In 1994, then Chairman of Columbia University’s Religion Department, Professor Robert Thurman hosted a conference cosponsored by the Center called “The United Nations and the World’s Religions: Prospects for a Global Ethic.” He also served as a commentator on Center founder Daisaku Ikeda’s lecture, “Peace and Human Security: A Buddhist Perspective for the Twenty-first Century,” delivered at the East-West Center in Honolulu on January 26, 1995. At that time, Professor Thurman met with Center staff to share these views on education, human freedom, and UN reform. Following is an abbreviated version of our interview with him.
How do you view the role of education in society, and what influenced your thinking on the subject?
I think the question should rather be, What is the role of society in education? Because in my view education is the purpose of human life. It’s not that the purpose of education is to fit out humans to go and produce something. The essence of the human being is that it is a form of life that has the opportunity to evolve to a new state of being — a non-egotistical, enlightened state of being.
This is why Buddhism invented the institution of monasticism. Because the monastic lifestyle is the least cumbersome for an individual. You have one pair of clothes; you don’t have to have possessions; you don’t have children. So it draws the least amount of support from the collective and it gives the person who adopts it the maximal amount of time to devote to their own evolution. When you establish monasticism within a collective society, it creates the institutional permission for those individuals to be excused from normal productive duties, which is revolutionary in those societies. Most Buddhist monasteries traditionally functioned as universities, and the whole objective of meditating and Buddhist practice really is to transform the individual, and is thus part of the process of educating.
If you look at the history of Buddhism and Christianity, which is the other major monastic religion in world history, you’ll see that the big competitor for education in this personal transformative sense that I’m talking about is always militarism. The state will use militarism to shut down on this sort of educational process and turn it into an indoctrinational process where they produce units that will mindlessly obey orders and slaughter their neighbor units, or have a military state like the shogunate in Japan, or the American militaristic state of today.
The human individual is a precious asset, and the major function of a society should be to cultivate that asset. But militarism is the antithesis of that worldview, so you have armies, prisons, and minimal schools for such a society, and a lot of indoctrination.
How would these ideas translate into university-level education?
I think the Western concept of liberal education itself originates in monastic institutions. Oxford University, the University of Paris, the University of Bologna — all these places were originally monasteries. The idea of liberal education was that the leadership elite has to have the ability to think clearly to make good judgments, and so they should be allowed a period in their lives where they seek to understand the nature of life, or engage in a quest. That’s a great point in which to fit this Buddhist idea of developing the powers of the individual human to their fullest as being the purpose of life. In a way humanist professors are those who have chosen to spend their lives doing that because they know that by teaching in such an arena, they themselves are constantly learning.
An understanding of this concept of lifelong learning fosters a new estimation of the value of a university system and of education. We note that a totalitarian system anywhere first shoots all the intellectuals. Then they develop their own cadre of intellectuals who just mouth their line of indoctrination, and free thinking is discouraged. An understanding of the preciousness of learning would encourage the ability to challenge the bosses and the authorities, the merchant classes and so forth. It would also translate in government terms into support of education at every level.
Today and for the past twenty years the frightened elite has been busily trying to block education for the people, putting forth quite racist ideas. This denial of the power of education to the people, on top of being immoral, is incredibly foolish, because when they won’t educate large segments of the population who they don’t want to learn and think for themselves, they end up building an immensely expensive prison system, and then comes the destructive violence and people lose their lives.
But the corporate people at our universities fail to realize that every aspect of their life, of anything they ever enjoyed, probably had to do with something they learned in school. That is, some opening of their sensitivity that occurred by their thinking about the meaning of things, about what is beauty, learning to see better, and so forth. When my mother died, I found letters she wrote as a college student to her parents that illustrate this process. It was such a moving experience to read these letters and see how her mind was opened and her life shaped by her college years.
Would you elaborate on how this notion of education for liberation of one’s potential is a radical idea?
Because of the nature of the economy and the way things were produced in ancient times, people inherit traditional ideas that you’re there to serve your parents and they’re there to serve their ancestors, and then you eventually get to be an ancestor yourself. Humans are part of this kind of natural cycle according to most traditional worldviews. So the notion of release, liberation, nirvana, which Buddha discovered, is something very revolutionary and radical in traditional human communities.
Many people think that freedom means the right to vote or not being under totalitarianism — that it’s a political thing. The idea that freedom means the ability to control your life and death so that you are kind of a boundless, blissful being — really cosmic, biological freedom — that there is such a thing even, is highly questionable from the point of view from most worldviews. The materialist worldview and theistic worldviews think there’s no such thing. Even many Buddhists today don’t quite imagine what it would be. Which is why the third Noble Truth is the most important Noble Truth in Buddhist teaching — the truth of freedom.
On the other hand, in the more so-called economically developed world there is the means if it were so devoted to allow a higher percentage of people to be educated. So it would be possible now to have more people really think about this issue of freedom, and monasticism may not even be so necessary in the modern sense.
But then sadly, in this time of abundance and potential minimization of economic servitude by masses of people, you have this nasty militarism dominating everything. That’s why I admire President Ikeda when I read his peace proposals, his appeals to the UN over the years to just can it, and disarm everything, and cut the baloney.
Would you elaborate on your idea that people can’t develop global human solidarity because they’re not fully educated in each other’s cultural traditions?
That was Edwin Reischauer’s thesis in his wonderful book called Toward the Twenty-first Century: Education in a Changing World. That in a globally pluralistic society, with the power of weapons and the closeness of communication between nations and people, it is dangerous for people to have a cultural background which he called “unilinear.” The idea is one of large radical and cultural groups thinking that they’re the only ones who are human beings and the others are just some kind of weirdos, or dangerous. If all these groups are armed with nuclear weapons, it’s going to be fatal, is Reischauer’s point.
Humanity’s education in all of these cultures, not just the Western ones, has to focus on a “de-unilinearization” of a sense of cultural background. So that when you read Chaucer you simultaneously read the Genji Monogatari, translated into Hindi or whatever language you’re being educated in. So that you have a sense of where everybody was on the planet in that century and you see the human commonality, in addition to cultural distinctiveness, of course.
Now this is resisted in our American system, where you have people saying, “I couldn’t do a core curriculum course on the Genji Monogatari because I don’t know anything about Heian Japan, and I don’t know Japanese.” But they don’t know Greek either, and they don’t know much about Sparta and Athens or medieval Florence or any of these matters. Plato is no less a translation than Genji, so that the argument they use is fake. I think if we weren’t trying to egotistically pretend that we’re so much wiser than our students, we would learn these sources with them. We’d all read Genji together. So the implementation of Reischauer’s vision would be planetary core curricula, which I think are slowly developing, maybe more in California than on the East Coast.