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Buddhist Stars: Eastern Thought Popular Among Many Of Hollywood's Brightest

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

By Anna Argasinski

Buddhist monk turned professor, Robert Thurman, doesn't find the trend of celebrities becoming Buddhist all that out of the ordinary. Celebrities have fewer illusions than the rest of us, who still imagine that worldly success is going to solve all of our problems. Thurman, who was ordained in 1964 by Terin Gyatso, the current Dalai-Lama, is now a professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University where he is chairman of the department of religion. Thurman claims he didn't make much progress as a monk. "(In America) I learned to deal with the nitty-gritty. It's comparatively easy to be a monk in a quiet monastery, but much harder to engage in Buddhism with all the noise of the world."

Celebrity Buddhists, Thurman contends, are in a very interesting position to practice Buddhism. They've already achieved great fame, success and wealth, and they've realized that those things alone can't bring happiness, that, in fact, they can be a real pain. Many of these stars have looked to Buddhism because it urges and helps them to look inside themselves for treasures and pleasures, rather than depending on some sort of external success for gratification.

Buddhism is a relatively modern term. The body of spiritual doctrine and practice to which it refers has generally been known on its own ground in countries across Asia as the Buddha Dharma, which is best translated as "way of the Buddha." This teaching came from one young man who woke up from life's melodrama and was thereafter called the Buddha, the awakened one.

Tibetan Buddhism may be alluring to celebrities because it confronts egotism. Stars see Buddhism as a critique of the conventional notion of a rigid, unchangeable identity. Furthermore, Tibetan Buddhism is firmly bound in disciplines of the imagination. Because celebrities tend to be "artsy" types who are interested in exploring their creativity, Buddhism often appeals to them over more traditionalized Western forms of religion. Also, potential devotees aren't required to undergo a religious conversion to benefit from the teachings.

In Asian countries, where Buddhism is much more prevalent, the philosophy is not so much a religion of the masses. It is kept alive by a monastic elite, who spread their influence by teaching and example. So, too, in America, with the difference that the equivalent class here consists of movie stars and rock musicians, who can spread their message through movies and television.

Richard Gere is one such celebrity. Richard Gere makes his admiration for the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, well known. Gere periodically retreats to Tibet to brush up on his Buddhism. While there, the actor enjoys a very different existence than he does in Hollywood. According to Gere, he has a simple room and has to share a bathroom. There is a limited supply of water and no television, air conditioning or newspapers. Self-prescribed torture? For Gere, as he explains it, this is his time to relax, to meditate, to release.

For Adam Yauch, front-man for the rap group the Beastie Boys, Buddhism become a way to combine traditional religion with an eastern way of thought. The 27-year-old Jewish-born rapper wants to maintain his Jewish traditions and calls the conversion spiritual, rather than religious. Yauch, who was formerly known more for his sneering sarcasm than his religious preferences, returned from a 1993 trip to the Himalayas with an interest in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. The two other members of the Beastie Boys, Michael Diamond and Adam Horovitz, have accepted his conversion.

The Beastie Boys have even donated proceeds from two songs on Ill Communication to a Tibetan relief organization established by the group. Their latest project is the Bodhisattva Vow, a rap tribute to the austere virtues of the Buddha Way.

Despite his reputation as an angry, self-described provocateur, director Oliver Stone also claims he has now attained a degree of spiritual tranquillity. Some signs of Stone's newly found mellowness can be found in his approach to the criticism surrounding his January 1996 film, "Nixon". Before its opening, the late president's daughters condemned the movie as a piece of character assassination.

Since then, almost every official who served in the Nixon administration and a number of historians and neutral observers have made similar attacks. Although Stone has not shrunk from defending his work, his responses have been far more measured than in the past. Stone has even suggested that a symposium be held on the late president's image. Stone's transformation can undoubtedly be linked to his relationship with Korean immigrant, Chong Son Chon, with whom he's raising a 3-year-old daughter, Tara, in the Buddhist tradition.

But perhaps the most successful example of Buddhist philosophy at work can be found in the story of Chicago Bulls Coach Phil Jackson. Jackson, who has led the Bulls to numerous NBA titles and recently became the first coach to lead his team to 70 wins in one season, will surely be named as one of the most successful coaches in history. The Bulls most prominent players Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippen and Dennis Rodman, as well as an odd assortment of projects and castoffs, are managed through Jackson's new age philosophy. Using a mixture of American Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism, Coach Phil Jackson has managed to keep the disparate elements of the team playing in harmony.

His approach emphasizes awareness, compassion and selfless team play to achieve victory. Jackson believes that the essence of teamwork is interconnectedness and selflessness in action. One of the most important characteristics of a leader, he concedes, is to listen without making judgments. In order to create a true team and build an acceptable level of trust, one must have intimacy and an open forum where every member can fully express his thoughts and feelings. Jackson uses this concept of mindfulness to assist his players in paying exact attention to what is happening on the court moment by moment. Jackson encourages his players to practice Buddhist philosophy off the court as well. He teaches players meditation so they can relax more fully. Meditation allows his players to make the correct decisions during extremely tense and chaotic times on the basketball court, Jackson contends.

Despite all of these famous adherents to the Buddhism, the actual number of Buddhist practitioners in America remains small. CNYU professor Seymour Lachman, co-author of "One Nation Under God," counted only 800,000 last year, although some Buddhist scholars think there may be four or five times that number, considering recent immigrants from Southeast Asia and the high incident of new converts.

Buddhism, though, may turn out to be a hard sell, especially compared with the religions Americans are more familiar with. Christianity is a faith whose first, and in some cases, only requirement is belief and acceptance of salvation through Christ; Buddhism is a lifelong process of seeking enlightenment. It is a religion without a god, or an afterlife, or a concept of the soul. Buddhism is the search for the nature of the self, which ends in the realization there is no self, that all the beings and objects of the world are manifestations of the same reality. Getting 12 professional basketball players to understand they're no different from anyone else surely was one of the more daunting challenges in the history of religion.

Still, people come. In America no spiritual quest need go unfulfilled for very long. Eastern religions long ago lost their association with rebellious youth and now seems to attract, besides celebrities, mostly educated people in their 30s and 40s. Many of them are Hyphenated Buddhists, clinging to the comfort of their original faiths while adapting elements of the Buddhism they find attractive. They find much to attract them: color, spectacle, incense and harmonious chants, as well as the wisdom and serenity that is readily applicable in everyday life.

Perhaps induced by the tidal wave of celebrity Buddhists, a new and distinctly American Buddhism is taking shape around the country: egalitarian (women, who are generally subservient in Asian tradition, are allowed to rise in the hierarchy in American temples), technologically advanced (American Buddhism has arrived complete with web pages and CD-ROMs on meditation) and sophisticated about the modes of power in American life (many temples work together with environmental and charity organizations). It remains to be seen whether Buddhism in the Western tradition is merely a passing fad or a powerful new tradition. But its influence on individuals, especially those in the limelight, cannot be overstated. Just ask Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls. 

Source:  http://unbound.intrasun.tcnj.edu/archives/lifestyle/old/buddha.html



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