist in Cambridge—which is the end component.

This Higgs boson is only trying to pop up there in three percent of the matter of the universe, and the other dark matter they have no idea what it is. They haven’t even seen it yet. They’re just imagining it in mathematics.

So, please—no wonder that is all very hard to imagine. So, The Book of the Dead mechanism—that the deep patterns within your behavior of mind and speech and thought and body are encoded in this sort of molecule [at a] super-subtle level, and then carried as code. They pick up on some parents—if you’re going to be human—you need DNA molecules and there’s a meeting of the three DNAs.

That produces a person who has a body with a lot of resemblance to the parents, but actually they have their own soul and therefore they might be Mozart or they might do something completely different than their parents. They can tell their parents, “You don’t own me. I came from somewhere. Thanks for the body.” The parents can say, “You did choose us to be embodied.” It gives them each some freedom as individuals. It’s very cute. I like it.

One thing I can say, finally—let me just say one last thing there, which is that this kind of description—because Buddhists are truly scientific—and Buddha was—there is a very important dictum in his scientific and philosophical teachings that all descriptions of relative realities [and] processes are only relative. That is to say: they are more or less valid in a certain context to which they are pragmatically useful. In other words, people choose to have a hypothetical theory about [how] this or that is the way it is.

There is no absolute description of any relative reality. So, it isn’t like I’m saying that karma and rebirth and reincarnation is the truth in a sort of dogmatic, absolute sense—or even [that] existentialism is false. I’m just saying that, within relative reality, it’s more realistic and practical than the one with something becoming nothing.

So, if anybody can prove that they’re nothing after death, then by all means [inaudible] to Carl Sagan, go ahead and do it. We’ll accept it.

TS: OK, Robert. I did want to ask you a question about the Dalai Lama, because I wanted to hear your view of his recent statement—relatively recent—that it’s highly likely that he won’t reincarnate—that there won’t be a next Dalai Lama. What do you think about that?

RT: Well, that’s a misunderstanding—


RT: —having to do with the political business with the silly Chinese. The Communist Party, who of course are atheists officially—but they are claiming they are going to control the reincarnations. They pick their pensioned lama and blah, blah, blah.

So, when he said that, what he has done is he has made a constitution for a future Tibet—which, of course, he has no legislative authority in Tibet. But, it’s in the government in exile. If Tibet has a constitution ever—even as part of a Chinese federation as a local one-country-two-systems like Hong Kong, which is what it should be, which is what he wants. Then, the Tibetans will definitely enact what he’s written there.

What he has written there is that the institution of the Dalai Lama—meaning a reincarnate lama connected to a particular house in Drepung University—a monastic university—will not hold political office, will not have political responsibility, will not have political authority. He has written that.

The head of the country will be an elected person. In the case of a Chinese federation, there will be some degree of having to defer to the Chinese head of the federation, which will presumably be some hopefully elected person in Beijing in the future—not a dictator, we hope. That, I believe realistically, will be the case actually, because I don’t think dictatorships are really very practical.

So, that’s what he has written—meaning there won’t be a Dalai Lama understood as the head of the country, if you follow me—the leader of the country. That there would not be a reincarnation of this line of Avalokiteśvara—the bodhisattva of universal compassion—is absolutely not the case.

In fact, there are more such incarnations than the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa is also an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara. There are many taras, which are female incarnations of Avalokiteśvara. Tara, Avalokiteśvara; same being, really. Male and female, same.

There are many others, because—there is this description of Avalokiteśvara of the thousand arms and a thousand eyes, symbolizing that as many emanations as there are beings that need emanation to attract with—to find their own happiness and freedom from suffering.

People from the Judeo-Christian world have a difficulty with that because of their idea of the “one Messiah” at the one time, and that’s all and never any more. Whereas in the Buddhist idea of the emanation body of the Buddha—in Nirmanakaya—there’s no limit to the emanations of divine helper-hood—beings trying to compassionately help beings.

So, he can’t even stop that and he has no intention of doing it. He just means there won’t be a political one.

