April 29, 2005

Thurman, Robert
Topics in Tibetan Philosophy

Please keep in mind that this review is more than 5 years old.

Warning: to all students who sign up for a Thurman class thinking, "despite all the bad reviews of this guy, he's friends with the Dalai Lama so there must be something good about him," you will be disappointed. I practically gauranteed it. In fact, this class made me lose respect for H.H. because I couldn't understand why he'd be buddy buddy with such an arrogant, infuriating man. I'm trying to get that respect back so I don't end up in a hell-realm, but its difficult because Thurman is such a poor teacher. In fact, fantasizing about writing this review is pretty much the only thing thats kept me motivated during class.

Robert Thurman is obviously extremely brilliant. You can tell this from his excellent translations of seminal Buddhist texts as well as his own extremely influential commentary, both of which constitute a majority of the reading for the class (not necessarily bad). But Thurman is horrible at giving any coherent version of his knowledge to students. There is absolutely no structure or organization to his long diatribes that dominate the class. A couple things about this Thurmanism (that should be the title of any Thurman class). First, this was supposed to be a seminar, which is laughable. Thurman is pretty much incapable of not hearing himself talk for more than about five minutes. He'd open class with a long rant, often having nothing to do with Buddhist philosphy (nominally the subject of the course; the second half of the course was supposed to be on Tantra; we probably mentioned it two to three times per class). Then he'd run out of steam after about half an hour, then ask why other students weren't talking or say, faux-sheepishly, I shouldn't be talking so much (you'd think he'd learn his lesson after like twenty years). Then he'd take a question and start to answer it, but get off-track after about two more minutes and rant again. If a student ventured to disagree with him, or asked how another tradition might consider the topic, he would invariably tell them that they were wrong (Thurman once refused to continue a class until a student admitted he was wrong) or dismiss entire traditions offhandedly and extremely simplistically (Zen = not thinking). Here's another example of how Thurman would dominate class. Tom Yarnall co-taught the class (he's awesome, by the way, see below), although Thurman probably spoke about 90% of the time, except when Thurman missed class (about a quarter of the classes). One of Yarnall's books, the most coherent thing we read all semester, was on the syllabus for two weeks. Both classes started out being taught by Yarnall, as they should have been. He proceeded to give a great lecture for about half an hour, logically explaining arguments and directly answering students' questions (If Tom Yarnall is the only one teaching this course, I would highly recommend it). Then slowly Thurman started butting in, speaking for five minutes, then ten minutes, then finally taking over the last half of those two classes with his singular brand of runaway talking (its not really lecturing).

The second, even more annoying aspect of Thurman's teaching style are the astonishingly, I mean jaw-droppingly, inane and oversimplified political anti-Bush diatribes that seep into every discussion and which would get him flunked in any political science course here. Here are some gems, as I took them: the ending of the chinese occupation of Tibet is imminent, five years tops, its just illogical for them to stay; Bush and Cheney = nihilists. I mean it was hard not to laugh when he was saying some of this stuff. This guy hates Bush with an incredible passion, which is fine, I'm not too fond of him myself, but the way he brings this hatred into the classroom and infuses into it a subject that it has nothing to do with is just inexcusable, irresponsible, academically unethcial, and sad to me. If people are truly concerned with classrooms being politicized or whatever this "academic freedom" debate is about, start right here.

If you want to hear a very smart, pretty interesting old man spout hurriedly discuss complex Buddhist philosophy that he knows well but is absolutely incapable of delivering coherently to students, by all means take the class. But the idea that as a previous reviewer put it, and I think other positive reviewers have implied, that the disorganization of the class and Thurman's semi-lucid raving is somehow "Buddhist," "counter-culture," or "really make you think about the world," are laughable, wrong, and intellectually lazy. Thurman's biggest point about Buddhism is that its very rational, and that its a Western fallacy to think that Buddhism is somehow irrational and that the West is more logical. In fact, Thurman sees himself, erroneously, as not priveledging east or west, although its remarkable that, on pretty much every topic imaginable, Tibetan Buddhism has it right and Western "scientists" (thurman hates scientists) have it wrong. The idea that these rants are counter-cultural or thought-provoking is insulting to someone like Eric Foner who painstakingly, logically and meticulously presents evidence that really does go against the grain of modern life, not because its evil or just because he hates it (these are Thurman's reasons), but because its untrue. Also, if you came to Columbia to hear Thurman's "wisdom" I feel sorry for you. That's not the point of Columbia. Columbia is an academic institution, whose purpose is the engagement of scholarship. It may not be cool, or whatever, but I have plenty of time to be cool outside of what I'm paying 40K a year for.

To all those who will say I don't "get" Thurman, I didn't waste my time writing this, a diatribe in itself that Thurman has quite un-Buddhistly inspired in me, for you. However, you're exactly right: no one who really values academics will "get" Thurman. I wrote this for all those who value their education, and to you I say, "run away," despite Thurman's intelligence, which is very high, and on account of his academic teaching aptitude, which is very very low. Otherwise, you'll be subjected to his wretched, look at me I"m so humble and quaint I can laugh like Yoda routine, and you'll be furious that you wasted your money and your time and your anger when you could have been outside or really learning.

Workload:

weekly postings on courseworks that are never really used, or just mentioned briefly before Thurman goes off again. 1 final paper (8-12), no exams. Probably less reading than an average seminar.