Steven Seagal: top action hero and Tibetan lama

Buddhism is big in Hollywood, from `Kundun' to Richard Gere. A young Bhutanese director thinks it's hilarious. By Matthew Sweet
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The Independent Culture
This is a tale of two lamas. Both have been identified as reincarnations of great Buddhist masters. Both were born outside Chinese-occupied Tibet. Both of them make movies. But only one of them has ever been seen on screen pumping the villain full of bullets and yelling, "I only shot you in one foot. Hobble to hospital."

In 1968, when he was seven years old, Khyentse Norbu was summoned home from his Jesuit boarding school in Bhutan to find his kitchen full of Tibetan monks. They identified him as the third incarnation of the 19th- century saint Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-92) and spirited him away to the Palace Monastery of Gangtok, to begin 16 years of study and contemplation. At 19, he saw his first film - an anonymous Bollywood musical, glimpsed on a train platform in India - and was mesmerised. Later, on a trip to London to study comparative religion at the School of American Studies, he spent most of his evenings at the National Film Theatre. So, when Bernardo Bertolucci, searching for a religious consultant for Little Buddha, heard that there was a lama in Bhutan who was mad about cinema, he enlisted Norbu to coach Keanu Reeves. For Norbu, it was a smart career move: through contacts he made on the movie, he financed his directorial debut, The Cup, which opens in Britain next week.

Our second lama was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1952. Most of the world knows him as action hero Steven Seagal. In 1997, high-ranking lama His Holiness Penor Rinpoche announced that the star of Hard to Kill (1989) carried within him the spirit of a 17th-century Buddhist master named Chungdrag Dorje. Seagal, he said, was a "tulku", a being who, out of his compassion for the suffering of sentient life, has been reborn to help all beings attain enlightenment. Rather surprising to anyone familiar with Seagal's oeuvre. The star himself had already demonstrated his commitment to the cause by making a generous donation to His Holiness's monastery.

Penor Rinpoche issued a statement explaining this apparent contradiction. "Such movies are for temporary entertainment and do not relate to what is real and important," he said. "It is the view of the Great Vehicle of Buddhism that compassionate beings take rebirth in all walks of life to help others.... It is possible to be both a popular movie star and a tulku." We made repeated attempts to speak with Steven Seagal for this article, but he failed to respond. On our final attempt, we were told he was still in bed, as he'd come home at 4am that morning.

Tibetan Buddhism, and with it the cause of Tibetan independence, has a strong voice in Hollywood. Its message is one of outrage at the human- rights abuses to which the Chinese have subjected Tibetans, coupled with a nostalgia for a theocracy under which its advocates would probably not themselves consent to live. Its chief spokesperson is Richard Gere, an enthusiastic meditator and close friend of the Dalai Lama. Others include Goldie Hawn, Harrison Ford, Meg Ryan, Barbra Streisand and Robert Thurman - a Buddhism specialist from Columbia University, and Uma's dad. "It is very interesting that many Western liberals have this kind of attitude," reflects Khyentse Norbu, sipping a cup of hot water in a London hotel. "In America, everything is fashion. For some people, I think Buddhism is like a kind of therapy. A painkiller. Some of them are genuinely compassionate. But for others, it could be just a tool to develop their image."

For residents of Hollywood, supporting the Tibetan cause is easy. Most Americans agree with Richard Gere that torturing nuns is a bad idea, and nobody will ever ask him and Goldie Hawn to put on military uniforms and kick the Chinese off the Roof of the World. If the Tibetan system had survived into the present day, it's likely that Hollywood would regard it as just another religious oligarchy, and studios would be no more keen to greenlight movies about the Dalai Lama than they would be to make deferential biopics of the Pope or the Ayatollah Khomeni.

The most serious danger that a Hollywood star faces in publicly supporting Tibetan independence is to risk losing the favour of the Fox Film Corporation, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, is so intent on seducing his way into Chinese markets that he's happy to risk bad publicity in the west by putting the boot into the Dalai Lama ("An old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes," he said in his interview last September in Vanity Fair). It's significant, perhaps, that many of Hollywood's most vocal Tibetophiles - Gere, Hawn and Ford, for instance - have working relationships not with Fox, but with its rivals - Paramount, Columbia and MGM. (MGM, you may recall, was the company behind Red Corner (1997), Gere's Beijing-set thriller which portrayed the Chinese in a slightly less sympathetic light than did The Blood of Fu Manchu.)

And when Western film-makers attempt to portray Tibetan Buddhism, they go into a strange, dozily uncritical trance. "The spiritual gloss they put on these films can contribute to a feeling among westerners that Tibet is a remote, exotic place that doesn't exist in the real world," argues Alison Reynolds of the Free Tibet Campaign. "They sometimes make Tibetans look like strange animals you'd see in a zoo, not real people. Our organisation tries to resist that Shangri-La image."

Film-makers themselves, however, usually succumb. Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937) established the tradition. That old tough nut Marty Scorsese forgot his nasty past and made Kundun (1997) an unblinking paean to non- violence - which hardly squares with the bloodthirsty nihilism of that scene from Casino involving Joe Pesci and a vice. And Franz Reichle's documentary on Tibetan medicine, The Knowledge of Healing (1997), proved to be a 90-minute infomercial.

Most unreliable of all, perhaps, is Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years in Tibet (1997), which performed an outrageous whitewashing operation upon the dubious past of its main character. The film starred Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian explorer who escaped from a British POW camp and became tutor to the present Dalai Lama. What the film didn't tell its audiences was that Harrer had been a member of the SS. Shortly before Annaud's picture was released, Harrer issued a statement about his association with Hitler. "I was asked to join the SS as an athletic instructor and agreed," he said. "Other than this involvement, I had a purely ceremonial group picture taken with Hitler and other officials during a 1938 sports festival in Breslau."

Seven Years in Tibet might have been a better film if it had suggested that Harrer's Tibetan experiences had persuaded him to swap National Socialism for Nirvana. It didn't. Perhaps its makers feared that depicting the Dalai Lama japing around Lhasa in the company of an SS man might have been construed as a PR victory for Beijing.

The desire in these movies to insulate everything Tibetan from criticism contrasts with Khyentse Norbu's refreshing self-doubt. "I'm very sceptical about who I am. I'm supposed to be the reincarnation of a very great master, and when I look at my own behaviour and my own intention, it doesn't reflect anything of what he did. So I have big doubts. But then again, many Tibetans have a confidence that I am him. So sometimes you just have to accept it."

Reflecting this attitude, The Cup is the first film to portray Tibetan clerics as something other than saffron-wrapped ethereals offering a moral example to the world. The plot focuses on the attempts of a group of monks to persuade their abbot to allow a satellite television into the monastery, so that they can watch the 1998 World Cup Final. There is none of the gobsmacked deference of Kundun or Seven Years in Tibet: we even see these guys passing round underwear catalogues in the dorm.

Khyentse Norbu giggles when I ask him about the legitimacy of his fellow incarnate lama, Steven Seagal, and wonders aloud: "Do you think maybe now he will stop breaking people's bones?" But the Bhutanese tulku has one enthusiasm, however, that puts Seagal's combination of meditation and gung-ho ball-breaking into context. Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, he says, is one of his favourite films. "Maybe I'm being a bit nasty here, but when I saw Natural Born Killers, I thought, `America is like this. This is how it works.' When I saw Titanic I thought it was just a fantasy. Natural Born Killers portrayed America in every cut, every shot. I would make a film like that if I had the opportunity. To show how hungry and messed up we are."

If he ever does it, there ought to be a part in it for Steven Seagal.

`The Cup' (PG) opens on Friday

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