On the film Little Buddha: Zen Master Seung Sahn
During his recent swing through the East Coast, Zen Master Seung Sahn was asked by several people his opinion of the movie, "Little Buddha." As the first feature-length movie to deal with the life of the Buddha and Buddhist teachings, "Little Buddha" has drawn many different reactions from members of the American Buddhist sangha. The following comments were made in response to a question asked by a student during Zen Master Seung Sahn's public Dharma talk at the Providence Zen Center, June 24, 1994:
Question: Zen Master, someone told me that you recently saw this movie, Little Buddha. What is your opinion of this movie and the teaching it contains? I heard that the filmmaker tried to use this movie as a vehicle to transmit Buddhist teaching to a wide audience...
Zen Master Seung Sahn: The first half of this movie was very good, and had good teaching. The beginning of the movie showed the Buddha as a young prince, how he was struck by the suffering of the world. The movie also showed the Buddha leaving home to find his true self. That's a very important point: the Buddha left home, left his wife and child, left the palace in order to answer this question for all beings: "What am I? What is a human being?"
But the second half of the movie was not as clear. The Buddha left home, and never went back to his family. He never went back to his good situation. In the movie, this young American boy is taken by the teachers. He leaves the world of samsara, just like the Buddha did. But at the end of the movie, the boy is back with his parents again. That's not clear teaching. He already left home: Why go back to his parents? What kind of teaching is this? It does not connect to the Buddha's life.
Also, this movie does not show the young boy growing up, getting enlightenment and teaching other people. That's the point of him being recognized as a teacher. So that's not complete. It's like when you go to the bathroom. After you use the toilet, you must wipe yourself. That's how you finish the job! This movie should show what happened to this boy that he studied hard, became a great person, and helped many beings. This movie did not finish the job, so a bad smell appears! Same as that. If the filmmakers only want to make a happy ending, that's not clear. Why spend the whole movie to find this dead teacher, and then this teacher ends up with his parents again? Same with the young Nepali boy and girl, who were also chosen as teachers. The movie would have been complete if it showed them practicing hard, getting enlightenment, and helping other people. But why finish this movie before that? If you finish the movie before that, it does not connect to the Buddha's life. It does not show Buddhism is about teaching other people today. So it's not complete -- not clear teaching.
Little Buddha is an enjoyable, at times powerful, and ultimately highly entertaining movie. Of course, there are quite a few movies today that can also be called entertaining, but they often achieve this with a combination of sex, violence and (admittedly) amazing special effects. It is rare to see a movie essentially devoid of such things that not only does entertain you, but also uplifts your spirit and leaves you with a positive feeling. For me, Little Buddha is also such a movie.
The story begins in modern-day Tibet, where a certain Buddhist priest or "lama" begins to see signs that his beloved teacher, who had died several years before, may have recently been reincarnated. The lama travels from Tibet to Seattle to locate a young Caucasian boy thought to be one of the possible "candidates" (he later discovers 2 others). The lama meets the boy, who does indeed appear to have certain traits that the lama's teacher had. The two develop a friendship and soon, the lama begins to relate to him the story of the birth of Buddhism, and of the young prince named Siddhartha who came to be called Buddha.
As the lama begins to tell the story, the scene switches to ancient Nepal, and shows young Siddhartha (played by the handsome Keanu Reeves), living a carefree life in the palace. His father, King Suddhodana, is shielding him from all "unpleasantries" such as elderly , sick or dying people. Gradually however, Siddhartha begins to get curious about the world "out there," and one day sneaks outside the palace gate. Buddhists will of course recognize this as the well-known story of the Four Gates. In one powerful scene, he encounters a funeral pyre and suddenly, as he watches the flames consume the body, the truth of impermanence - of his and of every one's ultimate demise - hits him, and brings him to tears. This scene, although undoubtedly one of the highlights, is only one of many memorable and well-acted scenes as the setting switches back and forth between ancient Nepal (the story of Buddha) and the contemporary search for the lama's teacher. Furthermore, the young children who play the candidates of the reincarnated teacher are all superb actors.
This movie will undoubtedly do a great deal to educate Americans about Buddhism. The "ancient" part of the story in particular is beautifully done, and portrays Buddhism as a compassionate teaching borne of Buddha's insight into the truth of impermanence. But perhaps even greater is a crucial point the movie implies, but doesn't actually state overtly. If Siddhartha had just stopped upon awakening to impermanence, he might have become a depressed, negative, complaining, or perhaps even suicidal person. Impermanence, after all, is not a comforting thought. Instead, the crucial point is that he also saw that suffering is universal - it wasn't just himself, but every living thing that must ultimately perish. The moment that Siddhartha sees this fundamental oneness of all life is eloquently portrayed in the movie. From this realization, his great compassion flowed, and he became the Buddha.
However, because the main focus of the "contemporary" part of the movie is the search for the reincarnation of the teacher, the implicit conclusion for the vast majority of Americans will probably be that "all Buddhists today believe in reincarnation." In this regard, the movie is somewhat misleading, as Buddhist sects such as our Jodo Shinshu do not believe in reincarnation. But what about Buddha himself? Did he believe in reincarnation?
In one sense, the answer might be self-evident in the funeral pyre scene. Siddhartha cries, as we do because, though we might grasp for such "comforting" alternatives as reincarnation or an afterlife, we can't deny the powerful, frightening and humbling finality of the body consumed in flames. In addition, there may be historical evidence that the Buddha did not believe in reincarnation, or in the presence of a "soul." The Buddha was something of a "radical" in that his teaching of the Dharma of impermanence went against the prevailing beliefs of his time, such as reincarnation, by saying that there was no such thing as a permanent soul or "atman." He said he only knew what he himself had experienced, which was impermanence, and that this was the reality we should awaken to in order to alleviate our suffering.
