Finding a Place for Skilful Distortions


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Finding a Place for Skilful Distortions

Locating the Work and Contribution of Robert A. F. Thurman

Scott Abbott

SID: 307271951

Submitted November 30, 2009 in fulfilment of the requirements of Buddhist Studies Dissertation units 1 & 2 (BDST 6907 & BDST 6908) (15,000-20,000 words) as part of the Master of Buddhist Studies at the University of Sydney


Bob Thurman in 2014 by Christopher Michel. Ladakh, India.

Bob Thurman in 2014 by Christopher Michel. Ladakh, India. (CC BY-SA 4.0)


This work has also been published on with footnotes and altmetrics here.

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A leading political advocate for the Tibetan freedom struggle, a successful populariser of Tibetan Buddhism, a polariser of opinion and significant influence in the field of American and Western Buddhist studies, Robert A. F. Thurman was once named as one of the 25 Most Influential Americans by Time Magazine. He has for over 30 years both divided opinions and inspired ‘right action’ for positive social change.

Some argue that Thurman’s voice for Tibet, through his body of written work, has been at times misleading in that he idealizes Tibetan culture and history as “highly-spiritual” and without fault, despite evidence to the contrary. It is claimed that Thurman glosses over certain realities, continuing a tradition of not only the “Shangri-la-izing” of Tibet but also the idealization of India and China by the European Romantics and Enlightenment philosophes respectively. Seen as the possessing the cure for our Western ills of rampant materialism and excessive rationalism, the Eastern “Other” has maintained a fascination since at least the time of Alexander the Great.

In this thesis we aim to critically examine the work of Robert Thurman and to find a place for his contribution to Buddhist studies and what Michael Valpy calls Buddhism’s “third wave” in America. Central to this endeavour is the attempt to seek out and examine the source of the criticisms directed toward aspects of Thurman’s work. In doing so we will separate Thurman’s work into positivist Buddhist studies and comparative philosophy, Buddhist theology, traditional Buddhist scholasticism, popular Buddhist literature and political activism. In doing so we will also examine the validity of descriptions of Thurman’s work as “tantric eschatology” and explore the idea that Thurman’s “distortions” could in fact be examples of the use of the traditional Buddhist upāya or “skilful means” employed to liberate sentient beings from the “burning house” of sasāra.

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Introduction: Who is Robert Thurman and why is he Controversial?

Robert A. F. Thurman (b. 1941) is a figure who has tended to polarize opinions both within and outside the field of Buddhist studies. At a popular level he has been described as one of the twenty-five most influential Americans and a “dharma-thumping evangelist” while within the field, Donald S. Lopez in particular has questioned the way in which Thurman represents Tibetan Buddhism as science while at the same time romanticising pre-1951 Tibet as a ‘spiritual’ civilization. Thurman has also polarized opinion due to a certain level of self-promotion which has tended to go hand in hand with his promotion of Tibet and its Buddhism, as well for his endorsement of what has been derided by one internet blogger as ‘Anything goes’ Buddhism. Whether Thurman’s contribution has been beneficial or detrimental, it is certainly unique. He provides a significant and useful object of study insofar as his work encapsulates and raises significant questions for the key issues of authority and legitimacy, authenticity and distortion, that surface in considering the transmission of Buddhist traditions to the West and the development of Western Buddhism.

Robert Alexander Farrar Thurman was born in New York City in 1941. The son of a stage actress and an Associated Press editor and U.N translator, he graduated from Harvard with a B.A in 1962. In 1959, he married Christophe de Menil, an heiress to the Schlumberger Limited oil-equipment fortune. After losing his left eye in an accident in 1961, Thurman decided to re-focus his life. He divorced his wife and spent 1961-1966 travelling in Turkey, Iran and India. In 1964 he became the first Westerner to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk where he became friends with, and was also sometimes personally taught by, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He later quipped that as well as being the first Westerner to become a monk in this tradition he was also the first to disrobe, which he did when back in America in 1967 before marrying his second and current wife Nena von Schlebrgge (who had also been briefly married to Timothy Leary). Thurman and Schlebrgge have four children, the oldest of whom is the actress Uma Thurman.

