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Hello Dali

Om Ham Ksha Ma Lava Raya Hum Phat

VIRTUAL TIBET Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood By Orville Schell Metropolitan Books: 340 pp., $26

May 14, 2000|PAUL HOLLANDER | Paul Hollander is the author of "Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba 1928-1978," and, most recently, "Political Will and Personal Belief: The Decline and Fall of Soviet Communism" (Yale University Press)

Some years ago Shirley MacLaine (currently an admirer of Tibet and what it stands for) had found "serenity" in Mao's China where "women had little need or even desire for such superficial things as frilly clothes and makeup. . . . Relationships seemed free of jealousy and infidelity." Every day during her visit she felt "powerful vibrations because of the massive . . . healthy group of human beings called the Chinese people." She also "began enjoying sunsets and trees and food instead of rushing through each day because time meant money." Last but not least, during her visit she stopped smoking, picking her fingers and biting her nails.

It must have become clear to her in the intervening years that these were peculiar responses to communist China--fantasies and projections which nonetheless were revealing of her needs and those of many Western visitors in the same period. It is tempting to ask, could her present day affection for Tibet and Buddhism have the same qualities and roots as those earlier raptures for communist China? MacLaine was only one of many celebrities (and intellectuals) who grotesquely misread the nature of communist China (as well as that of Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua, et cetera), perceiving it as a font of social justice, serenity and progress. By the 1990s, for MacLaine and many other Hollywood celebrities, Tibet became the new source of serenity and meaning.

Is it possible that the recent wave of infatuation with Tibet (and what it stands for) is yet another substitute gratification for those uneasy with their wealth, fame, freedom and comforts in an all-too-open society in which "anything goes" and there are no guideposts to purpose and meaning in life? As Orville Schell explains in "Virtual Tibet," Buddhism in particular appeals to celebrities "who have gained wealth, are living the good Southern California life and have acquired certain confirmed habits of self-indulgence" because it is "nonjudgmental" and "guilt free." Moreover, "In Hollywood, where everyone is out hustling something there is nothing more beguiling . . . than someone in the limelight who restrains him or herself," such as the Dalai Lama.

The rapidly growing interest in Buddhism and Tibet during the last decade has been among the most interesting cultural phenomena in the United States in recent times. Its manifestations include the mushrooming of study and meditation centers, popular movies, bumper stickers, a huge number of publications and TV programs (even commercials featuring Buddhist monks) and the celebrity status of the Dalai Lama. Hollywood, in particular, and many of its leading celebrities have been in the forefront of this preoccupation. Any book that sheds light on the phenomenon also helps to understand our recent cultural-intellectual history, and especially one written by "an old China hand," Orville Schell.

There is a good deal of irony in the fact that Tibet victimized by China has replaced socialist-Maoist China as destination and symbol for Westerners looking for an alternative to ways of life in their own society or, as Schell puts it, for a "sanctuary--a place where all civilized yearnings are satisfied." During the 1960s and '70s many Westerners, like MacLaine, visited China and returned as enthusiasts. I called them political pilgrims in my book because their manifestly political quest had distinctly spiritual undertones and they were reminiscent of religious pilgrims seeking redemption and rejuvenation at the holy sites of their religion. These travelers believed that communist China was in almost every respect superior to Western societies and in the process of creating not merely a just and egalitarian social system but one animated by a widely embraced sense of purpose and community, a new society which not merely solved all serious social problems but did away with alienation and meaninglessness and nurtured the best human qualities.

These visitors were not interested in Tibet or Buddhism (and in any event were not allowed to visit Tibet) and knew little about the horrific repression imposed on it by the government they revered. To be sure, their ignorance was not limited to conditions in Tibet: They were equally uninformed of communist China as a whole and especially its totalitarian characteristics, economic mismanagement and the bizarre official worship of its lecherous, megalomaniac ruler. They viewed the so-called Cultural Revolution as a further expression of the rejuvenation of Chinese society, an outburst of popular will and energy demolishing the last alienating vestiges of the past.

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