Robert Thurman on Conversion, Delusion and the Buddhaland
Interview by Bethany Senkyu Saltman, MRO
Featured in Mountain Record 24.2, Winter 2006
Mountain Record: In 1998, in Inner Revolution, you wrote: “Our civilization is ripe for another step in what the Buddha saw as our inevitable evolution toward happiness.” It’s 2005: what do you think?
Robert Thurman: Looks like it’s going really the wrong way. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, the young kids ask the Buddha: “We are already trying to become buddhas. We have the bodhisattva mind, we want to become enlightened. But what we’re wondering is how do you build and make beautiful the Buddhaland? How do you create the buddha world?” In other words, how do you make everyone happy? And then the Buddha gives a long answer about how the Buddhaland is made of generosity and morality and tolerance and patience and meditation and wisdom and concentration and all this. And as the bodhisattva’s mind perfects those qualities the land perfects the qualities and the land is fantastic. So the land is just the way the person’s mind is.
So then Shariputra—the wise, elder Shariputra—thinks, “Well, that’s all nice sounding, and this guy is supposed to be Buddha, so this should be Buddhaland, but when I look around, it looks like it’s filled with shit!” In my translation I said, trying to be nice, that the world is filled with excrement.
Shakyamuni, of course, reads his mind, and asks, “Is it the fault of the sun and moon that those blind from birth do not see them?” “No, no, it’s the fault of the blind people. They have no eyes, they can’t see,” says Shariputra. “Even so, Shariputra, you can’t see the perfection of my Buddhaland, because you are blind to it.” And then there’s a wonderful intervention by Brahma, who was god for many Hindus at that time, who says, “Oh, Shariputra, your mind is filled with discriminations and confusions and I see the world, Shakyamuni’s buddha world as absolutely perfect, just fantastic, the most amazingly skillful buddha world, etc. Very much evolving to happiness, perfect, it’s just fabulous.” Shariputra says, “Okay, God, okay, Buddha. Thanks, sorry!” But he still doesn’t see it that way. So then, he’s polite and says, “Okay, gee, there’s something wrong with me.”
And then the Buddha puts his toe on the ground—I guess he makes some sort of prancing gesture—and then suddenly Shariputra and all the thousands of people in the audience all see the world as absolutely perfect, and they describe it as everything being made of jewel plasma, and they’re in a jewel, they’re in permanent samadhi, and it’s just absolutely fantastic. And then the Buddha says, “How’s it look?” And Shariputra says, “Oh, it’s perfect. It’s just great.” And then the Buddha picks up his toe and it switches back to the way people habitually, ordinarily see it. And so this is actually really like the born-again thing, in a way. Total conversion of view. Buddhism has its own version.