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The Buddha from Another Planet (Esquire)
World Tibet Network News
Thursday, October 2, 1997
1. The Buddha from Another Planet (Esquire)
by Nancy Griffin
Action star Steven Seagal has now been officially anointed an action lama
IN HIS 1996 FILM, The Glimmer Man, Steven Seagal pretty much plays
himself a hilarious paradox, a devout Buddhist who kicks ass. "I'm not
supposed to right-it's against my religion." He proclaims as an under-cover
cop whose piety is signified by his Chinese shirts and bro-cade jackets.
Behind his trademark scowl, Seagal appears to ponder his karma as he burns
incense and fingers Tibetan prayer beads. When his partner inquires about
the beads. Seagal says. "I use them to calm my mind and purify my
thoughts." That is, until a goon taunts him about his "sissy" heads. and
the Centered One sends the guy flying through a glass wall. "You tell your
asshole boss that no-body. nobody threatens me. warns this Bud-dhist
officer. "Now get your ugly white ass out of here!"
Seagal pushed his uniquely bizarre brand of spirituality close to the outer
limits with The Glimmer Man, but now he's topped himself. This time, he is
playing a ballistic mystic for real. A Tibetan holy man has "recognized"
Seagal as a reincar-nated lama, or tulku, a coveted title in Tibetan
Buddhism. Tibetans revere tulkus as emanations of the Buddha who choose
rebirth to help ease the suffering of others. The closest approximation we
have to this in America would be the crotch-scratching seraph "Travolta
played in Michael.
But Seagal's divine elevation is not a movie joke. and it has stunned
Western Buddhists. many of whose leading figures view it as corrupt and an
embarrassing sideshow to Tibet's political problems. Seagal. who one former
intimate says is
"the only person I know who can use the words motherfuker and Dalai Lama in
the same sentence," is now empowered to wear a lama's robes, instruct
others in Buddhist teach-ings, and even establish his own temple if he
chooses. What will he do? The Dalai Lama himself is watching closely.
In Hollywood, Seagal's new status is seen as a career move, a stab at
reviving his prestige and sagging box-office appeal. The star of Under
Siege and On Deadly Ground used to command $15 million a picture as one of
the world's top purveyors of screen mayhem. but his career peaked in 1992.
A long the fellow action dinosaurs Schwarzenegger and Stallone, he now gets
to watch a pumped-up Nicolas Cage ring the 5100 million bell. Seagal's
populari-ty h-is not been helped by his arrogance and humorousness in
inter-views. Nor has his habit of displaying a handgun at business meetings
en-deared him to his Holly-wood colleagues.
In short. Seagal does not arise in the dreams of many Americans as a
radiant manifestation of the Buddha. And now that he's moonlighting as a
tulku, he's put himself in a bind. Friends insist that his faith is
sincere, Seagal, who declined to be inter-viewed for this article, has been
telling acquaintances that he hopes to use his influence to pro-mote
nonviolence, But he has to keep wreaking carnage on screen or he'll lose
what's left of his audience. After all. when you're an action hero and it's
your job to punish terrorists, let's face it. some-times it takes a
THE STAR OF Hard to Kill was rela-tively late in jumping on the Bud-dhism
bandwagon. By the time Seagal began sidling up to the Dalai Lama at
Hollywood fundraisers a few years ago, Richard Gere had al-ready been
friends with His Holiness for ten years. Having long been a stu-dent of
Japanese Buddhism and martial arts. Seagal began to seek out Tibetan
masters. In 1995. he chartered a plane in India and Hew around the
subconti-nent. visiting Buddhist monasteries. The lamas were wowed.
He became close with Penor Rin-poche. the supreme head of the Nying-ma
Tibetan Buddhist lineage. As it happened. Penor Rinpoche was start-ing to
establish teaching centers in the United States. Seagal made generous
donations to his organization, inviting him to Los Angeles to teach and
sponsoring his visit there.
Last year. Seagal told acquaintances that he believed he had been a holy
man In a previous life. Friends say he told his guru of these feelings and
asked to be recognized. Traditionally, the title tulku is conferred on
those deemed to possess exceptional spiritual qualities. They are usually
discovered as chil-dren. and only a dozen or so have been recognized in the
Western world. Sea-gal was about to become one of them.
