Since its founding in 1987 at the request of the Dalai Lama, Tibet House, located in a humble second-floor space at 22 West 15th Street, works to expose and preserve Tibetan culture through art exhibitions, classes, meditation sessions, and its impressive collection of literature and artifacts. On an afternoon in April, I had the opportunity to meet Tibet House Executive Director Ganden Thurman (brother of Uma and son of Tibet House cofounder Robert Thurman) to not only get a crash course in Tibetan history and Buddhist studies, but a personal tour of Tibet House, from the Tibetan Tapestries exhibition to the quaint yet breathtakingly intricate Shrine Room to the statue of Tara the female Buddha, who Ganden jokingly refers to as “the Barbie of Buddhas” due to her 21 different forms.
When paired with the guidance of Ganden’s knowledge of Tibetan history, the mysterious and otherworldly charm of Tibet House began to come into focus. With its art gallery, full library, cozy corner gift area, and treasure trove of authentic Tibetan rarities scattered throughout the space, it has all the elements needed for a well-rounded inspiration outing. My brief visit with Ganden was a fun, calming, and eye-opening experience, and despite its small and unassuming entrance tucked away from the shoppers of Union Square and 5th Avenue, Tibet House is a great spot for an afternoon visit — or if you get hooked, weekly meditation class.
How would you define Tibet House’s goal as an organization?
We’re not a political organization and we’re not a religious organization per se. We show Tibetan culture, simply because it’s otherwise hidden and obscured and inaccessible to people, so we make it accessible to the general public. Our purpose is to show the distinctiveness of the Tibetan people and the civilization they created, and also the ways in which it influences cultures in the region like Mongolia and Nepal. The Tibetans have things to offer in the common human endeavor that should be shared.
One area that we particularly find productive is not merely to show Tibetan culture like this dead, long-gone thing, but rather we try to show that there are aspects of Tibetan culture that are relevant to modern medicine, psychology, comparative religion, and philosophy. Neuroscientists are studying the way people’s brains function when they’re meditating, their so-called “inner science” to use my dad’s expression, and that’s why people have a tremendous interest in Tibetans and Buddhists generally, but Tibetans particularly, because they so robustly developed internal study of the mind.
How has meditation affected Tibetans in a historical sense?
With modern neuroscience, we know now that basically everything you’re doing at any given point in time is changing the chemistry and structure of your brain, so if I smoke a cigarette I open smoking pathways within the brain and certain types of reflexes, responses, anticipations, and reactions. Similarly, playing a piano, having a conversation, enjoying a beautiful sunny day — all of these things have an affect on the body as well as the mind, mood, and emotions. And in meditation, Buddhists really studied and developed an understanding of that particularly well.
Something like 20% of the male population in old Tibet was in the monasteries, which had a number of interesting side effects: It kept their population growth sustainable so they never had to pour over their borders and invade people as almost everyone else did when they’d overpopulate. Tibet’s marriage customs were secular and not religious, because Buddhism is mostly monastic. They had these traditions whereby the family was understood as an essential social unit, but it wasn’t necessarily a religious commitment sanctioned and demanded by the church. It was really more about what was reasonable given the conditions under which people had to live in the country. Again, we’re dealing with people — Tibetans are like any other people, so there are always going to be some drama and difficulties, and just because there’s a system, that doesn’t mean it works for everyone.
How is Tibetan Buddhism distinguished from Buddhism?
There are a number of reasons why Tibetan Buddhism was a little bit special, because they became Buddhists after a lot of other powers in the region did. They didn’t have an army or that much war for almost a thousand years because they used diplomacy after the Mongols to keep themselves safe, so they spent a lot of their time, energy, and surplus resources on Buddhist practice and religion. Tibet remained relatively isolated, and in a sense, people are interested in it because they didn’t suffer the ravages of colonialism and world wars and crusades and jihads and the whole thing everyone else was utterly destroyed by all over the world.
