The Dalai Lama on July 17th 2011 appeared in the Reality TV-Show MasterChef Australia – a cooking show in which young aspiring chefs try their luck to get a kick off for some career. The show was produced in New York and aired the same day with His Holiness attending on a stop while en rout from Washington to Chicago – from the kalachakra empowerment, an important tibetan buddhist rite, to a public talk presented by The Theosophical Society in America.
Not being terribly obsessed with the day-to-day business of His Holiness I get knowledge of this event only by a short article in the guardian, the british newspaper. Reading the article I begin to wonder how far this tibetan buddhist thing will go? The Dalai Lama on Realty TV. Isn‘t this strange?
Nowadays, the Dalai Lama is tibetan buddhism. He is the main defining force what tibetan buddhism means. At least when you look at it from the standpoint of his presence in the media. Seeing the Dalai Lama on Reality TV I wonder how a practicing buddhist still can call himself a buddhist? Isn‘t tibetan buddhism in the western world becoming more and more a commercial product? There are lots of signs for this and the topic is far too broad than to deal with in a sketch, but the appearance and participation of the Dalai Lama in a Reality TV-Show seems to me to be one more sign for the transformation of western tibetan buddhism into just another lifestyle product with lots of merchandising.
For many buddhists, a lot of connotations which run with the medias notion of buddhism might no longer say anything about any intention they possibly have and, which is far more important, this buddhism nowadays is a far cry from mahayana buddhist way of being which developed from Nagarjuna‘s time on. In fact, in my opinion, the buddhism of the culture industries develops a lot of facets which are simply the opposite – it is becoming something which delves deeper and deeper into a world which is not identified any longer as dependently co-arising, one of the central notions of mahayana buddhism, meaning… oh well, meaning nothing if I begin to talk about it. Modern western style buddhism is on it‘s way to morph into simple minded esoterics disguised as „the teachings that can save us all“. That is how Robert Thurman likes to put it as one of the main proponents of american tibetan buddhism.
In fact there is some irony here. If you look at what happened in western philosophy in the last fifty or sixty years, sometimes you have to marvel about what some of these people have to say. You might look at Jacques Derrida‘s notion of la différance. What he means is nothing far from Nagarjuna‘s „Whatever is dependently co-arisen, that is explained to be emptiness.“ The irony is that while we are looking eastward for orientation in postmodernity – which seems to rip us off of all meaning and value – right in our middle the whole perspective which we believe to lack is given. Yes, the problem is that only a few are able to read Derrida and the like and, of course, the buddhist philosophy looks much more straight forward and more easily to comprehend. But this last impression is exactly the result of the western consumer capitalism realizing that buddhism is a commodity and making it a product is just another great opportunity for generating profit – for which purpose you have to make it digestible for the hoi polloi.
You might say, in religion there is always a distinction between the general user, which for one reason or another isn‘t able to be immersed in the most far going sense while on the other side there are the few real mystics and yogis who look at it as it is. But then, who and what is the Dalai Lama?
What is his agenda? From the kalachakra empowerment in Washington july 16th early evening to the New York MasterChef Realty TV-Show late morning july 17th. Immediately afterwards off to Chicago for a date, right after lunch, with The Theosophical Society in America. What a schedule! What is his purpose? Is he doing this as the manifestation of Chenrezi, the most beloved spiritual force of the Tibetans? Does this mean he is there as the most developed spiritual being in the universe, being free to vanish and manifest as it pleases and as it is necessary for the welfare of his people and all mankind: Chenrezi at Reality TV? Or is he just the simply monk, as he likes to call himself, from the green grasslands around Takster, his place of birth 1000 miles from Lhasa? What is his purpose? Does he has one?
In Thomas Laird‘s Book „The story of Tibet. Conversations with His Holiness the Dalai Lama“ the Dalai Lama mentions several times a „master plan“ of Chenrezi for the Tibetan people. For example he talks about a plan for the first 6 Dalai Lamas and also for the 13th. He says there is no plan for him right now, but – how confusing this might be and what ever he might conceal as the manifestation of Chenrezi – would he go to a TV-Show with a hidden agenda of a god? Could he have a plan, an intention, a path he follows which leads him into the heart of postmodern life where Reality is TV?
I don‘t buy into that, I don‘t believe it. I think of the small boy born in Takster, a half days ride from Kumbum, the Gelug stronghold in Amdo, founded by the 3rd Dalai Lama, the birth place of Tsongkapa in the far north-eastern reach of Lhasa. I have a rather sick feeling seeing the 14th in a TV-Show, hosted in New York, half around the globe from where he was born 75 years ago. I come more and more to see him as exploited.
In the account „Tibet is my country“ of his brother Thubten Jigme Norbu, who was educated at Kumbum as the tulku of the rich takster labrang at the time, one can get brief glimpses of how life was in the 1930s for a 3 year old boy which was the chosen one. There he is beginning a strange journey emerging from a mediaeval world in one of the most remote areas of the world eventually becoming someone who‘s tweets are watched by more than 2 million followers – which is probably more then the number of his people at the time of his birth.
In Kumbum he was taken hostage by the mighty warlord Ma Pu-fang, who refused to let the monks from Lhasa, who came searching for him, take him with them until he was paid a ransom of the magnitude of roughly 3.5 millions of 2011-british pounds. One can take a look at Leonard Clarks characterization of Ma Pu-fang in his „Marching Wind“. Ten years after the search party left with the Dalai Lama, Clark, the explorer and adventurer, met the warlord in 1949. He describes Ma Pu-fang as the cold blooded, almighty regional supreme commander, ruler of life and death – who un-icarnates you in a split-second decision if he feels the need.
This is not the world of the niceties of New York celebrities, of the rich and chic and oh-so-vegetarian which believe in Tibet as the country of „year-round blissful vacation“ – again Robert Thurman.
