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.
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.
Not only the powerful are attracted to Buddhists and Buddhism. According to Diana Eck, director of the Pluralism Project at Harvard University, adherents are packing out the nearly 1,500 Buddhist temples and monasteries that are to be found throughout the United States. Tens of thousands of students are influenced by the Buddhist Studies departments that have sprung up in most major American universities and colleges. In southern California, a Thai Buddhist temple is erected every two months.
Buddhism also has infiltrated some American churches. Not surprisingly, many liberal Roman Catholics and mainstream Protestants, imbued with a commitment to pluralism, have been enthusiastic supporters of Buddhism. Jim Stephens, director of the Sonrise Center for Buddhist Studies in Sierra Madre, Calif., states that liberal Christians are the largest financial supporters of the Free Tibet movement. But Mr. Stephens is more concerned with Buddhism's growing influence in local churches and even in formerly evangelical works. Buddhist monks, he says, are increasingly welcome as speakers in churches. Last Christmas, St. Anselm's Episcopal Church in Orange City, Calif., brought in a statue of the Buddha and celebrated his birthday alongside that of Jesus.
Mr. Stephens also charges that Buddhist money has influenced decisions by evangelical organizations such as the Narramore Christian Foundation, founded by Christian psychology pioneer, Clyde Narramore. Mr. Stephens reports that the Narramore foundation recently sold its California property to the Buddhist Progress Society, even though the land had originally been given to the Foundation for $1.00 with the stipulation that it could only be sold to another Christian organization. Kevin Narramore, vice president of the foundation, confirmed the Stephens statement but stated that the foundation could not find a Christian buyer, and was not aware until it was too late that the Chinese businessman who approached the foundation was a front for a temple.
Formerly a Buddhist for 14 years, Mr. Stephens is personally aware of the attraction Buddhism holds for Americans: "Initially, I liked the idea that in Buddhism you're the one who directs the program, or as rock singer Tina Turner, another Buddhist convert, once said, 'You decide what's right and wrong.'" He also was drawn by the statement, "If you change your heart, you can change the world."
But Mr. Stephens's actual experience was disappointing. He became disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the monks. He noticed his acts of devotion were resulting in "more and more depravity until I could scarcely identify with a pure conscience anymore." He was "weighed down with sin" and "realized that Buddhism ultimately led to a spiritual dead end." As he began moving toward Christianity, Mr. Stephens came to realize that Buddhism had left him without an objective basis for reality. He came to grips with "the concrete reality of Christ's resurrection" and the realization that "if the Bible is true I would die and be in hell forever."
That experience fits with the analysis of Buddhism offered by D.A. Carson, professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., and an expert on religious pluralism in America. Mr. Carson says Buddhism's exclusive focus on self-improvement, and its elevation of every man to be his own authority on matters spiritual, is "part of the attraction" for Americans. When moviegoers come out of the dark theater and during subsequent days talk admiringly about Buddhism, Mr. Carson says, Christians "have to insist that God has disclosed himself in space and time." He notes that Buddhists want to keep all interfaith conversations on a theoretical level, "but we can't allow that. In a loving way we have to go for the jugular and insist that they come to terms with the personal God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ."