Robert Thurman

Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman calls for an end to the Norquist tax pledge

Robert Thurman

In this short talk, Professor Robert Thurman of Columbia University highlights the contradiction involved in congresspeople taking the oath of allegiance to the US Constitution and also pledging never, under any circumstances, to raise taxes. Further, he argues that the desire of Grover Norquist, who started this pledge, to shrink government to the size that it can be “drowned in a bathtub” is anarchistic and profoundly unconstitutional: in effect an act of sedition or treason.

The core of the sedition argument is that the oath of office says:

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.

Congress members, he argues, who take an oath to an outside organization — an oath moreover that could compromise the intent of the constitution, which includes “to provide for the common defence” and to “promote the general welfare” — cannot say they have taken their oath “without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”

Thurman hopes that this meme will spread and take root on The Daily Show and other popular outlets. The video’s been out for a while, though, and although it’s garnered some attention the YouTube video has only had about 18,000 views so far. The virality of the attempted meme is probably undercut by the length of the video (almost 12 minutes), and the fact that the professor takes his time making his point.

2023 update: the original video is now no longer on YouTube, but here’s a transcript.

Hi, I’m Bob Thurman. I’m making this short video because I want to start a meme about those people in our government who refuse to cooperate with the president and with the more practical and pragmatic senators and congress persons of the five hundred and thirty eight people serving us at the top levels of the congress and the executive branch.

There are some who are not fulfilling their vow of office, their oath of office. Their oath of office says that “I hereby swear solemnly swear to support the U.S. constitution and I do so freely, of my own free will, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion.”

“So help me god,” they throw in there. And the president takes a similar one.

And what that means is that once they’re elected to office that they have pledged to serve the government, which is what is created by the U.S. constitution. And the government’s job is to serve the people of the United States.

And so the kind of radical positions they might take when they are in election mode, you know, before they take their oath of office: they [say] you know, I will never do this, and I’ll never compromise that, and these kind of extreme statements that they make — once they take the oath of office they cannot cling radically and uncompromisingly to those positions or the government will not function and will not serve the need of the people.

And there are almost like ninety five percent of the congressmen and Republican senators have sworn a written oath to someone called Grover Norquist, and an organization called “Americans for Tax Reform,” that they will under no circumstances, and for no reason, raise taxes of any kind on anyone. And therefore they have taken an oath to an outside organization which was not supported by the U.S. constitution, which gives congress the right to levy taxes to do the work of the people through the government.

But this is a non-governmental organization! It is not elected by anybody. It is supported by big money people who are making money by not having to pay taxes. And these people have signed a sworn oath that contradicts their oath of office.

And therefore in fact they do have mental reservation.

And they do have purpose of evasion.

And they are not sincerely taking their oath of office.

And if they persist in that, and if they are held to that pledge by this outside person, who is not a member of the government, then they are in fact breaking their oath of office, and they are not serving what they swore to serve – the American people.

And people, even the sort of the people on the left so-called, critical, liberal people, so-called, who’re criticizing what they call right-wing people — it’s not a matter of right wing or left wing actually, it’s a matter of whether they take seriously the role of being a loyal opposition if they didn’t happen to win the last election — their party, but between elections they have to be loyal opposition which means serve the government.

So i want this – the seriousness of this blackmailing of the government that they are doing, to be out there in people’s minds. That’s the meme I want to start.

I want people to really see that, because everybody wants to be polite. And you know I’m a liberal. I want to be polite. And I’m trying to be polite. But this is a really serious thing that is going on, which is paralyzing our government and causing tremendous loss to us at a time when many people are unemployed, many people are below the poverty line. And the government is there to help those people. That’s what the U.S. constitution asks.

When the supreme court oath is taken, by the way, they make specific in that oath: it says without regard to rich or poor, because I will not favor the rich against the poor in my decisions as a judge. And that leaves some thought about the way they’re executing their duty.

But I’m only talking now about the congress people particularly, and the senators: senators and congress persons.

Furthermore, Americans for Tax Reform openly states that their job is not simply a matter of trimming taxes and leaving the government functioning. The head of that organization, Mister Grover Norquist, has publicly stated – proudly stated — that he wants to “starve the beast”: referring to the government as “the beast.” And so when it’s weakened by starvation, he can then drown it in a bathtub, he says.

So that means that … the people taking the oath … the oath that he is administering is an oath taken with a purpose of destroying the U.S government. It’s a kind of anarchist proposition. It’s a pretense that the government is completely useless and should be destroyed. Therefore, it is actually a kind of seditious oath, treasonous oath. People who take that oath cannot actually serve in the government with a good conscience, because their real role is to act as a mole and to destroy the government. They are “starving the beast.”

And the expression “the beast,” I must say, this appeals to people who are religious people, who take the Book of Revelations seriously in the Christian Bible. And by taking that seriously, “the beast” refers to Satan, to the beast, the 666, the demon. So it’s a very negative way of depicting the U.S. government, which is enacting the provisions of the U.S. constitution.

So this is a very serious conflict of interest that these people have, so, when President Obama and house minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and any moderate Republicans, and hopefully speaker John Boehner who wants to see the government work, who realizes it’s in his own, not in his own interests not to see it work (and I’m of course not sure whether he signed that pledge or not, but I’m afraid he might have) when he is told by the the caucus of the extreme members in the House that they can’t compromise and they can’t make a grand bargain because they have sworn an oath never to raise any taxes on anybody, then the people of the United States, you people listening to this, and me, should rise up through the internet or through our – we will not be electing … through impeachment, urging for impeachment, because this means that they are favoring their oath to the Americans for Tax Reform, a signed formal solemn oath, over their formal solemn oath sworn to the U.S. constitution, on the Bible they believe is is the holy book, the one Hindu congress person on the Bhagavadgita, which I think its a wonderful thing about our country — our pluralism.

And so therefore that is grounds for their impeachment, actually, and I want them to know that this is in our minds, that they are deserving impeachment. If they block the grand bargain that we need, for example the debt ceiling, they cost us billions of dollars, by blackmailing the president and the more moderate members of congress that they would never raise the debt ceiling unless whatever they want is enacted, which when you don’t raise it you lose your credit rating and then we pay more interest on debt we have, and therefore we lose billions of dollars. With their supposed deficit-reduction attitude they’re costing us billions of dollars. So that shows they are not sincere about deficit reduction, but actually trying to destroy our government — enacting an anarchic, an anarchists program rather than upholding the U.S constitution which is not an anarchist document.

So this is the meme I want to convey, and i hope it will spread.

And I will say it again and again. I’ll make more videos. I’ll try to get on Jon Stewart, and Bill Maher, and … Hell! I don’t need to get on! They can repeat it! I just want this meme to go out there so that people begin to take it more seriously, what is happening to our government — that people whose underlying reasoning is to destroy our government are actually with mental reservation and purpose of evasion that they swear they don’t have, they are taking their offices. And therefore they are unfit for their offices, if they persist.

So what I recommend to them is that in a single body they all renounce, publicly, their oath to the Americans for Tax Reform, they reassure poor Grover Norquist that they intend to moderate taxes and to remove waste in government and to do a good job making the government lean and efficient. But they cannot take that oath. They must renounce that oath in order to retake their oath of office, sincerely, without mental reservation, and without purpose of evasion, which is what they must do to be reinstated in our good graces as the people of the United States, of whom they are the employees.

Remember, even dear old Clint Eastwood while talking to the chair said that the people of the United States own the government, and the people who are paid salaries by the government serve the government and serve the constitution. They do not serve some sort of NGO thing, Americans for Tax Reform, that wants to destroy the government. They serve us the people. And we need a government to do some things that we need. We don’t just need them to be broken by these infiltrators.

Okay, so this is the meme. And it’s loving. I’m not against a single one of those persons individually. I really like the idea of the Tea Party. We have to remember the tea party was against the British Empire, and against the British East India Corporation. It wasn’t against the local government of the United States, which is helping people with their services, their roads and their sewage and their whatever it is. It wasn’t against them. It was against the British East India Company and the British Empire, to liberate the American government that was then created by the people who who did the tea party.

So let’s try to remember that the real tea party is against monied interests and against ruthless corporations and imperialist behavior on the part of the 0.01 percent. It is not against the U.S. government … not, not being a proper tea party; it has no right to the name Tea Party if it is against the U.S. government.

Thank you very much. And i hope you can repeat this to your friends. Make your own videos if you think I didn’t do it right.

Let’s see this spread in a viral way, democratically. Thank you very much.

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Bob Thurman: We can be Buddhas

Thank you. And I feel like this whole evening has been very amazing to me. I feel it’s sort of like the Vimalakirti Sutra, an ancient work from ancient India in which the Buddha appears at the beginning and a whole bunch of people come to see him from the biggest city in the area, Vaishali, and they bring some sort of jeweled parasols to make an offering to him. All the young people, actually, from the city. The old fogeys don’t come because they’re mad at Buddha, because when he came to their city he accepted — he always accepts the first invitation that comes to him, from whoever it is, and the local geisha, a movie-star sort of person, raced the elders of the city in a chariot and invited him first.

So he was hanging out with the movie star, and of course they were grumbling: “He’s supposed to be religious and all this. What’s he doing over there at Amrapali’s house with all his 500 monks,” and so on. They were all grumbling, and so they boycotted him. They wouldn’t go listen to him. But the young people all came. And they brought this kind of a jeweled parasol, and they put it on the ground. And as soon as they had laid all these, all their big stack of these jeweled parasols that they used to carry in ancient India, he performed a kind of special effect which made it into a giant planetarium, the wonder of the universe. Everyone looked in that, and they saw in there the total interconnectedness of all life in all universes.

And of course, in the Buddhist cosmos there are millions and billions of planets with human life on it, and enlightened beings can see the life on all the other planets. So they don’t — when they look out and they see those lights that you showed in the sky — they don’t just see sort of pieces of matter burning or rocks or flames or gases exploding. They actually see landscapes and human beings and gods and dragons and serpent beings and goddesses and things like that.