Thus, it is perhaps somewhat ironic that this movie, while implying that all contemporary Buddhists believe in reincarnation, also inadvertently exposes a what could be considered a discrepancy between Tibetan Buddhism--as represented by the lama's search for his reincarnated teacher--and what the Buddha himself taught. When the Buddha talked about impermanence, it is apparent he was referring to an infinite power, one which--as illustrated in the funeral pyre scene--had brought him to tears. If, however, our death is but a temporary state from which we return again and again, the powerful, compelling, and even frightening finality of death is softened. However, in pointing this out, I am not criticizing Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is a rich and precious Buddhist tradition, due in large part to the influence of certain indigenous Tibetan cultural traditions on the Buddhism that was introduced to Tibet. Tibetan Buddhism is also very unique, due most likely to its geographic isolation.
However, as I reflect on the powerful depiction in this movie of Siddartha's transformation into the Buddha under the bodhi tree, it seems clear that the powerful force responsible for shaking Siddhartha up and humbling him was none other than the unforgiving truth of impermanence. Every living thing must change and ultimately perish. This of course is a disturbing and negative truth. However, this powerful negative truth was transformed into an equally powerful positive one when he realized that not just he, but that also all living things, even plants and insects, were all suffering from and bound by this same truth. Ultimately, he saw that all life is one. I believe the Buddha's great compassion developed out of this awareness of universal suffering. In Little Buddha, this truth, though perhaps somewhat obscured by the search for the reincarnated teacher, is nonetheless powerfully and unforgettably portrayed. I highly recommend that you see this movie.
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Seven Years in Tibet
 Tibetan religion and culture are experiencing an unparalleled popularity. Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan history are commonly the subjects of Hollywood films. Being in the American spotlight, however, means being subject to the sound byte culture in which we live. Quick quotables, rapid montages of images, and the crafting of simple stories are commonplace as the manners in which media consumers in America are accustomed to receiving information both in contexts of fictional entertainment and nonfictional news. Simplified, deceptive constructions of Tibet permeate our culture. To what ends are such presentations crafted? Why is the American public so accepting of these new craftings, and why do we now fall prey to the orientalism of the past and salvage paradigms refuted by post-colonial scholarship decades ago? To begin to answer these questions, this paper will: first, examine new age orientalism in the case of Tibet as Tibetologist Donald Lopez characterizes it; second, explore orientalist themes in the commercialization of Tibetan Buddhism in the American films Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun and Little Buddha; and third, offer an explication based on a psychological model of the commercial creators of such popularizations and the American society which consumes them.
 We are not the first to witness crafted presentations of Tibetan culture. James Hilton's Lost Horizon was first published in 1933 at a time of violent upheaval in the Western world. The extreme popularity of the novel and subsequent film of 1936 indicates a wish existing among the people at that time: it is no surprise that a down-spiraling civilization faced with its own horrors and impending world war would embrace a story of an idyllic, utopian civilization peacefully hidden among the Himalayas, where both social and physical ills were nonexistent and where eternally youthful citizens knew nothing of the waste brought on by violence. This civilization was Hilton's Shangri-La, a fictional land reflecting Hilton's understanding of the Tibetan Shambhala as a mysterious nation of esoteric people who occupy a "hidden" region on the highest plateau in the world. Now, in the last decade of our century, we again see the fantasy land of Shangri-La and nostalgia for a lost culture making popular appearances, this time not in the context of a Western world war, but amidst the near-extinction of Tibetan culture itself. Films focusing on Tibetan culture and history such as Little Buddha, Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun provide movie-goers with Shangri-La. We are shown perfect Tibetan heroes and despicable Chinese villains. The lamas, Tibetan Buddhist monks, often are portrayed as beatifically smiling, superhuman beings. And the Westerners featured in our popular stories are inevitably depicted as authority figures, heroically rescuing the doomed culture of Tibet. To what wish in ourselves do these phenomena speak today?
 Orientalism is defined briefly as Western distortions, purposeful or not, of Eastern traditions and culture, distortions which ultimately can be patronizing or damaging to the studied cultures. In the field of religion, orientalism often is considered a dead topic, its scholarly perpetrators, inaccurate portrayals and gross generalizations having been denounced starting decades ago in post-colonial scholarship. In "New Age Orientalism: The Case of Tibet" written for Tibetan Review in May, 1994, renowned Tibetologist Donald Lopez, however, recognizes persisting elements of orientalism in the field and describes what he calls "new age orientalism" in Tibetology (16-20). In order to identify in contemporary American film the new age orientalism of which Lopez speaks, Lopez's four clearly defined characteristics of orientalism in scholarly writings are essential. First is the classic orientalist play of opposites, in which Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, emerging as objects of European and American fantasy, are treated as polluted, derivative and even demonic in opposition to an original root tradition, in this case the ancient Sanskrit texts of India, pure, pristine, authentic and holy. Western scholars projected the West's own past history onto these objects of study, thus setting up the Indian past as something to be recovered and salvaged as valuable to the West. The East's past was assumed to represent a pristine version of the West, resulting in what James Clifford and Edward Said identify as "nostalgia for ourselves." This play of opposites still operates in new age orientalism; the positions, however, are changed, creating anew the fantasy land of Shangri-La. Tibet becomes the perfect civilization, pristine, timeless, harmonious and holy as the home of true Buddhism and a true utopia. The Tibetan people become superhuman, perfect citizens under a perfect leader. The new opposition becomes China the invader, godless and demonic, despotic and polluted. Chinese soldiers become subhuman murderers following the orders of subhuman leaders. The rescue roles are still in place, as well. However, this time the contemporary goal is not the rescue of the East for the West, but the rescue of Tibet from China, the East from the East.
 The second of Lopez's characteristics of orientalism in the case of Tibet is the self-aggrandizing of the rescuers. The Tibetans themselves become voiceless non-agents in their own struggle for independence or survival. Instead, the Western rescuers are allowed to be the heroes of the Tibetan cause, edifying the American self-portrait as one of a strong, moral champion nation in which equality and justice are forever upheld. As this portrait raises western heroes, it damagingly lowers the Tibetans to a position of monopolized voicelessness.
