You’ve Come a Long Way, Buddha

With a little help from Tiger Woods and PBS, Buddhism may finally shake its counterculture image.

The Buddha

When America’s most famous Buddhist tees off at Augusta later this week, I’ll be watching more closely for the bracelet he’s promised to wear—a popular symbol of his professed faith—than for what he does to the ball. In some ways, Tiger Woods’ recent and very public return to Buddhism is more interesting than his return to professional golf.

That Woods was raised Buddhist is nothing remarkable; what’s striking is the down-to-earth, family-guy image of Buddhism projected in his comeback campaign. Cynical or sincere, when Tiger faced the cameras back in February, his mention of Buddhism was clearly meant to convey (Brit Hume’s Christian proselytizing notwithstanding) a safe and reassuring sense of groundedness and traditional values. “I need to regain my balance and be centered,” Woods intoned. Or as he told an interviewer more recently, “I quit meditating, I quit being a Buddhist, and my life changed upside down.”

The image of Buddhism in America has not always been so, as they used to say, square. I can’t help thinking of Hugh Grant as a very worldly art dealer in Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks. Asked at a Manhattan dinner party whether he studied art in school, Grant replies: “No, I didn’t. I often think I should have done. I studied literature. Then inevitably wound up as a stockbroker. Then I dropped out, went to Japan, became a Buddhist, blah, blah, blah.”

That’s more like it. The exquisite “blah, blah, blah” nails a certain type of cosmopolitan poseur everyone seems to know—and an attitude toward Buddhism that’s all too common. Indeed, when you think of Buddhism’s place in mainstream American consciousness, it’s most often seen as, if not a punch line, then a fashionable cause (think Tibet), a counterculture relic (think the Beats and their psychedelic ‘60s followers), a marketing gimmick (think “Zen” teas and glossy yoga magazines), a quasi-spiritual travel itinerary (think generations of Western backpacker-seekers in Asia, among whom, I confess, I must count my younger self)—or some combination of the above.

For the most part, outside of religion departments and the pages of Buddhist magazines and blogs, it’s rare for Buddhism to be seen squarely and simply as what it is: a vibrant global religion and spiritual practice that’s been offering “balance” and “centeredness” for 2,500 years and counting.

Oddly enough, the Tiger Woods spectacle coincides with the arrival on Wednesday night of a high-profile PBS documentary, The Buddha, which sets out to do precisely that rare thing. By telling the life story of Siddhartha Gautama (aka, the Buddha)—and letting us hear directly from some very articulate Buddhists, in clear and accessible terms, what the stories mean to them—the film manages to convey something like the essence of Buddhist teaching. It’s a two-hour Buddhist Sunday-school lesson for grown-ups, and perhaps their kids, as well, courtesy of public television. (Feast on that, Mr. Hume.)

Buddhism, of course, isn’t exactly news to Americans. Way back in 1958, the year of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, high-tide of the Beat era, Time profiled Zen popularizer Alan Watts, who’d just published his famous essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” and declared that Buddhism was “growing more chic by the minute.” (In 1997 Time put “Buddhism in America” on its cover—thanks to Martin Scorsese’s Kundun and Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet—and reported that it was more than a passing fad.)

By 1967, Beat icons Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were chanting and circumambulating San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, headliners for the epochal Human Be-In along with Timothy Leary, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), the Grateful Dead, and others—a scene painted by Don Lattin in his new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club. Until the 14th Dalai Lama became the face of Buddhism to the West (with an assist from Hollywood and the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize), that Beat/counterculture image—unkempt and trippy, libertine, a little vague and undisciplined yet politically engaged—clung to Buddhism in America. Discernible traces of it still do.

Poets Ginsberg and Snyder, even more so than Kerouac, are the key figures in the history of that image. As their fascinating, 40-year-long correspondence (published in 2008) reminds us, they represent distinct sensibilities and trajectories as counterculture Buddhism merged into the mainstream. Snyder—who trained for years under Zen masters in Japan—blazed the trail, taking the more traditional and rigorous route. (His Mountains and Rivers Without End, which he calls “a kind of sutra,” spans four decades of poetic and Buddhist practice.) Ginsberg’s path, if no less sincere, was more eccentric, more “counter,” and a lot more visible. The idea that Buddhism is more about personal liberation from oppressive social convention—call it sex, drugs, and yoga—rather than a self-disciplined practice leading, above all, to an ethics of compassion, is (deservedly or not) one of the counterculture’s lasting legacies.

