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Analysis of Buddhism's Appeal to the West

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"When you come back as a whale, you'll be bloody glad you put Greenpeace in your will."

-- Greenpeace advertisement on billboard in Taylor Square, Sidney, Australia

As the above quotation from the advertisement indicates, there is no question that Buddhism has a certain appeal to the West. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. author of Prisoners of Shangri-la: Tibetan Buddhism and The West provides a cultural history of the "strange encounter" between Buddhism (especially Tibetan Buddhism) and Western countries, most notably Britain, Australia and the United States. It is no longer questionable that Buddhism, and again, especially the Tibetan stream, has permeated popular culture: since China's invasion and occupation of Tibet in 1950, which will be discussed further, but most significantly since the 1990s. This is most likely accredited to the Dalai Lama's receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, which brought him and Buddhism much exposure. In fact, every stream of Buddhism announces growing public acceptance in the West since the Dalai Lama first visited two decades ago. The Complete Guide to Buddhist America, written in 1998 for which the Dalai Lama wrote the preface, reports that the number of worship centers in the United States more than doubled from 1987 to 1997 to over one thousand.

Several examples illustrate the recent exposure of Buddhism in Western popular and political culture. Firstly, one of the most popular films of the early 1980s, The Return of the Jedi of the Star Wars series featured the Ewoks who spoke high-speed Tibetan. More recently, in 1996, at the Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta, Georgia, the percussionist of the Grateful Dead play the song "Call to Nature" which famously began with the chanting of a Tibetan monk. Furthermore, in 1996 fifty thousand people gathered at Golden Gate Park for the "Free Tibet" benefit concert which featured many popular artists and bands including Smashing Pumpkins, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Beastie Boys and Yoko Ono. Before the performance, the bands were each blessed by Tibetan monks.


In the same way that celebrities' clothing and hairstyles influence the choice of consumers, some people are attracted to certain religion for the sole reason that the religion is endorsed by a celebrity. Many people were drawn to Kabbalah after the pictures of Madonna, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton were released that showed these celebrities sporting Kabbalah red string bracelets. Similarly, when information became available about celebrities such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta's involvement in the Church of Scientology, many Americans also sought involvement. Likewise, after the release of Seven Years in Tibet which featured Brad Pitt, one of America's favorite actors, many people became interested in Buddhist teachings. Additionally, actor Richard Gere who is a close personal friend of the Dalai Lama has also brought attention to Buddhism.

Aside from Seven Years In Tibet, the West's fascination with Buddhism is translated into such movies as Little Buddha and Kundun. In fact, in the October 1999 issue, Time magazine featured the cover story entitled "America's Fascination with Buddhism," which addressed Western celebrities that have turned to Buddhism for guidance. Such celebrities addressed in the article include Oliver Stone, Steven Seagal, Tina Turner, Richard Gere, Adam Yauch and Phil Jackson among others.


However, the East and Eastern religions, especially Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, have long been objects of Western fantasy--since the earliest Catholic missionaries and European explorers that travelled into that area. In fact, the spread of Buddhism to the West was predicted far before Brad Pitt starred in Seven Years In Tibet. While travelling in Tibet in the eighth century, an Indian sage by the name of Padmasambhava allegedly predicted, "When the iron eagle flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered over the earth and the Dhamma will go to the land of the red man." By "red man" he refers to the people of the West, for Asians (who Caucasians believed to have yellow skin) believed Caucasians to have pink or red-colored skin.

Historical analysis of the perception of Tibet provides insight into how and why Buddhism appeals to the West. For many years, Tibet has been seen as a country sheltered from modernity, endowed with what the West has lost: peacefulness, serenity, harmony with nature. Lopez argues that during the nineteenth century wars between Russia and Britain, the two great European powers, Tibet was always regarded as a prize, yet it never came under European control and never made any attempts to modernize. For this reason, it was always portrayed as isolated, and therefore it was an object of imperial desire.

Furthermore, Tibet is surrounded by the highest mountains in world--the Himalayas--on its southern border, and such mountains signify pristine, purity and serenity: qualities the modern, industrialized, high-paced society of the West yearns for. Brad Pitt captures this perfectly when he addresses the extreme remoteness of Tibet hidden behind the Himalayas. He claims, "This is the highest country on earth, and the most isolated." Lopez argues it is for this reason the West has historically seen the East as superior: "the continuing European romance in which the West sees some lack within itself and fantasizes that the answer, through a process of projection, is to be found somewhere in the East."

However, the West's perception of the East has changed several times in the last hundred years. In the late-1800s the view surfaced that the East is backwards and primitive, and unable to govern itself. This change in perception justified colonialism, the practice of stronger nations colonizing and somewhat suppressing weaker nations for raw materials, to use as markets for processed goods, etc. However, in WWI, the Chinese were seen as freedom fighters compared to Japanese who were allied with Nazi Germany. Yet after the 1949 communist victory in China, the Chinese were once again seen as backwards and immoral. This view was further enhanced by China's invasion of Tibet, which exposed Tibet



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