SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Tibetan Buddhism is hot in Hollywood, boffo in advertising, the cause of choice in rock 'n' roll.

Published May 24, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Buddhism is back and coming to a stadium near you.

Actually, two stadiums, both in stereo. The "Tibetan Freedom Concert," sponsored by the San Francisco-based Milarepa Fund, hits Downing Stadium on Randall's Island, New York, on June 7 and 8. A competing "Tibetan Freedom Benefit Concert," put on by Tibet House of New York, plays the Civic Auditorium in San Francisco on June 8.

Natalie Merchant, Philip Glass and Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers headline the San Francisco gig, while a younger, louder and very trendy crew -- Sonic Youth, Foo Fighters, Porno for Pyros, Bjvrk, Rancid and the Beastie Boys among them -- will play New York City.

Buddhism in general and Tibet in particular have long been a favored cause/religion among the rock 'n' roll set, but more recently their appeal has gone mainstream. In Macy's stores, employees spritz incoming shoppers with Om perfume, while Barnes and Noble clerks push "Zen and the Art of Changing Diapers." In a Gatorade spot, Michael Jordan hikes up a mountain in search of a guru and the meaning of life. "Life's a sport," the teacher tells him, "drink it up." Apparently Jordan hasn't read "Sacred Hoops," the Zen tract by Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson.

This is not the first time Americans have gone gaga over Buddhism. In the '50s, the Beats had a yen for Zen, as exemplified by the late Allen Ginsberg. But Zen was a little too esoteric for the mainstream. Buddhism's more recent breakthrough has a distinctly Tibetan tinge. Apart from Richard Gere's oft-publicized association, Hollywood has released one horrible movie about Tibetan Buddhism, "Little Buddha," starring Keanu Reeves. In "Ace Ventura Pet Detective: When Nature Calls," Jim Carrey's Ace -- his mantra: "Alllllrighty then!" -- achieves "omnipresent supergalactic oneness" in a Himalayan monastery. "Everybody in Hollywood wants to belong to the Buddhist religion now," says the Rev. Julius Goldwater, an Angeleno who has been practicing Buddhism for 70 years, "but none of them are real Buddhists."

Tibetan Buddhism is even bigger in advertising. Anheuser-Busch aired ads during the Olympics featuring thirsty lamas eyeing a Budweiser blimp, and IBM built an entire ThinkPad campaign around the telepathic technologies of Tibetan holy men. Lycos, the Web search engine, features Himalayan Sherpas as Internet "guides" in its multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign.

Sitting atop this religio-cultural trend is the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. Born Tenzin Gyatso in eastern Tibet in 1935, he fled to Dharamsala, India, in 1959 after the Chinese overran the Land of Snows. Thanks to his nonviolent struggle for Tibetan self rule, the Dalai Lama has replaced Nelson Mandela as the rebel with a cause. Mild-mannered, smart, even sexy in a celibate sort of way, the Dalai Lama did a bona fide celebrity tour last month, meeting with President Clinton in the Oval Office, chatting with Larry King on CNN (King: "What will you come back as -- a rabbi?") and celebrating a Tibetan "freedom Passover" with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. This while Catholic Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was denouncing Buddhism as "spiritual autoeroticism."

In case you missed him on his just-concluded U.S. tour, don't fret. He'll be back in June to kick off the San Francisco benefit. And in the fall he'll be coming to the big screen in two biopics: Martin Scorsese's "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet," starring Brad Pitt. A third is in development with Steven Seagal.

Why the Tibetan vogue? Bob Summers of McCann, Erickson Worldwide in Atlanta thinks the image of the Tibetan monk resonates because it is reassuring in this madcap, materialistic world. Being acquainted with Asian holy men via "Kung Fu" and the "Karate Kid," when we see a Tibetan monk, we know he stands for wisdom, tranquillity, simplicity -- "the inner peace of knowing you can get yourself a Wall Street bonus," says Summers.

Theologically, Tibetan Buddhism offers piety without the need to believe in God. According to Chris Queen, a Harvard dean and a practicing Buddhist, Americans are "tired of theism" but aching for spiritual fulfillment. Tibetan Buddhism promises spirituality without the trappings of religion -- a pope without the pomp.

The Dalai Lama is also irresistibly politically correct. On college campuses, according to University of Michigan Professor Donald Lopez, students see Tibetan freedom as "an unambiguous political cause." The battle between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese isn't just good theater -- "Gandhi" goes to Tibet -- it's a post-Cold War morality tale pitting the evil Chinese empire against everybody's exotic underdog.

Not all Buddhists consider this boom a boon. The online Buddhist journal CyberSangha has exiled both the Dalai Lama and Tibetan repression to its "not hot" list. The Dalai Lama is "deeply naive" politically, says Queen "His Holiness may be like Gandhi, but Tibet is not India and the Chinese are not the British." Tibet, he says, to the inevitable chagrin of Dalai-lovers who are used to instant gratification, will remain a "toxic waste dump" for the Chinese for years to come.

Given the unstable life span of American celebrityhood, how long can Tibetan Buddhist chic last? With "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet" due to open later this year, can Dalai Lama Halloween costumes be far behind? And if we aren't already terminally bored by the time a "We Are the World"-style single for a free Tibet comes out, the sight of Steven Seagal wreaking righteous vengeance on enemies of the Dharma will surely produce the coup de grace.

Or will it? The Dalai Lama knows that the history of hip, like the history of the cosmos, runs in cycles of life, death and rebirth. So what if he and his religion are destined to die of overexposure in foreign stadiums? They'll be back.

By Stephen Prothero

Stephen Prothero teaches in the religion department at Boston University. He is the author of "The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott" (Indiana University Press).

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