Lest there be any doubt about Buddhism’s arrival in western culture, consider an advert from a few years ago showing a room full of meditators. The copy reads, ‘If you are going to follow the breath, it may as well be fresh. Eat tic-tacs.’

If tic-tac eaters can respond to a meditation image, and if they know that meditation involves following the breath, or else if meditators are themselves the target audience, then Buddhism is here, for better or worse.

As  Harper’s Bazaar pronounced a few years ago, ‘Buddhism, or at least the Buddhist outlook on man and the universe, is rapidly becoming the universally accepted worldview.’

The wave of Western conversions to Buddhism that started in the 1960s gained pace such that by the late 1990s the number of Western Buddhists had swelled to over a million. Europe and North America were peppered with Dharma centres and the period was dubbed Hollywood’s ‘Tibet moment’. Two big-budget movies on Tibetan themes – Jean Jacques Annaud’s ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ starring Brad Pitt, and Scorsese’s ‘Kundun’ – were produced simultaneously, shortly after Berolucci’s ‘Little Buddha’. Richard Gere used his celebrity to promote Tibetan independence and Stephen Seagal was recognised as the reincarnation of an ancient Lama.

We are past that peak now. The movies all flopped. After September 11th prominent Buddhist teachers struck anti-war stances and New York Buddhists saw declining interest from their neighbours. Richard Gere was booed off stage at a benefit concert when he advocated compassion in the face of aggression.

Will we now get back to a period of quieter but more serious engagement with Buddhism? Perhaps. Still, Buddhism’s growth in Europe and North America has been buoyed by periodic spurts of fashionable spirituality. Two centuries ago Schlegel and Schopenhauer predicted that the discovery of Asian scriptures would prompt a ‘Second Renaissance’. Their Romantic orientalism stimulated Emerson and the Transcendentalists to draw on Eastern religious sources for inspiration, and the pragmatic spirituality they advocated has profoundly influenced American religiosity ever since, especially in the reception of Buddhism. Buddhism entered British and American popular culture in 1879 with Edwin Arnold’s poem The Light of Asia. Selling over half-a-million copies, The Light of Asia was eventually made into an opera, a Broadway play, two cantatas and a silent movie. The poem crystallised the image of the Buddha for a generation, prompting ‘the Buddhist Vogue’ of the latter part of the century.

After the Second World War the emblem of Asian mystery was the Zen master, and Buddhism made its first serious impact on western culture through the Zen boom of the 1950s. Zen influenced a generation of New York artists and intellectuals from Erich Fromm to John Cage, and the concept drove the self-dramatisations of Beats such as Ginsberg, Kerouac and Snyder. Serious Zen practice grew from this movement, but the word ‘Zen’ also came to invoke a mysterious spiritualised rightness. Now Amazon.com lists titles extolling – with seriousness or irony – Zen and the art of archery, flower arranging, motorcycle maintenance, writing, knitting, falling in love, football, stand-up comedy, living with fearlessness and grace, the internet, murder, chilling, post-modern philosophy, the monologue, and the list goes on and on.

After the Buddhist vogue and the Zen wave came the Tibet boom. Born in the 1970s and still going, the boom centred around Lamas who had been exiled from their homeland, arriving in the West to find themselves lionised by a culture that had already prepared a place for them in its collective psyche. Popular culture has often located its mysteries in Tibet. At the outset came Sherlock Holmes’ account in The Adventure of the Empty House, which revived the fictional career that had seemed to end when Holmes went over the Reichenbach falls in mortal combat with Moriarty, Holmes accounts for his absence only by saying, ‘I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself in Lhassa and spending some days with the head Lama.’ And as Donald Lopez reports in Prisoners of Shangri-La, Buddhism now appears virtually everywhere, high and low brow. He cites a 1990 episode of ‘Twin Peaks’, when Special Agent Dale Cooper tells the police:

Following a dream I had three years ago, I have become deeply moved by the plight of the Tibetan people and filled with a desire to help them. I also awoke from the same dream realising that I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body coordination operating hand-in-hand with the deepest level of intuition.

Far from disparaging these uses of Buddhism, I collect them. I enjoyed the laser beam eyes of the boy Eddie Murphy saves in ‘The Golden Child’, and I am delighted by the opening of ‘Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls’, which, as Lopez describes, “finds the protagonist in a Tibetan monastery doing penance for having failed to rescue a racoon. He is dressed in the red robes of a Geluk monk, seeking to attain a state on ‘omnipresent, super-galactic oneness’.”

