Features

Dalai mania: Tibetan leader now a PC cause

International | Buddhism is now the spirituality of choice for the trendy

Issue: "Lyons thrown to Baptists," Sept. 20, 1997

On screen, Hollywood often depicts physical adultery; on and off, wherever spiritual adultery rules, filmdom's best and brightest pursue intense affairs with whatever ideology or theology is hot at the moment: Marxism in the past, Scientology in recent years, and this fall-Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism has replaced New Age religion as the "in" way to be spiritual, and several Hollywood actors have become strong defenders of Tibet and its religion. The result? Two movies about the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, are about to be released. The first movie, Seven Years in Tibet, will land in theaters next month. And the second, called Kundun (Tibetan for "the presence"), is scheduled to debut on Christmas day.

Kundun, directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Melissa Mathison, wife of mega-star Harrison Ford, chronicles the life of the current Dalai Lama from birth to 1959, when he fled Tibet to take up exile in India. Seven Years in Tibet stars Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian who escaped from a World War II British prison in India and reached Lhasa where he came under the influence of the young Dalai Lama. Mr. Pitt reportedly asked for the role of Harrer because he wanted the religious experience. Director Jean-Jacque Annaud told Entertainment Weekly that after each day's shooting the monks would pray for the set and get the cast to sing with them. Mr. Pitt, he said, was very often in tears.

Rumors are already circulating that both films will do well on Oscar night. But Christian missionaries to Asia are concerned that just as the 1982 release of Gandhi sparked an interest in Hinduism, Hollywood's idealistic portrayal of Buddhism will leave many viewers open to its message. Buddhism emphasizes "compassion," defined for American ears to sound like the politically correct doctrine of "tolerance." It also offers a pathway to internal peace without the strictures of asceticism or the necessity of obedience to a living God. That is a powerful combination for those who are looking for love in all the wrong places. Actor Richard Gere, for example, converted to Tibetan Buddhism in 1984 and spends several months each year traveling and speaking on behalf of the Dalai Lama and the cause of Tibetan freedom. He partially funded the making of Seven Years in Tibet.

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In interviews Mr. Gere has stated that his ultimate goal is to become another Buddha. Steven Seagal, the action star known for the brutal manner in which he treats his on-screen enemies, also has high hopes: He has been recognized by Penor Rinpoche, the supreme head of the Tibetan-based Nyingma lineage, as a tulku, a reincarnated lama. Porter Weldon, a follower of Rinpoche, explains that a tulku is "a very advanced soul" who is able "to choose where he will spend his next life." Mr. Weldon reports that Mr. Seagal is also a terton, a revealer of truth. Some Buddhists have complained that Mr. Seagal bought his recognition, but Mr. Weldon denies it. "Seagal is put down because he is famous," he says. "Rinpoche is the head of the lineage; he would never prostitute his position."

The personal interest of a few movie stars does not begin to delineate the boundaries of "Tibet Chic," or the overall influence of Buddhism in North America. Fueled by the image of oppressed Tibetans who for nearly 40 years have borne the brunt of China's ferocious attempts to assimilate their country, and propelled by the growing influence of the Dalai Lama, other influential people have taken up the cause. The Committee of 100 for Tibet currently includes 13 Nobel prize winners and such well-known personages as folk-singer Joan Baez, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former Ambassador Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick, and the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, President Emeritus of Notre Dame University. The Dalai Lama was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and influential centers such the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles have awarded him their top prizes.

What's more, Tibetan monks have shown an aptitude for ingratiating themselves with world political leaders. In every country he visits, the Dalai Lama meets with national leaders, including President Clinton and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jesse Helms. And though it was a major gaffe, even last year's scandalous attempt by the Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles to give $140,000 to the Democratic presidential campaign during a visit by Vice President Gore demonstrates the kind of leverage Buddhists seek with the American government. None of this is to take away from the very real oppression Tibetans face-but their leaders are certainly getting plenty of mileage out of that misery.

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