Friday, August 20, 2010

Are celebrities really what Buddhism needs?

Jeff Bridges is on the cover of the latest issue of Tricycle. This strikes me as odd because Bridges isn't a Buddhist (he's been interested in the dharma and studying meditation for the past ten years, but doesn't formally consider himself a Buddhist). It would seem to me that his celebrity status is what landed him on the cover of the magazine. Which might make sense if Tricycle weren't a Buddhist magazine!

Let me explain that last one: the only people who are reading Tricycle in the first place are those already interested in Buddhism, so it's not like his face on the Tricycle cover is going to attract anyone to Buddhism. If this were Time or People, that would be different--some non-Buddhist might read and say, "Hey, I didn't know that Jeff Bridges was interested in Buddhism. Hmmm, maybe I'll give it a try." That would be great for the dharma and a productive use of his celebrity-hood.

But that's not the case; anyone reading the interview is probably already interested in Buddhism. So why is he on the cover?

Let me just say off the bat that I like Bridges--The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite movies, so much so that I own two copies of the same DVD! I think that it's great that he's interested in Buddhism and that he's dedicated so much of his life to feeding hungry children in America.

That being said, I still don't see why he's on the cover of the magazine, or why there's full-length interview with him that barely touches upon Buddhism. It seems like an appeal to the mainstream, an attempt to make Buddhism cool. But does Buddhism really need that? Or more importantly, is that the best thing for Buddhism?

And why do I care so much? I don't know; it just grates against my nerves. If you thumb through Tricycle you'll notice that there are a lot of advertisements, which I understand are necessary to keep the magazine afloat--to subsidize printing and distribution costs, etc. That's fine; I got that. But there's something else at work here, something very subtle:

All of these magazine ads promoting Lama-so-and-so and Zen Master-such-and-such (not to mention actors like Bridges) add a celebrity air to Buddhism. "Guess whose retreat I'm going on this summer? [Insert name of choice] Roshi!" It can turn even a serious spiritual magazine like Tricycle into the red carpet for Buddhist Hollywood, and that's what I worry will happen when you start mixing mainstream celebrities with Buddhist practice. It can turn Buddhist teachers into spiritual rock stars.

Listen: I'm not trying to suggest that this was Tricycle's intention (I'm sure it wasn't); I'm simply trying to point out some of the pitfalls that may be awaiting Buddhism unless we--those who write and read Buddhist literature--are cautious. There is a way to balance success in the Buddhist community with the Buddha's teaching of humility, a way to stay grounded and safeguard the dharma from consumerism. (Again, I'm not trying to suggest that any our Buddhist teachers are insincere or in this for the money. But in a materialistic, consumer-driven culture, anything can be exploited and turned into a product--even the dharma.) It's the Middle Way, and as Buddhists, we need to make sure that's the path we're walking.

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