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Optimum Zen cereal is one of the many products that capitalizes off the popularity of Buddhism. The cereal's slogan is "for inner harmony."

Courtesy, Nature's Path Cereal

The Dalai Lama and America the Buddhaful

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN
  • Star Tribune
  • May 6, 2011 - 10:07 PM

On his U.S. visits, the Dalai Lama attracts spiritual followers, spiritual seekers, politicians and civic leaders. He also draws people who don't care a whit about Buddhism but support the Tibetan political cause against China.

And even though the Dalai Lama is arguably the most famous Buddhist in the world, he's not a big draw for American Buddhists from other traditions, though compassion, selflessness and nonviolence are cornerstones of each expression.

In fact, the image of Buddhism that the Dalai Lama projects is a far cry from the practices embraced by many American Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhists are far more hierarchical, steeped in ritual and the trappings of religion, holy robes and all, than other traditions.

Yet, many Buddhists don't consider their spiritual practice a religion or "faith." That's partly because many, including the Dalai Lama, reject a concept of deity as espoused in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

"Typically, religious leaders have a dogma that they want people to subscribe to and believe in, but that's never been the teaching of the Dalai Lama," said Mary Jo Kreitzer of the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, a cosponsor of the Dalai Lama's state visit this weekend.

"He wants people to follow the path that will make them a better person and be happier and more joyful."

Indeed. The Dalai Lama is a best-selling author of books on happiness. His presentations are almost always sprinkled with laughter.

America's love affair with Buddhism and the Dalai Lama soared in the 1990s, then faded, as often happens with spiritual and political trends. None of that matters to the 2,500 Tibetans in Minnesota who look forward to his visit.

Their affection for the Dalai Lama as both a spiritual and political leader has never waned. He's the glue that held his people together after China invaded Tibet in 1950, which later caused him to flee to India, where he's led Tibet's government-in-exile.

"His Holiness is the heart and soul of the Tibetan people," said Tsewang Ngodup of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, a cosponsor of the visit. That's true though the Dalai Lama plans to give up his political role.

What the Dalai Lama is not: the spiritual figurehead of all of Buddhism that Americans sometimes imagine because of the less than enlightened view of Buddhism projected by Hollywood.

After he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, Hollywood made the Dalai Lama a pop-culture superstar. Brad Pitt starred in "Seven Years in Tibet." Martin Scorsese directed "Kundun."

Books on Buddhism also surged up the bestseller lists. For Americans not interested in politics, Buddhism tapped into a growing push-back to organized religion. It offered a way to be spiritual but not religious.

Like most things in life, Americans plucked from Buddhism what they wanted, creating adaptations in the West that the East wouldn't recognize.

Americans embraced meditation, but cut corners on the practice and often didn't bother with the philosophy. Former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, for instance, popularized the notion of the Zen of basketball.

And Buddhist mindfulness meditation, put in the hands of medical professionals, became a stress-reduction exercise, still popular at health clinics and spas.

Madison Avenue also jumped on the Buddhism bandwagon.

Comcast ran ads featuring an "enlightened guru" dressed in maroon-and-gold saffron robes, similar to what the Dalai Lama wears. A food producer developed "Optimum Zen" cereal. Designers marketed "Zen-inspired" furniture and home décor.

The crass commercialism stands in contrast to what the Dalai Lama values: Human dignity, peace, justice.

Rather than trying to convert others, he comes as a happy monk who tells audiences not to abandon their faiths to become Buddhist, but to build on what they know.

Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer and religion scholar. She covered the Dalai Lama's 2007 visit to Chicago. Here's more information on the Dalai Lama's Minnesota visit.

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