Then, he’s often said—the underlying statement still holds—”If my Tibetans want me to reincarnate, I will. But I will not rule them. I will reincarnate as a monk in the Drepung Monastery and I will be a dharma practitioner and teacher, as a lama should be.”

I argued with him, actually, some years back. I said, “Come on. Radical democracy ends up being corrupted by money. It’s good to have a spiritual head, even if he’s just symbolic. So, why don’t you serve?”

He said to me, “I don’t want to be a prisoner like Lady Di!”

[Both laugh.]

RT: He did! He said that! Then he told me to shut up and not to go around telling Tibetans, “Well, at least you ask him into being a constitutional lama. Insist that he do that and all this.”

And they had tried to insist. He’s refused, and he’s told me to shut up. But, I kept bugging him about it because I have my doubts about American democracy being—you know, Citizen United and corrupted by the Koch brothers and other such ilk.

I was telling him, “America is not a democracy, it’s a theocracy. But, the God of America is money. Mammon! That’s what it is.”

He understands that, but he still thinks it’s better. “Democracy—well, it’s sooner or later, the people will assert themselves.”

So, that’s what he meant. Then he does a little dance with the Chinese and they say, “No, he can’t not reincarnate. He has to reincarnate and we’re going to be the ones who choose his reincarnation. Then he’s going to be our puppet leader of the Tibetans.” [That’s] kind of what they’re saying.

“Well,” he says, “I just won’t reincarnate under those conditions.” He doesn’t always say “under those conditions.” Then the press jumps up and says, “Oh, the Dalai Lama won’t reincarnate!” And people get that idea.

But, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara is like a Jedi warrior, and he will be there. He’ll be present and he’ll be there with the Force—with being. As long as there are suffering beings, he has that prayer. As long as there is a space full of sentient beings—infinite space full of sentient beings—so, “I will infinitely be present with them until they are free of suffering.” That’s his major prayer that he prays every day.

So, we don’t have to worry about that. He’s so great, I must say. I must praise him.

I had so much fun at his many birthday parties. For some reason, I got invited to them because I guess I’m the one who’s known him since 1964—so that’s now 51 years. I have a kind of seniority. So, different people ask me to show up on the stage with him, and tease him and joke with him, and wish him happy birthday with everybody.

It’s really, totally been fun. It’s really fun. He was so terrific, and he gave the most excellent teaching to all the Tibetans in the Javits Center in New York. He had like 11,000 [or] 12,000 Tibetans from all over the US. He gave them such a fired-up teaching that I’m sure it’ll have a huge impact on them. They will really be trying to practice dharma as well as getting along as a refugee and an exile, and having a regular American life. He really, really intensified their dharma dedication, I think—very strongly.

What he had to say to us and to everyone was just really a marvel. So sweet.

TS: Do you want to share a pithy message from—?

RT: Oh, yes! Well, for example, he never wants to ask for—actually, [a couple of times] I had to say, “Well, you know, please do see—” there were a lot of activists—some Cesar Chavez disciples (California was really a lot of fun), and there were students and things. I had to say, “Listen. Everyone—to be an activist, do this and that.” There was one panel of all activists—against global climate change, against the global warming thing, against persecution of the labor forces.

There were all these kind of things that were going on in California, and I had to say, “Well, one thing—and His Holiness will never say this—but you’re all wishing him happy birthday. But, one thing you could do for his birthday is do something for Tibet.” And when I say that, I don’t mean you have to go out and have a demonstration politically, or you have to give a lot of money, or do anything like that. You could just read a book about it and inform yourself about it. Then you might think of something else you’ll do.

Just think about it. Pray for it, even—for the Tibetans. That would be the best birthday present he could have.

But, he’ll never ask you for that. He’ll say, “Pray for the Syrians. Help the refugees who are drowning in the Mediterranean coming from North Africa, et cetera,” he’ll tell you. He’ll never ask for himself. So, I did that in a couple instances.

One thing: Ann Curry was the moderator in California, who is a brilliant woman and did a very awesome job.

