Mr. Popular

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Who knew enlightenment would be so hard on the knees? Brad Pitt never mentioned this in Seven Years in Tibet, nor did that brand-new lama Steven Seagal caution Leno or Letterman about it during his latest talk-show swing. I suspected that climbing the slippery slopes of spiritual endeavor might leave me a little winded in a metaphysical sense, but I had no warning that it would cause actual pain in my trusty, middle-aged joints.

Here in Manhattan's East Village, in a Tibetan Buddhist temple directly across from a row of cheap Indian restaurants, I am trying to meditate. It's eight o'clock on a drizzly, becalmed morning; now and then a raindrop strikes a nearby air conditioner with a singular, lovely pock. Where the poet Basho had his frog jumping into the pond — splash! — we New Yorkers must take our metaphors of illumination from the collision of nature and rusty window units.

When I say I am trying to meditate, what I really mean is that I am attempting to wedge myself into that spiritually advantageous position known as the lotus. The idea is to get both of my knees down on the floor at the same time while sitting on my butt, with back straight, legs crossed, hands resting in my lap, tongue against my upper palate, eyes half-closed and gazing downward. My heroic efforts to wrench my feet into place give me the appearance of a man trying rather desperately to eat his own ankles. In a past life, I must have been a cinder block. As soon as I get one knee down flat, the other rises into the air as if trying to reach Nirvana on its own. Wait, noble knee! I'll come with you!

As I flop around on my cushion, I study my fellow meditators, clustered around Geshe Michael Roach, an American teacher from the Dalai Lama's own Gelukpa sect, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the most popular denomination back in Tibet. Geshe Roach (Geshe being the highest scholastic degree of the Tibetan monastic academies, a kind of spiritual Ph.D.) is a balding 44-year-old native of Phoenix with a red cord — a sungdu, protection against bad luck — cinched around his neck. He spent 23 years in monasteries in India and the United States and now makes his living as a diamond trader while helping distracted New Yorkers increase their good karma and finally transcend samsara, this recurring and self-perpetuating vale of tears. It might take us a million lifetimes (some of us have been very bad indeed), or we might find a shortcut and do it in this one. It all depends on our practice, on how well we master the art of emptiness and love and compassion and awareness. At the heart of Tibetan Buddhism, in fact, is a meditative insight into the nature of the mind: Every one of us is already a Buddha. Most of us, however, can't quite remember how it is to be that way. So we sit.

But even as we cultivate emptiness, most of us have also bought into the snowballing fascination with all things Tibetan. And it's not just we devotees; our entire culture seems bewitched. The tides of fashion are hard to resist, yet there are deeper reasons, too. Technology and secularism long ago banished magic and mystery, but in our minds they persist, shimmering out of reach, in the mountains of Tibet. The country has long possessed that peculiar twentieth-century charisma of the inaccessible, the backward, the premodern. Its self-sufficient isolation intrigued the West. Tibet didn't want us — not our science, not our trade, not our tourism, not even our sports. (Early in this century, the lamas of Lhasa banned the playing of soccer in Tibet, announcing that whoever boots a ball kicks the head of Buddha.) Thus, by virtue of its seeming otherness — the authentic is always elsewhere — Tibet became an oracular repository of lost wisdom.

Even better that it was so hard to get there. Foreigners such as Austrian Heinrich Harrer, upon whose 1953 book the movie Seven Years in Tibet is based, had to smuggle themselves into Tibet under false pretenses. They posed as pilgrims or traders, darkening their faces with yak butter and charcoal to pass as natives, trudging to the theocratic capital of Lhasa across high mountain passes and arid plains, eluding bandits and suspicious local officials, all to gain a forbidden view of the Magic Kingdom.

But to refresh one's soul in the bracing atmosphere of Tibet these days all you need to do is go down to the local multiplex. (Close on the heels of Seven Years in Tibet will be Martin Scorsese's Kundun, and five more feature films on Tibet are scheduled for release next year.) Or volunteer for active duty in the Free Tibet movement. Or buy a copy of Richard Gere's new book of photographs (all proceeds go to Tibetan charities). Or become, as I have, a student of Tibetan Buddhism. Here on the third floor of this East Sixth Street brownstone, we are thousands of miles from the Himalayas, half a world away from the source of our teachings, and at least 50 years from a free Tibet. We can't go to the mountains, so the mountains have come to us.

