2002 Indic Colloquium
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Robert A.F. Thurman

Contact Information




Columbia University
Religion Department
623 Kent Hall
New York, NY 10027



(212) 854-5154, (212) 854-3218

(212) 932-2565




Phone (other)

(212) 807-0563 Tibet House

(845) 679-7845 Woodstock




Web site






Background Information

Robert A.F. Thurman is a courageous and inspired American pioneer who has done an enormous amount to introduce to Westerners the rich heritage of India and Tibet &endash; particularly teachings of the Buddha. In doing so, he has become one of America's leading voices for sanity and peace in the new millennium.

Thurman's work and insights are grounded in more than 35 years of serious academic scholarship. He has B.A., A.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard and studied in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in India and the United States. A long-time advocate of Buddhist monasticism, Thurman was the first American to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in 1962. He gave up his robes after several years, however, when he discovered he could be most effective in the American equivalent of the monastery, the university.

In 1972 he co-founded the American Institute of Buddhist Studies (AIBS) in New Jersey to fulfill Geshe Wangyal's mandate that the entire Tanjur (over 3,600 Sanskrit shastras preserved primarily only in Tibetan) be translated into English. In 1973 Dr. Thurman accepted a professorship at Amherst College, where he quickly proved to be one of Amherst's most popular teachers. Soon earning full-professor status at a time when Buddhist Studies was barely recognized, he remained at Amherst through 1988, pioneering the acceptance of Indian and Tibetan studies within the academy. The AIBS was relocated and remained active in Amherst, Massachusetts during this period as well.

Prof. Thurman finally settled at Columbia University in New York City (1988&endash;present) where he is a popular professor in the Religion Department, the first to hold the Jey Tsong Khapa chair in Indo-Tibetan Studies. Students have described his classes as "life changing" and a college president recently said, "If I could be a student again, I'd want to be in his classes at Columbia." There he has also established Columbia's Center for Buddhist Studies (CBS) with the founding directive also to translate key Buddhist texts (Indic shastras as well as other Asian Buddhist texts), and he formally affiliated CBS with AIBS. Collaborative translation work has gradually continued under the joint auspices of these organizations. More recently (2000), in affiliation with these and other institutions, he has founded the Global Renaissance Institute (GRI) with the mission "to cross-fertilize the modern sciences and professions with the insights and methodologies of the classical Inner Sciences (Sanskrit adhyatmavidya), as developed within the spiritual institutions of the world's religions."

Once in New York City, Thurman also co-founded Tibet House U.S. (1987), a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan culture on behalf of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who calls Thurman "an old friend." Thurman serves as president of Tibet House, which offers a lively mix of lectures, events and art exhibits as well as archives, library and shrine room. Tibet House attracts visitors from around the world from the school children who make field trips to its cultural center in Manhattan, to the Tibetan lamas who teach there, to the celebrities who headline its popular events.

Thurman is a political presence as well. His knowledge of Tibetan history and culture is often sought by policy makers. He has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a plan he authored, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1998 as an op-ed piece entitled "Freeing Tibet Is in China's Interest," is regarded by many as a practical, plausible blue-print for peacefully ending the human rights violations and cultural destruction in Tibet.

Thurman's charisma and genius have made him a popular celebrity figure as well. Time magazine, which chose him as one of it's 25 most influential Americans in 1997, described him as a "larger than life scholar-activist destined to convey the dharma, the precious teachings of Siddhartha, from Asia to America." The New York Times recently said Thurman "is considered the leading American expert on Tibetan Buddhism." His vibrant personality, wit, unique life story, long-time activism on behalf of Tibet, proximity to Hollywood and optimistic messages about "real happiness" for everyone have placed him front and center with the news media. He is regularly interviewed by newspapers and magazines throughout the world and has been profiled in the New York Times Sunday magazine, People and Time. He has appeared on CNN, Good Morning America, The News Hour, Larry King Live and the Oprah Winfrey Show to name a few. But it is Thurman's unique take on the relevance of Buddhism to American culture and politics, his wit and creativity in weaving ancient Buddhist wisdom and popular Western ideals, that make his knowledge and experience not only entertaining but also uniquely informative and immediately relevant.

This is evident in his recent book, Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness, which Publisher's Weekly chose as one of the best books of 1998. Thurman makes a case that America is uniquely poised to realize the Buddha's vision of individualism and cultural harmony, that the happiness guaranteed by America's founders "should be ours and that there are methods for discovering which happiness is really reliable and satisfying, and then securing that in an enduring way without depriving others."

His innumerable other books and articles on India and Tibet, Buddhism, art, politics and culture, include Circling the Sacred Mountain, Essential Tibetan Buddhism, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, and Worlds of Transformation. He is credited with being at the forefront of making Tibetan art accessible and understandable in the West and he co-curated with distinguished art historians several important traveling exhibitions, including Wisdom and Compassion; Mandala; and Worlds of Transformation, which set a standard in the art world.

Whether he is using his obvious talents to educate and inspire or to speak out for the oppressed who are constrained from speaking for themselves, Thurman is a celebrity of meaning, a man who lives his life in cultivation of the highest Buddhist qualities of wisdom and compassion.