They love you when you’re on all the covers
When you’re not then they love another*
Occasionally I take friends who come to visit India around and the number one place they want to go is to “the place where His Holiness the Dalai Lama lives”. Said in hushed and oh-so-holy-ish tones.
And every one of them is disappointed.
Recently I traveled with a friend to Dharamshala and McLeod Ganj to see the Buddhist stuff up there and it got me considering the spectacle of Buddhism in particular and Eastern religion in general, to the Western viewpoint. And further the apparent need to make it into a spectacle on the part of some Buddhist teachers, a few who I quite respect, as well. Perhaps this is not a conscious effort on their parts but a symptom of the hype-driven culture in which they are attempting to practice and teach and perhaps it is a result of the sometimes very subtle ego-massage of being rather “special” in America.
I mean really Brad Warner on CNN explaining the meaning of life according to Zen-he’s got the punk rock hype that oh say Norman Fischer, Gil Fronsdal or Joan Halifax just can’t muster! He’s got the legions of Suicide Girls (featured on CSI:NY no less!) as well so he must have that “special something” that every spiritual master needs. Check out the new zazen instructions by the Suicide babes! But you need three arms to appreciate it properly. And besides he works in the movie biz and lives in LA, wellspring of all deep spiritual truth. He must also have a good media guy at his publishers-new book coming out and all.
(Hey, I like Brad’s stuff sometimes and even comment on his blog as NellaLou in case you think this is just a hater type statement. And had Suicide Girls been around back when I had my purple mohawk hair and piercings-we’re talking contemporary with Siouxsie and the Banshees here-then I’d have signed up right off.)
Here in India one trips over Buddhist monks, gurus and holy men at nearly every corner. Their “specialness” is not all that spectacular. Their prevalence is as numerous as say local barbers or in some parts, shopkeepers. It is their profession in life if you will. And while it still ranks as a “calling” to many, but not all, as some are placed in monasteries as children to be educated and brought up there, it is little different than the “calling” or “duty” of a Catholic nun, a Baptist or Anglican preacher, aboriginal shaman or any other religious mediator. Here’s a couple of Hindu priests and Buddhist monks at their places of work.
Priest at Dodital Temple. Dodital is the mythological birthplace of Lord Ganesha-the elephant headed god, son of Shiva and Parvati, remover of obstacles, patron of writers etc. Priests perform the rituals they have been trained to do and then ask for a donation for their work. It’s a fairly straightforward transaction.
Local priest at Lakhamandel, site of one of the most glorious episodes in the Mahabharata, the great HIndu epic, wherein the enemies of the Pandavas built a dwelling of wax for them and then set it on fire in an effort to kill them and win the battle. But the Pandavas dug themselves out and escaped to caves in the area and were saved. Lord Krishna helped them during their struggles by giving advice to the brother Arjuna in the form of the Bhagavad Gita which forms part of the Mahabharata.
This priest, like thousands like him, is a local villager with a family and likely some land to cultivate and whenever people show up at the temple he or another if another is available, will come and do the necessary temple things before going back to their farming, lunches or other activities. We interrupted him at tea time I think.
Here’s a rather drunk Buddhist priest in Thailand. He was chanting Buddhist chants and mixing in some of the popular Thai songs from the radio in the heat of the afternoon.
In Dharamshala a bunch of monks, and some outside people, including locals and foreigners are debating Dharma in the courtyard of the temple. Sometimes the debaters just look bored and even yawn when the person making the point is going on at some length. But sometimes it is really engaging. Once I saw a debate get so heated that one guy slapped the other one. Same thing has happened when local monks here got into a football (soccer) match with some local Indian guys. Once the police had to intervene to break it up.
So the point is these are just fairly ordinary people who do the same kind of stuff anyone else does. They are not floating a foot off the ground with garlands of marigolds and roses plopping out of their asses behind them.
This is true in Dharamshala also. It’s a fairly ordinary Indian tourist town. Lots of hotels, souvenir shops and touts trying to sell you anything and everything. Lots of Tibetan folks there too and some monasteries but that is true of a lot of Indian towns in the Himalayas. There are over 100,000 Tibetans in India and they don’t all live at Dharamshala. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama doesn’t live there. He lives at McLeod Ganj which is 9 kilometers above the town of Dharamshala. And McLeod Ganj is pretty ordinary as well. A few temples like most towns and a lot of tourists, similar to many towns in the Himalaya such as Manali, Leh, Shimla and Rishikesh. His house is not a big palace and the temple over which he presides, while being a little more spacious is very similar to Tibetan Buddhist temples everywhere. In fact its not as “nice” as many of the newer ones. The big difference between him and an ordinary monk seems only to be in his level of responsibility. He is the head of a government in exile after all. That adds a few security features and a certain amount of camera glare to his rather ordinary life. In popular belief he is the incarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. That he himself would believe that in ego terms and act in a manner befitting a quasi-mythological being is another matter entirely.