He made that special effect at the beginning to get everyone to think about interconnection and interconnectedness and how everything in life was totally interconnected. And then Leilei — I know his other name — told us about interconnection, and how we’re all totally interconnected here, and how we’ve all known each other. And of course in the Buddhist universe, we’ve already done this already billions of times in many, many lifetimes in the past. And I didn’t give the talk always. You did, and we had to watch you, and so forth. And we’re all still trying to, I guess we’re all trying to become TEDsters, if that’s a modern form of enlightenment. I guess so. Because in a way, if a TEDster relates to all the interconnectedness of all the computers and everything, it’s the forging of a mass awareness, of where everybody can really know everything that’s going on everywhere in the planet.

And therefore it will become intolerable — what compassion is, is where it will become intolerable for us, totally intolerable that we sit here in comfort and in pleasure and enjoying the life of the mind or whatever it is, and there are people who are absolutely riddled with disease and they cannot have a bite of food and they have no place, or they’re being brutalized by some terrible person and so forth. It just becomes intolerable. With all of us knowing everything, we’re kind of forced by technology to become Buddhas or something, to become enlightened.

And of course, we all will be deeply disappointed when we do. Because we think that because we are kind of tired of what we do, a little bit tired, we do suffer. We do enjoy our misery in a certain way. We distract ourselves from our misery by running around somewhere, but basically we all have this common misery that we are sort of stuck inside our skins and everyone else is out there. And occasionally we get together with another person stuck in their skin and the two of us enjoy each other, and each one tries to get out of their own, and ultimately it fails of course, and then we’re back into this thing.

Because our egocentric perception — from the Buddha’s point of view, misperception — is that all we are is what is inside our skin. And it’s inside and outside, self and other, and other is all very different. And everyone here is unfortunately carrying that habitual perception, a little bit, right? You know, someone sitting next to you in a seat — that’s OK because you’re in a theater, but if you were sitting on a park bench and someone came up and sat that close to you, you’d freak out. What do they want from me? Like, who’s that? And so you wouldn’t sit that close to another person because of your notion that it’s you versus the universe — that’s all Buddha discovered. Because that cosmic basic idea that it is us all alone, each of us, and everyone else is different, then that puts us in an impossible situation, doesn’t it? Who is it who’s going to get enough attention from the world? Who’s going to get enough out of the world? Who’s not going to be overrun by an infinite number of other beings — if you’re different from all the other beings?

So where compassion comes is where you surprisingly discover you lose yourself in some way: through art, through meditation, through understanding, through knowledge actually, knowing that you have no such boundary, knowing your interconnectedness with other beings. You can experience yourself as the other beings when you see through the delusion of being separated from them. When you do that, you’re forced to feel what they feel. Luckily, they say — I still am not sure — but luckily, they say that when you reach that point because some people have said in the Buddhist literature, they say, “Oh who would really want to be compassionate? How awful! I’m so miserable on my own. My head is aching. My bones are aching. I go from birth to death. I’m never satisfied. I never have enough, even if I’m a billionaire, I don’t have enough. I need a hundred billion.” So I’m like that. Imagine if I had to feel even a hundred other people’s suffering. It would be terrible.

But apparently, this is a strange paradox of life. When you’re no longer locked in yourself, and as the wisdom or the intelligence or the scientific knowledge of the nature of the world, that enables you to let your mind spread out, and empathize, and enhance the basic human ability of empathizing, and realizing that you are the other being, somehow by that opening, you can see the deeper nature of life. And you can, you get away from this terrible iron circle of I, me, me, mine, like the Beatles used to sing.

You know, we really learned everything in the ’60s. Too bad nobody ever woke up to it, and they’ve been trying to suppress it since then. I, me, me, mine. It’s like a perfect song, that song. A perfect teaching. But when we’re relieved from that, we somehow then become interested in all the other beings. And we feel ourselves differently. It’s totally strange. It’s totally strange. The Dalai Lama always likes to say — he says that when you give birth in your mind to the idea of compassion, it’s because you realize that you yourself and your pains and pleasures are finally too small a theater for your intelligence. It’s really too boring whether you feel like this or like that, or what, you know — and the more you focus on how you feel, by the way, the worse it gets. Like, even when you’re having a good time, when is the good time over? The good time is over when you think, how good is it? And then it’s never good enough.

I love that Leilei said that the way of helping those who are suffering badly on the physical plane or on other planes is having a good time, doing it by having a good time. I think the Dalai Lama should have heard that. I wish he’d been there to hear that. He once told me — he looked kind of sad; he worries very much about the haves and have-nots. He looked a little sad, because he said, well, a hundred years ago, they went and took everything away from the haves. You know, the big communist revolutions, Russia and China and so forth. They took it all away by violence, saying they were going to give it to everyone, and then they were even worse. They didn’t help at all.

