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Robert Thurman: Wisdom is Bliss

Robert Thurman Wisdom Is Bliss Skeptic's Path to Enlightenment Podcast Episode 121 Interview

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Professor Robert Thurman, who the New York Times calls “the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism” is back in this week’s episode to talk about his wonderful new book Wisdom Is Bliss. Learn why the Buddha was an educator and scientist, not a religious prophet; and why Buddhism isn’t a belief system, but a direct experience that reveals the pure beauty and joy of reality itself.

wisdom is bliss

[00:00:40] Scott Snibbe: So Bob, I’m so excited to talk to you about your latest book, Wisdom Is Bliss: Four Friendly Fun Facts That Can Change Your Life, which I absolutely loved.

[00:00:59] Robert Thurman: Oh good,  I’m so glad somebody did and you’re still here on the earth.

[00:01:05] Scott Snibbe: Well, it didn’t immediately enlighten me, but that’s my own problem. I also appreciated how much you shared about your personal life experience with Buddhist meditation and Buddhist worldview. It’s very generous of you.

[00:01:18] Robert Thurman: Yes, and I tried to establish what a skeptic I am and Buddha was actually, I hope you got that idea. You know, it’s very hard for people to hear the word Buddha and then they don’t think Buddhism and it’s a religion.

The Buddha as an educator and scientist

buddha statue

[00:01:34] Scott Snibbe: I’m going to ask you a lot about that. So, in your book you talk about the Buddha as an educator and as a scientist and not as a religious prophet.

So can you explain that? If he’s a scientist, what did he discover? And if he’s an educator, what does he teach?

[00:01:50] Robert Thurman: That’s the greatest question and my favorite one. Well, the proof of it is really in what he discovered and what he discovered was believing in somebody else—like a God or whatever it is, not that he denied that there exists such beings—to solve your problems and save you and whatever, this won’t work out. Or believing that he will save you doesn’t work out.

So he achieved his own freedom from suffering, he claimed, by understanding reality, and that’s what Buddha means in Indian philosophical and scientific parlance. He awoke to and was enlightened about the nature of reality. So that’s what you have to do. In other words, he shared that.

And he also said, by what I say alone, that won’t enable you, you won’t get it; you have to experience it for yourself. And what that was, was a methodological statement actually. It wasn’t some coyness or shyness because then he did teach for 45 years. But it was a Popperian methodology statement that language will not convey the nature of reality. That theory is subordinate to experience, and that reality can be experienced. His encouragement to us was, we have the equipment to do it, our brain, our mind, our heart, but it won’t just be following some dogma or formula or believing in something. It will be experiencing something and cultivating the ability to experience it to the fullest, gradually more deeply and eventually to the fullest.

So that forced him to be an educator rather than a leader, Look, follow me, I’ll save you and what I say will save you and just believe in it. Which is sort of the province of religion, right? Where you have a belief system. Rather, he had an education system and he said, what I can do in language is I can help you develop a way of setting yourself up and refining and cultivating yourself to be able to understand that reality because you have that basic ability. You have that Buddha nature.

So that’s sort of the proof of him. And the scientific discovery is actually marvelous, relativity is what he discovered, radical relativity. And people wrongly think because it has the name emptiness or selflessness, it’s entered by way of negation. And people think, Oh, it means that it’s all nothing; a lot of Western Buddhists think nothingness, that’s an emptiness, same thing. That error was made in Asia even; sometimes in China they use the word “wu”, which means non-being to be the same as “kum”, which means emptiness.

What things are empty of, relative things are empty of, is any non-relative element in them. So what that is, is the discovery that there’s no absolute God outside that’s controlling, there’s no absolute substance underneath.

And of course, there’s no absolute nothingness underlying everything. Nothing is not a thing that underlies something. Emptiness means there are only all these somethings and we’re all interrelated to them. And if we wrongly think we are absolutely separate from the things we’re connected to, then life becomes really problematic because there’s a lot more of them than of us. And we’re gonna lose in a struggle with that. 

But if we expand our sense of connectedness to the ultimate state of connectedness, which would be called enlightenment, where we’re connected to everything and everyone, the vastness of that, then we are cool. Everything’s fine. And that is the reality of us actually. We’re all interconnected with every other single one.

