Arnis Ritups: Are you a Buddhist?
Robert Tenzing Thurman: In general I would say yes, and that’s based on my view that the Buddha was enlightened and therefore gave a teaching that was realistic about the world. Nowadays my definition of Buddhism is realism, real realism though, not fake. And the Buddha was not really religious in that sense because the way religion is defined in our time – as a matter of faith – the Buddha never said you can save yourself with faith; he said you have to understand the world in order to be free from suffering. So that makes his quest and his teaching not basically religious, but more scientific actually, like what is real, what are you, what is the world, when you really know that, really well, directly then you can become free of suffering, that’s his teaching. I cannot be sure about that, that’s why I am a feeble Buddhist because you don’t know unless you become a Buddha yourself, which I’m not. By the way there is some good evidence that he was correct, in which case we have the ability to understand the world thoroughly: that’s how we become free of suffering. Then our job becomes to study the world and to study the self and to really understand it, not just take any half answer and not believe in some lame thing.
AR: How do you know that Buddha was enlightened?
RTT: Because whatever he says makes good sense, it’s highly reasonable and a lot of people who implemented it found it worked for them and they became much more free from suffering and much more aware of life, and the little bit I have succeeded in doing has helped me a lot. For example, to control my bad temper, which is really bad. I have relatives who are generals, what we call in America red-necks, and the thing about red-neck men is they have bad tempers, they usually die of heart attacks at fifty sixty years of age because they get angry all the time. I was born with such a hot temper, and I was unhappy and made other people unhappy, so practising the Buddhist method of understanding made me much happier.
AR: Could you tell me a bit more about this method?
RTT: Well, the basic method is to analyse the world thoroughly, by means of reason. And once the reason gets going, then things come apart. When you take things apart like that you realize that things dissolve under analysis. When you discover that and the path of reasoning intensifies and you combine it with meditation and you develop strong concentration where you no longer let your mind wander here and there, but you are really focusing, then you have an experience like of space, emptiness, selflessness – you can experience that. And that experience is what begins the slow process, not some sudden thing that people always talk about, but a slow process of, like they say, melting down the negative habit of self-absolutization which is the key to all suffering.
AR: By self-absolutization you mean…
RTT: I mean like Descartes, that’s what I mean… I think therefore I am. I exist absolutely, I’m sure of that, that kind of thing. Because that’s the hook on which anger, or obsession, or confusion gets caught on, that’s how people when they go crazy do, they kill themselves, they kill other people, they go nuts, because they think that they have something inside that is sort of absolute, that’s not connected to anything else, and therefore when they have an impulse it seems to come from that, in their habitual experience they just go crashing against their relations, they pay no attention to their body, or anything, like suicide bombers or any other kind of fanatic.
AR: But how can that sort of delusion be destroyed?
RTT: Well, when we realize, because we are realistic beings, we are realistic animals, and so when we realize this feeling that comes up inside, when you realize that it’s illusory, then that begins to diminish. And then eventually you get where you have a big impulse to do something or believe something, whatever it is, and instead you have to do it, you question yourself, why am I doing this? You realize that your self is a relational self, not an absolute self, bit by bit you realize it in experience, and once you know you are a relational self, free of absolute self, what they would call a selfless self…
AR: Is there still someone who has thoughts, who develops…
RTT: Yes, sure, the relative self. Let’s put it this way. Do you have a nose?
AR: I do.
RTT: You do. And you feel that you really have a nose. Okay we all think we have a nose but actually anything we can touch is really not our nose, the nose is composed of parts, none of which are the nose, in fact.
AR: Well, the nose is a notion, an idea…
RTT: Exactly, it’s an ideational construct, arbitrarily designated upon, some bits of flesh, no real boundaries between nose and cheek, between skin and bone, the internal nostril and the cartilage, so there’s nothing about the nose that’s the nose! If we know that, and then something happens to the nose – oh, okay it’s a different kind of nose, we are able to relate to it in a different way. If we think that we have an absolute nose then we sort of think that our notion is really there objectively speaking, then some damage happens to our nose and we go nuts, we grow old and slowly we go nuts, and the nose starts to droop down, we wake up and see in the mirror that this nose looks really bad, that’s because we are attached to some notion that we think is objectively real. Buddha said that the atom is infinitely divisible, in other words there is no atom, there is no indivisible, everything is infinitely divisible, it dissolves under analysis. He said that thousands of years ago, before quantum physics.
AR: Could we come back to enlightenment, its content? Is there something else besides this selflessness?