In 1969, Thurman obtained an M.A and in 1972 a Ph.D in Sanskrit from Harvard under Daniel H. H. Ingalls and Masatoshi Nagatomi. From 1973 to 1988 he was professor of religion at Amherst College and in 1988 he accepted a position as professor of religion and Sanskrit at Columbia University where he still holds the Jey Tsong Kha pa chair for Indo-Tibetan studies. In 1987, at the request of the Dalai Lama, Thurman created Tibet House with Richard Gere and Philip Glass as a non-profit foundation and centre for the preservation of Tibetan culture in exile.

Thurman’s introduction to Buddhism was through the Tibetan (Lhasa-Gelukpa) trained Mongolian Lama, Geshé Ngawang Wangyal (c. 1901-1983), the first Tibetan monk to open a Tibetan Buddhist centre in the U.S. Called home only months into his Asian travels by the unexpected death of his father, Thurman met Geshé Wangyal who introduced him and his life-long colleague, Jeffrey Hopkins to Tibetan language and Tibetan Buddhism. It was Geshé Wangyal who agreed to take Thurman back to Dharamsala to seek ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was also Geshé Wangyal who inspired and encouraged Thurman to translate and study Tsong Khapa’s Legs bShad sNying po (Essence of True Eloquence) and, Wangyal, already perceiving Thurman as someone who would not last as a monk, but whose skills lay elsewhere, encouraged him to disrobe, on returning to America, and enter academia. In fact, Wangyal famously asked Thurman to leave his suit with him just before he left for India, assuring Thurman that he would leave it neatly pressed and hanging in a wardrobe in anticipation of his imminent return! Geshé Wangyal’s influence on Tibetan Buddhism’s introduction to America cannot be underestimated. It has been through Thurman, Hopkins, their contemporaries and their subsequent students that Geshé Wangyal has and continues to shape Tibetan Buddhism’s style of influence in America.

Since entering academia, including over twenty years at Columbia University, and teaching Indo-Tibetan studies for over 35 years, Thurman has become the leading populariser of Tibetan Buddhism in the U.S and, arguably, the leading non-Tibetan political advocate for the Tibetan cause. This thesis will critically re-examine Thurman’s contribution and will do so in the light of his place within the academy. Chapter 1 will examine his more scholarly work by analyzing his study and translation of Tsong Khapa’s Essence of True Eloquence, Chapter 2 will examine his populist work including his study and translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness, Chapter 3 will examine his work related to his political advocacy for the Tibetan cause focusing on his work Why the Dalai Lama Matters.

The work of Robert Thurman has to be seen within the larger context of Western interpretations of Buddhism. In relation to the American experience of Buddhism, Thurman’s type of Buddhism has been described as central to the “third wave” of Buddhism in America. In the Shambhala Sun, Michael Valpy writes,

Above all, what engages Thurman and draws public and media attention to him (apart from his Hollywood hobnobbing and romantic life story) is his position at the epicenter of America’s Buddhist Third Wave: [that is, the] first wave, the nineteenth-century transcendentalists like Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller weaving their metaphysics out of Buddhism and Hinduism; second, the 1960s counterculture trek to Himalayan gurus; and now, third, the growing appeal of Buddhism to Americans alienated from theistic religions and in search of a moral and ethical compass, the fertile society for Bob Thurman’s hoped-for Cool Revolution.

Thurman, can be seen as part of all three waves. He is an heir to the 19th century Transcendentalists in much of his philosophical outlook in that he continues the Transcendentalists’ “reaction against Lockean materialism [and] utilitarianism” as well as maintaining “a reformist and innovatory outlook” toward the broader American society by accessing ancient Eastern spiritual traditions. However, the intellectual heritage of the New England Transcendentalists had its roots even further back in the European Romantic movement beginning around the late 18th century and developing fully in the 19th century and centered on such influential figures as Johann Gottfreid Herder (1774-1803), F. W. J. Schelling (1775-1854), Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829), William Blake (1757-1827) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). The historian A. L. Willson could be describing Thurman today when he describes the general feeling of a 18th or 19th century Romantic toward European culture and the Romantic’s optimistic view toward the traditions of the East (especially India) when he writes, “To the Romanticist, who had become painfully aware of himself in the icy breath of the rationalist, European-Christian atmosphere of sobering disengagement from his own roots, India appeared like the promised land.” In fact, the similarities between the work of Thurman and the Romantics are many. Describing the similarities between the German Indophilia of the Romantic period and the French Sinophilia of the Enlightenment, J. J. Clarke in Oriental Enlightenment writes,

[I]n both cases the Orient was approached, not primarily in a spirit of objective scholarship, even less through a desire to understand contemporary India, but rather as an instrument for the subversion and reconstruction of European civilization, and though much was undoubtedly learned of Indian traditional culture, it was deployed primarily as a means of treating what were seen as deep-seated ills at the heart of contemporary European culture. Inevitably, therefore, the obsessional concern with Europe’s own problems led, for the German Romantics as much as for the French philosophes, to a measure of idealization and distortion, and the construction of an idyllic paradise.