 Aggrandizement of the rescuers facilitates the third and fourth of Lopez's characteristics for orientalism; third is the gaining of authority or control over Tibet, and fourth is the justification of that authority. The orientalist at once transforms the Tibetan people into non-agents and points to their non-agency as justification for taking control. In general terms, this means control over Tibetan culture, religion, art, and history as areas of academic study and of philanthropic preservation and control over Tibetan survival in exile. Yet this process is not limited to academe and philanthropy. Examples of new age orientalism pervade contemporary American films in which Tibetan history, images of Tibet, and the Tibetan people are scrutinized and utilized. Let us now turn to the most visible and popular of these films, Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun and Little Buddha.
 All of Lopez's characteristics of new age orientalism are found in recent feature films focusing on Tibetan religion and history. American films are perfect mediums through which to project, both literally and psychologically, the orientalist play of opposites, rescue paradigm, Western authority over the East, and the justification of that authority. 1997's Seven Years in Tibet1 recounts of the story of Heinrich Harrer's years in Tibet and actually parallels the history of Tibet-focused orientalism. When Harrer first enters the country, he exhibits the behavior of an authoritative father to the Tibetans' childlike state. Tibetans are depicted as innocent primitives without social graces, education or guile. They stick out their tongues at the outsider Harrer, as children on a playground might taunt a new classmate. The audience laughs at their lack of technology, automobiles, and especially movie theaters. Harrer is an arrogant Aryan, barely tolerant of having to exist in this primitive society, his only other option the Indian prison from which he just escaped. The play of opposites here is that of classic orientalism: Tibet is scorned as only an intermediate means to salvation for the West, in Harrer's case, as a temporary hindrance to finding final escape back to Austria. As the story progresses, Harrer takes control and seemingly teaches the Tibetans all they need to know: he befriends the boy Dalai Lama and becomes his educator, teaching him about the outside world and the wonders and wars it holds. The audience later discovers that Harrer's teachings are vital for the regent's preparation against the Chinese invasion. For short periods of time, he rescues the Dalai Lama from the confines of the Lhasa Potala and the primitive religion that has imprisoned him there. And, yes, Harrer even builds him a movie theater.
 Harrer, however, is later humbled. The psychological play unfolding in the character of Harrer revolves around his abandonment of his child, a son he does not know. China's invasion of Tibet and Tibet's struggle to survive are only the backdrops for the main events of Harrer's emotional evolution and his return to Europe. Harrer is humbled when the play of opposites suddenly changes: in the turning point of the film, the boy Dalai Lama recognizes the Westerner's longing to see in him his abandoned son. Harrer is told that he was never a father, nor will he ever be a father to him. Harrer is reduced to tears by the boy's words, his vulnerable, childlike state now overseen by Tibetan authority and control, embodied in the young Tibetan ruler and exemplified in his very adult speech. Harrer's inner scars, exposed by the boy regent, begin to be healed. Here, Tibet becomes the exalted, valuable culture in contrast to the murderous, demonic China. The Westerner who has played his part in the defense of pristine Tibet is cured of his emotional ills by Tibet's wisdom and can now return a whole man to his own life in Europe. And we, the audience, have experienced one Westerner's rescue of Tibetan culture, now immortally archived in written text and Technicolor.
 Consider Martin Scorsese's Kundun2 a depiction of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama's discovery, installment, and eventual flight to India after the Chinese invasion. Scorsese's film is, uncharacteristically for Scorsese, respectful of the religious and political institutions it depicts. As Philadelphia film critic Cindy Fuchs writes:
Where most previous Scorsese films took dead aim at various social and religious institutions, expectations or rituals, Kundun's attitude is absolutely un-ironic: the Dalai Lama is good, the Chinese are bad, the spiritual life is unfathomable, and the material life is fraught with peril.3
 The most ironic and pessimistic of directors has succumbed to the fantasy of utopian Tibet and her perfect leader. He even depicts the rats in the Potala as cute, even though the Dalai Lama remembered them as frightening in his autobiography on which the original Kundun script was based. Scorsese pans sweeping landscapes to the meditative music of Philip Glass; the characters quote Buddhist texts, often incomprehensible to American, non-Buddhist audiences. Scorsese shows us a faceless China, her waves of soldiers led by a Mao played with a creepy villainy bordering on pedophilia toward the young Dalai Lama and his innocent nation. Protagonists and antagonists, good guys and villains, are firmly established. He depicts the Dalai Lama as a perfect being, echoing the orientalist's projection of the superhuman, that is, perfect citizens under a perfect leader. The Tibetan people generally recognize the Dalai Lama as an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, a perfected being compassionately returning again and again to lead the Tibetan people, but Scorsese's depiction of the regent is still troubling to K. Togden, a Tibetan monk living in San Francisco. Consider this excerpt from Togden's letter to the quarterly magazine Tricycle, The Buddhist Review.
 Like the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, I am a Buddhist monk who likes movies. I am also a practitioner of the deity Dorje Shugden, banned by His Holiness in 1996. I believe Hollywood's mythification of Tibet is influencing Westerners' views and attitudes toward this ban... What we are getting with Kundun is a perfectly pre-packaged image for Western consumption, presumably to advance the Tibetan cause... But now there is something of even greater concern happening as dharma practitioners are blinded by this image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama as god-king, the infallible savior, the last hope. This is a far cry from Buddha's advice to discriminating wisdom as our guiding light. As demonstrated by history, the consequences of such blind faith are disastrous, especially when placed upon someone who is a political leader.4
 This Tibetan Buddhist monk, fired by the current Dorje Shugden debate, calls for "discriminating wisdom" to end the unrealistic portrayals of both Tibet and her leader in Hollywood, portrayals which affect everyone, including established dharma practitioners. In an attempt to bring levity to this complaint, the editors of Tricycle placed this letter under the heading, "Dalaiwood." Togden's complaint is a serious one, however. The initial motivation of the filmmakers, he presumes, is to aid in the Tibetan cause, perhaps to raise awareness about human rights abuses against the Tibetans. But Togden warns against the idealizations the filmmakers rely upon because of the eventual damage they cause. They misrepresent their subject matter in order to fit the desires of audiences, and they further warp audiences' sensibilities regarding the reality of the subject matter. Togden's letter continues:
...as William Ellison correctly pointed out in your Winter 1997 issue, "pragmatic exiles and scholars tell us that the Real Tibet is gone, that it's too late for Hollywood to save Tibet, that the Chinese devastation is irreversible." In fact, the "Tibetan cause" as presented to us is much like the Titanic, doomed from the beginning...audiences are enjoying Titanic -- I believe much more than they will Kundun. Although Titanic contains a lot of fantasy and romance, it is much more honest..the movies about Tibet are not honest -- they purposely create a make-believe reality. If we fall for it, we know we are going to be disappointed in the end, sooner or later. Such sufferings arise from attachment and ignorance; the law of karma taught by Buddha is unforgiving and relentless.
