East Meets West

There are people who'd tell you that pollution in Phoenix is getting as bad as it is in L.A. These people obviously haven't been to L.A. It's nearly 5 p.m. as I drive in on I-10, and my throat soon feels like I've spent hours in a room full of people smoking. My eyes feel raw and watery. Overhead, there's the beginning of a beautiful, smoggy sunset.

It takes me about an hour to get to UCLA. There's a traffic jam on the street that's not much different from how it was on the freeway. I finally get into the parking lot, pay my $5 for a space, and walk to Pauley Pavilion. Nine thousand people are lined up outside. People in robes, people in jeans, a girl in a Ramones tee shirt, original hippies, neohippies, Jesus freaks handing out pamphlets in an attempt to save souls from those godless Tibetans. If you were the kind of media hack who thinks in sound bites, you might be tempted to suggest that Buddhism is the new rock 'n' roll.

The Dalai Lama is due onstage at 6:30, and it's now 6:15. By this time, I'm near the front of the line, so I'm not too concerned. But the line behind me stretches around the block, and there's no chance that even a third of them will get inside by the starting time. You can't refuse entry to that many people when they've bought tickets, so I assume that the event will start late. It doesn't.

The last time I saw the Dalai Lama was in 1993, at a monastery in Scotland. In spite of the monastery's remote location, several thousand people attended. The atmosphere was one of amazing intensity and focus, everybody spellbound by the balding, bespectacled, maroon-robed man on the stage.

But this is L.A., and a different set of rules applies.
I get inside and find a seat. The place is about half-full. It's an indoor arena with the capacity of 12,000. The peasants are seated on the top tier, so far away from the stage that when I take off my glasses, I can't even see it. Still, 15 bucks to see the man believed by Tibetans and other Buddhists to be the living Buddha, the embodiment of compassionate wisdom, isn't too bad. I've paid more than that to see Sonic Youth.

On the stage, people are playing Tibetan music. At the end of each song, the people in the exclusive seats down at the front applaud. Nobody else even acknowledges them.

Not everybody acknowledges Richard Gere when he comes onstage. Gere has been a Buddhist for 15 years, and is very much the poster boy of Tibetan Buddhism in America. Tonight he's so nervous that most of the time he's barely coherent, and sometimes not at all, like when he tells us the punch line to a Buddhist parable without properly explaining the context. It's a comical story, but the way he tells it, only a Buddhist scholar would get it, so there isn't much laughter. Maybe he's one of those actors who isn't good without a script. Or maybe he's overwhelmed by the job of introducing the Dalai Lama--he even says that he feels "unworthy." Or maybe he's just not used to being talked over--all during his spiel, people are arriving, finding their seats, walking around the aisles, talking to their friends.

The audience is curiously divided. Some people are here to see the Dalai Lama. Others are here to be seen, or to be able to say that they were here. The latter category may not be the majority, but they're not small in number. Even after His Holiness takes the stage, there's a kind of dialogue going on between the two audience factions. There are constant cries of "Shhhhhhhhh!" and even "Shut the fuck up!" Only in L.A. could you listen to the Dalai Lama talk about the prospects for peace in the Millennium while people around you openly antagonize one another.

You may or may not believe that Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the embodiment of compassion. But there's no question that he embodies charisma. If he so much as raises his hand to scratch his head, it's difficult not to follow the hand with your eyes. He has a deep, somber voice, but his frequent laugh comes out as a high-pitched giggle.

But many people here tonight would rather talk about how cool he is than listen to him speak. This situation is not helped by the stadium's acoustics. The Dalai Lama's accent doesn't help much, either--it's thick, and takes some getting used to. Not everybody can be bothered getting used to it. The couple seated beside me leaves after about 15 minutes.

And they're not the only ones. To be hip in L.A., you arrive late and leave early. And it appears that a public address by a spiritual leader is to be treated the same as a party or a concert.

He criticizes American consumerism, urging the audience to stop buying things it doesn't need. In response to a question about overpopulation, he agrees that it's a serious problem and advocates birth control. He seems relaxed, sitting cross-legged on a chair. His laugh comes as easy and often as usual. But the atmosphere seems to have gotten to him as well.

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