Robert A.F. Thurman speaks with Tricycle contributing editor Jeff Zaleski
From Inner Revolution
The experience of selflessness as freedom from alienated ego-addiction is a revolution in the deepest heart of the individual. It is a turn from pained and fearful selfcenteredness to joyful, loving relatedness. This inner experience is the indispensable pivot of cool revolution that the Buddha started in order to gradually transform world civilization over the last 2,500 years.
Shakyamuni’s first act was his choice of strategy. He could have chosen any number of paths of action. The most obvious one would have been to return to his own throne and run his country on enlightened principles. Had Shakyamuni become a world emperor, he could have implemented, at least throughout the Indian subcontinent, a golden era of prosperity, harmony, universal education, and liberation. How can it be that he benefited the planet more as a buddha? The Buddha’s strategy was a pedagogical necessity. Under a buddha who chose to teach from an emperor’s throne, people would obey the enlightenment laws of nonviolence and so forth because of the coercive influence of fear of the imperial power. They would follow the path of basic virtuous conduct. But the higher virtues, the mental and spiritual virtues needed to achieve positive karmic evolution—generosity, love, tolerance, and penetrating wisdom—cannot be fulfilled by just obedience to laws. To understand the nature of reality, one has to explore reality through an arduous and voluntary internal effort and break through the habits and preconceptions of ignorance. Enlightenment education cannot work as indoctrination by means of authoritative commands: “Open your mind!” “Accept selflessness!”
Buddha was not the founder of a religion—he discovered no omnipotent God who charged him to move the masses, and he saw that converting people to a new belief would not bring them any nearer to freedom. Buddha was not a revolutionary leader in that he held no wrath against the kings of his day. He understood that what was needed was not merely the changing beliefs or the holders of power but the changing of the entire culture’s perception of reality, power, life, and death. His was a middle way between prophet and revolutionary; his role is best described as teacher, educator of people’s understanding and good will. He is sometimes called Jina, “victor,” since he conquered the self by understanding the truth and thereby gained the ability to bring others to the same victory over themselves.
Excerpted from Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness by Robert Thurman, reprinted with permission from Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.
Image: Robert A. F. Thurman.