It's been about nine years since I last heard Bob Thurman speak. He is one of the most
animated academics and frankly, an awful lot of fun. More than that, he is one of the
more shrewd expositors of Tibetan Buddhism in the west and is able through both that
wonderful wit and incisive mind to convey the depth of Buddhist practice. He's also a
great supporter and promoter of Tibetan culture, which rather goes without saying. His
translations are, to my mind, stellar. He stands with Guenther and Wayman as one of
the few who have the grounding in both eastern and western philosophy who are
competent enough to get across the dynamic process-oriented nature of Tibetan
To be sure, I tend to disagree with him on certain doctrinal points and I tend to question
certain comments he's made (for instance, today he pretty much said that Buckminster
Fuller thought the world should be run by engineers; I don't recall Bucky ever saying or
writing such a thing), but he is one of the greats.
It was, to employ a favorite Buddhist adjective, auspicious, that I got to hear him talk
before I leave. He spoke at Dawn Mountain today mostly on compassion but prior to
that, he led one of the best meditations I think I have ever been party to. I won't go into
every detail, but he presented a visualization of a refuge tree as good as any I've heard.
One of the common tropes you'll hear should you attend a meditation or ceremony led
by Tibetan teachers is that if you are a Christian, Muslim, etc., and you want to
participate, then you should also visualize those individuals in your tradition who are
considered enlightened or realized beings and then proceed from there. Usually, His
Holiness the Dalai Lama and a couple of others aside, this is done pretty cursorily. I
Thurman's case today, it was anything but that.
Thurman set the stage well for anyone who is new to this kind of meditation, or for that
matter, has more experience. After some breath-counting, he helped people get a sense
of "an idealized space". This isn't spent much time on, usually. But I think it's key that
people start with that; it's important to realize that your mind is creating that space, prior
to populating it with any given image or set of images. I think it tends to open both the
heart and the mind and invokes a kind of flexibility and fluidity.
Thurman took his time narrating the development of the refuge tree (or "resort tree", if
"refuge" sounds too confining); once it was fully described, he guided the group through
working on the visualization of the pure energy of enlightenment and compassion
emanating from the tree and its inhabitants.
Next, he laid out the visualization of the beings one finds oneself surrounded by: friends
and family and those whom we admire, love, and care for/about; those to whom we ate
indifferent; and those to whom we feel antipathy or hatred. From the beings in the
refuge tree we are filled with a nectar of beneficent energy, it overflows and we can't
help but want to share it with all, including (especially?) our so-called enemies. Indeed,
enemies are only enemies through misconception and misunderstanding; ultimately,
there are no enemies once there is understanding.
Once we willingly share (dedicate) these prismatic rainbow energies of compassion flow
out to all, the visualization ends with you dissolving into all these sentient beings as the
buddhas and bodhisattvas in the refuge tree had previously dissolved into you.
What I really appreciated about this was that in connecting with the beings inhabiting
the tree, is the idea that they were smiling out of a joy that you are before them, treading
this path to enlightenment and making the effort to change your mind and engage in a
more fulfilling way with existence.
I also was tickled with Thurman's running commentary. For instance, in visualizing the
enlightened energy flowing into one's enemies, they are astounded! "he's not such a
bad guy, after all!" and once you have dissolved into them, "what?! Where'd he go?"
I happen to be a huge believer in leavening this sort of thing with humor. It makes it
easier for people who aren't perhaps used to this sort of practice to get acclimated.
Before all this, Thurman said something that can't be stressed enough: we are
<i>always</i> meditating. We may not know it at the frontal,superficial level of
consciousness, but this is our natural state of mind. We meditate to become more
familiar with it (one of the meanings of<i> bsgom</i>, the Tibetan word for meditation).
Thurman then entertained a couple of questions from the audience.
The first was where does the energy for compassionate work come from? Thurman
reviewed the three types of compassion beginning with the most modest level of feeling
empathy for other sentient beings based on the immediate experience of seeing others'
suffering. He then discussed the energy of compassion that arises from an
understanding of the insubstantiality of self and others. And lastly, he covered the
compassion of the buddhas, which doesn't perceive self or other.
In all these cases, he stressed that it's primary to understand that bodhisattvas (or
basically, just those whose motivation is genuine) don't think "oh, I'm aiding this or that
sentient being, oh, I'm doing a virtuous thing"; they simply spontaneously act, the way
one simply acts when you put your hand on a hot burner. The energy is there: you take
your hand away very quickly! Similarly, those who act based on genuine compassion
have just that kind of energy. They simply act.
The other question was also about compassion and how can it be utilized in this world
so full of issues. Thurman echoed the questioner's observations about the woes that
beset us nowadays while also remarking on how politics and greed have laid
democracy low. He noted the increasingly oligarchical nature of the political elite and the
rampant militarization that characterizes the superpowers; however, he countered this
with the example of the outpouring of support that met the countries hit by the tsunami.
This outbreak of compassion wasn't mandated, no one forced anyone to give hundreds
of millions of dollars in relief funds. It happened spontaneously, this burst of
Thurman pointedly remarked that the ruling elite would prefer people remain scared and
paranoid and that did we not live in this nuclear age, the solution to the world's
economic woes would no doubt be found in another world war. The best they can do is
manufacture fear and curb personal freedoms as much as possible. (I don't want to
digress, but it was tempting to chime in with a "yeah, baby, the jig's up!")
He remains hopeful that the human race will find the answers it needs because there is
much evidence of this compassionate energy at all turns.
Bob also had some other asides and notes about the limits of mechanistic approaches
to humanity; particularly that often scientists don't want to admit that we're not just a bag
of water with some chemicals thrown into it, that they know that there's more to
existence than mere stimuli and response. I would have liked to have asked him if he
has been following much of Alan Wallace's work in relation to the results from the Mind
Science Institute studies; however, he had a presentation to run through which was also
great fun. Slides of thangkas and mandalas. Very impressive stuff.
Sadly, I had to run out so I couldn't pay my respects as I would have wished.
I alluded to doctrinal points of disagreement above and none are germane to the mature
of this blog. These will be addressed in another blog that I think I want to call Apostasy
Now! That's not necessarily hyperbole. I find much in western engagement with Tibetan
Buddhism (including my own) that needs to be more critically visited. To be perfectly
honest, I find myself at loggerheads with myself more often than not!
Also, I'm listing the following links for all who might be interested in looking more deeply
into both Professors Klein and Thurman's work, as well as institutions they are affiliated
Anne Klein's page at Rice University
Bob Thurman's homepage
Thurman, Klein and Harvey Aronson interview in the Houston Chronicle