Robert Thurman journeys to the sacred mountain
for Common Ground Summer 1999
by Virginia Lee
Robert Thurman seems to be one of those people who manages to be in the right place at the right time. As a Harvard student on a self-imposed sabbatical in 1961, Thurman set out to travel the world in search of a teacher, a spiritual quest that would be popularized by the likes of Baba Ram Dass later that decade. After meeting many swamis, gurus, monks and masters, Thurman finally found his way to northern India, where he met a community of Tibetans living in Dharamsala. He felt immediately at home.
As fate would have it, the young Dalai Lama was living there at the time, and when the two twenty-somethings met, they became instant friends. The rest is history. What follows is the fascinating spiritual journey of one man’s path in life, a path which has inspired him to write dozens of books on Tibetan Buddhism, the latest of which is Circling the Sacred Mountain, co-authored with Tad Wise and published by Bantam Books in March 1999. Earlier books include The Central Philosophy of Tibet, The Tibetan Book of the Dead and more recently, The Inner Revolution, in which he describes enlightenment as a socially transformative phenomenon.
Robert Thurman returned to Harvard and ultimately earned a B.A,, an M.A. and a Ph.D. Today, he is a professor of Indo-Tibetan Studies at Columbia University in New York City, where he and his wife, Nena, also run the Tibet House New York. In 1997, Time magazine named Robert Thurman as one of America’s most influential citizens, most likely because of his outspoken advocacy for Tibetan independence. Or perhaps it is because he’s Uma Thurman’s father.
CG: What inspired you to make the journey to Mt. Kailash? And how is it known by other religions and other cultures?
RT: I’ve been to other holy places in Tibet, but Mt. Kailash is the ultimate holy place. I’ve always wanted to go there. Mt. Kailash is the abode of Shiva and Uma for the Hindus, just like Mt. Olympus was the home of the gods for the Greeks. To the ancient Indians it was the axis mundi, literally the axis around which the world turns. Mt. Kailash (aka Mt. Meru) itself was considered to be the Earth’s connection to the greater cosmos. For the Jains, it was where Mahavira attained enlightenment, and above it is the Jain paradise where liberated souls abide. The Bön religion (which is Persian-based although very similar to a form of early Buddhism that was practiced in the Tibetan court) regards Mt. Kailash as the center of the universe. In ancient times, the Tibetans had actually conquered what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, so it wasn’t all that far away. There were Buddhists in all these mountains, and they still speak languages similar to the Tibetans.
This has been a sacred mountain for thousands of years. Geographically, the Himalayas are a huge watershed, and most of the great rivers of Asia arise from the Tibetan plateau. Mt. Kailash is a bump in the Himalayan plateau, with rivers flowing both to the west and to the east. One myth claims that Kailash’s roots are in the ocean and that all the waters of Asia bubble up into the magic nearby Lake Manasarovar. Essentially, it is regarded as the source of life.
CG: What do you mean by the “mandala mountain”?
RT: Buddha manifested a special mandala in the sacred mountain for what he called the “super-bliss deities,” the divine in an archetypal form. In the book, I refer to this as the “mandala mountain mansion.”
The Buddha creates mandalas in other holy places too, like in the Sierras or in the Andes. There is a sacred network within nature, created from a transcendent level, called the “network of dakinis“ (Buddhist goddesses) connecting hundreds of spiritual sites all over the Earth.
CG: Is the jewel palace within Mt. Kailash a metaphor or is it really there?
RT: The mountain itself really is a jewel palace if you can see it with spiritual vision. The jewel palace is on top of the cosmic mountain, located at the top of the universe. So, if you can’t see it, it’s a metaphor. But the Tibetans believe that it’s really there.
I guess it depends whether or not you’re a Western materialist (like me). I didn’t actually see it, but I had a strong feeling for its presence. For me, I had the very graphic experience of rock actually being alive, as living energy rather than an inert object.
CG: Why do people hike around Mt. Kailash instead of climbing to the top?
RT: Going around it is a gesture of respect, and a way of receiving the blessing of the mountain. It’s a way of letting the mountain act upon you rather than trying to dominate it and conquer it. You don’t want to trample the mandala.