I also recognize that the extensive Buddhist imagery in advertising suggests a power, accessibility and, perhaps, an innocence that Christianity has lost. For example, an ad for the Nat West Gold Card showed a pseudo-Buddhist monk in meditation posture winking above the slogan, ‘Reach a higher state more easily.’ The copy read, ‘Searching for true happiness? Contentment can be yours. For further enlightenment visit one of our branches.’ Could you imagine this campaign with Christian prayer taking the place of meditation?

Buddhism is used in this case as a token of value. But is the currency thereby devalued? Many British Buddhists laugh off such adverts, and even consider them a kind of compliment, but not the Theravadin Buddhists from Southeast Asia, who believe that monks should be treated with reverence. So the UK’s Network of Buddhist organisations complained on their behalf to the Advertising Standards Agency with some success. Winalot apologised for their use of a Buddhist monk in a dog-food advert, explaining that ‘European consumers perceive Eastern wise men as having knowledge and expertise in herbal medicine, and our product contains chicory, an unknown ingredient.’

Often when an advert employs Buddhist figures, sanctity itself becomes something to play with. One 1996 campaign read, ‘For true Enlightenment forget the lotus position and adopt the Citroen position.’ A simpler humour lay behind an advert showing a young monk about his work cleaning the monastery. He spots his chance in the shrine-room and whizzes in with his electrolux. The others are levitating, and he has to rush to finish the job as – bump, bump, bump – they come back down.
Hindu swamis could replace the levitating Buddhists, although probably with less reverence to offset the absurdity. But can you imagine what would happen if Islamic images were used in such light-hearted way? In contrast to Islamic righteous indignation and sensitivity to cultural dominance, Buddhism’s tolerance and flexibility makes it more easily assimilable. Without Christianity’s dogmas, Moslem’s cultural antipathy or Judaism’s racial exclusivity, Buddhism seems available to westerners. It is more flexible than its counterparts and thus able to mix more closely with popular culture.

The 1990 Christmas edition of Paris Vogue was guest edited by the Dalai Lama himself. Inside were sixty-eight colour pages exclusively devoted to Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama appeared a master at using the things of the world without becoming worldly. What, asks the Vogue interviewer, is the attitude of His Holiness to artifice and fashion? ‘A nice smile, a kind look are more precious than the most fantastic jewel,’ he offers. ‘Put the most beautiful ornaments on an unkind face…it would not improve anything.’

The Dalai Lama’s advocacy of Tibetan religion and his political agenda sit beside a consumer’s guide to Tibetan artefacts, travel and restaurants. The ‘Mode’ fashion section features ‘Le Souffle des Couleurs’, creations in the tantric purples, reds and violet. A model with a dreamy downcast look, flowing dark hair and soft clothes walks away along a gravel beach and squats in front of victory banner. ‘Eclat d’ames’, the text says. And later she appears in full monastic dress, ‘signes Laurel’, vermilion lipstick to match the robe. Another spread shows a stern-faced model with close-cropped hair gazing steadily at the camera, wearing imitation-sackcloth gabardine by Issey Miyake. In another picture she wears what looks like a hair-shirt.
This is designer asceticism, renunciation chic.

Harper’s Bazaar offers further evidence of the dangers of assimilation. Its identification of Buddhism with the ‘universally accepted worldview’ seems to imply a Buddhism so defoliated that it is almost without content. Renunciation chic is only possible at the expense of actual renunciation. Harpers Bazaar writes, ‘You may be able to keep your job…wear Chanel…eat chocolate…and still be enlightened.’ One may note the irony that a religion whose most basic teaching, the Four Noble Truths, holds that the cause of suffering is craving, has here been made into an emollient for wish-fulfilment.
Clearly, you have to draw the line somewhere, even if you are disinclined to disparage the interest of Buddhist celebrities or the use of Buddhist images in popular culture. Buddhism-lite has a place, but only if it can remain Buddhism. Still, in my experience as an amateur collector of Buddhist pop-cultural trivia, the citation I have come across that most fills me with hope is in Beneath a Single Moon, a recent volume devoted to ‘Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry’. In the introduction the editors express their conviction that, ‘In terms of American letters, at least, Buddhism has arguably come to be the most vital spiritual influence in poetry today.’

Can that really be true? If it is I can live happily with all the ads, movies, Kung fu specials, Tibetan fantasies and celebrity weddings – all the entertaining, irritating vulgarity in which popular culture has involved Buddhism. If, through committed practice and intensive cultural engagement, Buddhism’s roots are sunk deeply enough in Western soil, then I have no doubt that it will continue to grow. Indeed, I hope it will flourish and continue to exert a benificent force, even on car sales.

First published in Topic Magazine: http://www.webdelsol.com/Topic/inthisissue.html