Many Westerners before me have visited Tibet, popped into some monastery on a mountainside, and decided to stay there forever, won over by the brutally frugal existence eked out by Tibetan Buddhists.
I have exactly the opposite reaction. I couldn’t wait to leave the temples and monasteries I visited during my recent sojourn to Shangri-La, with their 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.
I know I’m not supposed to say this, but Tibetan Buddhism really freaked me out.
The most striking thing is how different real Tibetan Buddhism is from the re-branded, part-time version imported over here by the Dalai Lama’s army of celebrities.
Listening to Richard Gere, the first incarnation of the Hollywood Lama, you could be forgiven for thinking that Tibetan Buddhism involves sitting in the lotus position for 20 hours a day and thinking Bambi-style thoughts. Tibetan Buddhism has a “resonance and a sense of mystery,” says Gere, through which you can find “beingness” (whatever that means).
Watching Jennifer Aniston’s character Rachel read a collection of the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Central Perk on Friends a few years ago, you might also think that Tibetan Buddhism is something you can ingest while sipping on a skinny-milk, no-cream, hazelnut latte.
Or consider the answer given by one of Frank J. Korom’s students at Boston University when he asked her why she was wearing a Tibetan Buddhist necklace. “It keeps me healthy and happy,” she said, reducing Tibetan Buddhism, as so many Dalai Lama-loving undergrads do, to the religious equivalent of knocking back a vitamin pill.
The reality couldn’t be more different. The first devout Buddhists I encountered looked neither healthy nor happy. They were walking from their villages in southern Tibet to Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibetan Buddhism’s holiest site, and the journey had taken them nearly three months. Which isn’t surprising considering that with every third or fourth step they took, they got down on their knees and then fully prostrated themselves on the ground, lying flat on their bellies and burying their faces in the dirt, before getting back up, taking a few more steps, and doing the painful prostration thing again.
It looked life-zappingly exhausting. They moved at a snail’s pace. Their foreheads were stained grey from such frequent, unforgiving contact with the bruising earth. They wore wooden planks on their hands, which made a deathly clatter every time they hurled themselves downwards. I’d like to see Jennifer Aniston try this. Tibetan Buddhism sans latte.
You soon realize that no Tibetan Buddhist sits cross-legged on cushions all day long while staring into space and thinking about the universe. No, worshipping Buddha is a full-on physical workout. At the Lamaling Temple on a hillside in Nyingchi County in south-east Tibet, I saw women in their 50s doing the prostration thing, like an archaic version of a Jane Fonda workout.
The temple itself is packed with weird statues. Red demons with contorted faces. Smug-looking Buddhas smiling patronizingly at the poor, exhausted worshippers. There’s a statue of the “Living Buddha” (now deceased) who administered this temple in the 1950s and 60s and it is wearing sunglasses. Terrifyingly, it looks like a cross between the Buddha and Bono.
The Lamaling Temple, like others I visited, is painted in the most obscene colors. No inch of wall or centimeter of roof beam has been left untouched by the possibly colorblind decorators of Tibetan Buddhism’s sites of worship. Everywhere you look there’s a lashing of red or green or bright blue paint, a weirdly fitting backdrop to the frequently violent imagery of this religion: the statues of sword-wielding demons, the fiery paintings, the images of androgynous Buddhas, some with breasts, others with balls. “Peace” and “calm” are the last words that come to mind when you’re inside one of these senses-assaulting places.
The Lamaling Temple also brings home the fact that Tibetan Buddhism, like every other religion on Earth, is made up of various, sometimes horn-locking sects. I excitedly lined up an interview with one of the monks and asked if he’s looking forward to the day when the Dalai Lama returns from exile in northern India. He patiently told me—dumb Westerner that I am—that he doesn’t worship the Dalai Lama, because he is a member of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism while the Dalai Lama is head of the Gelug school. Then there’s the Kagyu school and the Sakya school—making four in total—which have hot-headed disagreements and have even come to blows in recent years over which deities should be worshipped and which should not. Religion of peace? Yeah, right.
Tibetan Buddhism has a whole lotta hang-ups about gays and girls, too. It says gay sex is “unnatural.” The Dalai Lama declared in a talk in Seattle in 1993, during one of his whistle stop, U2-style world tours, that “nature arranged male and female organs in such a manner that is very suitable… same-sex organs cannot manage well.” (Someone needs to explain to His Holiness how gay people get it on.)
And as Bernard Faure of Columbia University says: “Like most clerical discourses, Buddhism is… relentlessly misogynist.” So while Tibetan women can become nuns, they can’t advance nearly as far as men. Because according to Buddhist teachings it is impossible for women to become “the perfectly rightfully Enlightened One,” “the Universal Monarch,” “the King of Gods,” “the King of Death,” or “Brahmaa”—the five highest, holiest positions in Buddhism.
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.)
I am well aware of the fact that I am not the first Westerner to be thrown by Tibet’s religious quirkiness. A snobby British visitor in 1895 denounced Tibetan Buddhism as “deep-rooted devil-worship and sorcery.” It’s no such thing. But what is striking, and what caused me to be so startled by the weirdness, is the way in which this religion has come to be viewed in Western New Age circles as a peaceful, pure, happy-clappy cult of softly-smiling, Buddha-like beings. Again, it’s no such thing. The modern view of Tibetan Buddhism as wondrous is at least as patronizingly reductive as the older view of Tibetan Buddhism as devil-worship.
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.