IT WAS LIKE A SCENE out of Little Buddha. Penor Rinpoche assembled fifteen
hundred monks and nuns last Febru-ary in the ornate main hall of the
Namdroling monastery in Bylakuppe, In-dia. The giant statue of the Buddha
was lit with butter lamps. After offer-ings of chants and prayers, the lama
told the faithful that he had had many dreams and signs that Steven Seagal
was the reincarnation of a long-dead Tibetan lama, Chokden Dorjee, who was
a terton, or revealer of treasures. Penor Rinpoche told Seagal that he had
a great obligation to benefit other beings. Traditional long horns were
blown, and the action star lowered his six-foot-four frame onto a large
throne with ornamental silk cushions. Sol-emnly, the martial-arts master
was reinstated on the seat he had occupied in his previous life.
Buddhist Web sites soon buzzed with scuttlebutt that the "Tinseltown tulku"
had bought his title like a feudal baron, allegations that Seagal's
spokes-woman denied. insisting that the star had earned it "on his own
merits." But the presumption that this was a case of a lama license for
sale quickly took hold among all but the most traditional prac-titioners.
Several prominent Western Buddhist teachers regarded it as a disas-trous
attempt on the part of Penor Rinpoche to ensure the survival of his
lin-eage in the States. "My suspicion. and I must admit it's a cynical one,
is that this is a political-financial move," says Stephen Batchelor, a
former monk and the author of Buddhism Without Beliefs. "The instance with
Seagal is a case where the Tibetans have seriously misjudged."
Adds Jamyang Norbu, a writer and political commentator, "It's all so
ridiculous,' it makes all Tibetans look like fools. This actor is clearly
mad, and he lives with a houseful of guns. This is going to backfire on
The Dalai Lama has expressed concern about the proliferation of tulkus. and
other abuses by lamas in the West. Perhaps because he does not wield
spiritual authority over all the lin-eages, however, he has kept his
feelings about specific tulku discoveries to himself, "He's in a delicate
position," says Robert Thurman, a renowned Tibetan scholar. "He doesn't
want to be rude to the lamas who do it. because his role is as a mediator."
Still the Dalai Lama has issued a strong admonition to Buddhists. "Make a
thorough examination before accept-ing someone as a guru." he said, "and
even then, follow that teacher within the conventions of reason.
THE ACTION STAR and now bone-crunching guru has taken every oppor-tunity to
bask in the Dalai Lama's saffron glow. Last summer, he raised 525,000 for
an American Himalayan Foundation fundraiser in Beverly Hills 'It which the
Dalai Lama was the featured speaker,' Seagal requested, and was granted, a
front-and-center table. This past June. when the Dalai Lama gave extensive
teachings in Los Ange-les, Seagal was in the front row every day The fact
that Gere sat two rows back was not lost on the Hollywood scorekeepers.
The Dalai Lama's inner circle of ad-visers, which has never included a
marketing expert, was slow to grasp Seagal'sbrutish public image. Once it
did. it began to fret that this particular movie star might not benefit His
Holiness and Tibet at a time when pressure is being stepped up on the
Chinese government to loosen its grip on the homeland. Sea-gal didn't help
himself by being pushy in his efforts to get next to the Dalai Lama, and
restraints were put into effect to keep him at a comfortable distance.
Seagal recently tried to join a con-ference in San Francisco called
Peace-making: The Power of Nonviolence, at which the Dalai Lama and one
other Nobel Peace laureate lectured. But local conference or-ganizers who
work in the inner city insisted that an icon of destruc-tion did not belong
on the same dais with the Dalai Lama. Frustrated by the rejection, Seagal
protested, "Everyone loves me in the inner city! All the black kids love
The action lama has said little, meanwhile, about how he plans to live his
life as a tulku. "The biggest danger is that he will build a temple in his
backyard, build a throne, and become a gu-ru," says one longtime Buddhist.
There is no evidence of that yet. He will travel to India and Katmandu in
November to study and Seagal says be also intends to teach. Other Buddhist
lecturers scoff at that. "He's a martial-arts master, not a Buddhist
master," says Surya Das, a prominent Western lama.
As for his film career, Seagal, whose latest movie, Fire Down Below, opens
in September, recently claimed that he would not make any more violent
mov-ies. Nevertheless, this fall he'll get 510 million to star in a new
action thriller called The Patriot. The tulku will play a peaceable man, a
holistic doctor. In the story, a right-wing Montana militia leader
unleashes a deadly virus, killing half the state's population. The doctor
must find a cure. Then he has to face down the deranged militiaman-and a
hero's gotta do what a hero's gotta do.
"His character is pushed to become violent when all else fails. He has to
take action," explains Patriot producer Nile Niami. "He has to save the
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