The Inside Scoop

Katy Koontz

Think back to what life was like in your early 20s and where you thought you’d be later on. When I was that age, I was a recent college graduate, working in the magazine industry in Boston and then New York City. I had no idea I’d later move to Tennessee. I didn’t know Unity existed or that I’d find a community that shared my out-of-the-box spiritual beliefs—let alone that I’d someday make New Thought and spirituality the center of my professional life.

That pales in comparison to what it must have been like for the young Robert Thurman (the subject of this issue’s “Listening in With ...”) to leave Harvard, wander in the East, and eventually hang out with another young man who would one day become one of the world’s most well-loved spiritual leaders.

In 1961, when Thurman left for India, Americans still considered Eastern spirituality exotic. Paramahansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi) had brought yoga to the United States in the 1920s, but not until the Beatles discovered Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the late 1960s did Eastern philosophies become massively popular here. Thurman was way ahead of the trend.

At a time when his compatriots were going to college and hoped to launch solid careers, Thurman was on the other side of the planet, seeking to become a penniless monk. In the process, he met the recently exiled religious leader of the Tibetan Buddhists, and the two became good friends.

What Thurman couldn’t possibly have foreseen was that he would become the first Westerner to be ordained as a Buddhist monk and in time would return to the United States to become the West’s leading Buddhist scholar. Later still, he’d become a vital champion of the Tibetan culture through his work with the nonprofit Tibet House in New York City and Menla, a holistic healing center in upstate New York.

Thurman also couldn’t have known then that the Dalai Lama, the title of the young monk he befriended in India, would one day be not only revered in the East but also as respected in the Western world as popes and presidents. Tenzin Gyatso—the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet—would even earn a Nobel Peace Prize and write several New York Times best-sellers.

In our discussion (and in the sidebar he penned about the Buddhist perspective on friendship), Thurman traced his fascinating 50-plus-year relationship with His Holiness. His story is a poignant example of how a strong friendship, even between those who live half a world away, can enrich both friends’ lives—and how sometimes, it can also end up enriching the world.

Katy Koontz, Editor