These same charges of ‘idealization and distortion’ have been directed to some of Thurman’s work and indeed his view toward Tibet can sometimes mirror the Romantics’ view of India described above. For Thurman, the social ills of 18th and 19th century Europe continue in the excessive 21st century materialism and militarism of America specifically, and the Western world generally. And, like the Romantics, Thurman believes these ills can be countered and corrected by the philosophies and practices of the East – in this case, Buddhist Tibet.

This European Romantic heritage running through the American Transcendentalists emerged again in the Beat movement of 1950’s America. This influential era was shaped by people living in the same epoch as Thurman including, Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) and Gary Snyder (b. 1930). As Harry Oldmeadow notes in Journey East, in the New England Transcendentalists and the 1950s Beats we find “a sovereign concern with the nature of consciousness … a repudiation of the “Enlightenment Project,” and a turn to the East for more authentic modes of experience, thought and expression.” However it is the mass appeal of the Beats to sections of American society and the world, rather than the Transcendentalists’ more limited appeal, that is echoed in an intriguing way in Thurman’s work. Here Carol Tonkinson describes the effect of the Beats:

Not only did the Beats adapt the wisdom teachings of the East to a new, peculiarly American terrain, they also articulated this teaching in the vernacular, jazzy rhythms of the street, opening up what had been the domain of stuffy academics and stiff translators to a mainstream audience … the voices of American poets recounted the teaching of the Buddha to the general public for the first time.

In Thurman’s work we can see someone who, while a part of the academic establishment and a translator of Buddhist texts, appears to be, like the Beats, forever breaking free of the ‘domain of stuffy academics and stiff translators’ and using the contemporary ‘jazzy rhythms of the streets’ to bring Buddhism to a ‘peculiarly American terrain’. Thurman, who, significantly, began university studying poetry during the ‘Beat 50s’, is unique in the way that he has a foot in two worlds – part Beat-inspired populariser, and part academic/translator. One could almost imagine that Thurman remains inspired by the Beat era of his generation and seeks, through his work, to continue this revolutionary, or at least counter-cultural, approach the Beats so famously began.

And finally, Thurman’s heritage obviously very much includes the ‘1960’s countercultural trek to the Himalayan guru’, described by Valpy earlier. And Thurman is also now a central player in the mass popularization of Buddhism in America. What is key to Thurman’s career is his early strategic and conscious choice, encouraged by Geshé Wangyal, to enter the Western academy – the Western version, in Thurman’s opinion, of the monastery - as a launching pad from which to educate America about Buddhism. It was from this base that he has launched and sustains his personal Buddhist adventure into the American and Western psyche by drawing on another lineage of which he is a part – the lineage of positivist Buddhology - which we will identify below.

Here, our aim is to critically explore Thurman’s career in light of the various fields of scholarship within Buddhist studies. What field or fields is he a part of? In this introduction I will set the scene by exploring methodological issues relevant to this thesis and provide an overview of the various fields within the discipline as well as some of the larger contexts in which Thurman operates. To begin, I will set out the different types of Buddhist study within the Western academy and by defining these identify what various authors may be doing both within the academy or when engaging with a popular or non-academic audience. To identify the fields that can loosely be described as Buddhist studies and Buddhist literature, I will follow the division made by José Ignacio Cabezón who highlights the four fields of: 1. Positivistic Buddhist studies within the Western academy. 2. Buddhist theology within the Western academy, 3. Traditional Buddhist scholarship (historically, predominantly carried out by monastics), and 4. Populist Buddhist literature. This division is significant to the work of Thurman, who has arguably operated in all four categories. However, I will argue that his importance in Buddhist studies has come from working at the intersection between academic study and popular works for a non-academic audience. In addition, I will argue that he draws authority in his writing from both his Western academic credentials, as his time as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and, importantly, his close proximity to the 14th Dalai Lama.