But, he was very interventionist and insists on cutting his own cake and handing it out to everybody on stage, at least. Then he would ask the ushers to go out and take little bits to people—at least in the front rows. I mean, 15,000 people—we couldn’t feed all of them. [He was] urging them to go and have a party at home for them. Everybody sang him happy birthday.

He was onstage in Glastonbury with Patti Smith and everyone was wishing him happy birthday with a big rock and roll concert they had there. He gave a little happy birthday homily by saying, “Listen, thanks for congratulating me on my birthday, but the main thing is every day is a happy birthday. You should have a happy birthday every day. What you give birth to on that day is your love and your compassion and your kindness to your friends. You have a happy day and you make someone else happy. That’s the way to celebrate a birthday. Every day is a birthday.”

This kind of thing. It was very down to Earth and very sweet. Really, of course, amazing people. He always amazes people because right now, Tibet is in a terrible condition—totally locked down. Yet, he’s happy himself. He’s agonized about it, really, but he’s able to find the deepest bliss of his own self and somehow realize that moping over the suffering is not going to help. He has the energy to do something effective about it and represent his people, and basically of course the Chinese would stop torturing the Tibetans if the Chinese were happy and satisfied.

So, he actually does truly love the Chinese in the Buddhist sense of, “Wants them to be happy.” He doesn’t just sit and shout and scream how horrible it all is. He’s just wonderful. I really do love the guy.

I come to see nowadays [that]—to me—if Shakyamuni Buddha were alive today, he would be the Dalai Lama for the whole planet. He’s also the Dalai Lama for the whole planet—not just the Tibetans anymore. He’s all of our Dalai Lama.

By the way, he’s massively popular in China, underground. Even Communist Party members love the guy, and they have secret meetings with lamas and they hear about the Dalai Lama. It’s crazy that there are a few people stuck in some old idea of genociding the Tibetans and crushing them, or manipulating their culture—or depriving them of their culture. Their big enemy is the Dalai Lama—they think. He’s their best friend. Their just so confused, those people.

He really is. For example, in my book Why the Dalai Lama Matters—which I still really like—although Hu Jintao didn’t take advantage of it—we’re in a moment in history where the meeting between the white people and the yellow people is a big deal. China and the Euro-American world—including the Russians, who are sort of Euros—is a big deal. Now that China is becoming very, very powerful, it could turn into a really big mess—meaning a world war, basically. They’re starting to push their weight around and even Kissinger is pissed off at them now. He’s finally realized that his coddling policy was actually misguided and he’s very worried about their potential conflict with the Japanese, their potential invading Taiwan, et cetera, and sparking a serious problem.

Not to mention the fact that they’re damming the headwaters in Tibet, and they’re melting the glaciers at a faster rate by trying to colonize Tibet. They’re threatening the environments of all the Asian countries from Pakistan all the way to Vietnam, who live on rivers coming out of Tibet. They themselves—the Yangtze comes from Tibet and the Yellow River comes out of Tibet. They’re wrecking the river systems in Tibet to get electricity to do mining in their frenetic manner—in their crazed, locust-like behavior, going berserk on communist capitalism.

It’s really dangerous. And who would be the better mediator between the Chinese government and the Chinese masses [and] between the Chinese people and foreign people than the Dalai Lama? He is beloved everywhere on the planet by all the people and he is beloved by the Chinese people. Kuan Yin!

And if he really is an emperor—Xi Jinping—why doesn’t he be the friend of this man and have that man mediate from his power level through the people who are feeling crushed by his power? And yet, can make himself actually, truly popular. They say he has a big popularity cult, Xi Jinping—that he’s waving Mao’s Little Red Book. But, actually, there are 50 major riots and demonstrations in China per day that are crushed down violently by all kinds of secret police and special police and God-knows-what. People [are] thrown in prison and killed. It’s really turmoil there.

So, the Dalai Lama—he’s their guy if they would just realize—and he promised to live another couple decades, actually.

TS: I hadn’t heard that.

RT: I sneaked up on him in public and I got him to confess that the great Tibetan physician—like the Edgar Cayce of Tibetan diagnosticians—had done his life pulse and said he could live to 103 if he chose to. Then he got mad at me and said, “Well, you have to stay then until you’re how old? Ninety-seven? OK. You have to stay.”

TS: I like the sound of that.

RT: [Laughs.] Me too. Well, I don’t know. The body gets so creaky and achy. But maybe if I have a better diet, I’ll be OK. If I have friends like you, I won’t mind living to 97.

TS: I like that.

RT: He doesn’t either. You got to go see him when he’s in Boulder. He’s just so—I’m telling you. He glows.

Well, I’ll tell you one thing that happened in California that people would like. We were at UC Irvine for part of the programs—there were three days of programs—in a big, huge auditorium. There was one event onstage—one of the two-hour, three-hour sessions—of the Dalai Lama Fellows on the Irvine campus, because somebody raised some money and they have this special fellowship for senior undergraduates in that huge university. People do some altruistic project—some social entrepreneurship project.

There were about 15 of those students and they were on stage. Ann Curry said, “OK, students.”

First, I had to say something about what I had learned from the Dalai Lama in 51 years. Some guy from India had to give a little talk about that too.

Then she turned to the students and she said, “Now, please ask the Dalai Lama a question. This is your chance. You ask him a question and then he’ll answer all your questions together in a final summation.”

So, then the Dalai Lama contradicts her and says, “Don’t do that. Have them say what they think the world should be. I have a limited knowledge. I’m not going to answer questions. Have them tell the audience what they want to tell them.”

So, then they started doing that. Then, the last of the students to speak was a beautiful young African-American woman named Regina, who was a Dalai Lama Fellow and was sitting between me and Ann Curry on the Dalai Lama’s right hand. So, Dalai Lama, Ann Curry, Regina, me, and then a few more people in this row on this side. Then there was another 14 or 15 students on the other side.

So, she was the last one to speak because she wasn’t in the row on the other side. So, Ann turns to Regina: “OK, Regina. You want to tell about your Dalai Lama Fellowship?” So, Regina starts talking and she says, “Well, I could talk about my fellowship, but that wouldn’t be really so interesting to His Holiness or to the people. What I’d really like to talk about is why I tried out for the fellowship and I was so happy to get one. That’s because I really love the Dalai Lama. He is so great,” and then she started saying “you,” and she was looking at him. “And you are so handsome,” she said, “and you are so kind and you radiate joy. I just love you. By getting to know you and watching your videos, and seeing you now and then in some big event—like right now, being close to you—you let me know what I want in a husband!”

[Both laugh.]

RT: She went on in that vein for some time about how much she loved him, actually, which was really sweet. The Dalai Lama was looking a little bit embarrassed and a little bit amused. He was getting translated because he couldn’t get everything—she was speaking quickly.

And then Ann Curry says—after she finished—”Wow. I’m feeling a little uncomfortable sitting between the two of you.” [Laughs.] And then that was pretty much the end of the event. There were some final moments. Then we all stood up in a row. Ann had to go over to the podium. So, then Regina was next to the Dalai Lama. Everybody linked arms and they were taking photos. And then the audience totally cracked up because—as everybody turned to leave—the Dalai Lama shook hands with every single one of the students and wished them all the best—those kinds of things—and shook hands with her, but then she was the last one he shook hands with.

When he shook hands with her—I was standing just on the other side of her, so I got to see this in its fully glory—he touched his cheek with his finger and he said, “OK. You can give me a kiss here.” On his cheek! Then he puckered his lips, like for a kiss, which I think he probably never did in his life. But, he puckered his lips and then he touched that with his finger. He said, “Not here.” [Laughs.] “You can give me a kiss here on the cheek, but not here,” and he pounded his lips with this finger. “You can’t kiss me here,” he said.

I’m sorry. I don’t know. But, the whole 14,000 people completely cracked up. It was so incredibly cute. It really was.