Now along comes The Buddha on PBS, a documentary that seems to say, ever so quietly, goodbye to all that. Filmmaker David Grubin gives us a Buddhism that’s ready to be seen as just another part of the religious landscape—no longer exotic, countercultural, “New Age,” or in any way sensational. (Even the film’s too-predictable narrator, Richard Gere, stays out of the spotlight—tastefully offstage, heard but not seen.)

Grubin opens with women working in lush fields and the sound of Indian-inflected strings and flute, as Gere’s voice gently begins what could be a bedtime story: “2,500 years ago, nestled in a fertile valley along the border between India and Nepal, a child was born who was to become the Buddha”—which, as we learn, means the “awakened one,” an enlightened being. “The world is filled with pain and sorrow, the Buddha would one day teach,” Gere’s co-narrator Blair Brown tells us. “But I have found a serenity, he told his followers, that you can find too.”

Tracing the arc of the Buddha’s life—an epic physical and interior journey to enlightenment, a kind of extended parable passed down by oral tradition and eventually preserved in scripture—Grubin takes us on a pilgrimage to the four major sites of Buddhist lore. Along the way we’re treated to gorgeous photography of a contemporary—and idealized—religious India. The camera moves over Buddhist art from across Asia, illustrating the narrative. It’s high-class stuff. Even the playful, dreamlike animated sequences, wisely used to dramatize the mythical and supernatural elements of the ancient stories, have a classical feel.

Most important, though, is Grubin’s cast of on-camera interpreters, American and Asian, who bring the message home. In addition to the Dalai Lama, we meet a smiling and immensely likable young monk and nun in Lumbini, Nepal. But mainly we hear from a group of respected American scholars and writers: Columbia’s Robert Thurman (the first American ordained as a monk in the Tibetan tradition), Barnard’s Max Moerman, Vermont’s Kevin Trainor, the psychiatrist Mark Epstein, the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan—who offer their authoritative yet lively, even intimate, takes on Buddhist concepts, without mysticism.

But the show-stealers are the American poets W.S. Merwin and Jane Hirshfield. Longtime Zen practitioners, they each have the uncanny ability to make piercing statements, without a trace of self-consciousness, that in other contexts might sound cliched. “Nirvana is this moment seen directly,” says Hirshfield, describing Gautama’s realization of enlightenment. “It’s not something to aim for in the afterlife. It’s simply the quality of this moment.” Such directness, clear-eyed and deeply felt, is surprisingly effective.

And yet, as finely wrought as this documentary is, it can’t possibly do justice to the richness and diversity of Buddhism as actually practiced by millions of people around the world. In multi-ethnic America, especially, the Buddhist landscape is far more complex and fragmented than anything you see in the PBS film.

Grubin shows us a blissful, ecumenical, uncomplicated Buddhism. And while it’s true that ecumenism is valued by Buddhists, we see no hint here of Buddhism’s many branches and schools, no sign of sectarian differences. Nor do we see anything of the activist politics of “engaged” Buddhism, no real-world conflict (the Dalai Lama sticks to his role as teacher). There’s no suggestion, as scholars like Charles Prebish and Richard Hughes Seager have shown, that Asian-immigrant communities and Euro-American convert communities have historically had very little contact and take very different approaches to Buddhist practice.

And you won’t hear from the likes of Stephen Batchelor, a former monk (in the Tibetan and Zen traditions), and the author of the controversial Buddhism Without Beliefs. In his new book, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Batchelor asks pointed yet sincere questions about the hold of doctrine and dogma on Buddhist practice—and makes his own use of the Buddha’s life story to call for a “secular Buddhism.”

To be fair, Grubin’s film makes no claim to represent the contemporary Buddhist landscape. And there’s something important—something fresh—about the quiet, plainspoken image of Buddhism presented here. If Tiger’s “Come to Buddha” moment is a sign of the times, so it has to be said what a far cry Grubin’s image of Buddhism is from what so many of us first encountered—even into the ‘80s and ‘90s—when the Beats still reigned in the bookstores and the counterculture was a not-so-distant memory.

There is one aspect of Buddhism, however, that Grubin doesn’t really touch—perhaps understandably. The question “What is Buddhism?” is finally, for many Buddhists, unanswerable—and the essence of the teaching inexpressible. Zen, in particular, is full of stories in which sharp-tongued masters cut off fruitless philosophical inquiry. Like the one about the ninth-century Chinese master Yun-men and his response to an inquisitive monk:

Monk: “Where is the place from which all buddhas come?”
Yun-men: “Next question, please!”

This might be a strategy that could work for Tiger—but try making a documentary out of it.

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