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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Eastern Influence Through Celebrities

Richard Gere and the Dalai Lama

Eastern Religious Influence through Celebrities

Gregory L. Jackson, Ph.D.

The 19th century was called “the Christian Century” because of missionary expansion. The missionaries followed and sometimes preceded the expansion of the Western empires: British, American, German, Dutch and Spanish. James Morris in Pax Brittanica shows how British religion and culture filled the world through its colonies in India, Africa, Australia, and the West Indies, with many more possessions added to protect and to provision the Empire. Until the end of World War II, Western culture seemed to be expanding throughout the globe. The last 50 years have seen a reverse as Eastern religion has come to be embraced by celebrities and also by many others emulating the highly visible media stars.

Through informal surveys in class I have asked students to identify world religious figures. They can usually only name two in the world: Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama. Both of them are well known across the world and often portrayed in a positive light in the media. The Dalai Lama has the unique advantage of being well known the longest, ever since 1949, with many well known figures attracted to his teaching. It is cool in Hollywood to be Buddhist. It is not cool to be Roman Catholic.

The Dalai Lama was born in 1935 and enthroned when he was not quite five years old. The 1940 event alone attracted attention throughout the world since few religious figures are picked and established as young children. He eventually earned his doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. By 1950 the Chinese Communists were pressing upon Tibet in an effort to absorb the country into their empire. The pressure grew until the Dalai Lama was forced to seek refuge in India in 1959. From that vantage point he has been able to address the problems of his country and serve as spiritual advisor for many in the West who have sought his guidance. (

The turning point in celebrity religious conversions developed during the Beatles’ peak in world-wide fame. Those who lived through those years will never forget the way they made American music obsolete overnight, eclipsing Elvis overnight, how the Beatles moved on to create new fads and movements. The Beatles became interested in Hinduism through George Harrison, who was approached by a guru from India. George Harrison’s wife took the Beatles to a lecture by the Maharishi Yogi in 1967. Although the Beatles followed him for only a short time, their adoption of chic Eastern clothes and sitar music changed fashion and music immediately. The ultimate cultural event of the 20th century, Woodstock in 1969, featured a white-robed Indian swami on the stage, saying the prayer of invocation. (

The Beatles (and Mia Farrow) focused so much attention on Hinduism and Transcendental Meditation that the Maharishi Yogi became a media figure overnight and established several colleges in America. My friend from elementary school was training to be a Lutheran minister. He was attracted to TM and became a TM teacher at Maharishi College in Iowa, where he is highly acclaimed as a tennis coach.

The Maharishi Yogi was not the most exemplary figure. It is claimed that he wanted 20% of the Beatles’ income to promote his causes. The Beatles, backed by Mia Farrow, claimed that the guru emphasized chastity while using his position to seduce women, including Mia. TM was closely identified with one man, Maharishi Yogi, who emphasized himself above all. Everything is named after him:

The teachings of Buddhism seem to be the most attractive to celebrities. Forms of Hinduism are bound up in Indian culture, so that is a hindrance once the exotic fads of India have died away. In contrast, Buddhism transcends culture and appeals to the me-centered culture of our time. I think Buddhism is especially attractive to celebrities because they are narcissistic, insecure, and searching for something to give them peace without taking away their self-centeredness. The Four Truths and Eightfold Paths are so easy to learn and expand upon that anyone can be catechized in Buddhism.

The movements toward vegetarianism, environmentalism, and alternative medicine are all related to Eastern religion. It is difficult to determine whether the Eastern religions promoted these ideas in the first place or whether the Eastern religions became attractive to those with similar philosophies.

The best-known celebrity Buddhist is Richard Gere, who first became famous in the depressing film “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” He is so identified with Buddhism in Hollywood that articles about the film “Seven Years in Tibet” often mention him, even though he had no direct connection with the film. American interest in Buddhism doubtless helped in the acceptance of the film. (

“Kundun” is a lesser-known film by Scorcese, describing the early life of the Dalai Lama. Students who have seen both films think that “Kundun” is superior for understanding Buddhism in its natural setting. (

The extent of Buddhist influence in Holly is revealed in this one quotation:

The Dalai Lama is also a major spiritual influence on actress Sharon Stone, composer Philip Glass, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, and martial-arts star Steven Seagal. "The Dalai Lama's been a great friend to me, and I don't want to use that for anything but my personal spiritual sustenance," Seagal told Schell. "He is the great mother of everything nurturing and loving. He accepts all who come without judgment. He has a very serious impact on the degenerate times in which we live and on bringing us back to a more pure realm."

The long-standing attraction of Hollywood toward Buddhism is shown in the classic movie “Lost Horizon,” 1937. The city of perfection in the novel and movie became President Roosevelt’s name for the current Camp David – Shangri La. Sometimes Hollywood attention has mixed results. The 1973 musical version of “Lost Horizon” has been justifiably voted to be the worst musical ever produced.

Discussion Questions
1. Discuss the Buddhist influence you have experienced in America.
2. Do you think Buddhism can be adopted without giving up another religion? For instance, some speak of Zen Christianity. How does that strike you? Remember, I am asking for opinions that can be backed up with argumentation. There is no requirement to agree with my opinions and beliefs.
3. Do you find yourself impacted more by Hinduism or Buddhism?

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