Rebecca Tyrrel: 'Uma Thurman got off lightly. Her brothers are called Ganden, Dechen and Mipam'


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The Independent Online

Who knew that Uma Thurman's father was the first Westerner ever to become a Buddhist monk? He popularised the faith in the US long before Richard Gere leapt aboard the saffron bandwagon.

In 1961, aged 20 and already married to an art-collecting oil heiress, Robert Thurman lost an eye while changing a tyre. Seeing this as a fork in the road of life, he decided not to waste another moment "drinking champagne and staring at Rouaults". He dropped out of Harvard, left his first wife and daughter ("I was very sad about that, but what's the point, even as a father, in not being enlightened?"), and took himself with "an empty socket, long hair and a scraggly beard" for a five-year journey of self-discovery.

In India he met and studied under Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, who ordained Thurman a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. On returning to America in 1967 with a shaved head, the vow of celibacy proved too much. Robert binned his maroon robe, bought a glass eye, and married the ex-wife of Timothy Leary, the guru of psychedelic druggery. It doesn't get any more Sixties than that.

As a tall, gangly adolescent suffering body dysmorphia in suburban Massachusetts, Uma was teased about her name (that of a Hindu goddess of light), though in truth she got off lightly. Her three younger brothers are Ganden, Dechen and Mipam.

Although she is not devout herself, the Buddhist upbringing and regular visits from the Dalai Lama to the family home in India clearly rubbed off on her. Thurman has always studiously avoided roles in movies which glamorise violence, such as Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.

These days, Robert is the Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. He also runs the charity, Tibet House, which he set up with Gere at the Dalai's bidding to protect the country's culture and heritage, and hosts pro-Tibet events at which he thanks performers such as Michael Stipe and Emmylou Harris for "putting a shield of poetry around the heart of a suffering people".

Uma, meanwhile, has never forgotten the pain of being taunted for her unusual names (the middle one is Karuna). Her eight-month-old daughter, by her partner, Arpad Busson, is Rosalind Arusha Arkadina Altalune Florence Thurman-Busson.