Similarly, when people would approach the Buddha, before asking him a question directly, they would circumambulate him three times. Then they would stand back and ask the question.
CG: In the book, you say that one of the reasons for making this pilgrimage is to wash away the sins of a lifetime. Does this happen all at once or is it a gradual process?
RT: It’s different for different people. To really get free of many lifetimes of karma, it is said you have to go around Mt. Kailash thirteen times. There’s another kora (circumambulation) that’s made up closer to the mountain near the south face that is considered to be an especially holy route.
There’s no end to purification and no end to the development of positive qualities. The more you go around the better it is, but if you make it around Mt. Kailash even once, you’ve saved yourself many lifetimes of suffering. Going over Tara Pass (at 18,600 feet) is the highest point of the journey. As you go up, you get heavier and heavier as your sins weigh down on you more and more, but then they fall away when you make it to the top.
CG: What do you mean when you refer to the “inner landscape” in your dharma talks?
RT: It’s partly self-purification and it’s partly the path of evolutionary development. It’s the spiritual journey one’s mind embarks on while taking the path from ignorance to enlightenment. When I take a group of people to Tibet, and we are looking at some holy place in the outer landscape that pilgrims go to, we have to simultaneously look at the inner landscape of the Tibetan mind. Even if people aren’t Buddhists, it’s a way of really visiting Tibet.
CG: Does a person physically need to go to Mt. Kailash to have that kind of experience?
RT: No. Everyone has a Mt. Kailash in the soul. It is that place where selfless love exists, but is too often imprisoned by self-centered fear and egotism. Turning the heart inside out is the real key to any pilgrimage. It’s a lot like a “vision quest.”
CG: Does the pilgrimage to Mt. Kailash have the same effect regardless of one’s religion?
RT: I think so. All human religions do teach in some way how to overcome narcissism and self-centeredness, and how to open up to love and wisdom. The are different ways for different kinds of people.
CG: How would you compare this to Jesus Christ’s forgiveness of sin through his resurrection?
RT: It’s very similar. The Buddhists do consider Jesus as an equally divine manifestation as Buddha. The Buddhists do however feel the misfortune for those in the Middle East who “did in” their enlightened master in such a short period of time. Although Christ gave them the whole teaching, they didn’t allow themselves much time to enjoy His presence due to their own narrow-mindedness.
CG: Do you plan to return to Mt. Kailash again?
RT: I certainly hope so, but I don’t have a particular plan right now. I’m quite devoted to helping the Tibetan people get a fair deal from the international political order, and from their neighbors, the Chinese, who are currently occupying their country. Therefore, I do speak out on their behalf which makes me rather unpopular with the Chinese border guards. It makes it hard for me to get a visa. But I hope that things will change soon, so that people who have spoken out honestly will be honored rather than feared. I believe I will be able to go back someday.
CG: What does Mt. Kailash mean to you personally and what does it mean to the world as a whole?
RT: To me it is a spiritual Mt. Everest. There’s something about how ideals connect with reality there. At least, one has the illusion that it is more realistic to try to realize your ideals by having been there. The ideal we all grow up with is to see goodness prevail in the world and the people we love being happy. We want the good guys to win.
But then there is a false realism we are taught in our industrial culture that promotes an attitude of scarcity in the world. People end up hoarding things greedily because they don’t believe there’s enough for everyone. In this reality, the bad guys usually win.
But in truth, the good will and can win. They should win and must win. Whatever happens, we must cultivate that positive attitude.
CG: Is this a journey for everyone?
RT: Traditionally it hasn’t been. Geographically, it’s quite a difficult place to get to, and it’s very arduous physically (although nothing like climbing Mt. Everest). So, by it’s nature there’s a process of natural selection.
On the other hand, I don’t see why many more people shouldn’t go there freely. If just seeing the mountain is such a blessing, perhaps there should be an airport nearby so that more can enjoy it. As long as people respect the environment, I see nothing wrong with finding a way of making it easier to get there. The Dalai Lama actually likes tourists and spiritual pilgrims to visit Tibet because it instills in his people a greater appreciation for their own legacy.