That’s what he discovered. But just adopting that as a slogan does not get you to experience it, but it helps you orient yourself toward trying to experience it. But the way to do it is you have to let go of the ingrained instinct or habit of absolutizing the self. Or like people in religions, they absolutize some God or some entity, that that’s the real thing that they can sort of give themselves to and will take care of them. But he says, No, you have to take care of everything. He did encourage that reality itself takes care of you because you can’t escape being part of it, but if you don’t know it, you’re not gonna enjoy it.

[00:06:11] Scott Snibbe: It’s a beautiful way you describe emptiness. You know, sometimes I almost think the opposite word would be better, like “fullness,” instead of emptiness.

[00:06:20] Robert Thurman: Well, the problem with that would be then the fullness would be thought of as an entity that you could absolutize. Whereas the relative relationality of everything is very specific of all the relationalities, and yet it’s unboundedly so. It is paradoxical. I mean, if he could have just expressed it in a slogan he would have. And it’s very simple, it’s not even complicated.

Like right now we think ourselves as finite beings. And we would say, Well, I’m finite and of course I am and we would say that. But of course when we think for a minute, we realize that we are immersed in infinity because we couldn’t exclude that from our boundary, or it wouldn’t be infinity, you know? So we are completely immersed in it, and that’s paradoxical.

So we’re both finite and infinite already; we have to be tolerant of that cognitive dissonance.

[00:07:13] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, even physicists are starting to use the exact same term. I spoke with Carlo Rovelli and he uses the term relationality. He says exactly that, relationality from a physics perspective.

[00:07:26] Robert Thurman: Yes, I looked in Helgoland, in his book, someone recommended to me, that he discovered Nagarjuna, and he was all thrilled and excited and I think that’s wonderful.

Emptiness as the womb of compassion

two hands holding each other, compassion

[00:07:36] Scott Snibbe: You had another Nagarjuna quote in your book, when you say, “Emptiness is the womb of compassion.” I bring that up because I think for a lot of people it’s a little bit of a head scratcher. Why this view on reality will somehow make you happy and more connected to other beings and so on.

So can you explain that connection? Emptiness is the womb of compassion.

[00:07:55] Robert Thurman: Sure, I love the phrase, it’s in his jewel garland, which he wrote for a king. And it goes along with his talking about the different layers within Buddhist teaching, at least four different layers. And the highest one is that one, non-dualism, which is enlightenment in practice or in performance, which is a little bit intimidating.

Well, what that means is that emptiness is not just space. Space is a kind of analogy for emptiness. It’s used that way. When you’re looking for the absolute self or something, or really absolute anything, the absolute thing about any object, in a meditation, you can have a very important experience of where everything dissolves in space, including you. Not like you’re floating in it; it’s like you also dissolve. Subject and object, both dissolve in space and there’s a danger even that that is thought of. Oh, now I’ve hit the absolute but emptiness is not that absolute. This table here, this microphone, this podcast program is just as much emptiness as some space in which it occurs. Matter is emptiness. Emptiness is matter.

So emptiness is like some inconceivable thing, and then by saying it’s the womb of something, you’re thinking of it as some inconceivable membrane that nurtures, which is the reality of everything, without being the background of it or without being it’s undergirding, but somehow it is everything and yet it’s a nurturing membrane. So everything is a nurturing membrane. I think it’s so marvelous.

And why it nurtures compassion is that when you’re completely interconnected with everything you feel everything that everyone feels. And if anyone in that field is not feeling good, then that’s intolerable for you. So then you act to help them past that in whatever way they need to be helped past that. And that’s the concept of the nirmanakaya, the body of emanation.

You’re far from being so in some place outside of life, which was the old dualistic view of Nirvana, which was taught by Buddha to people who couldn’t conceive of being in this world and having this be total bliss. They would just think that’s ridiculous or they would use it to indulge everything and say, Well, whatever I do, it doesn’t matter; so they would do all kinds of harmful things. It could be easy to misunderstand. So he allowed them to think, Oh yeah, Nirvana is somewhere else, it is different than this place.

