MR: Many people I talk to—intellectuals—believe that religion is really the source of suffering in our world right now.
RT: [That’s] people living in their concept, because human beings have powerful minds, and powerful imaginations, and then they put their life into their concept, and then, for example, you can then kill an infidel. Normally you don’t kill some living being with a heart beating in front of you, but when you’re living in a concept where they’re Satan or something, you can kill them. And that’s sickness, that’s an addiction, because you feel insecure about your living, vibrating, vibrant sensitivity, and especially where only you are sensitivity because even your soul is a sensitive thing. It’s not something God owns or Jesus owns or Buddha owns; it’s a subtle part of your relational makeup. It’s purely relational and it will go on forever in a Groundhog Universe.
MR: Do you think it’s good that religion has come into public discourse as a result of 9/11?
RT: Yes, though Buddhism has always been in public discourse. It’s a cyclical thing.
People look at the Dalai Lama’s book, where he calls for a spiritual revolution, where he calls for an ethical revolution, which is not a religious one—he’s very clear that by ethical or spiritual he doesn’t mean religious. But we need this ethical revolution. And people will say, “Well, where is it? How could it be? It looks so hopeless.” And that’s true. And actually the people who are inflicting the disaster on the planet and doing the killing are the ones who have no hope. Therefore, in a way, that means internally they are desperate people. Desperate: they have no hope. Sperare means to hope in Latin.
And so we who have some hope simply have to take from hope what hope gives us. And what hope gives us is happiness. Hope gives a little tiny sparkle, teeny tiny daffodil spark of joy. Joy right now, here and now, because temporarily they don’t have us on the rack. They haven’t bombed us, they haven’t poisoned us completely, yet. I like to say that to people, and they get a little freaked out, but they kind of laugh and then clap, looking dubious. I say it is our duty in the midst of this to remain joyful and happy. And in fact, the summum bonum that we can do, whatever our religion, whatever it is, even humanism, is to be so happy that even if they kill us we’ll die happy. That’s key. That’s what we have to do.
MR: That's hard to do.
RT: Well, it’s much harder not to do that. It’s much worse to get all cancerous and poisonous, to get filled with anger and hate and bitterness and watch too much news, because the news is not news anymore.
MR: Can people really learn to face their lives with happiness without devoting themselves to a spiritual practice of some kind?
RT: But that’s what they are doing. They’re devoting their lives to exactly that. They’re having to. Because you know why? Depression is epidemic. Now, they can take Prozac. That’s devoting your entire life. If you take Prozac, you are saying you can’t get along without it. Unfortunately, that particular meditation is not very good, because it dulls your acuity. It’s a kind of deadening meditation, although you can do Zen meditation in a deadening way, too, for sure.
People are going to different practices because their anxiety level is so intense externally and the waves that are coming electronically invading everyone’s home all the time are so huge and even if you were sitting like an Amish and never watch a word of TV, the morphic resonance of everybody else around you and their anxiety is rocketing around in your heart. And so, people are going for practice. People are daring to be critical. They are choosing their channel. As I say, they’re giving up living a life without a clicker, where you can’t change the channel. Because you have control of your mind. Millions are going to the yoga center. They’re going to the meditation center. They’re going to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s stress-reduction center. There are people resisting this, of course, who have lower teachings, like the drug companies and the medical and psychiatric establishments who are fighting virulently against stress-reduction things, because they want to sell people drugs. We’ll work through this. People will learn.
MR: So would you say that someone who is on Prozac is looking for God?
RT: I’m not saying that, but what they’re doing is realizing that even though they’re fed and housed and clothed and comfortable, this inner world of anxiety and depression they cannot manage. So they have to do something to manage it. Unfortunately it’s another type of addictive practice but it’s a practice. I think it’s better to be born-again than to take Prozac forever, though it might help for a short while in some cases. If you find yourself in a community with people and you finally get a baby sitter and meet a nice person, that’s good. If you just have fun in the church and stand up for Jesus every Sunday and enjoy life, that’s nice. And probably a lot cheaper than a lifetime supply of Prozac!
Robert A. F. Thurman is Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University and author of several books, among them Inner Revolution and Infinite Life: Seven Virtues for Living Well.
Bethany Senkyu Saltman, MRO spent two years in residency at Zen Mountain Monastery, where she worked as Mountain Record editor. She lives and writes in the Catskills.