This aura of holiness for religious leaders, and even for religious places, is in the minds of the believers. It does not waft off of them like some kind of celestial perfume that envelops the senses and renders one zombified in the face of the divine on earth. It is an illusory thing that propels some believers to sustain their beliefs. Yes there is an amount of respect for those who are involved primarily with religious vocations but none of this rarified air of divinity and absolute purity is part of any of these folks daily lives.
What seems to happen in the West, and unfortunately increasingly in India, such as the Sai Baba phenomenon for example, is these rather ordinary people are cloaked with, or sometimes assume the cloak of religious infallibility. Some small time teacher, guru, yogi or monk starts out with rather good intentions and finds himself soon attracting a crowd of “handlers” and sycophants. And some charlatans, con men and fakes are certainly among them as well. Then the show begins.
The center of attention gets a whole new wardrobe and stage setting. This usually involves the color orange or yellow (both seeming rather “Eastern”) and a big big chair. For more serious situations purple is invoked. Camera angles are calculated and spot lights set just so. Set decorations and appropriate background music are chosen for the perfect effect. Hair and makeup are given some attention. As is the massaging of the message in order to reach as wide an audience as possible. The message gets inflated along with the ego of the messenger. And here come the fluffers to kick things off. A few nubile babes (male or female) or pictures thereof, gazing all raptured out and ecstatic in their robes, and there’s always some kind of robes, is always helpful. They are all soooo totally satisfied with the experience. And you can be too. They can help you with that. Really! Just like the big spiritual wank off its becoming.
There’s lots of pretty, pretty ones
Who want to get you high
But all the pretty, pretty ones
Will leave you low
And blow your mind
They’ll blow your mind*
And when the music’s over and the lights go down people are left wondering what’s next? Where’s the next big thing going on? Do I go for the Kalachakra Tantra teaching or do I go to Pondicherry India and join an ashram? Has Osho got an opening for some new talent? Top that off with a little Burning Man in the interim and maybe that will be enough. Or should I move to Japan and try to get in on the big Kensho show? More, More, More. Bigger, better, stronger, louder, brighter, faster, stranger. It must be found. I need that big spiritual hit.
Searching for Satori
The kick in the eye**
There is a certain type of spiritual literacy that needs to be cultivated along with a Buddhist Practice or any spiritual practice. Anyone, anywhere can make any sort of claim and pump up any sort of hype about their “depth of understanding” or “reception of universal secrets” or “powerful supernatural abilities”. They can make gold watches appear out of thin air-as a certain very famous Indian Hindu guru does for his important Bollywood type followers or they can read the very thoughts of the long dead-a couple of Hollywood types claim that. They can connect with the ancient spiritual masters and channel Joan of Arc along with CNN-Simultaneously!!! There is no limit to the fantastic abilities these enlightened folks pull out of their asses. And some of them say they are Buddhists.
What the fuck! I’m getting on this gravy train too. My name is Marushka. Or is it Missusmanjushri or something else? Gotta do a focus group to get it right. I live in northern India. In the mighty Himalayas no less! I’ve been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly 30 years. Probably longer than most of the people reading this have been alive. That makes me really ancient and wise beyond belief. I’ve got a magical blog that some people actually read, comment upon and egads (I told you I was ancient. I even use words like egads) subscribe to by email (link to your right). Soon I’ll have a hundred books of drivel for you to purchase and a thousand different t-shirt designs as well. All made by child laborers in Calcutta to max out my profits. But really it is an act of compassion to exploit people as sometimes love is tough you know? I’m doing everyone a big big favor. Of course everything I spew out is a precious nugget of spiritual gold. Let’s put it all on billboards around the world! Start a whole media deluge! Now where’s my big big chair?
We’re all stars now in the Buddhist dope show*
*Lyrics from the Marilyn Manson song “The Dope Show”
**Lyrics from Bauhaus “Kick in the Eye”
PS. Maybe I should have called this The Religious Dope Show because I’ve seen on various Christian channels a lot of similar things. But I’ll wrestle Christians at some future time no doubt.