Buddhist Scholar Bob Thurman on the Dalai Lama's View That a Woman Could Succeed Him

The Dalai Lama shocked followers when he said the next in line could be a woman.

ByABC News
December 7, 2016, 8:51 AM

— -- The Dalai Lama has said over the years that he would welcome a woman as the next Dalai Lama. One of his confidants for the past 52 years, Dr. Robert Thurman, offered his take in an interview with ABC News’ Dan Harris for his "10% Happier" podcast.

"He is for world peace," Thurman said. "He thinks women are less likely to use the nuclear option or go ballistic over this or that than the male, therefore it might be good to set an example to let the next Tibetan leader be a woman."

The Dalai Lama, who calls himself a feminist, stunned his followers when he said during a 2015 BBC interview that he would be happy to have a female take over his role as Tibet’s spiritual leader, but added that the "female must be attractive, otherwise it is not much use."

Thurman said His Holiness’s comments were made “a little bit humorously” but that the Dalai Lama was serious about a woman being a good fit for the role.

Watch the full interview in the video player and download the "10% Happier" podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music and TuneIn.

Thurman is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religion at Columbia University and the president of the American Institute of Buddhist Studies, a non-profit affiliated with the Center for Buddhist Studies at Columbia University.

Thurman has traveled the world lecturing on Buddhist teachings, and he has written numerous books on the subject.

During the "10% Happier" interview, Thurman talked at length about the Dalai Lama, the history of Buddhism, his argument for the existence of infinite previous and future lives and whether he thinks nirvana is possible.

"[Nirvana means] the extinction of suffering," Thurman said. "Literally nirvana means being 'blown out' or 'blown away.' We use that when we have a wonderful ecstatic experience or some marvelous thing, 'Oh that really blew me away.' Nirvana is the ultimate 'blowing away.'"

In talking about his own meditation practice, Thurman said he practices here and there throughout the day but overall, "It’s not that good," he joked. "Which is why I haven’t obtained nirvana."

Thurman first sought enlightenment when he was studying Buddhist teachings at Harvard University and he lost an eye in an accident.

He said the accident, "made me decide ... that I should act on that, instead of floating along in a lost career of some kind."

He left Harvard and set out on a spiritual journey that led him to India, where he met the Dalai Lama in 1962. By the time he was in his early 20s, Thurman said he was immersed in Tibetan culture and became one of the first Americans ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. But he later gave up his robes, moved back to the United States to get his Ph.D. and settled down with his family.

"I wanted to be a monk ... study and meditate and do Buddhism, on every level, all my life," Thurman said. "I realized ... the only way to do that as a lay person in America, and support a family and myself, was to be a professor, so I went back to Harvard."

Thurman has five children, one of which is Oscar-nominated actress Uma Thurman, who he said was just 3 years old when she told him she would be famous one day.

"She was picking out expensive dresses in a dress shop," Thurman said. "I was a penniless professor, my wife was a penniless ex-model, and I’m looking at my wife thinking, 'What are we going to do?' and that little girl looked up at me and said, 'Don’t worry, Daddy, when I grow up I’m going to be a famous movie star and buy all my own clothes.'"

Robert Thurman is also the president of the Tibet House US, a New York city-based non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting Tibetan culture, which Thurman was instrumental in launching in 1987. His latest project, "Man of Peace," is a graphic novel produced with his co-author William Meyers through Tibet House that illustrates the Dalai Lama’s life story. The book is expected to be released in hardback this week.

"In a way, Dalai Lama is like the ultimate artifact of a Tibetan culture," Thurman said. "He’s the product of their top education system, of ancient Buddhism. He’s been put in the very stressful situation of exile, speaking up for people against a whole huge empire."

"That’s what Tibetan culture can produce out of a human being."

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