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For the baseball player, see Bob Thurman; for the novelist, see Rob Thurman
Robert A. F. Thurman

Robert Thurman (right) in January 2006
Born August 3, 1941 (1941-08-03) (age 68)
New York, New York, United States
Residence New York, New York, United States
Citizenship United States
Fields Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies
Institutions Columbia University
Alma mater Harvard University
Doctoral advisor Daniel H.H. Ingalls, Sr.
Masatoshi Nagatomi
Doctoral students Christian K. Wedemeyer

Robert Alexander Farrar Thurman (born August 3, 1941) is an influential and prolific American Buddhist writer and academic who has authored, edited or translated several books on Tibetan Buddhism. He is the Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, holding the first endowed chair in this field of study in the United States. He also is the co-founder and president of the Tibet House New York and is active against the People's Republic of China's control of Tibet.



Thurman was born in New York City, the son of Elizabeth Dean Farrar (1907-1973), a stage actress, and Beverly Reid Thurman, Jr. (1909-1962), an Associated Press editor and U.N. translator.[1] He attended Philips Exeter Academy from 1954 to 1958, followed by Harvard University, obtaining an A.B. in 1962.

He married Christophe de Menil, an heiress to the Schlumberger Limited oil-equipment fortune, in 1959; they had one daughter, Taya; their grandson was the late artist Dash Snow. In 1961 Thurman lost his left eye in an accident while he was using a jack to lift an automobile, and the eye was replaced with an ocular prosthetic. Following the accident he decided to re-focus his life, divorced his wife and traveled from 1961 to 1966 in Turkey, Iran and India. He converted to Buddhism and became an ordained Buddhist bhikshu in 1964, the first American Buddhist monk of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He studied with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, who became a close friend. In 1967, back in the United States, Thurman resigned his monks vows of celibacy and married his second wife, German-Swedish model, Nena von Schlebrügge, who had previously been briefly married to Timothy Leary. Thurman and Schlebrügge have four children, the oldest being actress Uma Thurman.

Thurman obtained an A.M. in 1969 and a Ph.D. in Sanskrit Indian Studies in 1972 from Harvard. He was professor of religion at Amherst College from 1973 to 1988 when he accepted a position at Columbia University as professor of religion and Sanskrit.

In 1987 Thurman created Tibet House, U.S. with Richard Gere and Phillip Glass at the request of H.H.XIV Dalai Lama. Tibet House is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help preserve Tibetan Culture in exile. In 2001, a 320 acre retreat center (formerly the Pathwork Center) on Panther Mountain in Phoenicia, NY was donated to Tibet House. Thurman and Schlebrugge renamed the center Menla Mountain Retreat & Conference Center. Menla (the Tibetan name for the Medicine Buddha) is currently being developed into a state-of-the-art healing arts center grounded in the Tibetan Medical tradition in conjunction with other holistic paradigms.[2]


Dr. Thurman is highly-regarded for his lucid, dynamic translations and explanations of Buddhist religious and philosophical material, particularly that pertaining to the Gelukpa (dge-lugs-pa) school of Tibetan Buddhism and its founder, Je Tsongkhapa.

Public reception

Time chose Robert Thurman as one of the 25 most influential Americans of 1997.[3]

Thurman has been criticized for "creating a Tibet that never was" by, for example, participating in the creation of a myth of Tibetian Buddhist pacifism, writing that the 5th Dalai Lama (1617-1682) was "a compassionate and peace-loving ruler who created in Tibet a unilaterallty disarmed society" [4] when, in fact, the 5th Dalai Lama not only had an army but ordered the suppression of a rebellion in Tsang in 1660 by ordering a massacre in these words:

"Make the male lines like trees that have had their roots cut; make the female lines like brooks that have dried up in winter; make the children and grandchildren like eggs smashed against rocks; make the servants and followers like heaps of grass consumed by fire; make their dominion like a lamp whose oil has been exhausted; in short, annihilate any traces of them, even their names."[5]

In a 1996 interview for the Utne Reader, Robert Thurman answers general critics about idealizing Tibet:

But to answer my critics who accuse me of trying to pretend that every Tibetan was an enlightened yogi, and they never even wiped their butts, and they didn’t have robbers and bandits and ignorant people, and they weren’t cruel ever — like it’s all just some sort of fantasy of mine, well, that isn’t at all the case. My thesis is a sociological one that has to do with mainstream social trends. The fact that a great majority of a country’s single males are monks rather than soldiers is a major social difference. Now, many of those monks might be nasty, they might punch people, some of them might pick your pockets, some of them might be ignorant. They might eat yak meat; they’re not out there petting the yaks. So I am in no way Shangri-La-izing Tibet when I try to develop a non-Orientalist way of appraising and appreciating certain social achievements of Tibet, which really tried to create a fully Buddhist society.
But my opponents, who want to adopt the old British attitude that Tibet was dirty, grubby, and backward; or the modernist attitude that it’s a “premodern” undeveloped society; or the attitude of many other Buddhist countries that think Tibet was somehow degenerate because it was very Tantric, and Tantric Buddhism grows out of the degenerate period in India, well… I think these attitudes are mired in the idea that we modern Americans are the most advanced civilization the world has ever seen. I don’t think that’s the case. I consider us pretty barbaric. [6]



  • The Bob Thurman Podcast
  • Thurman, Robert (1999). Robert A.F. Thurman on Buddhism. DVD. ASIN B00005Y721.
  • Thurman, Robert (2002). Robert Thurman on Tibet. DVD. ASIN B00005Y722.


  1. ^ Ancestry of Uma Thurman
  2. ^ Robert Alexander Farrar Thurman. Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007.
  3. ^ Time's 25 most influential Americans. Time, 21 April 1997
  4. ^ Lydia Aran, Inventing Tibet, Commentary, January 2009, [1]
  5. ^ Lydia Aran, Inventing Tibet, Commentary, January 2009, [2]
  6. ^ Interview by Joshua Glenn, "The Nitty Gritty of Nirvana",

External links



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