I really do believe that politics, visas and border controls should not block devoted people access to the object of their worship. For example, I believe that Jerusalem should be a strictly religious city — and not owned by any government or political entity. The cathedral of St. Sophia in Istanbul should be open to the Greeks. The Black Hills of South Dakota should be given back to the Lakota as their sacred place. And the Hopi mesa in Arizona too. In general, political governments should stop occupying sacred sites.
CG: How has your life changed since your return?
RT: Well, who knows? I was busy before I went, and I’ve been even busier since I got back. The struggle for freedom in Tibet and in the world at large is advancing, And we’re about to greet a new century.
Unfortunately, the Milosevics of this world are still functioning too. Fortunately, there now seems to be some sort of collective will to oppose that energy.
I don’t know whether my delusions have deepened or whether I feel more energized and really am pursuing my ideals with greater clarity and peace. Although things appear to be getting worse, I think they really are getting better—and will turn the corner soon.
CG: How can Americans benefit from understanding the principles of Buddhism?
RT: Americans are just human beings like everyone else. Buddhism as a psychology is what is most beneficial to them. Much like transpersonal psychology, it can enable them to transform their souls and psyches from being so self-centered, self-defeating, dissatisfied, afraid and aggressive. As a culture, the principles of Buddhism could reinforce their deepest ideals and make Americans more civilized, compassionate, loving and happy.
But I don’t think that Americans should all become Buddhists. In fact, I think it would be a mistake and would cause a lot of religious tension. It would just antagonize fanatical Christians and Jews. Religious conflict is the last thing we need in this country.
CG: Would you say that this process needs to begin by turning off the television?
RT: No, I don’t agree with that at all. It needs to begin by circling the sacred mountain more on television. More Buddhist psychology can be taught through television. Although the airwaves belong to the people, the problem is that what’s on television has become so commercialized and dominated by corporate interests that are seeking to manipulate people into buying their products. Rather than just turning it off, it needs to be transformed into an educational tool. Television is a very powerful medium, but it’s just teaching people the wrong lessons.
CG: Do you think that by watching the news and being able to see what’s actually going on in Kosovo, we can have more compassion for the suffering going on there?
CG: How does Milosevic use the media?
RT: Milosevic is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. One of the ways he has controlled the Serbian population is through the state-run media. He even made snuff and rape films with his paramilitary police dressed as Croatians or Bosnians killing prisoners who were made to look like Serbs. When they showed that on TV, they terrified the Serb population.
The civilian Serbs are perfectly nice people like anyone else. The participated in the Olympics. They like to go to cafés and hear music just like us. But they’ve just been manipulated by a powerful dictator who knows how to create distortion and concoct propaganda. The Serbs have no idea what’s really going on in Kosovo. They just know that NATO is bombing them and they don’t understand why.
CG: Please compare what is happening in Kosovo to what happened in Tibet.
RT: Really there is no difference at all. Politically, I’m a Wilsonian who believes in the principle of self-determination as the most fundamental of human rights. Without self-determination, the right to life, education and freedom will never happen, because you’ll always be dominated by some other power. That’s why it’s included in the UN charter.
Tibet had been a protectorate of the Manchu empire, but then became independent in 1911. When China invaded Tibet 50 years ago, the British ignored it because they didn’t want to jeopardize their economic relations with China in Hong Kong. The rest of the world followed suit. It’s a tragedy that the governments of the world have sat by silently, letting the Chinese occupation go on, pretending they didn’t know, while this beautiful, non-violent culture was being invaded and utterly destroyed. It’s taken almost 50 years for movies like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet to be made, so that people for the first time can see the truth about what has happened in Tibet. It’s a fact that in this century, more people have been killed by their own governments than have been killed in international warfare. So-called sovereignty has been a cloak for genocide.
So, what’s happening in Kosovo is really a breakthrough. Finally NATO has decided that humanitarian concern outweighs the sovereign justification for ethnic cleansing.
CG: How accurate are movies like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet in portraying the Dalai Lama’s life?
RT: They are actually pretty good. Although these movies couldn’t be filmed in Tibet for obvious reasons, details about the Dalai Lama’s life and the Chinese invasion of Tibet are quite accurate. The Dalai Lama even was consulted on the script.
CG: Would you talk about your relationship with the Dalai Lama?
