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.

The Dalai Lama is an accomplished orator. He has shown in the past that he can talk for a long time, weaving together complex discourses in a seamless flow. When his command of English isn't adequate for what he wants to convey, he just switches to Tibetan and lets his translator handle it.

But tonight, for the first time I've heard of, he loses his thread. He stops talking, looks blank, then laughs and admits, "I've forgotten what I was saying!" The translator prompts him and he picks it up again quickly, but this shows a surprising lack of focus for a master whose daily meditative practice is based on mindfulness. Maybe he's tired--he's been teaching the past few days, and will be again tomorrow--but I suspect that the offhandedness of his audience is being reflected in his own attitude.

Not that it isn't a compelling talk--it is. And when he finishes and we all stand up to applaud, there are tears in my eyes. The audience stays on its feet and keeps the applause going until he's left, which takes some minutes.

It's appropriate at this point to nail my colors to the mast and tell you that I'm a committed Buddhist, and have been for nearly 10 years. But this article is not an attempt to proselytize or seek converts. That's not what Buddhism is about. Evangelism makes no sense within a Buddhist context.

Whatever the motivation that brought the trendoids along, 9,000 is an impressive turnout to see a non-Judeo-Christian religious figure from a foreign country.

But is this just Tibetan trendiness, a fad spawned by fashionable adherents like Gere and the Beastie Boys? Is this any different from the superficial interest in Eastern spirituality we saw in the Sixties, when the Beatles became disciples of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (once dubbed the Veryrichi Loadsamoney Yogi Bear by the British magazine Private Eye) and a generation either pilgrimaged to India or pretended to?

The Reverend Lee Rosenthal thinks so. He's a Buddhist priest at the Arizona Buddhist Church in Glendale. Founded 65 years ago, it's the oldest Buddhist temple in Arizona. Rosenthal, a Vietnam veteran, has been a priest for 15 years. He realized he was a Buddhist, he says, when the pieces of his life began to fit together and make sense "like a jigsaw puzzle."

About 100 families belong to his temple, and he says an affiliated temple in L.A. has 1,000.

"There has always been interest in Buddhism, but now teachers from other countries, like Tibet, have resided here long enough for it no longer to seem unusual or esoteric," he explains.

Although his temple is in the Japanese Jodo Shinshu tradition, most followers are not Japanese. "We have Caucasians, African Americans, Chinese." As evidence of Buddhism's growth in popularity, he points out that one of the top five Web sites on the Internet is a Buddhist site, produced by an Australian group.

My own experience reflects Rosenthal's view. When I first started practicing all those years ago, people treated me as though I was a sun-worshiper or flat-Earther. When I stayed at friends' houses and they saw me meditating or heard me chanting mantras, they reacted as though they'd caught me taking part in a Black Mass. In the past two or three years, however, there's been a tangible change. Now when I stay at somebody's house and tell him I have to meditate before I go to bed, he responds as though I'd said I had to brush my teeth.

What originally attracted me to Buddhism might be what's now attracting other Westerners--that Buddhism has no dogma, and no room for evangelism. Theistic religions tell you to believe in something. The Buddhadharma (teachings) tell you to do something. Meditate, try to be mindful, don't lie or cause unnecessary suffering. You do it, you feel better and your appreciation of life improves, so you keep doing it.

The philosophy is based in an understanding of cause and effect. The Buddha taught that all life is suffering, and that suffering is caused by egocentric craving. He taught that it was possible to overcome suffering, as he had done, by following the Buddhist path. Toward this end, Buddhists try to behave with compassion and to negate the ego.

Buddhists have no belief in sin or punishment, just correct and incorrect behavior. But that doesn't mean you get away with doing bad things. The law of karma--cause and effect--dictates that you bear the consequences of all your actions. If you jump out of a top-floor window, you'll fall and smash into the ground below and be maimed or killed. But your death or injury isn't punishment for jumping out of the window, just the inevitable consequence of doing it.

In the Sixties, the trip was mysticism rather than mindfulness. People in drug-induced states of psychosis saw glimpses of realities beyond the ones they understood, and drifted toward the religions of the East to try to get in touch with those realities on a deeper level. Many got exploited by charlatans like the Maharishi. Many others dropped out when confronted by the hard work of serious spiritual practice.

Although optimistic about the upsurge in interest, Rosenthal is aware of the faddist tendency. "Some people are lost and jumping on the Tibetan bandwagon. For them it's a phase, like Hula-Hoops or Frisbees. They have a romantic view of the monk living in the forest, and they see that as how they want to be. But they're like a little girl dressing up in her mother's high heels. It's not real. They're playing dress-up."

He believes that this is why Zen was the spiritual fad of the Seventies. "You didn't have to become a priest. You could be an armchair philosopher and pursue enlightenment on weekends."

But not everybody is trying to become enlightened. Many people are simply seeing the world of Western consumerism as hollow, and are trying to find a better way to live. Buddhist magazines like Turning Wheel and Tricycle contain a diversity of views and approaches to Buddhist practice, and the excellent Shambala Sun reaches a readership of 25,000 with its Tibetan-focused, politically conscious articles.

Lee Rosenthal sees the need for the political rather than the austere. "Religion and politics have never been separate. Westerners are seeing that the Dalai Lama's political struggle for his people is also his religious struggle."

In spite of the necessity of commitment and hard work, Buddhism's appeal may be in the broadness of its roads. The emphasis is always on personal responsibility rather than the guidance of a nebulous parent figure in the sky.

In L.A., the Dalai Lama responded to a question by laughing and admitting, "I don't know." Has anybody ever heard the pope say that?


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >