The movies Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet will introduce millions of Westerners to the cultural and religious heritage of Tibet, as well as to the Chinese takeover. Indeed, the hope of both screenwritersMelissa Mathison and Becky Johnston is that their movies will catalyze a grass-roots movement capable of influencing the Clinton administration’s policy toward China—specifically, that country’s systematic annihilation of its neighbor. In the flurry of commentary left in the wake of Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s state visit, there is nothing to suggest progress on that front—yet. To my ears, the least compromised—and most courageous—voice heard in the nation’s capital during Jiang’s visit was Richard Gere’s.
Following an interview with Gere that appeared in Tricycle (Spring, 1996), we received several letters from subscribers asking for their subscriptions to be canceled. Put succinctly, one said “I do not wish to subscribe to any Buddhist magazine that has Richard Gere in it.”
Gere is fighting battles on several fronts here. Not only has he fought for attention on behalf of Tibet—even at risk to his career, as he did with his Oscar speech—but he has struggled with a mainstream press determined to reify its own construction of Hollywood stars as brainless bimbos. Better copy. Bigger sales. As William Elison points out (see “From the Himalayas to Hollywood“), the very celebrity that provides Gere and his colleagues with a media spotlight is then held against them—by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
One may argue about the cinematic merits of either Tibet movie, or of Red Corner, the new Gere film, in which the injustices of the Chinese system lie at the heart of the story. One may take issue with historical accuracy, or with Heinrich Harrer’s Nazi past, or with how politically or socially effective any movie can be. But the Buddha Way rests with intention. Intention without attachment to expectation, disappointment, or effect. With regard to Tibet, Gere’s intention, and that of the makers of Kundun and Seven Years, is nothing less than admirable.
The current Administration’s stated China policy is “constructive engagement.” but what is this engagement constructing? What is the intention? The spin from the White House depicts the continued courtship of China into the world capitalist system as a policy intended to combat totalitarian rule. And there are pro-Tibet activists who advocate this view in contrast to more conventional appeals for trade sanctions. According to this school of thought, it’s also possible that Clinton’s policies may result in a better situation for Tibet, even if his intentions are about pandering to big business. That’s the curious twist with intentions: good ones can pave the road to hell and bad ones can prove efficacious.
In historical Tibet, spiritual values were recognized as integral to the conduct of public affairs. Because of this conflation, Kundun and Seven Years will be, for most audiences, an introduction to Buddhism as well as to the plight of Tibet. The movies will be seen by people with no previous knowledge of dharma, no context within which to assimilate information, no way of discerning what is common throughout the Buddhist world and what is particular to the unique Vajrayana path of the Himalayas. For those who want to learn more about Tibetan Buddhism in the West, or about Free Tibet activities, we have provided a resource guide.
But what effect these well-meant intentions—through Hollywood grandstanding, grass-roots efforts by ordinary Americans educating themselves, or Washington’s policy of constructive engagement—will have on either Tibet or the cultural blueprint of the West remains unknowable.
At Tricycle, we have begun a grass-roots initiative of a different sort. The Tricycle Exchange is a membership program designed to help the magazine and to help readers build a sense of community through their common interest in dharma. Every magazine both creates and is informed by a community and in a way, the Exchange is an extension of this. In this issue we acknowledge our gratitude to the charter members and look forward to welcoming new ones.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.