RT: Sure. He’s a really nice guy. He’s been my buddy since I was 23 and he was 29. We first met in Dharamsala, India in the early 1960s, when he was a refugee from Tibet and I was a refugee from Harvard. This was before Baba Ram Dass but after Allen Ginsberg. I was in search of a spiritual teacher and had met all the swamis, the yogis, the Sufis and the Greek Orthodox masters. But when I finally came across the Tibetans in India, I felt as though I was finally home.
Soon after that, I met the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala. We hung out and I learned Tibetan real quick. We discussed many things, but he wasn’t necessarily my spiritual teacher in that early period, except by his own example. I was actually assigned to study with his teachers, so we would have great dialogues about the things we were both learning. I was only the second westerner he had ever met who could speak Tibetan. The first was Heinrich, the German man whose story is told in the movie, Seven Years in Tibet.
So, in those early years, he was more of a friend than a teacher. But later, when I went back to India in the 1980s, he had really become immersed in his own studies and had become a major spiritual force. He is definitely my teacher today.
Although one of the things he teaches is not to be so rigid about how you define your relationships. When he’s a teacher, he’s a teacher. And when he’s a friend, he’s a friend. It’s been that way between us for almost 40 years. When he visits here, we get to hang out in the limo or walk up and down corridors together, or have tea and an occasional meal. He travels a great deal so that he can represent his people’s plight to the world. That’s a very big job.
I went back to Harvard and got a Ph.D. And now I’m a professor at Columbia University in Tibetan Studies.
CG: What is your evaluation of life in present-day Tibet? Do you think that the ancient Buddhist culture is lost?
RT: No, it is not lost for good. It still lives in the Tibetan people. A million Tibetans were killed by the Chinese in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. There was an absolute holocaust for three decades. Religion was totally crushed. Holy carvings on faraway mountains were dynamited, and over 6,000 monasteries were dismantled. People were arrested just for having a rosary. It was the blood bath of the “Gang of Four.”
But as soon as Dung Xiao Ping took over in 1981, and decided to leave Tibet alone, there was a spiritual renaissance, rebuilding monasteries, educating new monks and nuns, etc. But since the late 1980s and 1990s, there has been a terrible crackdown again. Today, the Tibetans are very miserable. The Chinese are taking away their pictures of the Dalai Lama and suppressing their religion, denying them access to education since all the schools are taught in Chinese. Almost 85% of the Tibetan children have malnutrition. It’s a lot like apartheid.
A huge number of Chinese have moved into Tibet, and for the first time the native Tibetans are outnumbered. In the big cities, the ratio is about 10:1. The Chinese colonists are paid triple to live there, while the Tibetans are starving. Few Tibetans can own anything, like a home or a business, and only if they inter-marry with a Chinese. It’s cultural genocide, just like in Kosovo, but more slow and subtle.
The only thing that’s held them back is the altitude. At three miles high, the Tibetan plateau has made it nearly impossible for the Chinese to develop a subsistence livelihood. As a result, colonization is very expensive for the Chinese government and why I think that someday they will just give up and go home.
It’s simply not cost-effective. The Chinese will never be able to make their people into Tibetans; they don’t even like it there. Physiologically, they don’t have the lungs to live there and they never will. There aren’t any amber waves of grain, just a million square miles of rock and a bunch of yaks munching on sparse grass. The best you can do is make yak butter and cheese. That’s it. There’s no way to plow that place. Mao’s dream of 60 million Chinese living in Tibet will never be realized.
Once the Chinese realize this truth, they will leave and the Tibetans will get their country back. And once the Tibetan culture is rekindled, then there can be an economy based on spiritual tourism. It’s ironic that a combination of spiritual tradition, practical materialism and a vast, hostile landscape may be what saves Tibet. The Wilsonian dream of a world democracy based on self-determination may happen yet, and when it does they’ll all get rich be the happier for it. The Chinese could then become financial investors in the Tibetan economy rather than the military destroyers of it. I’m sure it will all change soon.
CG: What is enlightenment?
RT: Enlightenment is defined as perfect wisdom, meaning accurate and precise knowledge of the nature of reality of the self and of the world. It’s an awareness of exactly what is there, combined with perfect compassion, which is understanding the inter-relatedness of all things. Relativity was not discovered by Einstein, but by Buddha. You feel other beings as if they were in some sense yourself.
Most people think of enlightenment as some kind of blanking out state, when you’re oblivious to everything. We’re usually so miserable and stressed out all the time, the only time we’re really happy is when we’re sound asleep. So, we think of enlightenment as some kind of unconscious, blissed-out state.
In fact, enlightenment is the opposite. It’s being totally present; it’s feeling connected with everything and feeling love toward it all as a natural state. You don’t want anyone or anything to suffer, and know that the question can’t exist without the answer.
And the good thing is that apparently when you are like that, you are very jolly. It just feels very good—a lot better than all this business of struggling with the universe. We’re so used to struggling all the time and being dissatisfied (except for brief moments of sensory distraction), it’s almost inconceivable that one could be fully present and connected to everything—and enjoy it!
CG: Have you experienced anything that comes close to this?
RT: A taste. Enough of a taste to feel that it must be true, and that it is worth exploring further. But I’m not absolutely sure that it really is that way, and I’m not sure that what I tasted wasn’t some kind of delusion. But being at Mt. Kailash was enough to encourage me not to give up.
It’s like falling in love with someone or holding your baby, when you feel that momentary sense of fusion with something divine. It’s such a relief to be out of your own self-centered little frame of existence. So why should it be impossible to cultivate an empathetic heart that feels that way about everyone and everything? Enlightenment exists beyond the god-state. It is actually reinventing the divine state within a human being.
CG: Do yoga and Buddhism come from the same source?
RT: I think they are both very inter-connected. Both yoga and Buddhism developed in the same direction and they honor many of the same sacred sites, including Mt. Kailaish. India lost something when the Islamic conquest deprived them of their Buddhist partners. Hopefully, this will be remedied in this century. The world-wide interest in yoga and Buddhism as eastern psychology is reawakening something in India. But that’s another story.
When it comes to enlightenment, brahmahood and buddhahood are aspects of the same thing. But self-realized yoga masters tend to be more detached from the world, while Buddhist masters integrate their awareness with the world, imperfect as it is.
CG: What is compassion?
RT: Compassion is the will to relieve others of their suffering, which is only natural when you are connected to everything because their suffering is your suffering. Universal compassion is felt toward one’s enemy as well as one’s friend—toward all beings. That’s what the Buddha is—the manifestation of compassion.
CG: What is freedom?
RT: Freedom is dharma It is reality, not a fantasy. It is what you experience when you are enlightened. The true nature of reality, of the atoms, of the cellular structure of life, is bliss. And with this awareness, there is freedom from suffering. But within that total freedom is the freedom to be totally engaged. Although nirvana is the state of freedom and samsara is the state of bondage, when you achieve freedom you embrace the bondage of all beings from a place of compassion. Enlightenment will not leave anything in bondage outside the boundaries of freedom.
It’s like what NATO is finally doing for the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. We can no longer allow them to suffer under Milosevic’s atrocities while we exist in a relative state of freedom. It’s very significant that we are standing up to this lunatic right now in 1999. Because we are all interconnected as human beings, we cannot tolerate this insanity and suffering. Through doing this, we are reinventing our own freedom by giving them theirs.
Someone who is suffering, dying even, can still realize that the true nature of the universe is love. And that the demonic reality of the rapists and murderers is only a delusion. The greatest victory the Kosovars could have over Milosevic is to realize that they are free not to hate him back. There was a famous man named Frankel who survived a Nazi death camp by maintaining his spiritual dignity. He was determined not to hate them they way they hated him. His inner freedom was the one area of his life that the Nazis could not violate. So when we finally capture Milosevic, we should bombard him with kindness, not bombs. We should transform him with our loving kindness, because if we simply destroy him, another monster will be reborn to take his place. The only way to really defeat him is to inspire a breakthrough in his heart.
Virginia Lee was Associate Editor and served on the Editorial Board of Yoga Journal from 1980-85, and has been widely published in magazines ever since. She was a regular interviewer for Common Ground from 1992-2004, and has also written two books: The Roots of Ras Tafari published by Avant Books of San Diego in 1985, and Affairs of the Heart published by Crossing Press of Freedom, CA in 1993. She currently works as a freelance writer in Santa Cruz, CA.