Meet the First American Monk of Tibetan Buddhism
Dr. Robert Thurman has some unique distinctions. In 1965, he became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist Monk by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Not only was he a student of the Dalai Lama, but he became the spiritual leader’s tutor, sharing his Harvard University and Phillips Exeter Academy education on topics ranging from psychology to physics and world history. He went on to create the field of “Buddhology.” TIME magazine chose Professor Thurman as one of its 25 most influential Americans in 1997, and The New York Times stated that he “is considered the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism.” His search for enlightenment began while he was a university student. After losing the use of his left eye from an accident, he left Harvard to go on a spiritual quest through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He first saw the Dalai Lama in India in 1962. Not long after being ordained, however, he decided he could be more effective in a university than a monastery, and in 1967 he resigned his monk’s vows of celibacy and went on to obtain an M.A. as well as a Ph.D. in Sanskrit Studies from Harvard University in 1972. He is now a Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University (the first endowed chair in this field of study in the U.S.). He is also President of Tibet House US, a nonprofit organization he co-founded with actor Richard Gere and two others dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization. He’s also President of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, a nonprofit affiliated with the Center for Buddhist Studies at Columbia University dedicated to the publication of translations of important artistic and scientific treatises from the Tibetan Tengyur. He is a speaker and an author of books on Tibet, Buddhism, art, politics and culture. His daughter, who also serves on the Board of Trustees of Tibet House US, is the Academy Award-nominated actress Uma Thurman. Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie spoke to Robert Thurman about the Global Compassion Summit and 80th birthday celebration for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Buddhism, his extraordinary life and his current projects.