50 years of marriage and mindfulness
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.
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.