 The romanticization Togden recognizes is ultimately disappointing to people and defeating to any Tibetan cause that originally may have motivated the filmmakers. Filmmakers can market a portrayal of the Dalai Lama as perfect because audiences crave this portrayal. As journalist Pico Iyer once quipped, "Buddhism is caught between a halo and a light bulb...Will pop culture drag down Buddhism before Buddhism can raise up pop culture?" 5
 Will sensibilities change? Tibet may lose its place between our imposed fantasy of a lost utopia and the spotlight of Hollywood; the public American marketers rely upon now may move onto what the public sees as the next fad. Perhaps a new play of opposites elsewhere in the world will win the people's hearts and replace the old, tired play of opposites between China and Tibet. The true horrors of history become film mythology, a passing interest on movie screens and CNN's Hollywood Minute. In the cases of both Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, the horrors of the Chinese invasion of Tibet nearly did not make it onto film at all. China did not allow filming in Tibet or the Himalayas and released a list of Hollywood influentials banned from China. Included in the list were the films' screenwriters, stars and directors. Not helping matters was Disney's president, Michael Eisner who, in response to China's threat of boycotting Disney because of the production Kundun, attempted to smooth things over by likening China's treatment of Tibet to the United States' treatment of Alaska.6 Togden's Buddhist warnings of karmic law in such matters of blurring reality for one's own short term goals are grounded, and his final plea is moving: "But this isn't another Hollywood movie. This is our reality, and it demands from us our commitment to freedom rather than to fantasy."
 If we delve further into our American mythological ideals, we do find the attempt to rescue Tibetan culture heroic. It is this one, classic ideal of America as the land of the free, and as the land of the strong willing to fight in order to free the world from injustice, that is most evident in American activism surrounding the Tibetan cause. As Lopez points out, rescuers also become authority: in their roles as heroes, they assume control in order to be effective. With this control, however, comes an appropriation of the culture being saved, reflected in the selective salvaging of artifacts and texts the authoritative rescuer has deemed worthy of being saved. And part of this control is the crafting of history to suit one's own goals and to motivate others. As we have seen, Hollywood's expert story-tellers sculpt the Tibetan story to fit specific expectations and agendas of American pop culture.
 Little Buddha,7 starring Keanu Reeves as Gautama himself, offers another story of Western rescuers, this time in the form of a white, upper middle class, nuclear family. The film alternates between the story of Gautama Buddha's life in the sixth century, B.C.E., and the story of a contemporary west coast family whose small son is recognized by Tibetan monks living in the United States as the possible reincarnation of an important lama. As Reeves acts out the sometimes supernatural trials and victories of the Buddha, the small boy's parents make the difficult decision to let their son go abroad to take part in a foreign, distant Buddhist world. With their decision, and the boy's agreement, the Tibetan lama may be restored to his pupils who have waited years for his return. The story, however, ends not with the American boy being installed in the position. Other children from the distant Buddhist world win out in the reincarnation competition. The boy returns to his west coast home. This ending does not correspond with the rest of the film's drama. The audience is pulled into carefully crafted, rising suspense, only to be told that the boy is actually not the incarnated lama. The notable lack of an effective denouement is indicative of the limits of our American fantasy of Shangri-La: Tibet as a distant, fantasy utopia is only a place in which to escape for a short time, and it is a place which must be kept distant for the fantasy to perpetuate. We like the idea of a Shangri-La that can provide a space where incarnations and magical events, such as those of the Buddha's life story, can exist, and we like to dream of that space, but we are not so open to staying there. It is nice to visit a nonmaterialist culture of selflessness, but it is nicer to return home to our comfortable luxuries and familiar individualism.
 For proof of this selective acceptance of Tibetan Buddhism, consider a recent Oprah Winfrey interview with Carolyn Massey, the Seattle mother who gave up her son as the incarnation of a lama.8 Massey, a Tibetan Buddhist herself, lives in Seattle while her six year old son lives in a Nepalese monastery. This separation of mother and child is common to Tibetan monastery life, in which children installed as reborn teachers live an austere life of study from a very early age. While American audiences romanticize this life when Tibetans are the subjects, as in Kundun or Seven Years..., they flinch at it when the subject becomes an American child. Massey, even with the support of Winfrey, who continually called for open mindedness from her audience, was met with an onslaught of irate audience members, voicing their horror at Massey's "irresponsibility" and "lack of love and support" for her son. Massey's sister spoke angrily about her conversion from Catholicism and her "cop out" from motherhood. Others during the hour chastised Massey for her distance from her son, with one person asking, "Why can't she move there and be with her son and give up her American materialism, too?" Our zeal for Tibet, or for our preconception of it, then, is not unlimited. Giving up materialism is a virtue we enjoy seeing in Tibetan culture, even one that satisfies or renews us, but is not one we approve of for ourselves. To toy with the idea of a nonmateralist culture is romantic and entertaining. To act upon this idea for ourselves, however, is downright un-American.