RTT: They all say very clearly that anything you say about the Enlightenment will not reach it. So that if you think you have a formula to describe exactly what it is – you will be mistaken. Then they proceed to talk a lot, thousands and millions of pages of analysis, and they have this idea of three bodies of the Buddha – the truth body, the reality body and then the form body or material body, so the idea is that the truth body, it’s content is contentlessness, it’s really selflessness and emptiness, or dharma realm as they call it, because that is the moment apparently where you have an experience of everything. You identify it as expansion of identity where you experience yourself as everything, in other words you feel you are all the universe. Normally you are not feeling your butt on the chair or your feet on the floor but if you go back to yourself, you sort of feel your sense fields, and you feel that’s you, but you won’t feel that the chair is you, you’ll feel that it’s something else, but when you attain dharma body, you feel that everything is you… Most of the mystics think that voidness is a state of feeling like everything is nothing, almost like nothingness, but that’s completely wrong, it’s too easy. You just pass out and you experience nothingness, you fall into deep sleep, but in fact it’s where you are everything and also you are aware of all the contours of everything too, all the differentiations within that, so it’s not dual, you are Arnis and you are aware of being Bob, but you are aware of every element of Bob, but yet you feel as you, you are not particularly located anywhere, non-local. Then because you feel that you are aware that for example, Bob is feeling he has a cough, he’s tired, he’s stressed out, like hot, thirsty whatever, and yet on some other level you perceive every cell, you realize I’m a kind of thought construct and you realize that I am actually a being made of bliss, I’m not actually different from how you feel, I’m actually the same, but I have mentally got myself in an evolutionary situation where I’m feeling alienated from the universe, freaked out, like the world is against me, or I don’t have enough of it – whatever it is. So you are of that, both levels of my being simultaneously and you don’t like it that I’m not enjoying this situation that you enjoy, because you are like everywhere, as an energy, like a bliss energy. So you are like a mirror, you can manifest to me whatever I need to begin to open up my awareness, although you can’t force me, because if you start to force me or energize me, I’ll get more paranoid and think like somebody is attacking me.
The Buddha is not unaware of that, he can’t be unaware of that because it’s part of the world, he can’t say oh, it’s just an illusion, forget it because it isn’t an illusion to them. Buddha knows it’s illusory, like an illusion, but it’s still real, because it’s real to the others, he is respectful of their awareness, even their delusions, he knows that they are suffering, causing suffering to each other, he feels that. You know, I burn my hand and I’m compassionate to the burned hand, I have to do something for it because I feel it. So the Buddha feels every being’s feeling, as the idea, on the other hand the Buddha feels it in a way where he knows it’s like he has a double feeling, complicated, it’s not simplistic, like passing out, which is the way the mystics always think, oh we are all one so I don’t know of anybodies here.
AR: You mentioned several lives who or what will be living…
RTT: … who or what came this morning from New York to Woodstock…
AR: I was under the illusion that myself and Uldis did.
RTT: That’s right, not illusion, that’s illusory, because we can’t find anything. The continuity of Arnis is coming and going. Like look at the quantum world, who knows whether it’s a wave or a particle clinging to the table. Our awareness of it is much too slow to perceive the vibratory nature of it except in certain special states at which time we can, but normally we don’t. Buddha awareness can see all levels like that and that’s why quantum experiment has shattered the whole materialism really, it totally smashed it, but they won’t admit it, they can’t deal with it so they’re like hanging on, the scientists, they try to make money, ridiculous. The quantum theory smashed the idea of being able to hold anything as permanent, as really solid, it’s ridiculous. Your brain is like neurons and photons, subatomic particles sizzling around in there at the subtlest level, so it’s like a TV set that has this bszzzzzz in it. Now I see a microphone, I see Arnis, Uldis and the honey and tea, it’s just there like that but actually I’m imposing a tremendous structure on this buzzing business, if I really slow down my awareness, I become the master of my conceptualizing rather than just the victim.
AR: But I don’t see why I should care about the future of this continuity?
RTT: The reason you should care about this is because you will never get rid of it, the law of the conservation of energy, the first law of thermodynamics, is that no energy is ever destroyed, it only transforms. And only because all the world’s religions teach us a bunch of nonsense that we can escape from this do we think that we don’t care, we can somehow escape, and there are different kinds of escape. Religions sold the escape saying – oh, there is somebody outside who isn’t subject to all of this, they created it or I love Yahweh or whatever it is then they just pluck us out, of them whereas they are cool, in their heaven or whatever it is. But in order to do that you have to go to the church, or a Buddhist temple, but that’s irrational.
AR: What’s wrong with being irrational?