Even in the dualistic Buddhism, they have marvelous things in regard to the Noble Truth of suffering or what I like to call the friendly fun fact of suffering. They’re called noble because to a noble one, ordinary worldly pleasure is not pleasant because they’re instantly aware of its inadequacy and its impermanence and so on.

The ordinary reality for an ordinary person is like a grain of sand on the palm of your hand. But that same ordinary reality for a noble person, meaning someone who’s somewhat more interconnected, more enlightened, for them, it’s like a grain of sand in the eye. Because their sensitivity is much greater. That’s a dualistic thing and yet the claim is that upon reaching this sort of maximum state of that, there is a bliss simultaneous with the sensitivity, the empathy, which enables the empathy not to drag the enlightened being into the same state as the suffering person.

So it’s the same but not the same. They completely feel everything, but it’s like a doctor who can imagine the pain in the brain of someone where they’re dealing with a clot or a tangle or something. But yet they also can see it in a detached way simultaneously and very carefully.

So they have a kind of double awareness in other words, paradoxical and impossible double awareness. So that’s the awareness of enlightenment, that’s emptiness the womb of compassion, something like that. So the idea that reality is actually basically good is a very hard one to develop that insight.

Buddhasm: life as a direct, blissful experience

nirvana in buddhism

[00:12:02] Scott Snibbe: I want to talk more about this experience of bliss. In your book, you say that you’re not sharing Buddhism as a belief system, but “Buddhasm”, a direct experience. It’s fun, life is blissful, reality itself is bliss.

So how do the Buddha’s teachings help us see reality as bliss? And how do we make life as fun as the word Buddhasm sounds?

[00:12:26] Robert Thurman: Right, well, one way we can sort of do it is by inference. At first we have to do it by inference, and the one inference can come out of the four fun facts, or four friendly fun facts, or the Four Noble Truths, things that are true for one who is somewhat enlightened, and who are therefore friendly to others because they feel connected to them. Which is what he meant by noble, by using that term for the more altruistic person. He didn’t just mean some upper class person.

And the third one he’s clear about in every commentary, that’s the one that’s ultimate reality, Nirvana. The relative reality is suffering. If you don’t know about the ultimate one, it has a cause. And that causal process is part of the relative reality. Then the path is also in the relative reality, and it’s the way of escaping from it to understand the ultimate reality, which is Nirvana.

So right away Nirvana is bliss. He’s being conservative by calling it the cessation of suffering. But any one of us who suffers, when it ceases, we feel a bliss, that is one name for bliss for sure.

Even if it’s only anesthesia, we have the bliss of not feeling that pain. But he didn’t emphasize this, he was minimalist about it. Not to make it seem too incredible to people. He just said the cessation of suffering. He didn’t say the bliss of the cessation of suffering. He sort of did here and there but he didn’t emphasize that.

The last ones are the mental objects or the phenomena. And of those, the most important ones are the Four Noble Truths and so then in that he has a long list of all pleasant and agreeable things that you can have happened to you in the relative world. And he says they’re all suffering, they don’t last, and they’re not good enough. So they’re called the suffering of change. Then he comes to Nirvana and he says, Well, then they cease, so then there’s no more of that suffering.

But then he says, But where is this cessation? He then says, Where is it? And he says, Oh, it’s in all the pleasant and agreeable things. And he gives the same list that he gave before. We’re all suffering as the first Noble Truth. But in the third there, it’s the exact same list. He goes into specific detail, takes us through pleasant smell, pleasant hearing, pleasant seeing, pleasant touching, pleasant thinking, Well what’s the difference? It’s the same list.

The explanation he gives is that there’s no more craving. The craving has stopped, which has ceased the imperfection of the pleasant and agreeable nature of life. And so Nirvana is right there and everything nice that happens to us, it’s a little taste of Nirvana.

And the idea is if you become enlightened, then that’s the main taste of everything. And then you have to then look at a human being or any living being. We’ve all had experiences where we were focused on one thing and we simultaneously stubbed our toe or something and we were very happy about some other thing. And for a moment we didn’t notice the stubbed toe.

It was like we were able to cancel receiving the disaster of that stubbed toe because we were so happy about some other thing. We were ecstatic about something. And everyone’s had that experience, so you just carried out to an extreme degree of attainment. Then you can understand our ability to tolerate such complexity and such cognitive dissonance successfully.