TS: Yes. Thank you, Robert, for bringing a little bit of the eightieth birthday celebration festivities here to our listeners. Thank you.

RT: It was good. I was actually good in that one too, in the sense that when I told what I learned from the Dalai Lama, I decided I wanted to lighten it up a little. So, I said, “You Holiness . . .” Actually, the question from Ann Curry was, “What have you learned from the Dalai Lama in 51 years?”

I said, “Well, one thing I’ve learned from Your Holiness—and I’m so grateful for all your teachings and such great pains—but I have to confess that I have somewhat failed to learn all of them. You made me a monk early on very kindly, although my older guru warned us both that I wouldn’t last as a monk, which didn’t happen. So, there I failed you.

“And you taught me how to be mindful and control my temper, how not to be greedy, and how this, that, and the other—and I haven’t really done a good job of that either.” But then I said, “Luckily, when I did go back into the lay life, I met a wonderful woman who reflected to me the same teachings of Your Holiness about how to be more controlled and to be more kind. She used to tell me often how I wouldn’t have listened to her, but I listened to you—and I should learn to listen to her too.” I said, “I’m trying to make you equal with the wisdom of women.”

People liked that in California. They were clapping. Then I said, “But, on the other hand, I have to also confess there that in 48 years of marriage with this wonderful woman, who has become my second guru, she has still not accepted me as her disciple. So, I’ve been failing to fully listen to her and fully understand her too. Not only you, but I’ve failed to understand her.” People are quite laughing. He’s kind of amused. He’s looking a little bit amazed, but he’s laughing too. But then his translators looking a little irritated because I’m acting like an ordinary person could keep something.

So, then I said, “But! In 48 years, she’s just finally, lately been admitting that I have made some progress. So then, my question to you, Your Holiness, is: do you agree? Have I made a little progress after all this time?”

Then he was very sweet. He said, “Oh, yes. You’ve made lots of progress.” Whatever, you know?

But anyway, I was at peace with myself. My wife was not there, unfortunately, because she had to prepare some event in New York for the birthday at Tibet House. So, she wasn’t there—although she would have been embarrassed and annoyed with me if I did that. But, I just thought I would represent her that way.

And I do believe that, actually—something I have to say. I do believe, Tami. I’m not just catering and pandering here, and I’m not running for office. But, I really do believe that the male chauvinist Buddhists in this country need to learn a lot from the women, whether those women are Buddhists or not.

The Dalai Lama did say in Rome, by the way, he might reincarnate as a woman. He said, “Because nowadays the danger of war is so great and we have to have a peaceful twenty-first century—which kind of got off on the wrong foot,” he said, thanks to my buddy W, who’s not listening to me. He said that, “Maybe I should be reincarnated as a woman because they tend less quickly to violence than the men do. They’re not perfect, but they tend a little less quick to that solution to things.” He’s learned that.

The audience in Italy, where he said this, just flipped when he then said, “And if I do, I’ll be much more attractive,” and he made like a modeling gesture where one hand goes up and one hand is out. He made that gesture and threw his head back. He said, “In that case, I’ll be much more attractive.” [Laughs.]

I was unfortunately not there. It was in Livorno, near Pisa in Italy, during a teaching.

TS: Robert, it is always a wild romp to talk with you. I always feel the bliss shining through, really.

RT: Oh, thank you.

TS: You uplift me.

RT: Well, you bring it out! It’s not me. I’m miserable as ever when I’m slaving away with all my unfinished projects. You bring it out, Tami. I know you do.

TS: You’re one of my favorite Type-A bodhisattvas. You introduced me to that phrase the first time I met you.

RT: I love talking to you. I don’t want to keep you up all night. So, all the best to you. Really, Tami. I just enjoy chatting with you.

TS: OK. Very good, Robert. Goodbye.

RT: All right. Thanks so much. Take care. Big hug! Bye.

TS: Big hug. I’ve been speaking with Robert Thurman. With Sounds True, Robert has created the audio series Liberation Upon Hearing in the Between: Living with the Tibetan Book of the Dead as well as a six-session audio program called The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.

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