Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily clearing his throat to deposit a green gob of spit beside my left shoe, I wondered what it was about Tibet that has made so many intelligent people go wobbly. The landscape, with its jagged chocolate-colored mountain peaks, its glassy lakes and emerald rivers, is spectacular, to be sure. And some of the other passengers on my bus—a herdsman with finely worked silver daggers, a monk in burgundy robes and Nike shoes, country women with turquoise jewelry threaded through their hair—looked exotic enough. But there was nothing really to suggest that we were in a particularly spiritual place, where wise men knew the meaning of life, and incarnations of great lamas could fly.
But then, of course, it never was the actual place that fired the imagination of romantic seekers; it was the idea of Tibet, far away, impenetrable, isolated in the higher spheres of the earth. To see the real thing was to destroy the illusion. For the enchantment of Tibet lay in its remoteness. Indians and, later, Europeans, and even some Chinese, could project their spiritual fantasies onto a land they had never seen, and probably never would see. Those who felt discontented with their own complicated lives were consoled by the idea that in one isolated spot lived a people who still held the key to happiness, peace, and spiritual salvation, who had, as it were, by some miracle of nature, been spared the expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
It was often the nature of nature itself that caught the fancy of “civilized” men and women. Orville Schell, in his book Virtual Tibet, mentions a genteel English lady in 1869 who fell in love with the majestic Himalayan mountains because “no solemn garden parties or funereal dinners, no weary conventionalities of society, follow us here.” Another British traveler, in 1903, compared one of the mountains to “a vast cathedral,” and when a French Orientalist, around that same time, emerged onto the Tibetan highlands, he felt as though he had risen “through layers of cloud, from hell to heaven, leaving behind and below me this scientifically technical world which has done so much to increase man’s misery.” Blake would have understood: here, in the thin mountain air, amid those icy peaks, was sweet Jerusalem at last.
But then, these early seekers never sat in a rickety bus, with vomiting Chinese hookers for company. Orville Schell, a seasoned traveler in China, probably has, and his book has the bracing air about it of disenchantment. The fact that he was a bit of a seeker once himself, mesmerized by the idea of Tibet, and of Communist China, makes him the perfect chronicler of such afflictions in others. In an earlier book of his, about the advent of Chinese-style casino capitalism, he expressed a fleeting sense of nostalgia for an earlier China, austere, remote, high-minded, inaccessible, xenophobic, poor. Mao’s China, after all, was a kind of Tibet for would-be refugees from Western civilization too.
Having read his book on Tibet, I understand Schell’s romantic longings a bit better. Here he is, on the set of the movie Seven Years in Tibet, high up in the Andes mountains, gazing in wonder at a replica of Lhasa. He feels “overwhelmed by a yearning for a place like the one I see being set in motion before me—a fantastic island of escape from the prosaic, the rapacious, the speed and falseness of modern life.” The fact that he is looking at a movie set adds a nicely poignant touch: this is the genuine stuff of fantasy.
Schell’s descriptions of earlier Tibetophiles, trying to make a getaway from the solemn garden parties of life, are lively and interesting enough, but some of them have been told quite a few times before. To me the more arresting parts of his book are about the peculiar symbiosis between Hollywood and Tibet. The number of men and women who go wobbly at the thought of Tibet and its highest representative on earth, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, seems to be remarkably high in the main factory town of American fantasies. Why?
Why would Martin Scorsese, for example, a director of hard-nosed American movies, react like a gushing schoolgirl to the Dalai Lama, about whose life he was inspired to make the film Kundun? “Something happened,” he is quoted as saying. “I became totally aware of existing in the moment. It was like you could feel your heart beat; and as I left, he looked at me. I don’t know, but there was something about the look, something sweet…. I just knew I had to make the movie.” Scorsese was raised as a Catholic, and Catholics have their own rich tradition of religious ecstasies. Nevertheless, I find it hard to imagine him reacting quite in this way to an audience with the Pope.
