Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tibetan Buddhism and Hollywood Cafeteria Buddhists

"There’s more to this ancient religion than Hollywood celebrities would have you believe," writes Brendan O'Neill — The Truth About Tibetan Buddhism. After finding "garish statues of dancing demons, fat golden Buddhas surrounded by wads of cash, walls and ceilings painted in super-lavish colours, and such a stench of incense that it’s like being in a hippy student’s dorm room," and other such things that might shock the disciples of "Richard Gere, the first incarnation of the Hollywood Lama," Mr. O'Neill writes:
    Of course, this only means that Tibetan Buddhism is the same as loads of other religions. Yet it is striking how much the backward elements of Tibetan Buddhism are forgiven or glossed over by its hippyish, celebrity, and middle-class followers over here. So if you’re a Catholic in Hollywood it is immediately assumed you’re a grumpy old git with demented views, but if you’re a “Tibetan” Buddhist you are looked upon as a super-cool, enlightened creature of good manners and taste. (Admittedly, Mel Gibson doesn’t help in this regard.)
His conclusion:
    Frank J. Korom describes it as “New Age orientalism,” where Westerners in search of some cheap and easy purpose in their empty lives “appropriate Tibet and portions of its religious culture for their own purposes.” They treat a very old, complex religion as a kind of buffet of ideas that they can pick morsels from, jettisoning the stranger, more demanding stuff—like the dancing demons and the prostration workout—but picking up the shiny things, like the sacred necklaces and bracelets and the BS about reincarnation.

    It is all about them. They have bent and warped a religion to suit their own needs. As the Tibetan lama Dagyab Kyabgon Rinpoche puts it, “The concept of ‘Tibet’ becomes a symbol for all those qualities that Westerners feel lacking: joie de vivre, harmony, warmth and spirituality… Tibet thus becomes a utopia, and Tibetans become noble savages.” Western losers have ransacked Tibetan Buddhism in search of the holy grail of self-meaning.
[link via A conservative blog for peace]

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how much of this Western sentimentalism is due to that first paperback book ever published: James Hilton's "Lost Horizons".

Even still, I think Westerner's interest in the East goes back at least to the time of Marco Polo.

I only wonder why Easterners don't seek out Western spirituality in the same way, even if only (to invoke Bonhoffer) "grace on the cheap," which is what Hollywood Buddhism seems to be.

Or do they?

12:31 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

They have in general too much repect for religion to become Christians on their own terms.

12:37 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A really good example of the "folk Buddhism' spoken of here is the 2003 film, "The Wheel of Time". It takes place around a festival presided over by the Dalai Lama, but shows pilgrims doing the prostrations over hundreds and even thousands of miles. It also shows, as in the following clip, the contrast with "Western Buddhists":

It is no wonder that Octavio Paz was so fascinated by Hinduism and Buddhism last century. In my experience, the ethos of Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism is very close to Mexican and Latin American Catholicism. There is something profoundly earthy and transcendent going on at the same time in all of these systems.

1:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"something profoundly earthy and transcendent going on at the same time"

Sounds like a good wine.

3:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Westerners definitely fetishize everything seen as "foreign"...I'm sure it works the opposite way as well. Check out this video comparing Buddhism and Catholicism:

6:19 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Very true, come to think of it, that "the ethos of Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism is very close to Mexican and Latin American Catholicism."

That last video I came across and posted a while back — Pope John Paul II, the Dalai Lama, and Sex. Great stuff.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to elaborate a bit on the whole Mexican Catholicism / Tibetan Buddhism comparison:

Celibate detached clergy - check

Scary statues - check

Obscure theological debates between monks - maybe moreso in the past, but check

Weird chanting - check (ever hear a group of Mexican grandmothers singing at Benediction?)

Folk poetry and weird rituals tied to larger ceremonies thought to bring good luck - check

Candles - check

Pilgrimages and walking prostrate - check

(There is footage somewhere on the Internet who was completing a manda to the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico who was crawling on his knees for like three days to make it to the Basilica in time for the feast. A little toned down, but still very much part of a religion of the gut. Many walk to up to the old basilica on their knees.)

10:57 AM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Great list. Also:

Garish colors - check

I visited Guadalupe twice. Lots of folks on their knees.

12:40 PM  
Anonymous David said...

Like converts to any religion, you have a wide range of seriousness and authenticity with regard to how well and how deeply a person is able to embrace its tenets and traditions. In fairness, there are quite a few western followers of Tibetan Buddhism who embrace the whole package, including hundreds of thousands of prostrations and 3-year retreats, as well as some of the sectarian conflicts, like Nyingma vs Gelugpa. They tend to look down on Hollywood dilettantes just as much as the author of that piece.

The same can be said for other branches of Buddhism that exist in the west as well. You have your new age version of Zen which is all about pampering yourself and relaxing, and the real stuff that involves a lot of sitting meditation every day, as well as week long retreats (sesshin) that can have up to 14 hours a day of sitting meditation. That might sound easy and relaxing, but in many cases you aren't allowed to move a muscle for 30 to 50 minutes until the round ends and there is a 5-10 minute period of walking meditation. The lotus posture does not come easily for most westerners (or modern Asians for that matter), so it can be excruciatingly painful. To top it all off, there is usually a person walking around with a stick to hit the shoulders of people who nod off, or who request it to gain more energy, release tension, or distract them from the pain in their knees. This is about as far from the image of a towel-clad beauty sipping green tea in a bamboo and river rock decorated spa as you can get.

I read about some American Buddhist monks who did an 800 mile prostration walk from downtown LA to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas monastery in Talmage, CA ( It took them 2 years and 9 months to do it.

So, not all American or other non-Asian Buddhists are dilettantes- there are some serious folks that are trying their best to do what one teacher called "holding a lotus to a rock to hope that it will take root."

4:55 AM  

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