Today, we celebrate renowned Buddhist activist and scholar Robert A.F Thurman’s 80th birthday.

Robert Thurman. Photo by Christopher Michel.

Robert A.F. Thurman renowned Buddhist scholar, activist, teacher, and co-founder of Tibet House US turns 80 today.

A lifelong friend of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the first Westerner Tibetan Buddhist monk ordained by His Holiness, Thurman has dedicated his life to preserving Tibetan culture and furthering Buddhism in America. He has written a substantial number of scholarly works and books including Why the Dalai Lama Matters and a translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and his new book Wisdom Is Bliss, released today. In 2020, he retired from his thirty-year career as the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. Bob remains extremely active in his work for Tibet House, and collaborated with Lion’s Roar on last year’s online event, the Dalai Lama Global Vision Summit.

As his website reads, Thurman “shares with us the sense of refuge in the Dharma, which unfailingly helps us clear away the shrouds of fear and confusion, sustains us with the cheerfulness of an enriched present, and opens a door to a path of realistic hope for a peaceful, kind, and wise future.”

Given his long and fruitful career, Lion’s Roar has published a number of Thurman’s teachings, as well profiles on and interviews with him. Below, you’ll find a selection of those to give you a look inside his life and work.

Happy Birthday, Bob!

Renowned activist and scholar Robert Thurman can translate sutras, joke with the Dalai Lama, and call in a favor from George Lucas. Retirement, says Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, won’t slow this man down.

Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

Robert Thurman cuts a striking figure with his swath of thick, silver hair perched above his wire-rimmed glasses and blue eyes, the left one a prosthetic replacing the eye he lost in a 1961 accident involving a racecar and a car jack. He’s clear about what his main contribution to Buddhist thought over the past five decades has been: “It’s that meditation will not solve the problem if you don’t learn something.”

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Robert Thurman sees the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of the Buddha of universal compassion. Amidst the chaos of today’s world, he says, the “simple monk” remains undaunted, and even cheerful.

Robert Thurman and H.H. the Dalai Lama.

Over many years, I had attended His Holiness’ teachings and found them informative and inspiring, but I had always felt that it was the Dalai Lama I knew sitting there before me. Buddha was often mentioned as a remote founding figure, far back in ancient history. Sure, this new sense I have is just subjective, my going “dotty,” like a typical devotee. Maybe so; but it also gives me a clue about what the Dalai Lama has come to mean for the world.

I think the Dalai Lama has grown so close to Shakyamuni Buddha that their manifestations have become indistinguishable; the Dalai Lama has become a living proof of the Mahayana vision of Buddha’s inexhaustible compassionate presence. I think people sense that fact, each one according to their level of insight, as constrained by preconceptions, experience and understanding.

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Andrea Miller profiles Tibet House, founded in in 1986 by Robert Thurman. From the Spring 2010 issue of Buddhadharma.

Photo by Christopher Michel.

In 1979, the Dalai Lama suggested to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and a couple of others that a Tibetan cultural center be founded on American soil. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that his idea got off the ground. That’s when actor Richard Gere showed up at Thurman’s house in the Catskills and said, “I know you haven’t been able to get too much done, but now you’re in gear.”

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