50 years of mar­riage and mind­ful­ness

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - PENE­LOPE GREEN

WOOD­STOCK, N.Y. — The lawn gold­fish, to use Gan­den Thurman’s name for his par­ents’ three tem­ple dogs, were trail­ing Nena Thurman in a wheez­ing cortege.

Nena’s hus­band, Robert, the Bud­dhist scholar and ac­tivist, made his way down the twist­ing stairs of their idio­syn­cratic handmade house, and the two set­tled into a well-worn sofa, the dogs strewn on the floor.

Robert Thurman, pro­fes­sor of Indo-Ti­betan Bud­dhist stud­ies at Columbia Univer­sity and pres­i­dent of Ti­bet House US, a cul­tural in­sti­tu­tion that is three decades old this year, has a book to pro­mote, a bi­og­ra­phy in graphic-novel form of the Dalai Lama called “Man of Peace.”

The pub­li­ca­tion of the graphic novel, is the lat­est ex­am­ple of the long and suc­cess­ful fam­ily busi­ness that is the Robert and Nena part­ner­ship. They will cel­e­brate their half-cen­tury an­niver­sary in July, although this for­mer model, now 76, and this for­mer monk, now 75, were once voted by their friends as the cou­ple least likely to suc­ceed.

In 1961, Robert was a se­nior at Har­vard, “a New York City-bred WASP,” as he put it, who had run away from Ex­eter, his board­ing school, to join Fidel Castro’s army, although he didn’t get much farther than Mex­ico. He was mar­ried to Christophe de Me­nil, a daugh­ter of the art world pa­tron Do­minique de Me­nil, and they had a baby girl, Taya, when he lost the sight in his right eye chang­ing a flat tire.

He then set off for Mex­ico and In­dia, in search of ver­i­ties he hoped would be more durable and more eter­nal than those pre­sented by his up­bring­ing. His wife was un­der­stand­ably not ea­ger to bring a new baby on her hus­band’s vi­sion quest, and the cou­ple parted ways.

Robert was just 23 when he was in­tro­duced to the Dalai Lama, then 29. A crack­er­jack lin­guist, Robert had learned Ti­betan in 10 weeks, and the two be­came “talk­ing part­ners,” as the Dalai Lama liked to say.

Larger truths

Nena von Sch­le­brugge’s quest for larger truths be­gan when she was a school­girl of 14 in Stock­holm. “No one there was even ask­ing the right ques­tions,” she said. Scouted by Nor­man Parkin­son, the Bri­tish fash­ion pho­tog­ra­pher, and then re­cruited by Eileen Ford, a founder of Ford Mod­els, von Sch­le­brugge be­came a suc­cess­ful, if am­biva­lent, model, ar­riv­ing in New York City after a rough pas­sage on the Queen Mary. (Pho­tos of her at the time show just how much the ac­tress Uma Thurman re­sem­bles her mother.)

Unimpressed with up­town mores, she found a salu­bri­ous crowd in Green­wich Vil­lage, which in­cluded the po­ets Gre­gory Corso and Allen Gins­berg. One night, she, Corso and oth­ers rented a car and drove up to Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts, where a Har­vard pro­fes­sor named Ti­mothy Leary was test­ing the ef­fects of small doses of mesca­line. She re­mem­bered Leary, 20 years her se­nior, as be­ing bor­ing and over­weight. Yet a few years later, she mar­ried him.

“I must have been hal­lu­ci­nat­ing,” she said, “but it turns out I had a fa­ther com­plex, which I got com­pletely cured of.”

She and Robert met in the kitchen at Mill­brook, the New York es­tate given to Leary, Richard Alpert and their fol­low­ers by scions of the Mel­lon fam­ily. She was there to per­suade Leary to sign their di­vorce pa­pers. Robert Thurman was there to per­suade Leary to stop tak­ing so many drugs — although he too had in­dulged in a bit of hal­lu­ci­na­tion. Thurman was not look­ing his best: He had thrown kerosene on a brush fire and his face was cov­ered in soot. He had given up be­ing a monk, and the hair on his shaved head had just be­gun to grow in.

Yet Robert “had all kinds of an­swers and in­ter­est­ing ques­tions and new ideas,” Nena said, and learn­ing about Bud­dhism felt like “déjà vu.” “Life is full of serendip­i­tous hap­pen­ings. It’s like a skate­board is hov­er­ing just out­side your door. You can close the door, or you can jump on and take the ride.”

Money was tight for the ex­monk and ex-model. Robert spent some weeks try­ing to be a waiter, but his bad eye led to serv­ing calami­ties, like the time he tipped a salad into a woman’s hand­bag (although she was drink­ing heav­ily and didn’t no­tice, he said). At the urg­ing of his fam­ily, Robert re­turned to Har­vard, where he earned his PhD in Bud­dhol­ogy.


Nena had a small in­her­i­tance, and the cou­ple bought 9 acres on a hill here in Wood­stock for $7,000, cleared the land and put up a few tents and a teepee. Then Robert had a com­mis­sion to trans­late a Ti­betan su­tra. He saved $3,000 to build a house, Nena said, “which was enough to ei­ther hire peo­ple and dig a cel­lar, or buy lum­ber — we de­cided to buy the lum­ber.”

They be­gan with a post-and­beam cabin, sketched out by Robert and added to in fits and starts by his chil­dren, other fam­ily mem­bers and grad­u­ate stu­dents pressed into ser­vice over the years. Vis­it­ing lamas urged them on. “A tri­umph of Amer­i­can do­how over know-how,” Gan­den Thurman, now the ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Ti­bet House, likes to say. They named the place Punya House — “punya” means “merit” in San­skrit. They even­tu­ally added on to make space for their four chil­dren, Gan­den, Dechen, Uma and Mi­pam. By then, he was a pro­fes­sor at Amherst Col­lege, where the Bud­dhist fam­ily found them­selves out­liers among his con­ser­va­tive col­leagues, whose hob­bies ran to hunt­ing, golf and base­ball. The Thurman chil­dren drank goat milk from a nearby farm and dealt with be­ing dif­fer­ent in other ways.


Down­stairs at the Thur­mans’ house, a rope swing was looped over a beam; a climb­ing plant seemed to be grow­ing up the wood stove, and de­ity-tchochtkes, as Robert called the house army of Bud­dhas and other Indo-Ti­betan fig­urines, were mar­shaled along most of the hor­i­zon­tal sur­faces.

On the sec­ond floor, beams were painted with lo­tus flow­ers and other so-called lucky signs. In an an­te­room, there is a wall of 500 or 600 Ti­betan su­tras, each wrapped in a bright or­ange cloth that Robert has promised the Dalai Lama he will trans­late. Fi­nally, up another twist­ing stair­case, a 16-sided bed­room is over­seen by a fear­some, gilded fig­ure with 16 feet. “I call it the ter­mi­na­tor ex­ter­mi­na­tor,” he said, “be­cause it’s a fierce sym­bol of over­com­ing death.”

Nena, mean­while, had some tips for suc­cess­ful mar­riage. “If you share a spir­i­tual out­look,” she said, “it’s an area you can re­turn to when you are hav­ing your petty strug­gles, which are non­sense com­pared to what you re­ally care about. On a prac­ti­cal note, you have to take turns, so that no one part­ner be­comes dom­i­nant in the re­la­tion­ship.”


Nena and Robert Thurman at home in Wood­stock, N.Y. Once voted by their friends as the cou­ple least likely to suc­ceed, the Thur­mans are ap­proach­ing their 50th an­niver­sary, a durable love an­chored by their Bud­dhist faith.

The home of Nena and Robert Thurman in Wood­stock, N.Y.

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