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Friday, January 15, 2010 - Editor: Jerry Katz
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The open way
of being in the world
16 Jan 2010, 0140 hrs IST, Vithal C Nadkarni, ET Bureau
Robert Thurman was changing a flat tyre when the rim flipped the tyre iron into his eye. He went into coma for three days. When he woke up, the renowned translator of Tibetan and Sanskrit, who was also leading a double life as a wealthy Harvard playboy, found that the doctors had taken the eye out.
It was kind of a mess, he reminisces. But it became a great benefit to me. Losing my eye made me realise that everything is impermanent. As my teacher later said, I lost one but gained a thousand more. I gained a thousand eyes into the deep visceral value of impermanence, what we call in Tibet the immediacy of death, meaning that death is right here with us now. That insight shaped all his subsequent experiences. Giving up his life of ease, he trekked off to India, became the first American to be ordained as a Buddhist monk, initiated by none other than Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama.
Four years later, he was back in America, giving up his robes and begging bowl and putting on a coat and tie. I decided to follow the Bodhisattva path (although I do not consider myself a Bodhisattva), which is to seek enlightenment for the sake of others, to serve others, he explains. But being a Buddhist monk was not a suitable position, at that time, from which to command peoples respect, to engage them intellectually, or teach them, because everyone thought that an American Buddhist monk was somehow defective. There wasnt a real social understanding of the place of a monk in western society. The academy is the monastery, if you will, of modern secular society, so my return to academia was a natural adaptation to Americas social reality.
Shortly after his return, he was hired to translate the ancient Tibetan text, Vimalakirti Sutra. Vimalakirti was not a monk, but an enlightened layperson who emphasised the notion of non-duality, which means that one doesnt create artificial distinctions between the everyday world and some exalted state. In other words, you try to live out your Nirvana in the world, not in the monastery, Thurman avers.
He was deeply moved by the Zen-like idea that Nirvana was not a place but an open way of being in the world. This isnt the same as nihilism, he says. The Buddhas teaching simply says that nothing exists independently; that everything depends on everything else. Rather than being a danger, it is the one hope and a cure for todays nihilism.
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