From Congress and the White House to college campuses and simple temples like mine in the Village, Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism are having their gaudy, Technicolor season. In 2124, the Tibetan Year of the Fire Ox, it seems we cannot get enough of the place the Chinese call Xizang, the Western Treasure House. More than a thousand years ago, Padmasambhava, the great Tibetan guru, perhaps experiencing eye-popping visions of big-budget films teeming with monks, or rappers punching the beat at benefit concerts — the whole Lamapalooza of 1997 America — predicted that Buddhist teachings, known as the dharma, would one day travel westward: "When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, / The Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the World, / And the dharma will come to the land of the Red Man."


Tibet's debut as an attraction in the popular culture of the West came more than six decades ago, when its enigmas first engendered extravagant fantasies. In the English-speaking world, Tibet has been indistinguishable from Shangri-La, the magic kingdom in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon and Frank Capra's 1937 film based on it, where people live for centuries but never grow old. To leave it was to be infected by time and history, to wrinkle and decay. The idea of a place that holds such powers may be the purest kitsch, but novels and movies have a way of promiscuously triumphing over the facts of history. More darkly, many German Nazis nursed bizarre theories about Tibet being the pure, white, alpine fatherland of an ancient Aryan race.

In the fifties, Buddhism became an indispensable aspect of the Beat vision, in part because so many Buddhist countries, including Tibet, held out an antimaterialist alternative to life under consumer capitalism. Jack Kerouac prophesied a "rucksack revolution," with dharma bums fanning out across the hinterlands of America in search of enlightenment. Other Beat writers — Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg — headed eastward and took up Buddhist practice. (When Ginsberg died last spring, the Tibetan teacher Gelek Rinpoche was chanting at his bedside.) In the sixties and seventies, they were followed by trekkers from the great big suburb that was America who backpacked to India and Nepal, where they sat at the feet of Tibetan holy men and began dreaming of stocking the spiritual supermarket back home with exotic new provisions.

It was a two-way pilgrimage. Ever since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, and especially since the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959, exiled monks have been filtering westward, looking for new disciples and sponsors. In 1979 the Dalai Lama toured America for the first time, and five years later John F. Avedon's book In Exile from the Land of Snows presented a wrenching account of the story of Tibetans and their leader since the Chinese conquest, bringing home the tragedy of the hundreds of thousands of Tibetans who perished under Chinese rule, the destruction of 6,000 monasteries and temples, and the imprisonment and torture of dissidents that continues there to this day. America's consciousness of this tragedy was further heightened following the founding of Tibet House in New York City in 1988 by Richard Gere and Robert Thurman. (Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, and Uma's dad, is a regular contributor to Tricycle, the posh quarterly that has been called the Buddhist Vanity Fair, and he has become high-profile enough to to be named to Time's 1997 "25 Most Influential Americans" list, along with Tiger Woods and the editor of the National Enquirer.) In 1989, six months after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the process of elevating the Dalai Lama to the status of a revered international religious figure reached its climax when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

These days, Americans tend to envision Tibet as Shangri-La under siege and its monks as custodians of the world's most potent spiritual archive. With the transformation of so many erstwhile geopolitical villains (Latin American dictatorships, the Soviet bloc, South Africa) into putative democracies, China's perfidy in Tibet has had plenty of time alone in the spotlight. It's an inescapable though hardly delicious irony that the Chinese occupation of Tibet helped bring the dharma westward, where the medieval beliefs and customs of Tibetan Buddhism have found refuge in the imaginations of affluent, well-educated, but spiritually parched inheritors of the Judeo-Christian culture of the United States. Without the Chinese invasion, Tibet might be perceived on a level with such Himalayan principalities as Bhutan or Mustang — interesting culture, great place to hike, but not necessarily a glamorous holy land. As Gelek Rinpoche says, laughing at the vagaries of history, "I'd be sitting on a mountain somewhere in Tibet, meditating. Now I can wear blue jeans."

