50 Years of Marriage and Mindfulness With Nena and Robert Thurman


WOODSTOCK, N.Y. — The lawn goldfish, to use Ganden Thurman’s name for his parents’ three temple dogs, were trailing Nena Thurman in a wheezing cortege. Ms. Thurman’s husband, Robert Thurman, the Buddhist scholar and activist, made his way down the twisting stairs of their idiosyncratic handmade house, and the two settled into a well-worn sofa, the dogs strewed on the floor.

Dr. Thurman, the professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University and the president of Tibet House US, a cultural institution that is three decades old this year, has a book to promote, a biography in graphic-novel form of the Dalai Lama called “Man of Peace.”

Dense with East Asian history, it’s not quite “Persepolis” or “Fun Home,” but it is a thrill to come upon cartoon versions of hometown political figures like Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein and Barack Obama (you’ll even find Whoopi Goldberg near the end, in a hilarious panel where the Dalai Lama praises her dreadlocks and she praises his bald pate). Nonetheless, its contemporary exposition is one Mr. Thurman hopes will newly popularize the exiled Tibetan leader’s life story among millennials.

As one of the Dalai Lama’s most famous — and oldest — Western pals, Dr. Thurman is still his best and most passionate apologist. And the two have made a curious bet to live until the year 2048 to see the Tibetan cause through. To speed up the process, Dr. Thurman wants to send Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, the works of Jonathan Schell, the antiwar advocate and academic who died in 2014.


In the meantime, the publication of the graphic novel, which Dr. Thurman wrote with William Meyers and Michael G. Burbank, and is either his 20th or 21st book — he isn’t quite sure, given his prodigious output of scholarly works and translations — is the latest example of the long and successful family business that is the Robert and Nena partnership. They will celebrate their half-century anniversary in July, though this former model, now 76, and this former monk, now 75, were once voted by their friends as the couple least likely to succeed.

 In 1961, Dr. Thurman was a senior at Harvard, “a New York City-bred WASP,” as he put it, who had run away from Exeter, his boarding school, to join Fidel Castro’s army, though he didn’t get much farther than Mexico. He was married to Christophe de Menil, a daughter of the art world patron Dominique de Menil, and they had a baby girl, Taya, when he lost the sight in his left eye changing a flat tire.

He then set off for Mexico and India, in search of verities he hoped would be more durable and more eternal than those presented by his upbringing. His wife was understandably not eager to bring a new baby on her husband’s vision quest, and the couple parted ways.

Dr. Thurman was just 23 when he was introduced to the Dalai Lama, then 29. A crackerjack linguist, Dr. Thurman had learned Tibetan in 10 weeks, and the two became “talking partners,” as the Dalai Lama liked to say. The Tibetan leader was interested in interrogating Dr. Thurman on Freud and other thinkers in the contemporary Western canon, while Dr. Thurman was eager for the Dalai Lama’s insights into the dharma. The older man ordained the younger as a Tibetan monk, the first known Westerner to take the necessary 253 vows.

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