 Thus far we have discussed the variations on the themes and usages of the Shangri-La fantasy in America. We have analyzed the details of these usages and the general reasons behind their popularity in American film. I would like to offer a psychological model to aid in explaining the main root of our fascination with Tibet, a root that lies deeper within our psyche as a nation. If Westerners in 1933 embraced Hilton's Shangri-La to escape from the horrors of world war, for what similar ill do we seek a cure in the 1990's? Hilton's contemporaries suffered feelings of helplessness amidst escalating violence. This was the root of their fascination with Tibet. We just as adeptly project our needs onto Tibetan culture today. And we enjoy those projections as they are, in turn, reappropriated in the commercial media. America is a nation founded on oppression. And here at the end of the millennium, we still have not faced the horrors of our origins. Racism continues to thrive. Internal violence continues to threaten our own peace. We are paralyzed by our inability to fix or even face honestly our own genocidal history. We want not to be the culture of oppression our history makes us; we want to be the liberators our ideals guide us to be. To avoid the darker realities of our national culture, we seek those things which would allow us not only to escape those realities but to surmount them, as well.
 It is fitting, then, that we as a nation and culture turn our attentions to the other side of the world, to the racism, oppression and genocide contained in Tibet.9 Whereas our racisms are entangled in layers upon layers of our pluralistic society, theirs is perfectly identifiable: Chinese against Tibetan. If we doubt that, we need only to go to the movie theater to see the Tibetan Shangri-La, a perfect civilization where everyone is, or was, equal, and where the Chinese now create inequality. It is not enough for truth to motivate us to concern. We crave the romanticized exaggerations we see in popular films. Only the underdog will capture our hearts, and the villain's actions had better make a good plotline.10 Constructed versions of Tibetan history and culture are by-products of the Western gaze on Tibet now. As we turn our eyes to the Tibetan situation, we project the fantasies, simplifications, and desires for our own perfectibility onto the people and history we find. And our master story-tellers sculpt truth to fit the roles we demand to see. Americans may subconsciously believe it is too late to solve our own problems, but we still hold our place as a country symbolizing equality and justice. Like religious practitioners setting out on a pilgrimage for renewal in belief, we set out for the movie theater to renew ourselves. America is not an underdog, but we identify with those who are. America is not a land of equality, but we do seek equality and justice for all.
 There is an irony at the very root of our fascination: we turn to Tibet because we have no hope for our own situation, yet we depict Tibet as a civilization hopelessly lost. Our constructed Shangri-La turns us away even as we approach it. And as in the case of Carolyn Massey's son, we turn away when Shangri-La gets too close to us. Tibet's tragic situation becomes another passing fad as our morality plays about Shangri-La only allow us to see a Tibet in which intervention is impossible. Americans are left with only popular mythologies and new fads. We defeat both ourselves and Tibet.
1. Seven Years in Tibet, dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud, with Brad Pitt and Jamyang Wangchuk, Columbia TriStar Pictures, 1997.
2. Kundun, dir. Martin Scorsese, with Jamyang Kunga Tenzin, Touchstone Pictures, 1997.
3. Cindy Fuchs, "Movie Shorts: Kundun," Philadelphia City Paper, 16 january 1998, 65.
4. K. Togden, letter, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, VII, 3 (Spring 1998): 8.
5. Pico Iyer, Panel discussion: "Zen Buddhism and Popular Culture," Asia Society, New York City, 19 November 1997.
6"Dreams of Tibet," narr. Orville Schell, Documentary Consortium of public television stations, Frontline, PBS, 1997.
7Little Buddha, dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, with Keanu Reeves and Chris Isaak, Miramax Films, 1994.
8"The Boy on the Throne," prod. Dianne Atkinson Hudson, Oprah, Harpo Productions, ABC, 17 March 1998.
9The timeliness of our fascination may also be a point of interest. The Dalai Lama's recent Nobel Peace Prize certainly resulted in more media attention for the Tibetan situation. Within American popular culture, however, the celebrity culture surrounding Tibet activism may be the main source of public attention. Actors Richard Gere, Harrison Ford and Steven Segal and musicians Philip Glass, Patti Smith and Adam Yauch are especially supportive and vocal about the Tibetan cause and Tibetan Buddhism. It is ironic that the celebrity culture, a generally egoistic segment of America, has latched onto ego-denying Tibetan Buddhism. Celebrities at once raise awareness about and associate themselves with Tibetan egolessness and nonmaterialism while remaining within their own narcissistic and materialist professional institution.
10Actor and co-founder of Tibet House New York, Richard Gere, provides an example of the characterization of a political situation in fictionalizing terminology. In a recent interview, he urged China to have "confidence to open up to video cameras" ("Dreams of Tibet," narr. Orville Schell, Documentary Consortium of public television stations, Frontline, PBS, 1997.). Gere uses an actor's individual psychological language to articulate an honesty he sees as a solution to a nation's political problem: as an actor must be honest in front of commercial cameras, so should China be in front of news cameras. Great political and human rights issues across international boundaries are translated into easily digestible Hollywood-speak
SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET:Discussion with Lhakpa Tsamchoe
TIBET HAS REPRESENTED many things to the West: a remote and forbidden land,
an exotic region of magic and mystery, and a source of spiritual wisdom and
insight. In recent months, Hollywood has brought images of Tibet to
American consciousness through two major movies. Seven Years in Tibet,
directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, is based on the adventures of Austrian
mountain climber Heinrich Harrer in the 1940s. Kundun, directed by Martin
Scorsese, is about the early life of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.
(Kundun, which means "presence," is a title of respect used for the Dalai
Lama.) Both movies include images of traditional Tibetan life and also of
China's invasion and oppressive rule of Tibet.
Many Americans, from Hollywood actor Richard Gere to conservative
Republicans in Congress, have recently protested the. treatment of Tibet by
the Chinese government and demanded a stronger U.S. response. Last year,
when Chinese president Jiang Zemin was honored at a state dinner at the
White House, a "stateless dinner" was held in Washington, D.C., to
commemorate the sufferings of Tibetans at the hands of the Chinese.