So what could possibly change this terrible gap that has opened up in the world today? And so then he looks at me. So I said, “Well, you know, you’re all in this yourself. You teach: it’s generosity,” was all I could think of. What is virtue? But of course, what you said, I think the key to saving the world, the key to compassion is that it is more fun. It should be done by fun. Generosity is more fun. That’s the key. Everybody has the wrong idea. They think Buddha was so boring, and they’re so surprised when they meet Dalai Lama and he’s fairly jolly. Even though his people are being genocided — and believe me, he feels every blow on every old nun’s head, in every Chinese prison. He feels it. He feels the way they are harvesting yaks nowadays. I won’t even say what they do. But he feels it. And yet he’s very jolly. He’s extremely jolly.

Because when you open up like that, then you can’t just — what good does it do to add being miserable with others’ misery? You have to find some vision where you see how hopeful it is, how it can be changed. Look at that beautiful thing Chiho showed us. She scared us with the lava man. She scared us with the lava man is coming, then the tsunami is coming, but then finally there were flowers and trees, and it was very beautiful. It’s really lovely.

So, compassion means to feel the feelings of others, and the human being actually is compassion. The human being is almost out of time. The human being is compassion because what is our brain for? Now, Jim’s brain is memorizing the almanac. But he could memorize all the needs of all the beings that he is, he will, he did. He could memorize all kinds of fantastic things to help many beings. And he would have tremendous fun doing that.

So the first person who gets happy, when you stop focusing on the self-centered situation of, how happy am I, where you’re always dissatisfied — as Mick Jagger told us. You never get any satisfaction that way. So then you decide, “Well, I’m sick of myself. I’m going to think of how other people can be happy. I’m going to get up in the morning and think, what can I do for even one other person, even a dog, my dog, my cat, my pet, my butterfly?” And the first person who gets happy when you do that, you don’t do anything for anybody else, but you get happier, you yourself, because your whole perception broadens and you suddenly see the whole world and all of the people in it. And you realize that this — being with these people — is the flower garden that Chiho showed us. It is Nirvana. And my time is up.

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Seven steps to cultivating compassion, from Bob Thurman

It’s hard to always show compassion — even to the people we love, but Robert Thurman asks that we develop compassion for our enemies. He prescribes a seven-step meditation exercise to extend compassion beyond our inner circle.

Transcript: I want to open by quoting Einstein’s wonderful statement, just so people will feel at ease that the great scientist of the 20th century also agrees with us, and also calls us to this action. He said, “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, the ‘universe,’ — a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion, to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

This insight of Einstein’s is uncannily close to that of Buddhist psychology, wherein compassion — “karuna,” it is called — is defined as, “the sensitivity to another’s suffering and the corresponding will to free the other from that suffering.” It pairs closely with love, which is the will for the other to be happy, which requires, of course, that one feels some happiness oneself and wishes to share it. This is perfect in that it clearly opposes self-centeredness and selfishness to compassion, the concern for others, and, further, it indicates that those caught in the cycle of self-concern suffer helplessly, while the compassionate are more free and, implicitly, more happy.

The Dalai Lama often states that compassion is his best friend. It helps him when he is overwhelmed with grief and despair. Compassion helps him turn away from the feeling of his suffering as the most absolute, most terrible suffering anyone has ever had and broadens his awareness of the sufferings of others, even of the perpetrators of his misery and the whole mass of beings. In fact, suffering is so huge and enormous, his own becomes less and less monumental. And he begins to move beyond his self-concern into the broader concern for others. And this immediately cheers him up, as his courage is stimulated to rise to the occasion. Thus, he uses his own suffering as a doorway to widening his circle of compassion. He is a very good colleague of Einstein’s, we must say.

Now, I want to tell a story, which is a very famous story in the Indian and Buddhist tradition, of the great saint Asanga who was a contemporary of Augustine in the West and was sort of like the Buddhist Augustine. And Asanga lived 800 years after the Buddha’s time. And he was discontented with the state of people’s practice of the Buddhist religion in India at that time.

And so he said, “I’m sick of all this. Nobody’s really living the doctrine. They’re talking about love and compassion and wisdom and enlightenment, but they are acting selfish and pathetic. So, Buddha’s teaching has lost its momentum. I know the next Buddha will come a few thousand years from now, but exists currently in a certain heaven” — that’s Maitreya — “so, I’m going to go on a retreat and I’m going to meditate and pray until the Buddha Maitreya reveals himself to me, and gives me a teaching or something to revive the practice of compassion in the world today.”

So he went on this retreat. And he meditated for three years and he did not see the future Buddha Maitreya. And he left in disgust. And as he was leaving, he saw a man — a funny little man sitting sort of part way down the mountain. And he had a lump of iron. And he was rubbing it with a cloth. And he became interested in that. He said, “Well what are you doing?” And the man said, “I’m making a needle.” And he said, “That’s ridiculous. You can’t make a needle by rubbing a lump of iron with a cloth.” And the man said, “Really?” And he showed him a dish full of needles. So he said, “Okay, I get the point.” He went back to his cave. He meditated again.

