Books: Inner Revolution

Stephen Prothero reviews 'Inner Revolution' by Robert Thurman

Published March 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"A specter is haunting Europe," Karl Marx wrote 150 years ago in "The Communist Manifesto," "the specter of communism." Influenced by Marx's claim that religion is "the opiate of the masses," sociologists have traditionally viewed Buddhism as otherworldly, apolitical, pessimistic, socially apathetic and ethically inert -- the most powerful of religious opiates. Robert Thurman's "Inner Revolution" is a Buddhist manifesto that stands Marx and the sociologists on their heads. A specter is haunting America, he argues, and it's the friendly ghost of Tibetan Buddhism.

Thurman is a Buddhist Studies professor at Columbia University and, if we are to believe Time magazine, one of the 25 most influential people in America. But his real job is playing James Carville to the Dalai Lama's President Clinton. "Inner Revolution" is one part autobiography, two parts philosophy, three parts history and four parts spin. Here readers learn that Thurman was the first Westerner ordained a Tibetan Buddhist monk, that the Buddha was great in bed, that selflessness is the key to real happiness and that Tibet is "a mandala of the peaceful, perfected universe." But Thurman's aim is not to portray Tibet as Shangri-la. It is to portray Buddhism as deeply ethical and political -- "a coup of the spirit."

Like John Dominic Crossan, who has argued that Jesus was a revolutionary, Thurman portrays the Buddha as a liberator -- a "cool hero" who initiated a "cool revolution" that radically transformed society by changing individuals first. His "politics of enlightenment" was countercultural at first, but it eventually went mainstream, finding its highest manifestation in "buddhocratic" (not theocratic!) Tibet.

As the world modernized, Thurman argues, Tibet modernized too. But while the West's modernity was "outer," Tibet's modernity was "inner." It explored inner rather than outer space, championed the spiritual over the material, sacralized rather than secularized the world, and put its trust in individuals over bureaucracies. Nonviolent and tolerant, it achieved its apogee in the monasteries of the "psychonauts" of Tibet. Militaristic modernity, Thurman concludes, has brought us to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Our challenge is to marry inner and outer modernity -- to create a global society (a "United Nations of Earth") that is both spiritually and technologically advanced.

In keeping with its manifesto style, "Inner Revolution" is replete with lists. There are five principles of the politics of enlightenment and four grounds for hope in the 21st century. An appendix, the book's most controversial section, propounds 10 planks in what amounts to a political platform. Here Thurman gets down to business, blasting Newt Gingrich-style Republicans (though not by name) on taxes, crime, race, religious freedom, defense spending and the environment, and endorsing abortion rights, medicinal pot-smoking, universal voter registration and higher salaries for college professors.

Although Thurman presents his book as an antidote to the materialistic modernity of the West, it is also a welcome corrective to the pop Buddhism of Madison Avenue and Hollywood. Say what you want about his specific political proposals, Thurman's vision of a kinder, gentler America merits a hearing. If nothing else, the book demonstrates that not every Tibetan lama is busy shilling something on TV. Robert Thurman may be no Jack Kennedy, but he isn't Stephen Seagal either. His manifesto deserves a thoughtful read.

By Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero teaches in the religion department at Boston University. He is the author of "The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott" (Indiana University Press).

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