Understanding Tibet, however, has proved difficult because of its remote
location and its distinctive history, customs and religion. Tibetans even
have difficulty communicating with other Buddhists. Some years ago, a
leading Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Kalu Rimpoche, met with Korean Zen master
Seung Sahn for dharma combat--an encounter that tests and challenges each
master's understanding of Buddhist teaching. As the Tibetan lame sat
fingering his prayer beads and murmuring a mantra, the younger Korean Zen
master began the exchange by reaching inside his robe, drawing out an
orange and holding it up. In a defiant and challenging tone, he asked,
"What is this?"
It was a classic Zen question, and Seung Sahn waited to pounce on any
response that would betray ignorance. The Tibetan simply sat quietly
without saying anything in reply. Seung Sahn moved closer, held the orange
under the lame's nose and repeated his question: "What is this?" Kalu
Rimpoche bent over to discuss the situation with his translator. The two
Tibetans talked for several minutes, then the translator spoke to everyone
in the room: "Rimpoche says, `What is the matter with him? Don't they have
oranges where he comes from?"' The dharma combat went no further.
For centuries, Western images of Tibet have stressed the exotic and
incredible. Medieval Christians like Odoric of Pordenone, William of
Rubruck and Marco Polo brought back reports of Tibetans' magical powers and
strange customs. Some 19th-century Europeans believed that Tibet was the
homeland of the Padaeans who, Herodotus reported, lived east of India and
had the custom of eating their dead.
More recently, in Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), Parisian-born scholar
Alexandra David-Neel recounted her experiences in Tibet at the beginning of
the 20th century. She told of Tibetan monks who could survive in freezing
temperatures with little or no clothing, who could float on air or walk
over water, become invisible at will, send messages across large distances
by telepathy, and choose to die by dissolving their bodies at will, leaving
no trace behind. David-Neel reported that when the Tashi Lama departed from
the city of Shigatse he allegedly left behind a "phantom perfectly
resembling him who played his part so thoroughly and naturally that every
one who saw him was deceived. When the lame was safe beyond the border, the
David-Neel claimed to have learned the skill of magical formation herself.
She created the image of a monk who was her servant, visible to herself and
sometimes to others. He would perform various actions for her, and he would
occasionally touch her shoulder. As her relationship with the phantom
developed, he underwent changes in appearance and behavior, eventually
escaping the control of his creator.
At length, David-Neel decided to dissolve the phantom, but this required
six months of difficult struggle. "My mind-creature was tenacious of life,"
she later reflected. "There is nothing strange in the fact that I may have
created my own hallucination. The interesting point is that in these cases
of materialization, others see the thought forms that have been created."
When I was in Tibet in 1988, a Tibetan tour guide affirmed that the stories
of such monastic feats were historically true, but lamented that Tibetan
monks today are not as strong as those of earlier days.
Western visitors to Tibet from the 17th through the 20th centuries were
most impressed by the humanity of the Tibetan people--their kind and gentle
spirit, their cheerful demeanor, their generosity to travelers and above
all their devotion to Buddhist practice. Jesuit missionary Ippolito
Desideri, who lived in Lhasa from 1716 to 1721, immersed himself in the
study of Tibet's language and religious customs. He was deeply impressed by
the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, contrasting it with the lesser devotion
of Christians; and he mourned that he himself had not been able to follow
Jesus as faithfully as the Tibetans served their leader. Desideri learned
Tibetan well enough to present learned arguments against Buddhist
teachings. His writings were read with great interest and admiration by the
people of Lhasa--without, however, leading to many conversions.
The most prominent image of Tibet in Western consciousness today is the
smiling face of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, whose life is one of
the most dramatic of the 12th century. The position of the Dalai Lama is
not hereditary but depends upon the identification of a new incarnation in
a young boy, usually about two years old, often from a simple family. The
Dalai Lama is viewed as the reincarnation of the Bodhisattva,
Avalokiteshvara, also known in Tibet as Chenrezi. In the Buddhist tradition
a Bodhisattva is an enlightened being who defers entrance into nirvana and
returns to earth to help suffering beings attain enlightenment.
The institution began in 1578, when Sonam Gyatso converted Mongol ruler
Altan Khan to Buddhism and accepted the title of Dalai Lama ("Broad Ocean"
in Mongolian). Because Sonam Gyatso was already seen as the reincarnation
of two earlier leaders, he became known as the Third Dalai Lama. Originally
the title implied only a spiritual authority, but in the mid-17th century
the Fifth Dalai Lama became the temporal ruler of Tibet, uniting spiritual
and political responsibilities and reorganizing the government structures.
His successors, however, were not of the same stature. The Sixth Dalai Lama
was a libertine and a poet. The Manchu rulers of China attempted to depose
him and appoint another Dalai Lama, but this move was overwhelmingly
rejected by the Tibetan people. At the age of 24 or 25, the Sixth Dalai
Lama was taken on a journey to China. He died en route amid suspicions of
Chinese treachery, and the Chinese emperor ordered that his body be
The institution continued to face many challenges. From the early 18th to
the late 19th century, no Dalai Lama emerged as a ruler. Several died
young, either before their accession to power at age 18 or soon thereafter.
The regents were often suspected of killing the young leaders in order to
preserve their own power.
The 13th Dalai Lama survived an attempt on his life and became a forceful
leader who restored Tibet's independence in 1912. He worked to open Tibet
to the outside world, fostering close ties to the British Empire, founding
English schools in Lhasa and Gyantse in the 1920s, introducing electricity
and telegraph lines and sending Tibetans abroad for studies. He launched
reforms in land use and taxes and sought to place limits on the most
In 1931 he warned his compatriots of the coming danger of communism: "It
will not be long before we find the red onslaught at our own front door. It
is only a matter of time before we come into a direct confrontation with
it, either from within our own ranks or else as a threat from an external
nation. And when that happens we must be ready to defend ourselves.
Otherwise our spiritual and cultural conditions will be completely
eradicated." The 13th Dalai Lama died at the age of 58 in 1933.
