an intemperate rant | not very new age of me
if you 
meet
the
BUDDHA...
.
.
A Rant 
about designer
Buddhism,
Hollywood,
baby boomers,
and the
unspeakable
narcissism
of the
West.
.
BY RICK McGINNIS

IT SEEMS like an amusing job at first -- take a photo of a visiting Tibetan monk for the fashion page of the paper where I work. Ridiculous, sure, but no more absurd than anything else I've been asked to do as a photographer.

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THE SHOOT IS AT THE HOME of an older woman, an enthusiastic follower of Tibetan Buddhism, in a solidly middle-class neighbourhood. Her house is no different than any other on the street -- expensively renovated to showcase the taste and individuality of the owners. 

Short and plump, she is, like most women of her generation, full of a nervous energy that makes me immediately anxious. Her house is big and bland and full of things--trinkets and momentoes and framed photos. The photographs showed my host with her children, friends, and an assortment of saffron-robed Tibetan monks and nuns. No husband in sight, though, and suddenly and ungenerously I imagine a spiritual pilgrimage funded with generous alimony payments.

Amongst the kitsch are statues and heavy stone temple ornaments, perched on the white wall-to-wall carpet. Taking me upstairs, she leads me past a huge tapestry showing a mob of bodhisattvas glowing red and black in its massive, glass-fronted frame. 

Finally, standing in a spare but tasteful guestroom in his saffron and yellow robes is the rinpoche himelf. He reminds me of the Dalai Lama with his goofy manner and painful, unthreatening politeness. The manner, I imagine, of a religion and a government that has been forced to rely on the hospitality of strangers for a long time.

We talk about his clothes, in particular the scarf he'd been bought by the host. We talk about where to take the photo, and while it might be a laugh to take the picture in the middle of all this neurotic kitsch, I suggest some place a bit simpler.

"You should check out the pool!" my host suggests. "I've had them put in a pagoda!"

Sure enough, by the edge of the empty, kidney-shaped pool is an oriental pavillion, built of thick, unfinished lumber. Minutes later, I have the rinpoche in front of the pagoda, smiling his broad, cheerful smile, the freezing cold held off  by a tasteful, striped scarf and what I consider to be an almost bottomless patience. 

The patience of the Buddha...?

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A NEW YORK RESTAURANT called Zen Palate was proudly chosen to feed the Dalai Lama and the various monks and rinpoches who attended his visit to the city. Great care was taken with the vegetarian cuisine served, which was a bit of a joke as Tibetans eat a mostly meat- and dairy-based diet.

"This food tastes very good," says one monk, "but I could prefer a little more salt." He confides that the food is not to his taste, but that "I use my mind to enjoy the food."

As for the Dalai Lama himself, he has tried vegetarianism, perhaps out of some sense of duty to the expectations of his Western followers, but his doctor has persuaded him to return to eating meat. He returns to his New York hotel room for a steak, well done.

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Hitchens' book on Mother Theresa is titled, rather amusingly, The Missionary Position

Among the other titles rumoured to be  considered was Holy Cow.

 
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, the contrarian British author of books attacking Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, also wrote a bitter article on the Dalai Lama. In it, he reports that the Dalai Lama has supported the development of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan, and accepted donations from Shoko Asahara's apocalyptic Supreme Truth cult, the perpetrators of a 1995 Sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subways. He has ennobled American "movie actor" Stephen Seagal as a tulku or reincarnated lama, and prohibited the practice of one sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which led to violent feuding between the prohibited sect and his followers. He has voiced support for prostitution and opposition to oral and anal sex.

The truth is probably a lot more complicated than Hitchens, a notorious but amusing "attack journalist", writes -- with the possible exception of the ridiculous veneration of the bonehead Seagal. But his point is a clear warning for skeptics everywhere: "The 'spiritual leader' of Tibet has enjoyed this unassailable status for some time now, becoming a byword and synonym for saintly and ethereal values. Why this doesn't put people on their guard I'll never know."

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AMONG THE NOTABLE TRAITS of the Baby Boomers -- perhaps the most self-analyzed generation ever -- is a fascination with religion and "spirituality". Self-fulfillment and the "care of the soul" have become as eagerly sought after as the perfect mate, home, and school for the kids, and has fed a billion-dollar New Age industry. Beginning in the Sixties, the spoiled, aging brats have looked everywhere for spiritual fulfillment, from the dumbed-down Hinduism of the Maharishi or Bhagwan Rajneesh, to a range of Buddhist sects from stark Zen to mall-friendly Shambhala, to Sufism and a million variations on paganism and witchcraft. Deepak Chopra has managed to merge Hinduism and Calvinism -- a considerable accomplishment, not to be underestimated. Nothing, no matter now arcane, has been overlooked or unexploited, not even Jewish Kabbalism. The latest faith to become a hot stock on this global market is Tibetan Buddhism.
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HOLLYWOOD IS THE MECCA of kitsch culture, and in response to this latest religious fashion statement, the enlightened beings of Beverly Hills and Malibu have given us films like Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun.