RTT: I can ask you that question when you leave here and you walk out of the door, instead of walking through the wall. If you start banging your head in the wall and you say, well, I don’t care, I’m irrational, and I say what’s wrong with irrational, you are bruising your head… When I say irrational I don’t mean the absolute system of rationality, I mean everyday practical rationality. What’s wrong with irrationality, then we would bang into walls all the time. We judge that we could get through the door because we have experienced that, we remember that, we have an inference that’s a door, we see a handle, you know, we reasonably walk through life, we don’t step into quicksand, we don’t step in front of a truck. Rationally speaking, just as you care about the state you expect to experience as Arnis between now and retirement and death, whatever you expect to be your lifespan.
AR: But you are implying that I should also care about my state after death?
RTT: Exactly, unless you have a security and certainty that you will not exist at the moment of death. The religions sold God and heaven and all this kind of stuff, even a certain type of Buddhism will sell nirvana, but the scientists sell nothingness which is just as irrational and insane as god, no better, it’s just as demented. How can anybody be nothing, it’s ridiculous, nothing is nothing, there is not a place to get into, it’s not something you can become, there is no way to be nothing, so your awareness itself is a kind of energy, why would that be the one energy that would discontinue?
AR: Even if it continues, but as I don’t remember what happened in my previous life…
RTT: Well but that’s your fault, you can, easily, many people have.
AR: Do you?
RTT: …a little bit, yes, but I’m lazy as I told you. So I don’t remember every detail, but I have some flashes, but I know a lot of people who remember a great deal. My wife remembers at least three or four in more clear detail, and there is a huge body of evidence. Rationality is all relational, it’s all relative, it’s all conventional, when you hang someone for murder or George Bush electrocutes someone in Texas he does not have absolute conclusive proof at all, there is no conclusive proof of anything, but there is strong evidence for this. And the point is this – what is the evidence that you can be nothing? There never will be evidence that beings become nothing, therefore it becomes reasonable to assume that there will be future continuity after death and therefore it becomes reasonable to seek to understand the causes that will make a good or bad experience after then and if the causes lie in the quality of your awareness, it then becomes reasonable to invest the major effort of your life in improving the quality of your awareness.
AR: Why are you a lazy Buddhist?
RTT: Because I’m still too materialistic, I’m not so intense to attain Buddhahood, because I’m not really deeply aware of the incredible bliss of that state.
AR: But you tell us stories about…?
RTT: Yes, I do tell some stories and I have some convictions, I’m a Buddhist but I’m lazy, that’s all I said. I still somehow feel like my old teacher after ten years. He came in one day when I was meditating and said why bother? To be enlightened you have to have a mind, but you are still convinced that you don’t have one. You have ideas but really you don’t believe that, he said, because you are American and you are still part of your culture. But that was 30 years ago, that was after 10 years of study and practice, and I still have a vestige of that but I am now aware of it and it isn’t very strong, I must admit.
AR: What sort of practice can help to change one’s thinking?
RTT: Well, if you move into infinite life, which you can think of as a long interview… So we’ve done this interview an infinite number of times, but always a little bit differently. And sometimes I was the one coming from somewhere like Latvia interviewing you, and sometimes it was Uldis, and we did it and we kept doing it, but we didn’t do it right because we are still stuck doing it, but maybe we’ve made a lot of improvements. Logically you don’t grant that premise but on the premise that no something can ever come from nothing, not only are we going to have an infinite number of infinite conversations, but we’ve had an infinite number of past conversations. The universe is beginningless, once there is a beginninglessness we can’t say we haven’t done everything because infinity means there is no limit to the possibilities, so that we’ve met many times and forgotten many times cannot be denied as a possibility, it cannot be insisted on in an absolute sense, but in a relative sense it’s highly likely. Therefore, Buddhists meditate that everything has been your mother, that’s a very important way of interconnecting. That meditation is very powerful in overcoming racism, nationalism, sexism because you get into a mind where you sort of see the motherhood in every being, even Hitler, even Stalin, even George Bush, even murderers, monsters. The fist is to practice the spirit of Enlightenment, the boddhichitta, and that mind is a mind that somehow acknowledges the infinite interconnectedness with other beings from the beginning and therefore it changes the motivation from being I want to separate myself from this world which is the individual vehicle motivation. So the first practice is changing that motivation so that one’s self-interest and altruistic interest coincide in a spiritual sense.
AR: It means that you should sit and entertain the thought that you are not a separate being?