To further explore the academic and non-academic field I will use as a starting point the contributions contained within Buddhist Theology: Critical Reflections by Contemporary Buddhist Scholars for an overview and analysis of the field of contemporary Buddhist scholarship. This exploration will help to provide a lens through which to analyze the work of Thurman. Firstly, I will look at the dominant paradigm of Buddhist studies in the academy – Buddhology or the positivistic study of Buddhism; secondly, the emerging field in the Western academy of Buddhist theology; thirdly, traditional Buddhist scholasticism; and, finally, popular Buddhist literature aimed at a non-academic Western audience.

1. Buddhology – the positivist or “objective” study of Buddhism within the Western academy.

Following the lead of the scientific revolution in which the scientific method became the prevailing means of gaining knowledge of the natural world, humanist scholars within the Western academy adopted (and adapted) that same scientific method in which their observable phenomena – texts, practices, histories and artifacts - became objects of study to be pinned down, dissected and objectively examined. From this method, it was argued, a descriptive account of cultural phenomena, including religion, could be produced and “objectively” assessed. This method became the basis of what John Makransky calls “the scientific study of religions”. A major assumption of this method was that truth about these phenomena could be ascertained by the dispassionate, objective observer whose findings would not be tainted by cultural or religious subjectivity and, in theory therefore, would be observable to any other dispassionate observer. The goal of this type of research was descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, the scholar would dispassionately describe what they found when examining the object of study. Their role was to “objectively” describe what was in front of them in a way that produced “neutral” observable cultural phenomena simply for knowledge’s sake. We will examine how Thurman operates in this academic mode, moving closest to this model, in our analysis of his study of Jey Tsong Khapa’s Legs bShad sNying po published as Speech of Gold (1984) and later reissued as The Central Philosophy of Tibet: A Study and Translation of Jey Tsong Khapa’s “Essence of True Eloquence” (1991).

Buddhism’s 19th century incorporation into the Western academy takes various distinct forms. On the one hand, Western interest in Buddhism as part of a wider history of ideas began in the early nineteenth century where it was welcomed and criticized by such thinkers as Schopenhauer and Hegel respectively. Each of these philosophers, who were not Buddhologists, took what they knew of Buddhism to substantiate their own philosophical projects. On the other hand, the descriptive presentation of Buddhist texts, and Buddhology as such, began from the mid-nineteenth century onward with translations by Pali scholars such as T. W. and C. F. Rhys Davids, and pioneering work by Sanskrit scholars such as Eugene Burnouf, F. Max Mller and others. In the twentieth century, the West and Asia came much closer together. From the mid-twentieth century, the first Western-born Buddhist converts, some of whom had been to Asia and studied under traditional Buddhist teachers, came home to increase their understanding of their new tradition by studying and researching “Buddhism” in the academy. Many of them, disillusioned with their own Western traditions, were involved in the continuing Romantic tradition of looking to the East to critique the West. As already mentioned, this approach to the East first articulated in the Romantic tradition is also found in the American transcendentalist movement, the beat generation and 1960s counter culture. Aspects of Thurman’s work can be understood in the light of all of these traditions, as noted above.

Critical to the evolution of Buddhist Studies in the academy was that in order to progress within this institution the new Buddhist scholars had to follow the methods of empirical scholarship. That is, their scholarship had to be descriptive and critical and not assume the authority of Buddhist teachings as assumed within a traditional setting. Buddhist Buddhologists had to keep their personal, in this case Buddhist, beliefs separate from the rigors of their academic work. In fact, as Roger Jackson has argued, to be seen as a Buddhist Buddhologist could seriously undermine one’s perceived ability to undertake impartial critical academic research. As Roger Corless has put it, the result was that many Buddhist Buddhologists actually had to take an “unholier than thou” approach to their work. They became overly critical of Buddhism, in order to counteract a predominant belief that non-Buddhists were better positioned from a “scientific” point of view to describe and present Buddhism “impartially” to the academy. The result of this intense aspiration toward academic rigor was that the fields of philology, philosophy, archeology, sociology and religious studies produced a wealth of academic material – though not necessarily as value free as some proponents of the positivist method in the humanities would claim.

