In Oliver Stone's new movie Heaven and Earth, Buddhism plays a major role in a Hollywood movie for the first time. (See interview with Oliver Stone in this issue.) Earlier, What's Love Got to Do with It offered a glimpse of Tina Turner's conversion to the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect, and Bernardo Bertolucci's film Little Buddha is now scheduled for release in April. Rumors of related film projects include plans for Martin Scorsese to direct the dramatic story of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. With all this high-finance film interest, both television and the printed news media have stepped up their coverage of things Buddhist—and with more sympathy than what long-time Buddha-watchers in this country have come to expect. Yet for some dour soothsayers attention from Hollywood is the death knell, the end of any attempt to disseminate true dharma. Certainly, it presents some curious paradoxes.
Oliver Stone's first Vietnam epic, Platoon, swept the Oscars in 1986, but Vietnamese in the U.S. protested what they perceived to be the exploitation of Vietnam war horrors to tell the story of one white boy's coming-of-age. In contrast, Heaven and Earth, based on two autobiographical books by a Vietnamese woman, Le Ly Hayslip, has been enthusiastically received by the Vietnamese community here, but attacked by the mainstream press. Stone suggests that the reviews reveal an inability to relate to an Asian woman played by an unknown Vietnamese actress. The issues provoked by both movies, however, are essentially cultural, not religious. For the Vietnamese, religion is not separated out from culture, and so from this view, it is not Buddhism per se that is threatened by Hollywood. However, in other quarters, Buddhism is just the latest subject to fall victim to Hollywood—and any movie that touches on Buddhism will confirm preconceptions of Hollywood as the enemy of dharma, as samsara incarnate, the ultimate delusion-factory.
However well-intentioned, a protectionist concern about how dharma is being presented to the American public implies a gap between religion and culture that is contrary to the cohesion that we see in Heaven and Earth. It is a concern born of separation, yet it is precisely this disjunction that has allowed Buddhism to spread beyond its Eastern boundaries and that continues to create possibilities for Westerners to explore dharma, however self-consciously.
Concern with the emergence of Buddhist-related films re-animates an old debate: the virtues of disseminating the dharma versus cultivating deep roots. Will the Tibetan monks in Bertolucci's film, for example—some of whom are respected "real" Tibetan monks—be perceived as spreading the dharma, or as spreading it too thin?
According to Donald Lopez's view (see "New Age Orientalism: The Case of Tibet"), Bertolucci may be the latest architect of the Orientalist's dream. But then Lopez is an eminent scholar, too informed to be seduced by romantic myths, and he and Bertolucci have different sorts of work cut out for themselves, and different stories to tell. Oliver Stone's view of Vietnam is not to be confused with Thich Nhat Hanh's, and sitting in a movie theater is not the same as sitting on a meditation cushion (see "Crawling Toward Sitting" by Lawrence Shainberg in the section on zazen). And unless one is a rarefied enlightened spiritual genius, the worldly pleasures of cinema do not offer the same possibilities for attaining the Way as traditional practice methods.
That spreading and deepening the dharma were ever discussed as separate, independent dynamics seems like another example of well-intentioned but misguided protectionism—all the more so when we consider how much Buddhist activity in America was catalyzed in unpredictable and apparently arbitrary ways: by Beat writers including Jack Kerouac (see the latest episode of Wake Up), by psychedelic drugs, even by the Vietnam War itself. Given our own willy-nilly history, Hollywood should not be dismissed as a contemporary vehicle for, at the very least, introducing Buddhism to those unlikely to have any other exposure. With so much dharma activity evolving on so many different levels, it seems evident that spreading and deepening the dharma are completely interdependent, that one cannot exist without the other, that a step in either direction is a step in both.