Another three years, no vision. He leaves again. This time, he comes down. And as he’s leaving, he sees a bird making a nest on a cliff ledge. And where it’s landing to bring the twigs to the cliff, its feathers brushes the rock — and it had cut the rock six to eight inches in. There was a cleft in the rock by the brushing of the feathers of generations of the birds. So he said, “All right. I get the point.” He went back.

Another three years. Again, no vision of Maitreya after nine years. And he again leaves, and this time: water dripping, making a giant bowl in the rock where it drips in a stream. And so, again, he goes back. And after 12 years there is still no vision. And he’s freaked out. And he won’t even look left or right to see any encouraging vision.

And he comes to the town. He’s a broken person. And there, in the town, he’s approached by a dog who comes like this — one of these terrible dogs you can see in some poor countries, even in America, I think, in some areas — and he’s looking just terrible. And he becomes interested in this dog because it’s so pathetic, and it’s trying to attract his attention. And he sits down looking at the dog. And the dog’s whole hindquarters are a complete open sore. Some of it is like gangrenous, and there are maggots in the flesh. And it’s terrible. He thinks, “What can I do to fix up this dog? Well, at least I can clean this wound and wash it.”

So, he takes it to some water. He’s about to clean, but then his awareness focuses on the maggots. And he sees the maggots, and the maggots are kind of looking a little cute. And they’re maggoting happily in the dog’s hindquarters there. “Well, if I clean the dog, I’ll kill the maggots. So how can that be? That’s it. I’m a useless person and there’s no Buddha, no Maitreya, and everything is all hopeless. And now I’m going to kill the maggots?”

So, he had a brilliant idea. And he took a shard of something, and cut a piece of flesh from his thigh, and he placed it on ground. He was not really thinking too carefully about the ASPCA. He was just immediately caught with the situation. So he thought, “I will take the maggots and put them on this piece of flesh, then clean the dog’s wounds, and then I’ll figure out what to do with the maggots.”

So he starts to do that. He can’t grab the maggots. Apparently they wriggle around. They’re kind of hard to grab, these maggots. So he says, “Well, I’ll put my tongue on the dog’s flesh. And then the maggots will jump on my warmer tongue” — the dog is kind of used up — “and then I’ll spit them one by one down on the thing.” So he goes down, and he’s sticking his tongue out like this. And he had to close his eyes, it’s so disgusting, and the smell and everything.

And then, suddenly, there’s a pfft, a noise like that. He jumps back and there, of course, is the future Buddha Maitreya in a beautiful vision — rainbow lights, golden, jeweled, a plasma body, an exquisite mystic vision — that he sees. And he says, “Oh.” He bows. But, being human, he’s immediately thinking of his next complaint.

So as he comes up from his first bow he says, “My Lord, I’m so happy to see you, but where have you been for 12 years? What is this?”

And Maitreya says, “I was with you. Who do you think was making needles and making nests and dripping on rocks for you, mister dense?” (Laughter) “Looking for the Buddha in person,” he said. And he said, “You didn’t have, until this moment, real compassion. And, until you have real compassion, you cannot recognize love.” “Maitreya” means love, “the loving one,” in Sanskrit.

And so he looked very dubious, Asanga did. And he said, “If you don’t believe me, just take me with you.” And so he took the Maitreya — it shrunk into a globe, a ball — took him on his shoulder. And he ran into town in the marketplace, and he said, “Rejoice! Rejoice! The future Buddha has come ahead of all predictions. Here he is.” And then pretty soon they started throwing rocks and stones at him — it wasn’t Chautauqua, it was some other town — because they saw a demented looking, scrawny looking yogi man, like some kind of hippie, with a bleeding leg and a rotten dog on his shoulder, shouting that the future Buddha had come.

So, naturally, they chased him out of town. But on the edge of town, one elderly lady, a charwoman in the charnel ground, saw a jeweled foot on a jeweled lotus on his shoulder and then the dog, but she saw the jewel foot of the Maitreya, and she offered a flower. So that encouraged him, and he went with Maitreya.

Maitreya then took him to a certain heaven, which is the typical way a Buddhist myth unfolds. And Maitreya then kept him in heaven for five years, dictating to him five complicated tomes of the methodology of how you cultivate compassion.

And then I thought I would share with you what that method is, or one of them. A famous one, it’s called the “Sevenfold Causal Method of Developing Compassion.” And it begins first by one meditating and visualizing that all beings are with one — even animals too, but everyone is in human form. The animals are in one of their human lives. The humans are human. And then, among them, you think of your friends and loved ones, the circle at the table. And you think of your enemies, and you think of the neutral ones. And then you try to say, “Well, the loved ones I love. But, you know, after all, they’re nice to me. I had fights with them. Sometimes they were unfriendly. I got mad. Brothers can fight. Parents and children can fight. So, in a way, I like them so much because they’re nice to me. While the neutral ones I don’t know. They could all be just fine. And then the enemies I don’t like because they’re mean to me. But they are nice to somebody. I could be them.”