Dualistic level of Buddhism

[00:15:53] Scott Snibbe: This was one of the most powerful parts of your book for me. Because I think a lot of people look at Buddhism and think it’s about getting rid of all your attachments. Don’t enjoy any pleasure, just go and meditate in single pointed concentration. But to so clearly say that Nirvana can be found in pleasure if you don’t grasp at it, right? And that this came from also a Theravada Sutras.

[00:16:15] Robert Thurman: Yes, a dualistic level of Buddhism.

[00:16:16] Scott Snibbe: I’ve shared that with my friends who are Theravada practitioners because a lot of them think of this view of using pleasure on the path as more of a Mahayana or Vajrayana practice.

[00:16:27] Robert Thurman: Well, listen, Mahayana and Vajrayana people they are completely dualistic actually themselves. They get a little spaced out. Oh, space, because that is a release, experience of release. That’s a Buddhasm, when you have space and you’re released from the tension of looking to see what is the reality of things, the great doubt, skeptic stress. Then somehow what you’re doubting, and the doubt, are kind of exploded at a certain point—if you have that degree of concentrationin the way that Zen people do it.

But the great masters of the tradition are very careful in telling people, Don’t be deceived, don’t be trapped in that spaced out state, thinking that’s the absolute again. Then you’ve reified that onto the absolute, you’re absolutizing habit about yourself, Oh, that’s myself. They call that the Royal Reason of Relativity, except they don’t say relativity, because oh, we can’t say relativity, that’s Einstein’s word. But it is not Einstein, Einstein himself is going in the same direction. And that is the word, relativity, that’s the live word really meaningful to us.

They should be brave and use it and looking forward to when there’s a second meaning in the Oxford Dictionary. It’s gonna be, first meaning is Einstein’s special and general theories and then second meaning is the Buddhist meaning; even speed of light is not an absolute. 

Embracing life

[00:17:48] Scott Snibbe: I’ve always loved that connection you made between Einsteinian Relativity and Buddhist relativity. I want to rewind to what you were saying about the first Noble Truth. I was finally reading Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism recently, and I was struck at how he renames the first Noble Truth, which is normally “life is suffering”, to “embrace life.”

[00:18:11] Robert Thurman: Yeah, in a way that’s true, to accept its drawbacks embracing unenlightened life that is, and therefore in a way, only a sadist would want you to have to embrace it as it is. The point is part of it, Nirvana itself is infinite life and it’s life completely redeemed and transformed and so embracing or accepting and that’s, I understand what it’s going in and that’s right.

Like I had that challenge from Sharon, our beloved Sharon Salzberg, and she said, How can you say the truth of suffering is a fun fact? And then I had her there because I had read her book Faith, long ago. I read it but I remembered that incident in the faith where she says what attracted her to Buddhism initially.

Faith, Sharon Salzberg

Because she’d had such a hard time in her childhood, there was somebody who seemed to be aware of the nature of reality, or had some spiritual authority who said it’s normal for everyone to suffer and everyone is suffering. She realized everybody else was suffering and she wasn’t feeling picked on, the way she had been.

And so for her, that was a fun fact and that everybody else is suffering; that’s a fun fact. So if you’re embracing it, you’re embracing the escape from it as well. You’re not falling for the idea that you’re just stuck there. And if you embrace that, then you’re cool because you’ve embraced it, which unfortunately is another problem that people have.

People feel disappointed because they didn’t have some super peak experience to stay with them, and they then come up with an argument because they want to think they did everything you can do and they mastered it. So they come up with an argument, it’s just drawing water and cutting wood again.

Otherwise, if you think it’s the same old thing, that’s a sign that you’re disappointed and that you’re leading other people into that disappointment.

Skeptically approaching Buddhist beliefs of rebirth, karma, and other realms

[00:20:01] Scott Snibbe: A little bit earlier you were talking about how the Buddha encouraged skepticism and criticality. Can you talk a little bit about what that means, with respect to the Buddhist teachings? Because there do seem to be some beliefs embedded in Buddhism about rebirth, karma, and other realms. How do we approach those skeptically?