After the death of their leader, Tibetans looked for signs as to where the
new leader would be born. The Panchen Lama, the second most important
leader of Tibetan Buddhism and a critical authority for recognizing the
reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, identified three boys as likely
candidates. To identify a reincarnation, search parties traditionally test
the young boys by presenting them with various objects, including some
which belonged to the earlier Dalai Lama. If a boy can consistently
recognize the objects that belonged to the late Dalai Lama, this is a
strong indication that he is the reincarnation. A candidates should also be
able to recognize people who were familiar to the deceased Dalai Lama.
THE MOVIE Kundun presents the recognition of the 14th Dalai Lama and
follows the events of his early life as recounted in his autobiography and
other sources. In 1937, a search party entered a home in Takster, a village
in northeastern Tibet, a region then ruled by a Muslim governor and
nominally part of China. A two-year-old boy named Lhamo Dhondup asked for a
rosary worn by a monk who was dressed as a servant in the search party. The
"servant" told the boy he could have the rosary, which had belonged to the
13th Dalai Lama, if the boy knew who the man wearing it was. The young boy
replied correctly that the man was a lame of the Sera monastery.
Lhamo Dhondup also knew the name of the monk who was pretending to be the
master of the search party and the name of the real servant in the search
party. Later on, the boy was presented with several pairs of objects; one
of each pair had belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. The boy correctly claimed
those objects that had belonged to the late leader and was able to speak
the refined dialect spoken at the court in Lhasa. One of the state oracles
affirmed that Lhamo Dhondup was indeed the 14th Dalai Lama.
As Kundun shows, the boy, who would be renamed Tenzin Gyatso, was taken at
the age of four to live in the Potala Palace, the great residence built by
the Fifth Dalai Lama in Lhasa. What impressed British observers such as Sir
Charles Bell and Hugh Richardson was that the young boy adapted easily to
his new role and home. During the long ceremony of homage, the boy's
attention did not flag. Tenzin Gyatso was given a rigorous course of
instruction in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, but he lived an isolated life.
His mother, known as "The Great Mother," could visit him freely but was not
allowed to spend the night at the Potala Palace.
Regent and senior tutor Reting Rimpoche and his allies were corrupt,
seeking personal profit more than the good of Tibet. Kundun includes the
story of how Reting was forced to resign before administering the vow of
celibacy to the Dalai Lama because Tibetans feared that someone who was not
observing the vow could not validly administer it to someone else.
In 1947 Reting was implicated in an antigovernment plot that was supported
by monks from the Sera Monastery; he died under mysterious circumstances in
the dungeons of the Potala Palace. In fighting at the Sera monastery, 200
monks were killed by government troops.
Tibet in the 1940s was extremely isolated. It had no modern roads or
bridges, so access was difficult. Tibet had closed its doors to the outside
world in 1792, and the 13th Dalai Lama had not sought to join the League of
Nations or to obtain widespread international recognition of the
independence of Tibet. As both Kundun and Seven Years indicate, the young
14th Dalai Lama was very curious about the outside world and loved to look
out on his people and his city through a telescope. In 1943, Heinrich
Harrer escaped from a British internment camp in India and fled into Tibet.
After many difficulties, recounted in his memoir Seven Years in Tibet,
Harrer and companion Peter Aufschmaiter reached Lhasa and were given
asylum. Harrer became a friend to the Dalai Lama's brother Lobsang Samten,
and then a companion and mentor to the young Dalai Lama.
Like many foreign observers, Harrer was struck by the gentleness and
peacefulness of Tibetan life, and wondered about the so-called advantages
of Western civilization: "Here no one is made to lose face, and
aggressiveness is unknown. Even political enemies treat each other with
consideration and politeness, and greet each other cordially when they meet
in the street." The repeated intrigues at court, however, indicate that not
everyone was as benign as Harrer remembered.
SINCE imperial times, Chinese governments had had pretensions of authority
over Tibet, but they had never exercised long-term governmental control
over the region. Tibetans viewed themselves as an independent nation, while
the Chinese viewed the region as part of the Chinese empire. On October 7,
1950, the Chinese invaded Tibet from the east and northwest and quickly
crushed organized resistance. Both movies dramatically portray how the
poorly equipped Tibetan army of 8,500 soldiers could hardly withstand the
onslaught of Chinese veterans who had fought both Japanese and Chinese
armies for years. In this time of national crisis, there was a widespread
demand for the young Dalai Lama to assume full responsibilities for the
nation even though he was not yet of age. Thus Tenzin Gyatso was invested
with full authority as the 14th Dalai Lama in 1950 when he was 15 years
old. Seven Years in Tibet concludes with the ceremony of the investiture of
the Dalai Lama and the departure of Harrer.
At the recommendation of his ministers, the Dalai Lama withdrew to a
monastery near the Indian border. Some months later Tibetan representative
Ngapo Ngawang Jigme went beyond his delegated authority and signed an
accord with the Chinese in Beijing. The Seventeen-Point Agreement of May
23, 1951, which was eventually accepted by the Dalai Lama, stated that
Tibet was part of China, but promised: "the central authorities [of the
Chinese People's Government] will not alter the existing political system
in Tibet. The central authorities also will not alter the established
status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama." It also promised that "the
religious beliefs, customs and habits of the Tibetan people shall be
respected and lame monasteries shall be protected." These promises were not
Under the pretense of "liberating" Tibet from allegedly oppressive feudal
and monastic rule, the Chinese government confiscated land and goods,
imprisoned upper-class families and forced the population into near
starvation by demanding food, gold and silver for the maintenance of
In an effort to destroy Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese authorities ordered
religious leaders to be humiliated, tortured and put to death. Chinese
troops and farmers settled in Tibet. Children were removed from their
families for indoctrination. When the Chinese found it difficult to destroy
the religious convictions of Tibetan children, they seized Tibetan babies
and took them to China to be trained as communists. Tibetans increasingly
took up arms against the Chinese forces, and by 1956 Tibetan guerrilla
forces were destroying roads and bridges and raiding supply posts.