And then the Buddhists, of course, think that, because we’ve all had infinite previous lives, we’ve all been each other’s relatives, actually. Therefore all of you, in the Buddhist view, in some previous life, although you don’t remember it and neither do I, have been my mother — for which I do apologize for the trouble I caused you. And also, actually, I’ve been your mother. I’ve been female, and I’ve been every single one of yours’ mother in a previous life, the way the Buddhists reflect. So, my mother in this life is really great. But all of you in a way are part of the eternal mother. You gave me that expression; “the eternal mama,” you said. That’s wonderful. So, that’s the way the Buddhists do it. A theist Christian can think that all beings, even my enemies, are God’s children. So, in that sense, we’re related.

So, they first create this foundation of equality. So, we sort of reduce a little of the clinging to the ones we love — just in the meditation — and we open our mind to those we don’t know. And we definitely reduce the hostility and the “I don’t want to be compassionate to them” to the ones we think of as the bad guys, the ones we hate and we don’t like. And we don’t hate anyone, therefore. So we equalize. That’s very important.

And then the next thing we do is what is called “mother recognition.” And that is, we think of every being as familiar, as family. We expand. We take the feeling about remembering a mama, and we defuse that to all beings in this meditation. And we see the mother in every being. We see that look that the mother has on her face, looking at this child that is a miracle that she has produced from her own body, being a mammal, where she has true compassion, truly is the other, and identifies completely. Often the life of that other will be more important to her than her own life. And that’s why it’s the most powerful form of altruism. The mother is the model of all altruism for human beings, in spiritual traditions. And so, we reflect until we can sort of see that motherly expression in all beings.

People laugh at me because, you know, I used to say that I used to meditate on mama Cheney as my mom, when, of course, I was annoyed with him about all of his evil doings in Iraq. I used to meditate on George Bush. He’s quite a cute mom in a female form. He has his little ears and he smiles and he rocks you in his arms. And you think of him as nursing you. And then Saddam Hussein’s serious mustache is a problem, but you think of him as a mom.

And this is the way you do it. You take any being who looks weird to you, and you see how they could be familiar to you. And you do that for a while, until you really feel that. You can feel the familiarity of all beings. Nobody seems alien. They’re not “other.” You reduce the feeling of otherness about beings. Then you move from there to remembering the kindness of mothers in general, if you can remember the kindness of your own mother, if you can remember the kindness of your spouse, or, if you are a mother yourself, how you were with your children. And you begin to get very sentimental; you cultivate sentimentality intensely. You will even weep, perhaps, with gratitude and kindness. And then you connect that with your feeling that everyone has that motherly possibility. Every being, even the most mean looking ones, can be motherly.

And then, third, you step from there to what is called “a feeling of gratitude.” You want to repay that kindness that all beings have shown to you. And then the fourth step, you go to what is called “lovely love.” In each one of these you can take some weeks, or months, or days depending on how you do it, or you can do them in a run, this meditation. And then you think of how lovely beings are when they are happy, when they are satisfied. And every being looks beautiful when they are internally feeling a happiness. Their face doesn’t look like this. When they’re angry, they look ugly, every being, but when they’re happy they look beautiful. And so you see beings in their potential happiness. And you feel a love toward them and you want them to be happy, even the enemy.

We think Jesus is being unrealistic when he says, “Love thine enemy.” He does say that, and we think he’s being unrealistic and sort of spiritual and highfalutin. “Nice for him to say it, but I can’t do that.” But, actually, that’s practical. If you love your enemy that means you want your enemy to be happy. If your enemy was really happy, why would they bother to be your enemy? How boring to run around chasing you. They would be relaxing somewhere having a good time. So it makes sense to want your enemy to be happy, because they’ll stop being your enemy because that’s too much trouble.

But anyway, that’s the “lovely love.” And then finally, the fifth step is compassion, “universal compassion.” And that is where you then look at the reality of all the beings you can think of. And you look at them, and you see how they are. And you realize how unhappy they are actually, mostly, most of the time. You see that furrowed brow in people. And then you realize they don’t even have compassion on themselves. They’re driven by this duty and this obligation. “I have to get that. I need more. I’m not worthy. And I should do something.” And they’re rushing around all stressed out. And they think of it as somehow macho, hard discipline on themselves. But actually they are cruel to themselves. And, of course, they are cruel and ruthless toward others. And they, then, never get any positive feedback. And the more they succeed and the more power they have, the more unhappy they are. And this is where you feel real compassion for them.

And you then feel you must act. And the choice of the action, of course, hopefully will be more practical than poor Asanga, who was fixing the maggots on the dog because he had that motivation, and whoever was in front of him, he wanted to help. But, of course, that is impractical. He should have founded the ASPCA in the town and gotten some scientific help for dogs and maggots. And I’m sure he did that later. (Laughter) But that just indicates the state of mind, you know.

And so the next step — the sixth step beyond “universal compassion” — is this thing where you’re linked with the needs of others in a true way, and you have compassion for yourself also, and it isn’t sentimental only. You might be in fear of something. Some bad guy is making himself more and more unhappy being more and more mean to other people and getting punished in the future for it in various ways. And in Buddhism, they catch it in the future life. Of course in theistic religion they’re punished by God or whatever. And materialism, they think they get out of it just by not existing, by dying, but they don’t. And so they get reborn as whatever, you know.