[00:20:19] Robert Thurman: Well, you see, your materialist will simply not accept all the evidence for rebirth and for other kinds of beings, weird beings, like angels and devas and whatever, they just will not accept. There’s a lot of evidence. People remember previous lives, et cetera. Also they have their law of the conservation of energy. So they’re forced to say that the mind has no energy. And actually some dualistic Buddhist will help them with that way by saying that yeah, the mind is not energy because energy’s got to be material.

They will never accept that, and therefore when they worry that if there is possibility and one lives in a context where it becomes common sense. That just like tomorrow, I’ll have to deal with something the next day after that, and after that death, which is just a change of the course of the body, there’ll be something to deal with because energy will continue.

And among that, consciousness is a subtle form of energy. That’s the default thing actually that has been in history. It’s not a superstitious belief necessarily. So what I’m saying is that carrying relativity through, by this insight, that there is no such thing as “nothing”, this is actually common sense.

So all I say to the materialist is I asked them who got the Nobel Prize for discovering nothing? Was it LaPlace or one of those esoteric mathematicians or some Russian? And they would actually roll their eyes to try to think who proved nothing, you know? And then they get annoyed because then they realize, of course it’s absurd; nothing is nothing. So, it’s no, you can’t go there; they actually realize that the conservation energy applies at the super subtle level of awareness.

However, one thing is this, the Buddha’s scientific stricture is very clearly articulated. The only teaching that is what he calls definitive in meaning, is the negation of absoluteness embedded in relativity.

And the descriptions of the processes of relativity are all interpretable. Which means that the strength of their validity is relational and contextual. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t something that’s more true than something else, which is less true. But it just means that that’s not absolute. There’s no absolute truth of either rebirth or non-rebirth, and neither one are absolute, but which doesn’t mean that relatively speaking, you better be ready for tomorrow.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

dalai lama, his holiness

“Don’t try to use whatever you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better, whatever you are.”

—His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

[00:22:50] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, I wanted to ground the very first thing in your book is an epigraph from His Holiness that says, “Don’t try to use whatever you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist. Use it to be a better, whatever you are.”

[00:23:09] Robert Thurman: So our conversation is getting into some extraordinarily Buddhist ground about other realms and deities.

He said, I have never in my life given a Buddhist lecture on some aspect of Buddhism with a motive to convert someone to Buddhism because that would make me hypocritical. He didn’t go on with the reasoning but that would make him hypocritical in asking Christians and Muslims and Hindus not to convert Buddhists.

What he’s saying there is, His Holiness is too kind, he said, most recently and most memorably—he says it every time he gives a lecture in a foreign country where there are people who are in some Buddhist center—I’m not teaching anything to make you a Buddhist. I’m teaching for your just general knowledge.

So he doesn’t want to convert them, they shouldn’t convert his people. He feels it’s the wrong time in history. And he admits that Buddhists used to think that if you don’t know Buddha’s teaching then you’ll never get free of suffering. He admits that, but he disagrees with it. He says, Thomas Merton, some mystics in Spain, and many people he thinks really made it with Christianity.

He doesn’t know Sufis, but he doesn’t see why they couldn’t. He’s just in love with different rabbis. He’s trying to learn from them how they survived all these millennia and kept their culture in exile. He just really wants to know that. So that’s just his view, not to convert each other.

And I was in love with Buddhism myself, the minute I encountered it for real. It was like golden letters that worm their way off the page of the Tibetan book and went right into my heart. Nagarjuna’s letter to the king, it’s just one who I love and I immediately wrote the thing very elegantly when I, my English is a terrible scroll, so it’s definitely former life proof there. My biggest former life proof is when I was little, I would only eat Cheerios. And Cheerios taste like tsampa. I hated Rice Krispies and cornflakes. It was like wet tissue paper or something. I didn’t like it, Cheerios was my thing. 

In 1964 when I was in Dharamsala, I had my first bite of tsampa and oh, it was like a little bowl of Cheerios. That to me was a former life thing, evidence, you know.