 Seven Years in Tibet is easy enough to understand -- the young Dalai Lama is bored and stifled by tradition and court life until a brave westerner opens his eyes to the world. Never mind that the westerner is a Nazi; he's played by Brad Pitt, whose charisma should make any quotidian evil irrelevant. The east has much to learn from the west, in the end, and the Dalai Lama owes his survival, and that of his theocratic government, to the handsome, mountain-climbing fascist.

Kundun is more confusing, especially when you consider that this formless, bathetically reverential film was made by the same man who directed Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. It's also about the young Dalai Lama, but there are no Nazis, only endless, solemn shots of the teenage Dalai Lama pondering whether the Chinese communists come with good intentions, set to the dreary, vertiginous yet static music of Philip Glass. 

Of course the Chinese are villains, and the Dalai Lama must flee, and this decision is the whole plot of the film, which might have been dispensed with in a montage of five shots in the average eighty-year-old silent movie. Mostly, though, the film is an excuse to ponder the awesome spiritual purity of the Tibetans, and as anybody can tell you, there is nothing duller than perfect virtue, especially in the movies. In the end, Scorsese ends up making a spiritual remake of Frank Capra's Lost Horizon.

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FOR WESTERNERS, this is probably the biggest attraction of Tibetan Buddhism -- not the faith itself, which is painfully difficult to comprehend, but the image of pure goodness that Tibet projects. In theory a peaceful, enlightened country of happy peasants ruled by god-like beings who regularly reincarnate in the bodies of peasant babies, Tibet is like a storybook for affluent westerners, who live in a world that regards the culture of childhood and youth as preferable to complicated, messy maturity, and who basically believe that anything -- sex, wisdom, happiness, spiritual fulfillment -- can be bought, and accessorized.

Free of any obligation to really understand Tibetan Buddhism, they can treat it like any other religious accessory, and mix-and-match it with whatever other bright, shiny object they fancy, like the adult education course here in Toronto that offers lessons in "Jungian and Tibetan Buddhist Dream Interpretation". What next? "Jewish Shinto Kick Boxing"?

Imagine, if you will, an eager student of Jungian Tibetan Buddhist Dream Interpretation pondering the following passage:
 

  "Thus entreated, the emanated Lochanas and the invited Vairochanas are mutually attracted, passionately embrace in union, and experience the bliss of supreme ecstasy. They melt into white light-rays that enter me through the door of Vairochana like Wisdom Heroes.  Attaining the wisdom stage, my body is filled and satisfied, and mastery of the body is attained.

   "...My tongue center AH becomes a red eight-petalled lotus with red AH in the center radiating rainbow light-rays, filling all space with a host of Pandaravasinis.  Radiating, they invite the vajra speech Amitabha host, filling all space.  I come before the central Lord Amitabha in union with Pandaravasini."

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Undoubtably this would have great appeal for a generation that regarded repeated viewings of 2001: A Space Odyssey as a religious experience. 

Imagine the reaction of a headhunter from the Amazon rainforest to a Roman Catholic mass. He might be deeply impressed, but he would probably understand little more than the fact that something was being worshipped. 

Remember that the westerners who have discovered Tibetan Buddhism were raised on a culture that produced, for their edification, "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Fantasy Island". Remember that the youth of the west once trumpeted "love" and "peace" as the answer to every problem, and now, in the full flush of their economic and political ascendancy, blame single mothers and alienated, disaffected, sometimes homicidal teenagers for the decline of their civic society.

Perhaps it is possible for a religious theocracy to rule a country on enlightened principles, but in the case of Tibet, it only seemed to have worked when that country, and its citizens, remained firmly in the middle ages. Mao's China, for better or worse, dragged Tibet into the modern world, and the Dalai Lama is in the unenviable position of trying to steer his country, against great opposition by the Chinese and considerable well-intentioned interference from his western supporters, by remote control. In spite of Hitchens and whatever missteps the Dalai Lama might take, one still hopes he might succeed.

 Meanwhile in the West, which has long since separated Church and State, we have become preoccupied with spiritual malaise, and the fantasy of holistic religious cultures that answer all of our problems. It's a pipe dream, and a dangerous one, that will hopefully remain the harmless pastime of an influential, but generally self-obsessed and flaky, constituency. Even if the political context of Tibetan Buddhism, more important than is generally understood by its masses of adepts in the west, is never quite grasped, you still can't begrudge them their lunge at the brass ring of enlightenment. Provided it remains a quest for merely personal control, you can only stand aside and and cheer them on with the sacred refrain,  "Feed your head, man. Feed your head."


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
* From Essential Tibetan Buddhism by Robert A.F. Thurman (Uma's Dad).
 
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NOW IMAGINE, for a bit of comic relief, Richard Gere or, better yet, Steven Seagal, chanting prayers and scattering flowers and crying: "May the banner of liberation be firm! May he complete his purity of conduct! May he consummate the great heap of ethical behaviour! May he enjoy the pure ethics of the transcendant in all his lives!"

By all means.

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Originally printed, in a shorter version, in Full Contact magazine.  ©Copyright 1998-2002 Rick McGinnis.  This mass of generalizations and stereotypical characterizations is the opinion of the writer only, and does not reflect his views in a more charitable mood, or when he has to meet his girlfriend's parents.  No tulkus were harmed in the making of this rant.  Thank you.

 
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