In a sense, the Tibet of the nineties has become the ultimate project of historical preservation, an amalgam of the chic and the noble. Why protect an antique balustrade or a row of nineteenth-century carriage houses when you can save an entire country? And there's no better spokesman for that endeavor than the smiling, avuncular, utterly benign Dalai Lama. The self-described "simple Buddhist monk," who is now 62, has traveled and lobbied tirelessly to promote Tibetan freedom, in the process garnering numerous supporters in show business, the arts, and academia. "The Free Tibet movement is the fastest-growing cause on campuses," according to Donald Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan. "Tibet has caught on because the conflict seems so utterly unambiguous." On top of martyrdom, there is also the way that the Dalai Lama's religion, with its mixture of spectacle (horns, chanting, robes, mandalas) and simplicity (meditation), appeals to our culture's predilection for psychedelia and New Age nostrums. And in the age of Oprah and the weeping, empathetic president, Tibetan Buddhism offers an intricate anatomy of emotional and psychic states exactly suited to a culture of therapy. Envision all of this, set against the imaginary backdrop of a colossal Himalayan range, and Tibet suddenly seems remarkably compatible with the American mind circa 1997.


By and large, it's been a wonderfully romantic but terribly shallow infatuation, pervaded by the notion of Tibetans as childlike yet spiritually sophisticated visitors from Shangri-La — friendly aliens in saffron robes. The casting is perfect, but we haven't yet begun to fathom the grimmer, less exalted, less patronizing dimensions of the real backstory. Does one of the most accomplished of civilizations need America to save it? And how can the politics of celebrity, style, and pity ever begin to fathom the enormity of Tibetan suffering and the iron barriers to Tibet's deliverance from its totalitarian ruler?

History, however, has never gotten in the way of a good romance. Now playing is Sony TriStar's $70 million production of Seven Years in Tibet, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud in the Andes Mountains of Argentina and starring Brad Pitt as the Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, who befriended the young Dalai Lama after World War II and became his tutor and adviser until the Chinese takeover. Scheduled for release at Christmas is Martin Scorsese's first film for Walt Disney Studios, the $30 million epic Kundun, a portrayal of the Dalai Lama's youth, featuring a script by Melissa Mathison (who wrote E.T. and is married to Harrison Ford) and a cast of Tibetan monks imported from India to Morocco, where it was shot. Each film features a performance by a relative of the Dalai Lama: His sister plays their mother in Seven Years, and his niece has the same role in Kundun.

This was to be the moment Tibet opened wide, vying for grosses and mobilizing on behalf of the Dalai Lama. But as every infotainment journalist in the world has reported, the publicity rollout has had to accommodate the recent revelation that Harrer, who had always portrayed himself as an apolitical youth interested only in climbing and adventure, was in fact an early member of Hitler's SA, the Storm Troopers, and later joined the SS. Presumably no one has been more pleased about these revelations than the Communist leaders of China, who have found it difficult to conceal their nervousness about the rising tide of Tibetophilia, particularly in connection with the Scorsese movie. Disney has ambitious plans to sic its animators and imagineers on a vast, unsuspecting Chinese populace, but so far it has stood firm in the face of Beijing's vague threats of economic retaliation.

Scorsese has said that he is drawn toward what he regards as the antiviolence message of the Dalai Lama's story. "I felt I knew what a violent life was all about, after growing up in lower Manhattan," he told an interviewer. "I wanted to explore the other side." And it's plain who the wiseguys are going to be. Just before he began shooting the film in August 1996, Scorsese said, "What interests me is how a young man who lives in a society which is totally based on the spirit finds himself face to face with a society that happens to be one of the most anti-spiritual ever formed, the Maoist government of the Chinese Communists."

Scorsese has approached the making of Kundun with the sanctity and orthodoxy once reserved for Christian epics like The Robe. He permitted himself much greater imaginative liberty in making The Last Temptation of Christ. Shot in Morocco, like Kundun, Last Temptation flirted with sacrilege with its 35-minute vision of Christ descending from the cross to wed Mary Magdalene and take up the quotidian life of an ordinary man. For this Scorsese was condemned as the most irreligious of filmmakers. By contrast, the set of Kundun bristled with lamas advising Scorsese and his crew on the proper reverent depiction of Tibetan Buddhism. (In this era of identity politics, perhaps an artist feels entitled to break taboos only in his own tradition.)

The notion that Tibet long ago cornered the bull market on peace and harmony — that it can reform the character of arrogant ex-Nazis and make a philosopher of pacifism out of the auteur who gave us Goodfellas and Casino — is not necessarily good spiritual hygiene. There is a danger in locating Shangri-La somewhere beyond our own lives — preferably in a scenic spot, with nice vistas — because then, of course, you no longer have to look for it within yourself.

