Saturday, December 18, 2010

Robert Thurman's "Inner Revolution": Book Review

Thurman's easy to fault and easy to forgive. As he'll remind you, he's the first Tibetan Buddhist monk ordained from America; he studied with the Dalai Lama before he was a household name and Thurman's pioneered the promotion and study of Tibetan practice in the West. Promoting activism and furthering translation, he combines moral with academic ambitions admirably.

While scholarly peers such as Donald S. Lopez (see my review of "Prisoners of Shangri-La") fault Thurman for his naive insistence upon a practically utopian Tibetan feudal past as a peaceful theocracy committed to spiritual technology, science of the mind, and individual liberation free of strife, Thurman here does appear to underplay what his 2008 "Why the Dalai Lama Matters" (see my review) admits in passing: the Tibetans can survive on their mountain plateau three miles high where others have not adapted.

That aside, this 1998 popularization of an inner-guided revolution has a few inspiring passages amidst rambling detours. The familiar story of King Ashoka's reforms and "cool heroism" among other, perhaps lesser-known Buddhist leaders deserves telling; Thurman enjoys relating Buddhist heritage in lessons that may confuse skeptics (he can be an awkward advocate) even as they assure the faithful.

Contrasting Western "conquest and unification" by technology with Tibetan "harmony and creativity within one global society," he proposes a reformation that makes modernity less frontier-directed. Instead, he provocatively suggests that our Western attitudes betray our need to plunge into a safe territory to let out our repressions of "the untamed wildness of the involuntary emotions of an unintegrated subconscious." (36-7) I lack Jungian or Freudian expertise, I admit, to judge this. He compares Westerners' expansive imperative to an "inner modernity" that needs social isolation lest it's "smothered by the outer modern conquest." Tibet being the case study, the problem remains that it was overrun by a belligerent larger power who had weapons, manpower, and Western-derived technology for mass destruction of the ancient culture and its people on that plateau.

Later he does come around to noticing this, but practically as an historical oversight. He then states the obvious. "Unilateral disarmament causes you to become totally vulnerable to your former and potential enemies." Tibet had barely any forces to resist the Chinese. Thurman lists "late-first-millennium C.E. India, the Jewish nation in exile, modern Tibet, and modern Mongolia" as casualties: "Societies that have become truly civilized in the sense of behaving nonviolently." (125) A hundred pages later, he does muse about how a "middle way between the two extremes of authoritarian repression and self-defeating nihilism" may be blazed by applying Buddhist principles to the inner self as successfully as we've harnessed science and systems to free ourselves within and from outer nature. (218) How this may be done is left to an inevitably idealistic platform for social renewal-- as appended.

When it comes to Buddhism as a not a religion or a belief system, he's on to a controversial idea that may appeal to many disenchanted with theism, or those who wish to blend dharma practice ethically and spiritually within their own religious orientation. He stresses how the Buddha taught the need to separate one's self from ritual actions mandated so as to nurture critical wisdom. "He taught the relativity of social structures and the supremacy of the individual's right to freedom." (59) Here Thurman seems on firmer ground related to other studies putting dharma into understandable "engaged Buddhist" contexts, but this narrative tends to pack so many disparate ideas into its scope that it may bewilder as many as it reassures.

It ends, however, with you unable to gainsay Thurman's sincerity. His subtitle of "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness" neatly hearkens back to visionaries Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson who also kicked against the deistic conventions and political platforms of their day as they inspired revolution. Out of this ideal, Thurman finds precedent for a link to the future Buddha Maitreya, who has been predicted will "shatter his inherited jeweled sacrificial post and distribute a piece to each of his thousands of disciples, all of whom will immediately attain liberation and enlightenment." (287) As with any such myth, its beauty nestles amidst its imagery, not its possibility. Yet, Thurman allies democracy to dharma, as he concludes by reaffirming our "mission to restore the jewel crown of the natural royalty of every individual to every person of this planet, letting the authoritarian personalities of dictators and dictated melt in the glow of human beauty and creativity released by freedom." (288)

Few may believe this lofty rhetoric, but few supported Paine then and even today his rationally based treatise remains too revolutionary for many Americans. Perhaps it may take another 2500 years, as has also been foretold in Buddhist myth, for Maitreya as another Jefferson or Paine to fulfill the prophecy that Thurman seeks here to hasten to fruition. This offbeat manifesto may startle many readers, but it may cause some to at least think again about how they believe or defend what they do, and how this warps or smooths their path and the lives of those around them.

(Posted to Amazon US 9-12-09. P.S. John and Elizabeth Roberts in "Freeing Tibet" --an excellent counterpart reviewed by me, with diplomatic and cultural history combined with boycott strategies, divestment goals, and plans for activists to apply to Tibetan liberation; published later in 2008 than this book, so covering Beijing Olympics protests and reprisals after the Tibetan national uprising-- seem less optimistic than Thurman does here or in his counterpart from 2008, "Why the Dalai Lama Matters", also reviewed by me. Finally, see my review earlier this month of "Mixing Minds" by a Buddhist psychoanalyst, Pilar Jennings.)

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