When leading Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman gets together with the Dalai Lama, his friend of nearly 50 years, a lighthearted banter usually breaks through their study and heated political discussions.
"He called me 'king of the ogres' in public, as a joke," said Thurman, who believes he earned the "ogre" nickname because he can be a bit forceful in expressing his views.
Thurman, chair of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, was the first Westerner ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk by the Dalai Lama.
Thurman, who is the father of actress Uma Thurman, took a good-natured ribbing from the exiled Tibetan leader this month while attending a three-day teaching session by the Dalai Lama in India. The religion professor was on a trip with his wife that also took them to Thailand and Bhutan.
"He was in top form. We had a nice time with his Holiness," Thurman said. "He's admitted he loves teasing me."
The two plan to meet up again in Southern California in coming days. The InsightLA meditation center is bringing Thurman to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on April 30 for an evening of guided meditation, teaching and conversation. The Dalai Lama will arrive the next day and is scheduled to give a number of public talks in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Irvine over several days before he moves on to other states.
The Dalai Lama's U.S. visit will follow the announcement, expected Wednesday, of the new prime minister for the Tibetan parliament-in-exile. An estimated half of Tibet's nearly 200,000 exiles, mainly in India, Europe and North America, voted March 20 in parliamentary elections.
The Dalai Lama announced in March that he plans to give up his role as head of the Tibetan government in exile, but will remain spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, who have been ruled by China since 1950.
"The burden will be on the prime minister and government. The Dalai Lama won't intervene. He'll have more time for his own spiritual activities," Thurman said. "He'll be asked his opinion, but the government will make the decisions. He's backing out of being the Daddy that decides everything for them."
The Dalai Lama has been moving toward the decision for 10 years, holding popular elections for prime minister and drawing up a constitution with the help of Indian legal experts, according to Thurman, who adds that the Tibetan leader firmly believes in the separation of temple and state. "He has wanted out all this time. He wants Tibetan democracy to mature."
While Thurman says China is "freaked out" and suspects political deception in the announcement, he believes the Dalai Lama's retirement offers the Chinese an opportunity to save face and moderate their position on Tibet.
"The fact that there is a written constitution for a truly autonomous Tibet and the Dalai Lama will be just a religious figure — it should cool them down," he said.
Thurman has written 20 books related to Tibetan Buddhism and in 2008, the year China hosted the Olympics, published "Why the Dalai Lama Matters: His Act of Truth as the Solution for China, Tibet and the World," which outlined a 10-point plan for China to make Tibet an autonomous region under a "one country, two systems" model.
Despite a recent crackdown on human rights in China, Thurman is optimistic that autonomy will come to Tibet, under Chinese President Hu Jintao or his successor. The Dalai Lama "does not expect to die in exile," Thurman said.
Meanwhile, he said, the two friends are planning to make a movie, similar to "An Inconvenient Truth" with former Vice President Al Gore, about the futility of war in the 21st century.
Since the early 1960s, when the 14th Dalai Lama, then 29, tutored Thurman, then 23, and mined his knowledge about Western science and culture, the two have had a special relationship.
Once back in America, Thurman soon gave up monastic life and entered academia. In 1987, he cofounded, along with actor Richard Gere, the New York-based nonprofit Tibet House, which works to preserve Tibetan culture and raise awareness about China's suppression of Tibet. The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
Thurman calls himself a WASB, a white Anglo Saxon Buddhist, but he began his spiritual journey in the home of "Park Avenue Presbyterians," his actress mother and journalist father, who rarely went to church. Thurman delights in his mother's tale that he kicked over the water dish at his baptism and drenched the pastor.
"I never believed in God. I didn't like materialist, scientific Christianity that says you have to believe but you will never know for sure." In Buddhism, he found a spiritual system that felt more emotionally integrated because it didn't require a leap of faith.
A life-changing moment came in 1961 when Thurman was changing a tire and the jack slipped, causing an accident that took out his left eye. Recovering in the hospital, he decided to drop out of Harvard University and go on a personal quest that led him to India and Buddhism. He learned to speak the Tibetan language in just 10 weeks.
"I might have ended up at the State Department but I lost my eye and woke up," Thurman quipped.
Approaching his 70th birthday this August, he believes he was reincarnated to be a bridge between East and West.
Thurman met this month with the king of Bhutan, who is trying to preserve tradition in the tiny kingdom in the Himalayan foothills between China and India, even as it opens to Western investment.
"They have a chance to be an example for the world," Thurman said of Bhutan, where "gross national happiness" is a government goal. "With broadband technology and modern healthcare they could keep people on the land in the village."