Never mind. I won’t get into that. But the next step is called “universal responsibility.” And that is very important — the Charter of Compassion must lead us to develop through true compassion, what is called “universal responsibility.” In the great teaching of his Holiness the Dalai Lama that he always teaches everywhere, he says that that is the common religion of humanity: kindness. But “kindness” means “universal responsibility.” And that means whatever happens to other beings is happening to us: we are responsible for that, and we should take it and do whatever we can at whatever little level and small level that we can do it. We absolutely must do that. There is no way not to do it.

And then, finally, that leads to a new orientation in life where we live equally for ourselves and for others and we are joyful and happy. One thing we mustn’t think is that compassion makes you miserable. Compassion makes you happy. The first person who is happy when you get great compassion is yourself, even if you haven’t done anything yet for anybody else. Although, the change in your mind already does something for other beings: they can sense this new quality in yourself, and it helps them already, and gives them an example.

And that uncompassionate clock has just showed me that it’s all over.

So, practice compassion, read the charter, disseminate it and develop it within yourself. Don’t just think, “Well, I’m compassionate,” or “I’m not compassionate,” and sort of think you’re stuck there. You can develop this. You can diminish the non-compassion, the cruelty, the callousness, the neglect of others, and take universal responsibility for them. And then, not only will God smile and the eternal mama will smile, but Karen Armstrong will smile.

Thank you very much.


Tenzin Robert Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. He’s a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, and co-founder of Tibet House US, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization.

Thurman’s focus is on the balance between inner insight and cultural harmony. In interpreting the teachings of Buddha, he argues that happiness can be reliable and satisfying in an enduring way without depriving others.

He has translated many Buddhist Sutras, or teachings, and written many books, recently taking on the topic of Anger for the recent Oxford series on the seven deadly sins. He maintains a podcast on Buddhist topics. And yes, he is Uma’s dad.

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Robert Thurman talks at Occupy Wall Street

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Robert Thurman, the Buddhist writer and Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, gave a rousing address to the protestors at Occupy Wall Street, encouraging “cool heroes” (i.e. non-violent heroes) as opposed to “hot heroes” (those motivated by anger and hatred).

The address is frequently very funny. The people who were assigned to repeat his words, in order to make them audible to the large crowd were often too busy laughing to be able to effectively relay Thurman’s message.

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Tiger Woods and Buddhism

CBS: Golfer Acknowledges He Had Strayed From Teachings, and Promised to Return to Tenets as Part of Path to Recovery

In his statement today about his recovery from the failings that have impacted his family and career, golfer Tiger Woods vowed a return to the teachings of Buddhism which had guided him since childhood.

Part of his therapeutic quest, Woods said, would be Buddhism, “which my mother taught me at a young age. People probably don’t realize it, but I was raised a Buddhist, and I actively practiced my faith from childhood until I drifted away from it in recent years.

“Buddhism teaches that a craving for things outside ourselves causes an unhappy and pointless search for security. It teaches me to stop following every impulse and to learn restraint. Obviously, I lost track of what I was taught.”

Woods said that while he will continue to pursue therapy, one thing he has learned is “the importance of looking at my spiritual life and keeping [it] in balance with my professional life. I need to regain my balance and be centered, so I can see the things that are most important to me: My marriage and my children.”

According to Reuters and Times of London interviews in March 2008, when asked if he were a practicing Buddhist, Woods said he practices meditation, and has attended temple with his mother, but stressed the tenets of Buddhism about internal growth: “In the Buddhist religion you have to work for it yourself, internally, in order to achieve anything in life and set up the next life.”

He said his mother has preached to him that “you have to work for everything in life, and you get out of it what you put into it. So you’re going to have to work your butt off in every aspect of your life. That’s one of the things people see in what I do on the golf course, but that’s just one small facet of my life.”

“I believe in Buddhism. Not every aspect, but most of it,” Woods told Sports Illustrated in 1996. “So I take bits and pieces. I don’t believe that human beings can achieve ultimate enlightenment, because humans have flaws.”

The foundation of Buddhist philosophy is ethics, James Shaheen, editor and publisher of the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, told the Associated Press: “An ethical life leads to a life of less suffering.”

Buddhists are taught that redemption for unethical actions is sought not through an omnipotent figure but through oneself.

Fox News commentator Brit Hume raised a stir last month when he suggested that the only way for avowed Buddhist Woods to achieve forgiveness and redemption was to “turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.”

That stirred the ire of many Buddhists, including Robert Thurman, a professor of Tibetan studies at Columbia University, who called Hume’s assertion that the Buddhist faith does not provide for forgiveness or redemption “ridiculous.”

“It is insulting to Buddhism to indicate that Buddhism doesn’t take care of its own believers and followers. But I think he will discover that Buddhists are very forgiving about his stupid statements,” Thurman told the Associated Press.

