His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet is coming to Santa Barbara on April 24 for two sold-out talks. On Wednesday night, April 15, in advance of this historic event, Buddhist scholar Dr. Robert Thurman spoke at UCSB’s Campbell Hall in conversation with author Pico Iyer. The topic of their discussion, and the name of Dr. Thurman’s latest book, was Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet, and the World.
Thurman teaches at Columbia, and is one of the foremost scholars of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. He was the first westerner ordained as a Buddhist monk by His Holiness, and was his translator before leaving the monastery for America.
Thurman was instrumental in raising awareness and funds for UCSB’s endowed chair in Tibetan Studies, only one of two in the nation. He worked to have the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Dalai Lama, and has written, translated, studied, and taught as much Tibetan Buddhism as any scholar alive.
He’s also an over-the-top, unapologetic fan of the Dalai Lama.
“How could you not love him?” Thurman implored his audience, pointing to a photograph of His Holiness. Iyer told a story of the Dalai Lama spending the day at a school in an unknown corner of Japan rather than meeting with dignitaries or the media. When the Dalai Lama later spoke to a crowd of thousands, his talk was filled with references to what he had just heard and learned from a young schoolgirl.
“A Buddha,” Thurman explained, “is a being who considers other beings equal to themselves. A Buddha experiences the experiences of others as if they are his or her own. It’s like how a mother identifies with her child and knows almost from the inside what her child is feeling. A Buddha does that with everybody – the poor guy!”
“The Dalai Lama doesn’t think in terms of self and other,” Iyer added. “He never sees the world as us against them, only as us.”
Iyer has known His Holiness for 40 years. He shared a story about when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. “The day after he received the prize he called me. ‘I’ve won all this money,’ he said. ‘What should I do with it?'” In the end, he gave the money away, to help Mother Teresa, Africa, the Costa Rican Peace Institute, the Foundation for Universal Responsibility, and a school for lepers.
This is why Thurman knows, and much of the world knows, that the Dalai Lama matters. There’s something true and profound going on here: a lesson for the world, and an example of what is possible. There is a right and noble way to live not based on dogma and belief, but on wisdom, insight, and love.