50 Years of Marriage and Mindfulness With Nena and Robert Thurman


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, Ms. 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, Mr. Corso and others rented a car and drove up to Cambridge, Mass., where a Harvard professor named Timothy Leary was testing the effects of small doses of mescaline. She remembered Dr. 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 Dr. Thurman met in the kitchen at Millbrook, the New York estate given to Dr. Leary, Richard Alpert and their followers by scions of the Mellon family. She was there to persuade Dr. Leary to sign their divorce papers. Dr. Thurman was there to persuade Dr. Leary to stop taking so many drugs — though he too had indulged in a bit of hallucination. Dr. 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.

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“Deity-tchotchkes,” as Dr. Thurman calls them, on display in a room that houses the Thurmans’ yoga studio.

Credit
Andrew White for The New York Times

Yet Dr. Thurman “had all kinds of answers and interesting questions and new ideas,” Ms. Thurman 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 ex-monk and the ex-model. Dr. Thurman 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 (though she was drinking heavily and didn’t notice, he said). At the urging of his family, Dr. Thurman returned to Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in Buddhology.

“‘In the ’60s, you guys thought you knew everything,” the admissions director said to him. “You wrote, ‘infinite leave of absence,’ and now you’re back.’”

“How do you know it wasn’t infinite?” Dr. Thurman replied.

Ms. Thurman had a small inheritance, and the couple bought nine acres on a hill here in Woodstock for $7,000, cleared the land and put up a few tents and a tepee. When the VW Microbus in which they had traveled through India died, it became a planter. Then Dr. Thurman had a commission to translate a Tibetan sutra. He saved $3,000 to build a house, Ms. Thurman said, “which was enough to either hire people and dig a cellar, or buy lumber — we decided to buy the lumber.”

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Dr. Thurman’s most recent book, a biography of the Dalai Lama in graphic-novel form.

They began with a post-and-beam cabin, sketched out by Dr. Thurman 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 do-how over know-how,” Ganden Thurman, now the executive director of Tibet House, likes to say. “My father is maybe not a master carpenter. His tendency is to solve problems with a liberal application of force.”

“Why do it right when you can do it yourself?” he likes to tease his father.

Robert Thurman will reply: “Why do it yourself when you can pay someone else to screw it up for you?”

They named the place Punya House — “punya” means “merit” in Sanskrit — though Ms. Thurman’s brother, recruited on weekends to work, called the cellar he was digging the Gulag. Taya Thurman, Dr. Thurman’s eldest daughter, said, “You can see that my dad’s house was drawn and made by hand, which is a beautiful feeling.”

Inspired by Buckminster Fuller, a hero of Dr. Thurman’s, he topped the cabin with a geodesic dome built from shingles and plexiglass. (You can see this iteration of the place in “Woodstock Handmade Houses,” the indie classic from 1974.) But it leaked badly. And the couple needed more rooms for their four children, Ganden, Dechen, Uma and Mipam. So Dr. Thurman took it down and built a second floor.

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. One professor, an avid hunter, ended up teaching a course with Dr. Thurman on the karma of killing animals. “You’ve ruined my life,” he said in a toast years later. “Now every fall when I go hunting, I keep missing!’”

The Thurman children drank goat milk from a nearby farm and dealt with being different in other ways.

“When Uma was 6 or 7, she told me that a classmate had said she would go to hell because she didn’t believe in Jesus Christ,” Dr. Thurman said. “I thought a bit and then told her, ‘Just say we’re from New York, and Jesus isn’t worried about us.’ For some reason, that seemed to do the trick.”

When the children were teenagers, Ms. Thurman said, they tried on Western names. “I was at a dance rehearsal for Uma, and the teacher said, ‘Oh, here comes your Diana!’”

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Credit
Andrew White for The New York Times

Theirs was a lively, and somewhat Darwinian, dinner table, filled with graduate students, Tibetan refugees and a rotating cast of monks and lamas. “One night my brother Dechen kept asking my father to please, please pass the salt,” Ganden said. “My father was debating heatedly, talking shop, and finally the telephone rang. It was Dechen phoning my father to ask him to please, please pass the salt.”

Clodagh, the Irish designer who collaborated with Nena Thurman on Menla, the Tibet House outpost and retreat space in Phoenicia, N.Y., said Thurman events were “always very Irish, with everyone laughing and telling stories. They understand the elements and they understand the senses.” Her husband describes the couple as “Enlightenment Within Reach.’”

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 Mr. Thurman 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 Dr. Thurman 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.”

He explained how the theory of relativity is expressed in the 16 emptinesses that are the core of Buddhist teachings. “The relative universe means there is no absolute container,” he said. “And so we are empty of any isolated, separated identity, if you follow me. We are a complete nexus of interrelatedness, which means there is nothing to do but improve.”

Ms. Thurman, 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.”

Ganden Thurman had another theory about his parents, gleaned from reading about some early work at the MIT Media lab having to do with interactivity, and the essential elements of human conversation..

“Turns out it’s a high degree of mutual interruptibility,” he said. “You had to have a high tolerance for that in my family. There were always a lot of ideas — and grudges, too — pouring forth. Being somewhat social oddballs who were often left to our own devices, we became, as people who are marooned together often do, a little funky.”

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