RTT: Not really, because that would be like cultivating the belief that you are not. Like one lama I know used to say beautifully, we are so used to the absolutized self habit of mixing with our relative self that when we see through that absolutized self habit we have an experience as if the relative self disappears, and then the last danger is when we absolutize that experience thinking that it was our real self when we had the feeling of having disappeared. I can meditate again and again that there is no absolute Bob Thurman inside here, and then when someone comes and kicks me I’m gonna react as if it’s an absolute affront because there is that feeling that there is a real me in here. Whereas if I really thoroughly understood, if I got rid of what is called the instinctual self habit, then eventually I’ll have an instinctual experience of selflessness where I’ll feel like melting and I’ll have to be careful not to reify the feeling of being in a vast space, or feeling of being nowhere, or feeling of disappearing, not to reify that into some sort of an absolute state. Because that’s what my mind habit will want to do and so I’ll have to be self-critical, that’s what they call the emptiness of emptiness. You feel you enter into emptiness where everything dissolves but then you have to look for emptiness and then you won’t find emptiness and then it will dissolve, and then it will not obstruct things, like a mirror does not obstruct, you see all the things in the room, in fact it reveals them. Emptiness becomes like a mirror surface. That sense of interconnection is the key to understanding, and the practice begins not with meditation, but with generosity.
Once I realize that I’m totally interconnected and that actually my feeling that I’m privileged in being inside my self as opposed to being anywhere else is kind of wrong and that that sense of privileged self-centeredness is reinforced by my sense that I own this table cloth, or this table, or this leg, or this money or whatever it is, then generosity is the beginning of giving things where the giver is actually the one who really benefits. You become more and more free of feeling of grounding that sense of separate self in possessions, and of course the greatest gift is the gift of awareness, the gift of attention, the gift of seeing things from the other’s point of view rather than from your own point of view. Then the second step is morality, I translate it as justice, in the ancient meaning of justice – propriety, and what that means is that – okay, here we are, I just feel this way, but I stop what I’m thinking, Uldis might be thirsty, I stop what I’m thinking and I say – would you like a glass of water. It’s considering the other, not killing them, not taking their things, not behaving wrongly with them in a sexual way that’s harmful…
AR: What is harmful in this sense?
RTT: Well, making somebody pregnant and not taking care of their child, casually screwing them some time irresponsibly… or I break up a marriage, or I create a situation in some Muslim country where they’d stone or kill the girl. They are not necessarily some absolute thing, that’s not simply adultery, there are other kinds too. The basis of morality is realizing that the other is just as alive as you are, the other is as much of a centre as you are and therefore the other’s life has equal value to yours and since there is more of them you should actually consider them ahead of yourself. Patience the third one, the conquering of anger. You can’t jump from anger to compassion, you have to do patience first move. You might act forcefully to stop someone from harming you or some other but not out of anger.
AR: Have you experienced serious wrong-doing by someone?
RTT: Sure, sure. I usually get mad as hell, lately less, I’ve become more tolerant, but not perfect.
AR: Can you tell why personally for you Tibet is so important?
RTT: A) Personally I was in Tibet many times, and B) Tibet is a place where Buddhism is a real curriculum, not some lame brain religion adding to the groups of lame religions fighting each other, but as a real curriculum of how to educate a human being to become selfless, to understand their true nature, to become realistic about the way they live, so we can have a happy planet here, not oppressing women, not destroying the environment etc., by being realistic actually instead of being insane. There is no mystery why Buddhism is no longer in the land of its birth, because it’s not a religion; it’s an educational curriculum which puts a lot of pressure on people to overcome their selfish behaviour and ridiculous ideas. Tibet is a place where it still is truly alive, virtual Tibet is still there. The reason Tibet is so important is that that is where the life of the mind is still alive in this mechanized industrially polluted and destroyed planet. People there can still see how the mind can be more powerful than matter and machines, they use machines mostly in prayer wheels, a little bit for grinding grain and stuff. Tibet was the first to demilitarize completely, and it made Mongolia demilitarize, which was a great accomplishment. And what do we need? – We need to demilitarize, otherwise we are doomed. The war is not over. As Gandhi said, we defeated Hitler but Stalin and the CIA took over, and it’s absolutely the same, no difference.
Tibet shows a rational humane intelligent enjoyable, blissful lifestyle. It’s not some subsistence tribal lifestyle at all, it’s a very highly organized and sophisticated civilization, and yet it does not need the military or machines, it focuses on education as the prime aim of life, it was a sane society, and it still is. Unbelievable – 150 000 refugees in India, 30-40 000 are still monastic, they are yogi philosophers in the true sense! In Tibet the minute the Chinese took their hands off in 1981, a brief moment, hundreds of thousands rushed to the monasteries again, against the law even, they did it as civil disobedience, the Chinese let them for four or five years when the rebuilding took place, and that’s after twenty years of being beaten to death over owning a rosary!!! Anyway – generosity, morality, tolerance or patience, and then – creativity or what they call creative effort, creating a better world, a better mind, a better self, and finally – meditation. Of course the sixth one is wisdom, prajna, which means knowing the nature of reality.