In the 13th century, Mongols conquered everybody, including Tibet. The Mongols’ regime changed — they kicked out all the nobles and put priests in charge of their Mongol territory of Tibet, which became like a Vatican for central Asian powers. So because the Mongols made Tibet their religious center of their empire, a lot of Tibetans were into religion. In the Middle Ages in Europe, there were something like six hundred Christian monasteries serving the entire European population. In Tibet there were six thousand.
Because of the number of Tibetans devoted to the religious endeavors, a lot more of them became the equivalent of Ph.D.s and real masters of this tradition — real adepts at spending lifetimes in the monastery practicing, meditating, and trying to be ethical and so on, as people try to do. Then Islam came along and conquered all of Southeast Asia, the Christians conquered Europe, western Africa, and the New World, and the Muslims went the other way up through central Asia and down through southeast Asia, with the notable exception of Tibet and the places where they couldn’t reach in those days because the altitude’s really hard to deal with. But when they did, they destroyed much of the Buddhist civilizations of Southeast Asia because they had idols and statues, and so they burned down all of the monastic universities and libraries in India. It’s that classic thing where you tear down the other guy’s temple and put your own on top of the same ruins — the usual standard operating procedure.
Because of that, a lot of very well educated Buddhists fled for Tibet, so Tibet became an inheritor of all the Buddhist cultures and traditions of Asia. Until the Chinese communists came, they were isolated but very literate and had all these institutions to preserve texts, so they were like a little bit of a cultural Library of Alexandria for Asia, until the communists came and wrecked everything. I’m sure they stole some things too, so Beijing has libraries full of Tibetan works as does the Library of Congress, oddly enough, from back when we had a Food For Thought program with India in the 1970s, where we’d give food aid to India, and in exchange they’d give us their cultural treats and artifacts. And so we got a lot of Tibetan Buddhist material, because at that time Tibetans were fleeing out of China because of the occupation and they realized it was cultural revolution, it was a nightmare.
What have you learned from being around Tibetan culture your whole life?
I’ve heard firsthand their stories of what it was like, so I’ve always been sensitive toward human rights and refugee issues and those nastier bits of the human condition and experience. Also, I think there’s something very noble in their response to their suffering. I think it has a lot to do with Buddhism and that worldview. But now they’re a bit depressed, and some of the less educated monks and nuns and young people in India and refugee communities inside Tibet in the occupation are really despairing. They don’t have a lot of education, they have no opportunities, and they’re setting themselves on fire, but it’s not the typical Tibetan response. They’ve been trying steadfastly to find some sort of a just resolution without the use of violence, and I think they’re respected around the world for that, at least among populations if not governments.
One thing that’s interesting about nonviolence is that it’s not just a morally vain position to take or an abstract type of position, but it leaves open the very real possibility of even the enemy coming to his or her senses. It’s something that depends upon the very best of human nature. It seems to me that people have enough free will to choose between better and worse options, and they become good or bad according to what they do, but they can still always choose. So I think there’s something noble in the choices the Tibetans have made to try to deal with a very difficult situation, and I think that effort should be helped.
Where should a novice to Buddhism and Tibetan history and culture begin?
We have different programs here, and they’re all pretty much for beginners. There are centers for Buddhists where you go and practice a religion of one type under a certain teacher and a certain lineage from a certain order of Buddhism, and those are for advanced Buddhist fanatics. Tibet House is very much meant to be a gateway or hub of those types of interests. I have tour groups come in who are doing global studies or comparative religion, and they’re anything from K-12 to college students to retirees, and it’s a place to just see some curious things. And if they have a question or two to ask, then they find out there’s some depth behind those things.
In all Buddhist tradition, you have to practice being able to see the world as beautiful, to see it as its potential. Just like we have books or movies with happy endings, we imagine heavens, or kingdoms of heaven on earth – I say “imagine” and mean no insult to the faithful, what I mean is that by turning your mind in that direction, you get a little break from looking at the world as some fight-or-flight freakout or scary alienating phenomenon. You sort of look at it in a cool new way. And then you practice.
22 West 15th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenuess