Tibet Chic

Has Hollywood moved to the Himalayas? You might think so, considering what Tinsel Town is offering up this fall. Not one but two major films feature the Dalai Lama as a central character. Hollywood’s infatuation with Buddhism reflects more than a concern for the persecuted people of Tibet or respect for the Dalai Lama. It’s born out of a rejection of Christianity—of any belief system for that matter—that limits personal autonomy. The first picture, called Seven Years in Tibet, recently opened to rave reviews. Starring Brad Pitt, it is the true story of Heinrich Harrer, a mountain climber and Nazi whose life was dramatically changed after he met the young Dalai Lama. The second film, which will open in December, is called Kundun, and it’s a full-scale biography of the Dalai Lama. These films are only one aspect of a new fad embracing Buddhism—what has been dubbed "Tibet Chic." TV commercials for everything from cars to computers feature Buddhist themes. Mainstream bookstores carry Buddhist cookbooks. There’s even a new makeup called "Zen Blush." And Hollywood stars are campaigning vigorously to help persecuted Tibetan Buddhists. A few weeks ago Time magazine ran a cover story about the popularity of Buddhism, in which it said that actor Richard Gere has "probably done more than [anyone else] to propel the current wave of Buddhist interest." Why this surge of interest? For starters, in the post-Christian age, people are searching for alternatives to the demands of historic Christian faith. For example, Time quoted a woman who said that Buddhism helped her "‘to make sense out of life’ without the fear and guilt she associated with her earlier Roman Catholicism." Time also quoted Alan Watts, a scholar of mysticism, who said that Buddhism enabled him to "get out from under the monstrously oppressive God the Father." Second, Buddhism makes few demands on adherents—especially in the form so popular with modern Westerners. In its classic form, Buddhism is both an ethical and a metaphysical belief system. But Americans have excised traditional Buddhist beliefs such as reincarnation and karma. They’ve reduced Buddhism to a feel-good faith that requires little beyond meditation. It gives them the emotional benefits of religion without requiring much in the way of conduct or beliefs. According to Time, Americans find Buddhism’s lack of hierarchy and non-dogmatic nature especially appealing. In other words, you can believe and do anything you want—and still call yourself a devout Buddhist. This debased form of Buddhism is the perfect religion for what theologian George Weigel calls the "The Imperial Republic of the Autonomous Self"—and Hollywood is the capital of that republic. The lives of many Hollywood celebrities are marked by chaos—broken relationships and addiction to drugs and alcohol. No wonder that they’re attracted to a "spirituality" that makes few moral demands. These films glorify not only the Dalai Lama but also the Dalai Lama’s religion. So, if your friends or kids see these films, be prepared to discuss what Buddhism teaches. It’s one thing for films to sensitize us to the plight of the suffering people of Tibet. It’s quite another thing to glamorize a pale substitute for the true religion.


Chuck Colson



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