AR: I understand that you are the first Westerner who was ordained…
RTT: … by the Dalai Lama?
AR: Why did you abandon your monkhood?
RTT: I lived as a monk from ’62 to ’64 and then I was ordained and stayed on until mid ’66. I was young, I was bent on attaining Enlightenment, I actually felt even before I encountered Buddhism, that there would be some sort of way of understanding the world. I didn’t agree with Christians who said you cannot understand, only God can understand, or the scientists who say you can understand a little bit and then you learn this discipline and then you know, each time you learn something you know more that you don’t know. I also felt the dogma materialism was not correct. And then I got the idea that maybe the yoga tradition or something in India, but I was not really focused on Tibet.
And I felt I had to do it more interactively in the world and I looked around me and the Tibetans were monastic, and they were very kind to me and they were delighted that I became monastic but on the other hand they also needed help, they were penniless refugees, in very hard circumstances. They wondered why was a Westerner from America joining them and being penniless, they admired that I was studying but on the other hand why couldn’t he help them? Then I came back to America briefly and I tried to be a monk here in 1965-1966 and that was ridiculous at that time, we didn’t even have Hare Krishnas at that time, there was nothing and you know America is this Protestant country, they don’t respect monks, they think that monks are like hiding out, living off their free lunch or whatever. Everyone thought I was crazy, I couldn’t share my teaching with anyone. And in Tibetan society being a monk it’s like having a life long government national science foundation fellowship, you can just do whatever you can do, you can figure out the world, whatever you want to do, so it’s not such a big thing for them, it’s not that hard, it’s a privilege actually.
I realized I could not talk to anybody because they thought I was nuts, I can’t share the teachings that I thought were terrific, I can’t be an activist in the world because I’m a monk, I can’t raise money to help the Tibetans, and I can’t live over there forever just having them feed me, so what can I do? Then my teacher said – well, you are half way to being a professor, so you can teach and be a professor. So I decided to do that and then I realized that people would not accept me in the graduate school being a monk, they would then definitely think I was nuts, so then I sort of had to take off my robes, one thing lead to the other, and eventually I resigned, and then I fell in love, and then we had four children.
AR: In terms of your search for enlightenment you have become lazier than you were?
RTT: In one way. In another way I’ve been studying a lot, teaching, and also in my case I think I have learned a lot from having children to develop my tolerance, my patience, I’ve learned a lot from being with a woman, by having to participate in life in a certain way. I came up with this big theory that nobody needs to be a monk because you learn so much in the world. The Dalai Lama likes to say I’m the most enthusiastic ex-monk that he knows.
AR: Are all your children Buddhists?
RTT: You have to ask them, they are free thinkers.
AR: How do you feel about Uma in Kill Bill killing all those…?
RTT: Well, we both were unhappy that Quentin had to put in so much killing, 88 people in one scene, she could not professionally not do it because it was written for her after four years, she did not control him in the script, the only saving grace supposedly, is it’s kind of ironic, like a cartoon… But even then it was distressing. It’s beautiful all the same, it’s like a dance, like, kali you know, the fierce female, it has a kind of subliminal effect, these males in America today, these Christian fanatics trying to take the women and stick them back into kitchen, in the oven practically, and they are no good, you know. And here’s the forceful female – it’s too much but it’s great too, showing that the female can be powerful!. I’m sure it frightens them, they don’t go and see it. They’d rather go see Jesus beat himself or getting beaten up.
AR: What will happen to you at the moment of your death?
RTT: I’m not sure, but I think I’m going to be focusing on… you know trying to withdraw my low wind energies from my body and not fighting that, going through the eight signs of death, I do meditate on that all the time in a visualizational kind of way. You do that three times a day basically. And hopefully when the time comes when I’m really losing my limbs, etc I’ll be able to work on that and remain conscious through the transition, maybe I will be reborn in Latvia next time.
Woodstock, June 2005
Published 16 November 2005
Original in English
First published by Rigas Laiks 9/2005 (Latvian version)
Contributed by Rigas Laiks © Arnis Ritups/Robert Tenzing Thurman/Rigas Laiks EurozinePDF/PRINT