But in the real world, what kind of dent can a pair of Hollywood movies make? The idea that films can change the world is a dubious proposition at best. Tibet "is going to enter Western popular culture as something can only when Hollywood does its entertainment injection," says journalist Orville Schell, who is writing a book on Western notions of the country. "Let's remember that Hollywood is the most powerful force in the world, besides the U.S. military." That may be true (if a little frightening), but even the U.S. military would have a hard time evicting the Chinese. What movies do is borrow from the zeitgeist, and sometimes strongly color it, but they can't overturn it. Sadly, life is always stuck in development hell.


For a timely illustration of the sometimes awkward embrace of Tibet and American popular culture, you need only consider the strange case of the killer Buddha. I am referring to the movie star and action hero Steven Seagal, who is troubling the sleep of many American friends of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism these days. Last February, at a ceremony before an audience of 1,500 monks at the Namdroling Monastery in Bylakuppe, India, Seagal was designated a tulku by the highly respected Penor Rinpoche, the supreme head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. In Tibet, a tulku — literally, "emanation body of the Buddha" — is believed to be the conscious reincarnation of a lama who attained enlightenment in a previous life and is returning to this world to help enlighten others. In Seagal's case, the holy man whose reincarnated soul has taken up residence in the star of Above the Law, Under Siege, and Fire Down Below was said to be the ancient lama Chung-Raj Dorje. It was a surprising fate for an actor whose most famous line is "Fuck you and die!" (from Hard to Kill) and who to date has slaughtered 187 people on film and possibly — as he hinted early in his career — a few people off screen as well. Worldly, uncharitable types have suggested money changed hands, with Seagal essentially purchasing the honor.

Seagal's canonization has brought an unaccustomed form of attention to Tibetan Buddhism: mockery. To be sure, other prominent names in show business have received some ribbing for their alliance with the Tibetan cause — Richard Gere, of course, who made an impassioned plea for the independence of Tibet during the 1993 Academy Awards telecast, and also Oliver Stone, Sharon Stone, and Goldie Hawn (who was given a mantra by the Dalai Lama himself). And a gaggle of fashion designers and pop stars have also joined the bandwagon, including Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, who went trekking in the Himalayas, gave up drugs and drink, started taking monks with him on tour, and established a foundation to help Tibet. (He's even graced the cause with a song, "Bodhisattva Vow": "If others disrespect me or give me flack / I'll stop and think before I react.")

But none of these figures has been more than a glitzy supplicant at the feet of martyred Tibetans. Seagal is the first star to have appropriated spiritual eminence into his person, and the novel image of Seagal as the homicidal tulku has divided American Buddhists between those who sympathize with the naivete of Penor Rinpoche, seeing him as a babe in the Hollywoods, and those who regard the Nyingma monks as canny marketers and fund-raisers all too aware of Seagal's sugar-daddy possibilities. One coreligionist in an Internet discussion wrote, "All in all, this seems like a bad move for Buddhism, but a boon for satire."

"As Buddhism becomes more popular, these things are going to happen," says Rudy Wurlitzer, a Buddhist and veteran Hollywood screenwriter who cowrote Bernardo Bertolucci's 1994 Little Buddha. (Plot: A Seattle child is recognized as reincarnated lama. Stars: Keanu Reeves, Bridget Fonda, and retro-rock crooner Chris Isaak.) "Tibetans are not media-savvy. They haven't been out of their country forever. So there's this snide media backlash, and Seagal is blood in the water."

Still others are skeptical of Seagal's motives, which remain murky. "It brings up the question of why a Westerner would accept that form of recognition, because it comes from a foreign culture," says Ken McLeod, a prominent American lama. "Tulku has no meaning in our culture." Lest this tulku business be dismissed as an aberration, however, it should be remembered that the Dalai Lama once used divination to identify a seven-year-old Canadian boy as the reincarnation of the great teacher Geshe Jatse. At the same time, it was the Dalai Lama himself who warned off Americans from embracing every last technical detail and mystical wrinkle of Tibetan Buddhism. "I try to make a distinction between the essence of Buddhism and the cultural part of Tibetan Buddhism," he said in 1990. "The essential part would be more or less the same everywhere, while the cultural part may change from country to country. So I think it may not succeed if a Westerner tries to adopt Tibetan Buddhism in its complete form."