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Top 10 Buddhist teachers living in America

Coffee-stain ensoWaylon Lewis at the Huffington Post has compiled a list of what he considers to the the top ten teachers “you can study with,” excluding “charlatans,” “promising youngsters,” “those who you can’t really study with because they’re too famous,” or “in private meditation retreat all the time.”

1. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche ~ he’s young but not too young, experienced, thoroughly Westernized (though exotically Tibetan, heritage-wise), a great teacher and frequently accessible at programs around the US, Europe, Canada, even South America. But because he’s a rising star, you’ve got to make an effort if you want personal training.

2. Pema Chodron ~ though Pema is a best selling, accessible, wise, safe teacher, and Oprah loves her…I nearly disqualified her because she’s no longer frequently accessible. But she’s just too good to overlook. So check out her teaching schedule, and connect with her before she retires or goes into retreat.

3. Sharon Salzberg ~ like Pema, she’s a best-selling author, beloved by Oprah, and an immediately accessible teacher to Buddhists and never-gonna-be-Buddhists alike. While less feisty than Pema, she‘s deeply experienced and warm-hearted. With her partners-in-crime Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, she teaches mostly out of the Insight Meditation Centre in Barre, Mass.

4. Ponlop Rinpoche ~ like Mipham Rinpoche and Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche (below), a young, well-trained teacher who belongs to the first generation of Tibetan Buddhist raised and trained in the West. He’s got an avid, small-but-fast-growing community–perfect if you want personal attention and training.

5. Joan Halifax Roshi ~ a strikingly-lovely, wise and venerable American Zen teacher, she‘s based out of her Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico, and works with the yoga community extensively. A superstar.

6. Dr. Reggie Ray ~ while he’s been caught in that “I’m American yet folks treat me like a guru vortex” that’s chewed up and spit out Osel Tendzin and Richard Baker Roshi before him, Reggie is like Pema a magnetic, accessible teacher. Unlike Pema, he’s got a small community with whom he works closely. Perfect if you want personal attention and training.

7. Columbia professor, Free Tibet activist and co-founder of The Tibet House, righthand man to the Dalai Lama, one of TIME’s most Influential People and father of Uma, Robert Thurman is charismatic, wild and wise–perfect for those who want to connect with the Dalai Lama’s teachings.

8. Norman Fischer ~ I don’t know him at all, being mostly a Tibetan Buddhist trained boy myself, but he’s got a stellar reputation for integrity.

9. Dr. Judith Simmer-Brown, Dale Asrael, Frank Berliner ~ alright, I’m cheating–combining three in one–but if you’re college-age, you can find ’em all (and other gems, too) at little Naropa University. Dr. Simmer-Brown is an expert in feminism, or the feminine principle in Buddhism, Ms. Asrael is wise and kind, Mr. Berliner is deeply serious, knowledgeable, caring, and impossibly good looking–the Marlboro man of Buddhism.

10. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche ~ like Ponlop Rinpoche, if you’re looking for a small community, personal attention and deep study, he’s perfect for you. Same goes for the remarkable, crazy-wisdomish Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche–an artist, filmmaker and incredible teacher–who has a strong, committed community. If however, you’re looking to simply inject a little mindfulness and awake-ness and peace and sanity into your daily life, you may want to stick with the superstars listed above.

Lewis insists that the list isn’t final and invites comments.


BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/bodhipaksa or join him on Facebook.


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Bob Thurman talks on interconnectedness and compassion

Bob Thurman

In December 2006, Dr. Robert Thurman talked to an exclusive audience at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) in New York City. Dr. Thurman discusses themes of interconnectedness, technology, and compassion. In this 12 minute talk he explains that in an interconnected world we can have instant access to the suffering in the world and that this can help to encourage our spiritual development.

He also discusses breaking through the misconception that we are separate from others and entering a state of compassion, and the paradox that in empathizing with the sufferings of others we actually become happier because we release ourselves from the iron bonds of self. Compassion, he says, is fun.

Bob Thurman became a Tibetan monk at age 24. He’s a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University, and co-founder of Tibet House US, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Tibetan civilization.

Thurman’s focus is on the balance between inner insight and cultural harmony. In interpreting the teachings of Buddha, he argues that happiness can be reliable and satisfying in an enduring way without depriving others.

He has translated many Buddhist Sutras, or teachings, and written many books, recently taking on the topic of Anger for the recent Oxford series on the seven deadly sins. He maintains a podcast on Buddhist topics. And yes, he is Uma’s dad.

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Mindfulness medication

ABC News: Many moons ago, a wandering Nepalese prince sat under a tree, vowing not to rise until he attained enlightenment.

After a long night of deep meditation, Siddhartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha, saw the light and declared that suffering is subjective, and can be reduced through self-awareness.

Today, 2500 years later, a growing number of American doctors and healthcare workers are teaching people who are ill how to apply Buddha’s epiphany to their lives.

In hospitals, businesses and community centers around the country, meditation is increasingly being offered as a method of stress reduction, and to help patients better cope with the physical pain and mental strain associated with many medical conditions, including heart disease and HIV infection…

Read the rest of this article…

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