As Jackson points out, it was not until some of the Buddhist Buddhologists attained tenure that their efforts could be directed toward the practice of Buddhist theology or Buddhist theorizing. In this new role, critically trained academics who assumed the authority of Buddhist truths could now normatively, prescriptively and constructively apply Buddhist theories to a range of issues facing the world. Among the pioneers in this field of Western academic Buddhist theology was Robert Thurman whose work Roger Jackson has described as operating in the mode of “tantric eschatology” – a colourful description, which, as I will show throughout the course of this study, I believe to be quite apt.

2. Buddhist Theology

Recently, this need to accommodate a normative Buddhist framework within the critical requirements within the academy has led to the self-conscious development of “Buddhist theology”. As pioneered by John Makransky, Roger Jackson and Jośe Ignacio Cabezon especially, Buddhist Theology aims to “prepare the ground” for the development of a rigorous arena for Buddhist scholars, who adhere to the authority of the Buddhist tradition as well as the critical requirements of the academy, to apply traditional Buddhist theories to the issues of the modern world. This could retrospectively describe much of Thurman’s work, however Thurman does not set out such an explicit methodological paradigm, which has left him open to criticism. Makransky and Jackson, who could also be described as Buddhist theorists, describe in their introduction what they believe Buddhist theology would seek to do:

It [Buddhist theology] includes critical reflection upon Buddhist experience in light of contemporary understanding and critical reflection upon contemporary understanding in light of Buddhist experience. Like that of Christian theologians, it is the work of scholars who stand normatively within their tradition, who look to traditional sources of authority (in sacred text and previous forms of social practice and experience), who re-evaluate prior Buddhist understandings in light of contemporary findings and who seek thereby to contribute to the continuing development of their tradition in its relevance to new times and places.

In order to soundly establish the foundations for such a discipline, one that had already somewhat begun through the work of some writers, the authors of Buddhist Theology seek to identify and then hopefully clear the ground of interdisciplinary disputes which have made the establishment of a tradition of Buddhist theology within the Western academy problematic.

Such disputes, as noted above, include the belief that Buddhist scholarship within the academy must always remain descriptive and never normative, constructive or prescriptive. On the other side are those Buddhist practitioners who engage in Buddhist studies who argue that it is possible to maintain the methods of non-prejudiced, rigorous, critical scholarship while at the same time adapting the views and theories of Buddhism to contemporary issues facing our world. They argue that just as “scientific-method” Buddhist scholars can maintain the requirements of scholarship, so too can Buddhist theologians. In the same way that the scientific-method humanities scholar can work within a set of valid assumptions and remain self-aware of those assumptions, so too can a Buddhist theologian work within the assumptions of Buddhist tradition to interpret and engage with the world as long as she remains critically self-aware of those assumptions.

This point of debate is important when analyzing the work of Robert Thurman. Where does he fit in? We could definitely say that he is a Buddhist theorist or theologian based on the fact that he obviously subscribes to the truths of Buddhist doctrine or authority and that he then applies these truths to contemporary Western social issues, as evidenced especially in his works aimed at a popular audience. A repeated theme of Thurman is to draw attention to the Western (specifically American) need to reduce its high degree of militarism in order to civilize by following Tibet’s social historical example. To do this the Western individual must turn inward and conquer the mind to find inner happiness and peace as a necessary prerequisite of creating wider social well-being and civilization which would include a great degree of demilitarization. However, Thurman may create a conundrum for these categories of populariser and academic. As an academic Buddhist theorist/theologian, does he maintain non-prejudiced, rigorous, critical scholarship when writing for a non-academic audience or does he enter the domain of traditional Buddhist scholasticism where the authority of the sacred text or teacher/guru is assumed and accepted as ultimate truth? In his popular literature does he merge this scholastic attitude with an academic one and then create a new category of Buddhist literature by applying these truths uncritically to the wider world around him? Before we answer these questions we must first explore the world of traditional Buddhist scholasticism.

3. Traditional Buddhist Scholasticism

To describe traditional Buddhist scholarship we need to look to the monastic institutions of Asia. As Jackson points out, although not exclusively the domain of elite, learned male monks, traditional Buddhist scholarship or scholasticism was, by and large, dominated by them. Most significant for a study of Thurman is the institutionalized scholastic activity of the Gelukpa (dGelugs pa) school of Tibetan Buddhism. To illustrate the aims, role and practice of Gelukpa scholasticism, I will look to Georges Dreyfus’s informed presentation of this tradition in his The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk. Dreyfus was the first Westerner to attain the Tibetan Buddhist title of geshé, the highest scholastic achievement within that tradition. To do this, he spent fifteen years living and studying as a scholar-monk within the Tibetan Gelukpa monastery of Sera-je in southern India, and subsequently the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in Dharamsala.

As Dreyfus points out, “scholasticism intends to create a universe of religious meaning, and hence is based on the possibility of closure”. He describes scholasticism in Europe as a mode of thinking concerned with the relation between faith and understanding that is bounded by authoritative texts. For Tibetan Buddhism he argues that faith is secondary to wisdom and it would be more accurate to describe its scholasticism as concerned with the relation between authority and interpretation. However, just as for European scholasticism, Tibetan scholasticism, while also allowing for a degree of critical thinking, is also ultimately bound by the authoritative texts of its tradition.

The tools of scholastic inquiry within the Tibetan tradition or, “intellectual technologies” according to Dreyfus, have been handed down within the tradition. They include memory, commentary and dialectical debate. Memory is used in the memorization of core texts which is seen as a form of transmission from master to student. Commentary constitutes explanations and interpretations of the core texts while dialectical debate functions as a method for either: (a) internalizing the normative authority claims of the tradition by proving through logic what is accepted as authoritative by the tradition and rejecting, also through logic, what is considered by authority of the tradition to be false and misleading; or (b) providing the practitioner with the means to powerfully and critically investigate all aspects of views within the tradition leading to “an exhilarating sense of openness”.

Dreyfus concludes that both modes are appropriate depending on the capacity of the practitioner, especially in the formalized process of debate. He argues that a hermeneutic of suspicion is encouraged when debaters examine each other’s interpretations and look for weak points in their opponents’ views which are then to be undermined. Dreyfus concludes however that this hermeneutic of suspicion is ultimately subordinated to a “strategy of retrieval” of meaning from the core texts. This is because the aim of Tibetan scholasticism is to create a “religiously meaningful universe” which is shaped and completely circumscribed by these core texts. And this is the principal point of departure from the Western scientific model. The Western scientific model, as most clearly described in the work of such thinkers as Thomas Kuhn, for example, is also the basis for the positivist approach to Buddhist studies described earlier in this chapter. Kuhn describes the process of rational scientific research as made up of paradigms of normal and revolutionary science where the arrival of new facts leads to the casting aside of previous theories shown to be incomplete or flawed. This does not happen within traditional scholasticism, East or West, where core texts are the centre of the tradition which, while critically interpreted to an extent, are perpetually appropriated by the next generation of scholars who choose to be part of that meaningful universe. As Dreyfus points out, scholasticism within Tibetan Buddhism is a form of religious practice which takes one along “the path” toward the goal of Buddhism and where the practitioner is provided with “comprehensive ways to shape their life and character” based on the appropriation of those texts.

So does Robert Thurman fall into this category of traditional Buddhist scholastic? I would argue that to a certain extent he can be regarded as doing so given his close proximity to, and personal recognition of, the Dalai Lama’s traditional authority and also given his having undertaken, however briefly, training as a scholar monk in the Gelukpa tradition under the tutelage of senior Tibetan scholar-monks. To this extent, Thurman has accepted the authority of a tradition-bound “meaningful universe”, and moreover he has done so through the process of formal ordination. In this way, he has been part of, and in many ways continues to be part of, the scholastic tradition described above even though he disrobed many years ago. His translation of, and commentary upon, texts such as Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra and Legs bShad rNying po shows an appropriation by him of these texts in the tradition of Tibetan scholasticism. These are not unbiased “objective” translations but expanded teachings based on a belief in and acceptance of the core text being translated. In this way, although not purely traditional, Thurman does take part in the broader Buddhist scholastic endeavour as described by Dreyfus. However, beyond his scholastic commentaries Thurman then moves into populist Buddhist literature by applying these accepted Buddhist scholastic truths to Western society in a way that has not be done within traditional Buddhist scholasticism itself. Thurman also seeks to validate traditional authority claims in extremely untraditional ways such as in his appeals to Western science and Western liberalism. Thurman rigorously critiques Western (especially American) society and then holds up historical Tibet as model for Western (spiritual) development. He uses traditional scholasticism as his basis but in his critique of Western society and subsequent prescription of a path for the West combines this with the field of popular Buddhism. In the process, I would argue, he creates his own unique genre of scholastic-populist Buddhist literature.