Steven Seagal may be an egomaniacal buffoon, or he may be a sincere and disciplined practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism — or he may be both. But the significance of his story in this season of high-minded devotion to the Tibetan cause is that some Tibetans are as capable of being starfuckers as we are.

If only fate could be as kind as Hollywood, with its predilection for letting justice triumph and ensuring happy endings, in designing a future for the Dalai Lama. In a just world, China would renounce its claim upon Tibet, and the man whose title means Ocean of Wisdom would lead his government-in-exile from Dharamsala to Lhasa at the head of a triumphant column of Tibetan monks. His Holiness would then take up residence again in the fabled 999-room Potala palace. Once restored to his rightful place, the Dalai Lama, as he has promised, would abandon centuries of feudal government and turn Tibet into a democratic republic. Roll credits.

But no such millennial outcome seems imminent. It's an irony of history that I can roam through the "Tibet Autonomous Region" as a tourist; the Dalai Lama has encouraged Americans to visit Tibet and see for themselves what is going on. I can trek from Lhasa to the Dza Rongphu monastery at the foot of Mount Everest. I can photograph Tibetan blue sheep, wild yaks, and the black-necked crane. I can breathe deep the thin pristine air of those high altitudes.

Not the Dalai Lama. When he was a boy, he loved clocks, taking them apart and putting them back together again. He feels keenly the passage of time. He would like to give up his position and spend the rest of his life meditating, perhaps even incarnating his august essence in his successor before dying. Certain Tibetan masters are said to have been capable of this feat; as a tactical maneuver, it would frustrate Chinese attempts to meddle in the selection process.

But that story arc will have to be saved for movies not yet made. For the foreseeable future, China is intractable. And the Han settlers in Tibet, in fact, now far outnumber the Tibetans, presaging a long and nasty Balkanization of the country. The Dalai Lama has tried to prepare Tibetans for a multigenerational epoch of exile and has often spoken admiringly of the Jewish genius for preserving identity throughout the long diaspora. Despite the harmonious image of solidarity among exiles, there are painful divisions within the Tibetan refugee community over the worship of the wrathful deity Shugden, which the Dalai Lama has condemned as a harmful practice. In turn, a few lamas have gone so far as to question the legitimacy of the Dalai Lama's rule. Some Tibetans in Dharamsala even talk of taking up arms against China.

While the Tibetan cause has never enjoyed such favorable publicity in the West, its actual prospects have never been so bleak. American pop culture rarely gets its timing right, after all. "The situation in Tibet is as bad as it's been in 15 years in regard to the Chinese," according to Donald Lopez. "Against it, there's this ephemeral interest among Americans. But if white Buddhists think that their enthusiasm is improving the lives of Tibetans under Chinese rule, they're dreaming."

The U.S. government, mindful of our $39 billion trade deficit with China, has "de-linked" human rights issues from the ritual process of affirming China's Most Favored Nation trading status. Despite expressions of solidarity with the Tibetan people, the White House has given China MFN status 17 years in a row and isn't likely to withdraw it anytime soon.

So the Dalai Lama may never make it back to Lhasa, and he and his nation may dissolve in the humid climes of banishment. It is true that all Buddhists believe that everything born in time must die. But no matter how well you know the sutras and the commentaries, no matter how much you believe in the impermanent nature of all things, how can you escape a deep heartsickness when it is your country that is disappearing? The earth exerts that kind of pull, even on a bodhisattva.

Back at the East Village Temple, the lotus is as difficult as ever for me. A pretty girl sits nearby on her cushion, beaming a little too rhapsodically for my taste, as if to say, Isn't Buddha just the greatest! I try to meditate, but my mind drifts, and I think about my tendency to become cranky about my fellow American practitioners who take up the dharma in the conviction that faithfulness to the minutiae of ancient ritual makes them better Buddhists. It reminds me of the media's own fickle flirtation with the exoticism of Tibet. As the Heinrich Harrer episode has already revealed, the impulse to debunk is the inevitable successor to glib lionization. Once the publicity campaigns peter out and the news cycle spins forward, of course, the activists and adherents of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism who are in it for the long run will still be working, meditating, sacrificing.

I hope to be among them. And so I sit. It hurts, but I sit. I've got a long climb ahead, but the mountains are still in sight.

Will Blythe was the literary editor of Esquire for ten years. He is now meditating and writing full-time.

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