Creative effort

creative effort Buddhism

[00:25:20] Scott Snibbe: One of my favorite parts of your book was how you renamed one of the six perfections that’s normally called joyful effort, creative effort. You say creativity’s essential to the good life, art has always been the central manifestation of Buddhist compassion. Can you to talk about what creative effort is and what the role of musicians, artists, writers, is in expanding our consciousness and solving some of these problems we’re talking about?

[00:25:43] Robert Thurman: Right, to me that is underlying the seventh transcendence, or what others call perfections, the seventh transcendence, which is upaya, which is a skillful means, but the skillful actually is a separate word, upaya-kausalya. Upaya means, “means”, our method. But actually the means and method in the larger aggregate is art; the arts and the sciences are the investigation of reality.

All the arts are the activities that arise from the knowledge to ameliorate the world. And so upaya is art and the transcendent upaya is knowing all the lesser arts so that the bodhisattva can help beings in every way possible. And one of the greater arts, of course, is using art to open people’s imagination to the possibility of freedom and the possibility of beauty and joy and being free.

And so, since I’m daringly—although nobody’s much noticed—but I’m rather daringly revealing the esoteric bliss, void, indivisible kind of thing. I wanted to pour it into the mold of the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths to make it basic Buddhism as well, to find it in the heart of basic Buddhism. So I call that creativity. 

The problem with the effort when you translate this, that part as effort, is that it’s specially defined as effort in the good. So making effort to rob a bank or to win a war, not that kind of effort, you know? But, and of course you could be creative doing evil, supposedly. But creativity has for us a connotation of something good, something nice, something beautiful. So I thought it would be good to put creativity as the opposite of apathy, so that’s how I got to that.

The downside of meditating without wisdom

man meditating in field

[00:27:34] Scott Snibbe: Another one of the points I loved from your book was when you write about how there’s very little use meditating unless you’ve learned how we exaggerate ourself, which I think is a very important point that is maybe lost some of the ways we use mindfulness lately. And you say meditation can even be harmful and leave us in a dissociative state.

Can you talk about that further? I think that was a very important point.

[00:27:56] Robert Thurman: Yes, because that’s been a long thing in my sort of study and teaching career. In the Dharma centers and things, there are some people who have said meditation is all you need, and I’ve always been countering that with the famous Buddhist category for Theravada, as well as Mahayana, as well as Vajrayana, which is three layers of wisdom. It’s wisdom that liberates you. 

And the three layers are wisdom born of learning, wisdom born of critical thinking, and finally, wisdom born of deep concentration or meditation, in the deeper sense. I mean, critical thinking is a kind of meditation, of course.

The problem with the sheer jumping to meditation is that if you’re stuck already in a feeling of absolute identity as your core thing, and you get one pointed, then you’re gonna jump up at the end of 10 years of serious effort, Eureka, I’m great! I’m the best, I’m the greatest, I want a Rolls-Royce, you’re gonna pull a scandal, you know, like has been happening.

And so, inference and learning has been part of it from the beginning, precisely because there’s no simple gimmick, there’s no person who can do it for you, and also, no mechanism that will do it, that will accomplish it for you.

You have to learn and then you have to really grind that learning into your being, which is the real job of meditation.

Don’t you think?

How has Buddhist thought and meditation transformed you over this time?

[00:29:27] Scott Snibbe: Oh, absolutely. Now, it’s such a personal, beautiful book in places, and you write very lucidly about the experience of enlightenment, yet then you also very humbly say you’re not enlightened. But in the book you talk about your wife scolding you for not admitting to at least a little bit of enlightenment.

So would you mind sharing a little bit of your own experience? You know you’ve lived a long life with this practice. How has Buddhist thought and meditation transformed you over this time?

[00:29:53] Robert Thurman: Yeah, I’m doomed to live a long life. Dalai Lama ordered me another 23 years.

[00:29:57] Scott Snibbe: I hope so. 

[00:29:58] Robert Thurman: Well, sort of I do, but I don’t know. I don’t wanna be completely creaking, it’s all related to him staying longer and I hope he does. And then he shocked me this time when I met him. He said, We’re gonna keep doing this every life. Which actually freaked—I didn’t react to it. I mean, I had a mixed reaction to it because I was thinking, Does he mean now he’s gonna be checking out? Because some people are afraid of that. But then he has reassured me he is not, he’s gonna hang in there.

