Robert A.F. Thurman speaks with Tricycle contributing editor Jeff Zaleski
What’s the basic idea behind Inner Revolution?
The basic idea is that Buddhism has to be understood as a “civilizational” system. It’s not only a way of life but a way of education, a way of ethics, and a way of social institutions; and that Buddhism precipitated a social change of a certain type and that it is poised to do so globally now; and that this change is needed by modern societies that are imbalanced; and that those of us who have turned to Buddhism as a doctrine, or as a meditation practice, have more to learn about social institutions and ethics from Buddhism; and that in a way those lessons may be, for our civilization, more important in the long run.
What distinguishes Inner Revolution from other books on Buddhism in the West?
It’s the first book on Buddhism to explore Buddhism’s major social and institutional impact on history; hence, its grounding activism in modern Buddhism.
The book is being published in the United States, a country that is predominately Christian. How do you think a Christian readership is going to respond to your ideas?
I want them to see Buddha as Christ’s older brother, reinforcing his message in the world. But all the religions together have failed. None of them are going to avert doomsday for us if there isn’t some sort of new age for all of us, together. I’m not arguing that Buddhism should take over the world. I’m saying that Buddhism should stimulate a spiritual revival within other traditions—that together we should try to bring the world into a kind of harmony.
Aren’t you contending, though, that it’s ultimately only through Buddhism that the necessary changes can take place?
I believe that only enlightenment can help this planet, that the people on the planet have to reach a higher stage of understanding about their own emotions and about their environment, or the planet is doomed. But I don’t say that it’s through Buddhism that they have to reach that enlightenment. That’s why I insisted on putting “An Actual Political Platform Based on Enlightenment Principles” in the book.
Why did you get so specific in describing this platform? You more or less say that if you’re enlightened, you should be against capital punishment, you should support a woman’s right to choose, and so on.
I felt it was essential that I take a stand on certain crucial issues, and try to present the notion that the enlightenment perspective can have some bearing on these issues. We can’t go on with thirty-seven percent of the people voting, conceding political power to these complete moral degenerates, ceding cynically that there is no such thing as ethics in politics. I consider that totally dangerous.
What are the pitfalls of allying a political agenda with the Buddha’s teachings?
Pitfalls are less likely if principles are elucidated, allowing activists to make their own policy choices.
Is it possible to be a Buddhist in today’s world and not be concerned with the political platform you are advocating?
Is it your hope in writing this book that people will become Buddhists or that they will become more politically active in the world?
I do not much care if people are Buddhist or not. I want them to work on getting more educated and enlightened, which will make them more altruistic, hence more socially and politically engaged.