In response, the Chinese tortured and killed more monks and lay Buddhists,
deported people from their homes and sent them to forced labor, and raped
many women. Monasteries were shelled and destroyed by Chinese troops.
Children were forced to abuse, beat or even shoot their own parents. In
villages where men had gone to fight with the guerrillas, women and
children were slaughtered by machine gun. The Chinese sterilized the men
and women of some villages. In 1958 they expelled many men from Lhasa, but
most of these joined the guerrilla forces in the mountains. In 1958, one
Chinese garrison of 1,000 men was wiped out; another garrison of 3,000
soldiers was destroyed.
Kundun presents selected images of the violence, often through the Dalai
Lama's visions or dreams. In one dramatic boom shot the Dalai Lama stands
in the middle of the bodies of slain monks. At first, only a few are
visible, but as the camera pulls away, a vast field of bloodstained bodies
fills the screen.
In 1959, when the Chinese invited the Dalai Lama to attend a performance in
the Chinese barracks without any bodyguards, most Tibetans suspected that
the Chinese intended to seize the Dalai Lama. Thousands surrounded the
summer palace to protect him. The Chinese moved artillery pieces within
range of the palace and on March 17, two shells fell into the grounds of
Norbu Lingka. The Dalai Lama was persuaded to flee the country. He left the
summer palace in disguise in the middle of the night. Tibetan guerrillas
escorted him along mountain trails to the Indian border, where he was
offered asylum (this is the concluding scene of Kundun).
He settled in Dharamsala, India, where he has since resided in exile. When
the Chinese realized that the Dalai Lama had fled, they abolished the
Tibetan government and established a military dictatorship. The Dalai Lama
appealed to the United Nations, insisting that Tibet was an independent
nation, but to no avail. The International Commission of Jurists, an
independent body supported by 30,000 lawyers from 50 countries, concluded
that Tibet was a sovereign nation and that the Chinese were committing
genocide by seeking to eliminate the Buddhists of Tibet.
THE SUFFERINGS of Tibet have continued. In the 1960s, during China's
Cultural Revolution, the Chinese destroyed 6,400 (or 99.9 percent) of the
monasteries in Tibet, according to the Dalai Lama's estimates. Chinese
occupation policies directly caused the deaths of approximately 1.2 million
people (out of a population of 6 million). China's order to replace barley
with wheat, combined with the confiscation of food for Chinese soldiers,
led to mass starvation in 1961. The Chinese arrested, tortured and killed
thousands of Tibetans who engaged in peaceful demonstrations and protests.
The Chinese government continues to settle large numbers of Chinese in
Tibet, and these settlers currently hold all positions of political,
cultural and economic power. The Tibetans live a marginalized existence in
their own land.
Despite the tremendous sufferings of his people, the Dalai Lama continues
to have a peaceful demeanor and resilient spirit. A Western reporter once
asked him how it could be that the Chinese had taken his land and his
people, had killed so many Tibetans, and yet the Dalai Lama was not angry
at them. The Dalai Lama acknowledged that the Chinese had indeed taken his
country's freedom and possessions and had taken the lives of many Tibetans.
But he posed his own question. "Why should I give them my mind as well?"
This principle is at the heart of Tibetanpracticed by the Dalai Lama
religious practice develops the mind so that we can live more peacefully
and happily ourselves and bring peace and happiness to others. Following a
basic principle of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Dalai Lama teaches that "all
pleasures and pains basically derive from the mind." Cultivating the mind
allows one to respond to anger with compassion and patience. "We regard
inner strength, gentleness, love, compassion, wisdom and a stable mind as
the most important treasures a human being can collect in his or her
lifetime." Genuine religious practice cultivates generosity, wisdom,
compassion, love and tolerance in the most difficult sufferings.
This principle also illumines the Dalai Lama's acceptance of the plurality
of the world's religions: "In this world, just as there are many medicines
for a particular disease, so there are many religious systems that serve as
methods for achieving happiness for all sentient beings, human and
otherwise. Though each of these systems has a different mode of practice
and a different mode of expression, I think that they are all similar in
that they improve the body, speech and mind of those who practice them, and
in that they all have good aims."
Tibetans have become a minority in their own land. Religious freedom and
freedom of speech are rigorously restricted. Any show of allegiance to the
Dalai Lama is harshly punished. The Dalai Lama calls for dialogue: "I am
not asking for the independence of Tibet. While Tibet was historically an
independent and separate nation from China, I am aware of the possibility
that in a changing world, a smaller community or nation could benefit by
being associated with a larger state. I do not want to debate history; I
want to look to the future. Concerns over military and foreign matters,
which I assume are high on the list of the Chinese, can be handled by
Beijing. What is essential is that the Tibetans have genuine self-rule."
The Dalai Lama has called for genuine democracy in Tibet and "for Tibet to
be gradually transformed into a zone of `Ahimsa,' a zone of nonconflict."
He has been recognized for his nonviolent struggle for his people and was
awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The inspirations of his life are the
teachings of the Buddha and the witness of Mahatma Gandhi. In 1956, in the
middle of his struggles in Tibet, he traveled to India to celebrate the
anniversary of the Buddha and visited the place where Mahatma Gandhi's
remains were cremated. He reflected on the life and witness of this man,
"perhaps the greatest of our age," and resolved to "follow his lead
whatever difficulties might confront me. I determined more strongly than
ever that I could never associate myself with acts of violence." In a
century of mass murder and exile, of refugees without passports, perhaps
the greatest gift that Tibet has to give to the world is this witness of
nonviolent compassion, endurance and faithfulness amid horrible sufferings.
KUNDUN: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (l) plays the young Tenzin
KUNDUN: Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong (l) plays the young Tenzin Gyatso in Martin
Scorsese's film about the 14th Dalai Lama.
by Leo D. Lefebure
Leo D. Lefebure is professor of systematic theology at University of Saint
Mary of the Lake in Mundelein Illinois.
Link to Download
http://movie-rapid.com/2009/01/12/seven ... -1997.html