Anyway, in one way, I especially feel enlightened when I talk about it because you know, the inferential whole network of all that I’ve learned and the different hints that I’ve had here and there, kind of come together when I hopefully reassure others that they have such a possibility.

But when I sit and really evaluate myself, I’m comparing what I know and feel to what I have heard Buddha is like, “Thus have I heard”, what a real Buddha is like, or a high level Avalokiteshvara Manjushri type bodhisattva, and it’s way beyond where I am. So when I say I’m not enlightened, I mean I can’t do that; they can perform miracles.

So that’s the thing but then did you get to my consolation prize? That’s what makes me happy, that’s how I award myself for being a loser and not attaining enlightenment in this life. Did you read that one?

[00:31:28] Scott Snibbe: Yes, describe it for us.

[00:31:29] Robert Thurman: So if you learn enough about the tradition and also the history of the people who have accomplished highly and the amazing things they have done, that we have evidence that they have done, even a skeptic, we’ll realize that there’s more in things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

And if we also open our mind to the fact that the end of life, nobody is assuring us there’s an end of our life, or the beginning of our life. All these big bangs is at least not from nothing. It’s maybe from a condition of entropy in some zone or some pulsar bursting out of a black hole, or they have all these things.

But I think they naively might have thought because of the original Big Bang, the guy who came up with it was a Jesuit. And he was thinking of God creating the universe out of nothing, of course. So, the theological thing, which is a completely insane thing, but that’s okay; that’s theology, it doesn’t need to be strictly rational.

So then a big bang out of nothing, but there’s no way of doing that and the normal thing of conservation of energy. So if you expand yourself to feel you’re gonna be here a long, long time, then given the long time, however stubborn and dense one is about being egotistical and selfish, eventually one might get to where one decides that’s not really the best way to be and then one will become more enlightened. 

And in that case, then the mystery of the Buddha on the brink of his enlightenment, in the Theravada version and every version, where he first—at the moment of Nirvana—remembered infinite previous lives of himself.  Then the next moment he saw everybody else, how they’d had infinite previous lives, which is a way of talking about compassion actually.

Because if everyone has had beginning previous lives, everybody’s been entangled with each other infinitely already.

But anyway, they don’t emphasize that compassion aspect of it. They just emphasize that he had those two remembrances and then he felt cessation, perhaps in desperation, not wanting to continue infinitely like that, A. But B, he also was able to remember those previous lives. Contrary to us who suffered a lot in previous lives and therefore like when we don’t remember when our wrist was broken, we don’t remember those pains. So we therefore have a hard time remembering our previous lives.

Whereas he must have revised his experience and his vision of time and of embodiment to really honor Stephen Batchelor’s vision of embracing life by seeing that even when he was a vegetarian dinosaur being devoured by a little family of T-Rexes, it was still Nirvana because the cells were changing, his mind was going off to be another kind of dinosaur, whatever.

In other words, it was all one swirl of bliss anyway. That’s how he was able to remember it all.

So that’s my consolation prize, that I’m enlightened enough to know that I will be, but only retroactively.

It’s maybe it’s a kind of Protestant deferred gratification trace still stuck in me, although my parents were not particularly spiritual. My mother told me when I became a Buddhist monk that I kicked over the baptismal urn or whatever it is, and drenched the priest, the minister, and he was upset about it. And he kind of rung some drops out of his cassock, on my flailing feet as I was making commotion, she said, So you barely got baptized? But I’m happy that I was baptized, why not hedge my bets?

I like Jesus anyway, I consider him a mystical rabbi.

How are your students and the next generation rebelling against you?

[00:35:25] Scott Snibbe: Okay, maybe one last question. In your book you write about how happy you are with adolescent rebelliousness to break through stuck qualities of the old and how the Buddha himself was a rebel. So here’s my question for you: Now that you are a revered senior teacher, how are your students and the next generation rebelling against you?

[00:35:42] Robert Thurman: Well, I hope they do. I try not to give them a lot to rebel against. And because I have enough children to rebel against me, so therefore I don’t really need students to do it too. But they do, and that’s good that they do, especially graduate students. You’re leading out of their own mind, their own understandings. You’re not inflicting on them some dogmas. And I think that’s really good, and I’ve always strived to do that, and I think I have successfully done that as a teacher.

But on the other hand, that means that unlike me with my Mr. Miyage, Reverend Geshe Wangyal, my first Mongolian teacher, the issue of character reform doesn’t enter into it, except perhaps by example, indirectly. So you don’t get to criticize the students, how they waste soy sauce or something, or some slobbering habit they have. Or you could critique some prejudiced attitudes or ideas they have in a debate, but you can’t go after some habits, so you can’t help them like a spiritual teacher does, a little bit of reforming some of their unconscious bad instincts and habits. You don’t do that.

So therefore, you know the trajection in graduate school where they project whatever parental models they have on their teacher and then rebel against it, after graduating or ideally while writing their dissertation. And the best ones do, and they come up with some different ideas, that’s good. And then there’s often a period after graduating where you get a little remote to them and then they rediscover you a decade or two later, and then they’re very grateful and friendly.

Trusting reality

[00:37:22] Scott Snibbe: Is there anything else you want to add about Wisdom is Bliss, especially for a non Buddhist listener, how to take some of these ideas practically into their life?

[00:37:29] Robert Thurman: Yeah, the last thing I would add, which is the first thing, the main thing is to work on trusting reality. Whatever you think it is, and the clear light of emptiness is a wonderful concept for it, which I would say is something like a bed of infinite energy, like a plenum of infinite energy underlying what seems like nothing.

energy orange light

Because the interesting thing about infinite energy is it’s not a star, it’s not a black hole, it doesn’t do anything because everything is done, as far as infinite energy goes, because it’s infinite , there’s nothing undone. But on the other hand, every area of it is a giant gravity well, from which anything that has a sense of deficiency, any being or any object or any plant can draw from without exhausting it because it’s infinite.

So you won’t ever see it because you’re made of it. So it’s only something you can discern by inference in a way. So you have to strengthen your reasoning power where inference becomes very important for you. But then within that inference, if you happen to be Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or Muslim or Taoist or something, whatever you might be, within the terms of whatever that, you can think it’s God. And then they all have things where they say, Well, God is love, Allah Rahman, or it’s the Tao and it’s the sun, but you can’t really find it. But it is everything. And you can find a way of interpreting whatever it is to encourage you to not be afraid of reality. 

And in a way, you should have gotten this from your mother’s breast. According to psychologists like Jean Piaget and Eric Erickson, what they call basic trust, one of the first things of being a healthy human, and most of you, if you can talk and you can listen, you probably did get it. But then culture descended upon you wherever you are to scare the shit out of you. And there are dangers in reality, but even if they kill you, you’ll still be in the bed of infinite energy.

If you are open-minded and you keep love in the forefront, you’ll go well with that, you’ll be open. If you get all trapped in some narrow thing, then you’ll end up in a trap.

So it’s a hard job to unlearn the levels in all cultures that wanna frighten the individual. Because the people who make the cultures are scared of the other individuals in the culture. So the authorities want to dominate them by scaring them. And then you need the president, or you need the king, or you need the high priest, or you need God to save you, because you’re so scared. And there’s somebody else who’s powerful.

And actually the power is beyond any one person; you have the power. And if you really go deep with that, you will not be afraid of death any longer, at all. And that’s why wisdom is bliss; ignorance is not bliss. That slogan comes from thinking reality is dangerous, so you don’t wanna know what it is.

Wisdom is bliss means you truly know what real freedom means and then you’ll be happy.

[00:40:44] Scott Snibbe: Let me wrap this up by just saying thank you so much, Bob, for being so generous with your time and writing such a profound and creative and personal book. I highly recommend it to everybody, Wisdom is Bliss.

[00:40:56] Robert Thurman: Thank you, Scott. Thank you so much. All the best.

Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for my conversation with Robert Thurman on Wisdom is Bliss. If you’d like to learn more, here is the link to Robert’s website where you can find links to all his books.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Produced by Tara Anderson
Audio mastering by Christian Parry
Marketing Direction by Jason Waterman
Digital Production, Marketing, and Social Media by Isabela Acebal


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