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Buddhadharma : Spring 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly spring 2 0 10 88 In 1979, the Dalai Lama suggested to Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and a couple of others that a Tibetan cultural center be founded on American soil. It wasn’t until 1986, however, that his idea got off the ground. That’s when actor Richard Gere showed up at Thurman’s house in the Catskills and said, “I know you haven’t been able to get too much done, but now you’re in gear.” “He made that joke,” says Thur- man, who today is the president of Tibet House in New York City. And the joke was apt. “Richard was seminal,” Thurman continues. “I consider him a cofounder.” Gere originally agreed to help out for two years, but it ended up being five. Tibet House’s most notable success during that time was spearheading the International Year of Tibet, which took place in 1991. It became a movement celebrated in more than thirty-six coun- tries with more than seven thousand events large and small, and it culmi- nated with the Dalai Lama making a visit to New York City. The year of Tibet, however, took a financial toll on the still fledging nonprofit. So when Gere resigned in order to dedicate himself to the Tibetan political situation, Thurman wondered if he shouldn’t move on to politics as well. “I was intimidated,” says Thurman, who went to the Dalai Lama for advice. “I couldn’t imagine running Tibet House on my own.” But the Dalai Lama advised him to stick it out. “Come on, your Holiness,” Thurman reports saying. “How? I’m neither rich nor famous.” “You’re going to manage,” was the answer. And manage he did, yet not without obstacles. Ganden Thurman, Robert Thur- man’s son, is now the executive direc- tor of Tibet House. He says one of their biggest challenges is the fact that cul- ture is a low priority for most people. “Think of a burning building,” he says. “First you get your grandma and kids out. Then you go in for the Picasso.” For most people, he explains, the Tibet situation is similarly prioritized. “Personal satisfaction through prac- ticing Buddhism is number one in most people’s minds,” says Ganden. “So they go to dharma groups, and those dharma groups have their needs. The next most important thing in people’s minds is political activism, and then it’s refugee issues and ameliorating the destitution of the Tibetan people within China, which is extreme. Then finally the cul- tural stuff becomes kind of important for the ‘Tibetophiles.’ So it’s hard for us not to compete with starving old ladies and that’s something we don’t want to do. We have to be scrappy finding ways to fund this organization.” China’s political and economic clout is another hurdle for Tibet House. No major brand, and even certain non- profits, shy away from working with them because they don’t want to anger the Chinese. “They say being pro-Tibet is being anti-China,” says Ganden, “and no one wants to be anti-China—that’s racist. But we’re not trying to make some odious comparisons about Tibetans TIBET HOUSE U.S. (Above) The Tibet House gallery’s opening exhibition in May 1998. (Left) Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama at Menla Mountain Retreat Center in upstate New York, with translator Thubten Jinpa looking on. Profi l e By Andrea Miller celebrated in more than thirty-six coun- tries with more than seven thousand events large and small, and it culmi- (Above) The Tibet House gallery’s opening exhibition in May 1998. (Left) Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama at Menla Mountain Retreat Center in upstate New York, with translator Thubten Jinpa looking on. (topANDLEFt)SArAKruLwich,MArtiNBrADiNg©2006