The picture is quite different. When the Dalai Lama finally was brought to Lhasa he again found himself, though not realizing it as a 5 year old, under the rule of a ruthless man. The 5th Reting! The regent and strongman during the absence and re-emergence of the god – a man which is characterized by the historian Melvyn Goldstein as being in 1936 in total control of the administration in Lhasa, totally autocratic, blatantly hedonistic (having at least, as a gelug monk, one child and also a homosexual relationship), with a labrang which during the years of his regency became one of largest trading companies in Tibet – and the most infamous, due to its exploitative trading practices. A man who waged a kind of civil war in and around Lhasa when he definitely lost control over his protégée the young Dalai Lama. A story for which, in certain circles of tibetan buddhism, you will be yelled at to shut the fuck up because it is so at odds with the official rendering of Tibet as Shangri-La. In April 1947 this fairy-tail of western tibetan buddhism is all about a mail bombing in Lhasa, it is about monks shooting at each other, murdering their abbot, rounds of mortars raining down around Sera monastery, and in the end the 5th Reting dying poisoned in a dark room at the Potala, crying in agony not far from the quarters of the Kundun.
Not quite the story you want to hear at a kalachakra empowerment in modern day Washington with all those famous shmoos around. Maybe Whoopi wouldn‘t understand – yes she was also there, among a lot of other dependently co-arisen not so important celebs.
But the story goes on. It is the Dalai Lama meeting Mao, again as the play-ball of politics. The peoples liberation army getting at Tibet, the exile, the CIA paying his administration, the Great Proletarian Culture Revolution with the Dalai Lama watching helpless the heritage of his people razed. Then the Dharma Bums, Allen Ginsberg and Chogym Trungpa bumping into each other at Times Square, looking for his boon and getting him to europe, america, all over the world and so on and on and on and now he is jetting the globe like mad.
Later in 2011 it is France, Estonia, Finland and back to Dharamsala. Then again, halfway to the moon, Montreal, Monterrey, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and home again. He is jetting over from the most holy kalachakra initiation in Washington to the most profane Reality TV-Show. From emptiness right into the middle of the matrix – unfailingly left with out any bearing for the uninitiated.
In this mashup, what is he when he is not, once again, a pawn? Moved around by the hands of consumer capitalism. Respected of course, oh yes! But truly respected? – In the show he is asked to bless the food and one of the dishes is called Buddha‘s Delight – wait a moment: Buddha‘s Delight?… Somebody else at the table blesses with the formula, „may we think about those how have nothing to eat.“ What? How much money is dumped for this show with a holy man from Tibet popping in to get a taste of Buddha‘s Delight? Oh my God, please help me understand!
To set the record straight: this would not be the first Dalai Lama going astray. The historical account the Dalai Lama gives in Thomas Laird‘s book is rather different from what you can read in other histories of Tibet, for example in Goldstein‘s „History of modern Tibet“, in Matthew Kapstein‘s „The Tibetans“ or Shakabpa‘s „A Political History of Tibet“. Of course the view on history can vary greatly and one can see the history of Tibet and the tibetan buddhism in various ways but even the Dalai Lama admits that between the Great 5th and the 13th there where not many great beings dwelling as the manifestation of Chenrezi and that the latter‘s master plan for Tibet faltered. So if even Chenrezi is fallible, how would we know for sure that this whole show is not just one big scam?
There is nothing wrong with a dish called Buddha‘s Delight. There is nothing wrong with consumer capitalism (except… well, you name it). With a bit of humor one can see a very human playfulness in all this. But the Dalai Lama on Reality TV adds a certain flavor to the story of this buddhism. It is the approval for every western tibetan buddhist that switching in an instant from most holy kalachakra to the dumb dullness of Reality TV is the way it should be. But maybe ultimately it is the blessing of the destruction of the temple. If one can toggle from the most noble undertaking of a boddhisattva to the most profane amusement of everyday life then one is either an enlightened being, fulfilling one‘s super-worldly intent, gong-pa as a nyngma yogi would put it, or one is just another one-eyed leading the blind.
A lot (not all!) of modern western tibetan buddhists lack any playfulness at all. They lack any insight in the mechanisms of modern life, the seductive and mind altering powers of the media and the culture-industries. For a lot (not all!) of them it seems enough to have been physical present at something called kalachakra or any other initiation or wang or whatever tweedly tweets you put on it to misread a notion for an experience, to feel free „to swagger about in the haughty gait of an elephant, in undiscriminating ignorance, brows adorned with golden chains of jealousy and wrongheaded concepts, flattering themselves with the assumption that they understand.“
Maybe 650 years ago when Longchenpa noted this, it was the same and the „elephants“ of those days are postmodern-time‘s narcissuses who think, once they lie flat bellied in front of a lama, they got it, while, possibly, it could be the other way around: they get laid – not by the lamas but like them, to be sure, by the hosts of the Truman Show. Entirely to their delight.
The point is, even if the Dalai Lama has a motive other than being pushed around by maybe not so unknown forces as part of the global 24/7 Reality TV-Show, his surely well-intentioned message is grotesquely twisted. While you are made believe you free your mind taking on this brand of tibetan buddhism, looked at it with a broader perspective you are just a consumer taking part in a fun-fair. Welcome to the pleasure dome. Take in the sweet narcotic, lean back into the deepest forgetfulness, forgetting even that you have forgotten…
Do you know the buddhist allegory for being precious life, the allegory of the tortoise swimming in an immense ocean? In this vast sea there floats also a piece of wood which by accident has the form of a ring, maybe as big as a tire. If you gain consciousness and if you want to remember – that is like the tortoise coming up for air and by chance sticking it‘s head out in the wooden ring.
If you come up for air, don‘t waste your time.