July 13, 1998 12:00 PM

In the late 1950s, as a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, the elite New England prep school, Robert Thurman was right on course. “I was cocaptain of the lacrosse team, I was a National Merit Scholar, I was admitted to Harvard,” he says. “Everything was predetermined.” Then a terrible event altered his life irrevocably: In 1961, he accidentally destroyed his left eye when a tire iron slipped while he was fixing a flat at his Connecticut summer home. Within months, Thurman dropped out of college and embarked on a spiritual journey that took him a world away from his roots. “I encountered my own mortality,” he recalls, “and decided I had to be a real pilgrim and become enlightened.”

Thurman would seek wisdom—as did other soul searchers of the ’60s, like Beat poet Allen Ginsberg—in Tibetan Buddhism, a branch of the 2,500-year-old religion. Since 1989, when Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent efforts to liberate Tibet from Communist China, Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan political cause have become increasingly visible and even fashionable, thanks to many celebrity disciples and supporters like Richard Gere and Sharon Stone and to recent movies like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet, with Brad Pitt. President Clinton raised the Tibet issue himself during his China trip.

Thurman believes that Hollywood—and middle-class Americans in general—are especially receptive to Buddhist teachings today. He explains: “We have a car, we have a Rolex, and yet we’re not all that happy. We take Prozac. We’re getting divorced. We’re not in control of our lives.”

Long before his daughter Uma became a Hollywood star, Thurman, 56, was already a renowned figure in Tibetan Buddhist circles. In 1965, the Dalai Lama ordained him as a Tibetan Buddhist monk, the first Westerner to earn that distinction. In 1987, he teamed up with Gere to found Tibet House New York, a nonprofit institution devoted to preserving the living culture of Tibet. Thurman has published both scholarly and popular books, such as his recent Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Real Happiness (Riverhead Books). And his dynamic speaking style attracts overflowing crowds around the country and at Columbia University, where he is a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies. “Among Western Buddhists, no one has been more influential than Robert Thurman,” says B. Alan Wallace, a Tibetan studies scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “He has a booming voice, a large and commanding presence and brings theater to what he does.”

Thurman owes his flair for the dramatic in part to his upbringing in New York City. His late parents, Beverley, an editor at the Associated Press, and Elizabeth Farrar, an actress, held weekly Shakespeare readings in their Upper East Side apartment, at which Robert and his two brothers often appeared alongside such guests as Laurence Olivier. Even at Exeter, Thurman was partial to romantic leaps, like the time he and a wealthy Mexican pal played hooky to join Fidel Castro’s Cuban guerrilla army in the spring of 1958. The boys never got beyond Miami Beach—and they were both kicked out of Exeter just before graduation.

Armed with brilliant grades and SAT scores, Thurman was allowed to enroll at Harvard anyway. During his first term, he fell in love with French heiress Christophe de Menil. He married her in 1960, at 18. (They divorced in 1961; their daughter Taya, 37, is raising her three children in New York City.)

After losing his eye—he now wears a glass one—he embarked on his vision quest, as he calls it. He grew his hair to his shoulders and wandered like a beggar with a scruffy beard, baggy Afghan pants and leather sandals through Europe, the Middle East and finally to a Tibetan refugee community in India. “I was in heaven,” he recalled to The New York Times Magazine, “because the minute I met the Tibetans, I knew they had what I wanted.”

Thurman shaved his head, embraced the Buddhist ways of asceticism and nonviolence, taught himself Tibetan in just 10 weeks and eventually was taken under the wing of the Dalai Lama, who has lived in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959. When Thurman returned to the U.S. as an ordained monk, his family flipped. “They were so weirded out by this strange person in these red robes and no hair,” he says. “My mother thought I was completely nuts.”

Far from it. If anything, he had finally discovered his life’s mission—to educate Americans about Buddhism. Thurman returned to Harvard. He had already fallen “totally in love” with a Swedish ex-model, Nena von Schlebrugge (who had briefly been married to counterculture guru Timothy Leary), now 57 and managing director of Tibet House. Wed in 1967, they live in a four-bedroom apartment in Manhattan and stay close to their four children—Ganden, 30, a director at Tibet House; Uma, 28; Dechen, 25, an Off-Broadway actor; and Mipam, 20, a music major at Columbia.

As children, the Thurman kids were encouraged to seek their own answers. In their household, “any point that can be argued, will be argued,” says Ganden. “We were raised in a freethinking environment, to be individuals and to question authority,” says Uma, at press time imminently expecting her first child with actor Ethan Hawke, whom she wed in May. “I’ve been very moved by Robert Thurman,” Hawke says. “And I’m in love with his daughter.”

Thurman is equally enthusiastic about his son-in-law—”We adore-Ethan”—and the prospect of a fourth grandchild, which causes him to recall Uma’s infancy. “She was an exquisite baby,” he says. “She grinned at everyone and they melted.”

And though he approaches life with élan and optimism, Thurman admits he still has a way to go. “I’m in no way claiming I’m enlightened,” he says, “but I’ve made enough progress that I see it can be done.”

Alec Foege

Sue Miller in New York City

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