Scorsese, in any case, has only a mild case of Tibetitis compared to other Hollywood celebrities. Schell meets most of them. His interviewing technique is feline rather than confrontational; he lets the words of his interlocutors speak for themselves, and sometimes, in my view, leaves the tape recorder running for too long. They certainly sound pretty silly: Richard Gere, for instance, expects to “get ‘zapped”’ every time he is around His Holiness, and believes that Tibet has remained “the last real, living ‘wisdom’ civilization.” But by far the most egregious exponent of this type of thing is the director and star of violent action pictures Steven Seagal. Seagal, as described by Schell, is clearly a fantaisiste. An oddball in traditional Chinese clothes, cowboy boots, and a pigtail, he likes to present himself as a pistol-packing tough guy, boasting of affiliations ranging from Japanese gangsters to the CIA, and as an Oriental holy man. Not only does Seagal go wobbly at the sight of His Holiness, but he claims that His Holiness also goes wobbly at the sight of him. The Dalai Lama, in Seagal’s account, kissed the action-man’s feet as a tribute to a fellow deity. He told Schell:
I’ve kept my spiritualism secret because people don’t understand it. Friends have never gotten this part of my life, but there are many great lamas who recognize me as something strange and from another time, who refer to me as one of them. I feel a kinship beyond words with them, something really deep. People all over the world come up to me and recognize me as a great spiritual leader.
The problem for the Dalai Lama and his canny government in exile is that he needs the support of such Hollywood Buddhists, but cannot risk having his sacred aura contaminated by too much contact with them. Tibetan worshippers find it unseemly. Somehow, the sight of His Holiness standing on stage at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel or the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, with Steven Seagal, Richard Gere, and Sharon Stone in a silk pantsuit, renders somewhat implausible his status as the latest incarnation of the ancient God of Compassion. It brings to the proceedings an air of fraudulence. This is not the Dalai Lama’s fault. But magic relies on obscurity. The nature of Hollywood magic is different from the religious kind. Or is it?
Schell makes a case that the Hollywood star system is in some ways similar to the order of Tibetan monks and holy men. It is a provocative idea: Grauman’s Chinese Theater as the Potala of Tinseltown; Gere, Stone, and Harrison Ford as cinematic lamas; the fans in Bermuda shorts and reversed baseball caps as pilgrims at the sacred shrines of Hollywood Boulevard. As Schell says,
…with its own nobility of stars and celebrities, distinctive rites, costumes, festival-like awards ceremonies, celebrated monuments, potent mythologies, studio complexes as vast as monasteries, and a reigning pantheon of semidivine deities worshiped around the world, Hollywood might well appear as alien and mysterious to outsiders as the forbidden city of Lhasa once did to those Westerners who first breached its carefully guarded perimeters.
The comparison would seem strained if one believed that traditional religious practices were more genuine, or authentic, than the new forms of worship that have taken their place in Hollywood or on television gospel hours. To be sure, tradition creates its own kind of authenticity. Time has a way of legitimizing all manner of human practices, which if they were newly invented would cause outrage: bullfighting, for example. But is it really so implausible to think of Hollywood Buddhism as the result of a natural affinity between a new quasi religious order and a traditional one?
Schell has a few other explanations for Hollywood Buddhism, too, however, some of which are a little too generous for my taste. He believes that the likes of Steven Seagal, having triumphed over “adversity” themselves, “identify with the Dalai Lama and Tibetans as underdogs—the little guy against the big bully.” Maybe, but in that case I would like to know a bit more the exact nature of Seagal’s or Gere’s adversities before I am convinced. I’m sure Gere’s ascent to stardom has not been easy, and Seagal has to work hard to administer to his spiritual needs while making his action pictures, but it is rather a long way from these hardships to identification with persecuted Tibetans.
There is another possibility. It is implied in Schell’s text without being developed as a theme: the ambivalence of imperialism. British colonialism in Asia, like most forms of colonialism, was a combination of commerce and manifest destiny. The main idea was to make as much money as possible. This meant that markets and sources of production had to be conquered. To justify this enterprise, a mission was concocted to bring civilization to the natives. Meanwhile, however, many an ardent imperialist fell in love with the conquered lands, and developed romantic notions of the cultures his own mission civilisatrice was busy converting to modern, Western ways. Schell mentions Lord Curzon and Major Francis Younghusband, who blasted his way to Lhasa in 1904 with Indian troops and Maxim guns. Younghusband certainly believed in the British Empire, but he also went wobbly in Lhasa, being “insensibly suffused with an almost intoxicating sense of elation and good will.” Never again could the major “think of evil” or “be at enmity with any man. All nature and all humanity were bathed in a rosy glowing radiancy; and life for the future seemed nought but buoyancy and light.” The effusions of Gere or Seagal are hardly more extravagant than this. The point, I think, is that some of the more sensitive imperialists realized what they were destroying, or at least changing forever by their presence, and ended up idealizing it.