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Finding 'answers' in Tibet, and returning to fight for his adopted culture

When Robert Thurman was a senior at Harvard, he was searching for answers that he could not find in Cambridge.

So he went to India.


"When I was an undergrad, I started reading [about India]," Thurman said in an interview Saturday. "My Western reading led me to Buddhist texts. I went out there my senior year in 1961. I met the Tibetans, and they had the philosophical answers that I was looking for."

After that trip, Thurman — who is speaking on campus today — returned to Harvard to finish school. Soon after, he went back to India and Tibet and became the first Westerner to be ordained a Buddhist monk.

Thurman said he learned a great deal from his experiences as a monk. "I remained a monk for about four years," he said. "I meant to do it for life. At the time, I was doing fine being a monk in Tibet."

Eventually, though, Thurman — whose daughter is actress Uma Thurman — decided to move back to the United States and return to academia. He believed he could help raise awareness of Tibet's problems more effectively by working in the United States than by remaining a monk.

Thirty years later, he is a professor at Columbia and a leading authority on Tibetan Buddhism in North America.

"About 1970, I began to feel more interested in the politics of Tibet," Thurman said. "I'm still very interested in Tibetan civilization. The world has a lot to learn from it as a civilization."


Thurman noted that once his interest in Tibetan politics developed, he was able to draw on his experiences living there as a monk. "After living with them for four or five years, I realized these people need a lot of help," Thurman said.

"I knew a lot about the terrible things they had suffered as refugees," he said, explaining that at the time, the Soviet Union was still strong and "it didn't seem too hopeful that China would ever let go of [Tibet]."

Thurman said he does not believe the Tibetan cause has been sufficiently popularized by the press, despite growing awareness of the issue and events like the Tibetan Freedom Concert.

Thurman argued that the Tibetan people have been violently oppressed since China took over the country in the 1950s. "[The oppression in] Tibet is particularly intense," he said, "because the Tibetans are not violent. They haven't really fought. It's also very large. It's the largest land seizure in the world since World War II."

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Thurman said he sees a bright future for the Tibetan people, despite the region's now-desperate conditions.

"I'm very optimistic," he said. "Probably dementedly optimistic. I don't believe Russia deconstructed itself because they're saints. It's not cost effective to oppress people. You need economic creativity."

Thurman said he believes similar economic pressures will force China to change its policy toward Tibet. "You don't do that well when you oppress people," he said. "China is a dinosaur."