4. Populist Buddhist Literature

Populist Buddhist literature is an increasingly important domain of Robert Thurman who, after His Holiness the Dalai Lama, is perhaps the current leading populariser of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Populist Buddhist literature could be defined as the wide range of books about Buddhism written by lay academics, lay non-academics or Buddhist monastics for a general readership. Given the low numbers of traditional Buddhist monastics in the West, populist Buddhist literature is arguably the dominant medium through which most Westerners initially come into contact with Buddhism. Important writers for a populist audience include traditional ethnic Buddhists such as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche, Chögyam Trungpa, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sayadaw U Pandita and D. T. Suzuki. There are also Western-born monastics such as Pema Chödrön who has written several books on Buddhism for a Western audience and Western Theravadins including Nyanaponika Mahathera who, like the current Dalai Lama, has authored both scholastic and populist books. There are also many lay-academic authors who have merged Western science/medicine/psychology with Buddhist thought for a popular audience including Mark Epstein, Daniel Goleman and Jack Kornfield. Non-academic Western Dharma-teachers with popular works include the insight meditation teachers Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg. There are also works that merge Buddhism with the Twelve Step programs for recovery from addiction by authors such as Kevin Griffin. The ever-growing list continues. However what is clear is the vast array and volume of populist Buddhist literature available to a non-academic or populist audience. And who exactly is this audience? From the range of titles, we can deduce that the audience is multi-faceted. It could include those interested or attracted to what they have learnt about Buddhism seeking more information, the readership Lopez characterizes as a “New Age” self-help audience, those dealing with addictions or those who, like Thurman himself, are dissatisfied with their own Western traditions and are seeking personal and/or social transformation. Thurman’s growing list of titles for a populist audience include his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, his Inner Revolution: Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness and Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet and the World. All show an author very much involved in bringing his thoughts on Buddhism and Tibet to the widest possible audience.

In summary, how does Thurman’s work relate to our four categories constituting Buddhism in the West? As a recognized Western tenured professor of Buddhist studies Thurman has successfully produced works of critical academic scholarship and he can therefore be described as a Buddhologist and comparative philosopher in the Western academic sense. As a practising Buddhist accepting the authority of Buddhist doctrine and applying these “truths” in an academic context to wider social issues Thurman can be seen as a Buddhist theorist or theologian. As a practicing Buddhist and former Buddhist monk trained in traditional (Tibetan) Buddhist scholasticism and continuing to subscribe to Buddhism’s “universe of religious meaning”, Thurman also qualifies as a traditional Buddhist scholastic. And finally, by virtue of his increasing production of populist work based on his Western academic and traditional Buddhist scholastic heritage, Thurman qualifies as an author of populist Buddhist literature as he writes in a strongly prescriptive manner for a non-academic audience. However, by qualifying in some degree for inclusion in all four categories (and probably more) Thurman fails to be reducible to any single category exclusively and his varied work creates a conundrum for final classification. To this point, we have not yet considered Thurman’s work as a Dharma-teacher and political activist. His work has increasingly come to exist at the intersection of academic Buddhist studies, predominantly theological/scholastic, and populist Buddhist literature. However, his particular style of writing, especially his works for a general audience, presents an author who, some have implied, has given up his critical awareness and therefore, any claim to unbiased scholarship. It is some of these criticisms which we will look to in the following chapter in order to gain a clearer perspective of the nature, direction and impact of Thurman’s work and his place in the domain of Buddhist studies. We will then seek to better understand his work by examining it as a unique genre of ‘Tantric eschatology’ that works at the intersection of academic study and popular works for a non-academic audience which draws authority from Thurman’s academic and traditional scholastic credentials, as evidenced most clearly through his time as a monk and his proximity to the 14th Dalai Lama. I will argue that Thurman’s importance in Buddhist studies has come from working at the intersection between academic study and popular works for a non-academic audience.

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Chapter 1: Thurman as Buddhologist and Comparative Philosopher

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Chapter 2: Thurman as Popularizer of Buddhism in the West

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Chapter 3: Thurman as Political Advocate for Tibet

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Conclusion: Rethinking Thurman: Skilful Means and Tantric Eschatology

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Cabezon, J. I. (1994). Buddhism and Language: A Study of Indo-Tibetan Scholasticism. Albany, N.Y., State University of New York Press.

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