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The Joy of Sects

The Guardian (London), March 27, 1998, Copyright 1998 Guardian Newspapers Limited

From scanner@where.when Wed Apr  1 17:04:34 BST 1998

Screen: The joy of sects; From Travolta to Madonna to Gere, the stars
are reaching out for Hollywood's new holy trinity - Scientology, the
Jewish-based Kabbalah and Buddhism. But Jeff Dawson wonders if their
new-found fervour is anything more than this year's yoga for yuppies


Madonna, Roseanne and Courtney Love are all converts to the Kabbalah;
John Travolta and Tom Cruise bang the gong for Scientology; Richard Gere
and Tina Turner twirl their beads for Buddha; add the plethora of
religious-themed movies like Kundun bursting out of the major studios
and suddenly Hollywood seems to have taken a huge leap of faith.

Religious imagery has always abounded in Tinseltown. Cecil B De Mille
managed to make biblical epics that allowed him to get sex scenes past
the censors. With no such excuse needed today how to explain, in the
last 18 months, a slew of angel movies (Michael, The Preacher's Wife,
the forthcoming City Of Angels); higher-power films like Phenomenon,
Commandments, The Apostle and the recent Fallen; ruminations like
Contact, a dressed-up polemic about man, God and the universe; even
DNA-shrouded creation lessons like The Lost World and Gattaca? Throw in
Devil's Advocate and the impending Meet Joe Black and, hell, even Old
Nick gets a sympathetic airing.

On American TV, too, the Hand of God has been evident. earthy TV shows
like Grace Under Fire, The Larry Sanders Show and Homicide, have aired
big questions. 'Religion is something that viewers seem to be seeking
out more strongly than ever before,' says Warren Littlefield, head of
the NBC network that produces Homicide. How very different from the
1970s and 1980s when films like The Exorcist and The Life Of Brian
evoked outrage. Even a couple of years ago, crusading critic Michael
Medved was citing modern Hollywood as godless, with any screen killer
worth his salt from Cape Fear to Copycat evoking some spurious biblical
motive for offing his brethren.

Not that Christianity has any monopoly on Hollywood's spiritual
outpourings. Kundun, made by former altar boy Martin Scorsese (whose
Last Temptation Of Christ caused no small outrage) is an ethereal saga
of the 14th and current Dalai Lama, from his discovery in the obscure
mountain reaches of Tibet to his escape after the Chinese occupation.

It's the second Buddhist-themed movie in three months, coming on the
heels of Seven Years In Tibet, the tale of Austrian mountaineer Heinrich
Harrer (Brad Pitt) who, on stumbling into the Himalayan kingdom during
the second world war, gets in touch with his inner child and ends up
tutoring the same young Dalai Lama.

Just for good measure, the brutality of the Beijing regime (and by
association, the question of Tibetan freedom) will be emphasised by
Richard Gere in next month's The Red Corner, about a western businessman
mired in the Chinese judicial system.

Gere took centre stage with leading Buddhists during protests last year
against Chinese premier Jiang Zemin's visit to Washington. A Buddhist
for 10 years or more, Gere has been banned not only from China but also
>from  the Academy Awards after his tirade against Beijing while
presenting an Oscar. And Tina Turner, Herbie Hancock, Beastie Boys
singer Adam Yauch and Michael Stipe are all practising buddhists.

It's not the first time Americans have flirted with Boo-dha. Kerouac and
the Beats celebrated the Dharma Bums, and Vietnam helped words like Zen,
Karma, Nirvana and Koan (used as a mantra in Jerry Maguire) gain
currency. Bertolucci's 1993 film Little Buddha, despite the unlikely
casting of Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha, probably tells the layman more
about Buddhist philosophy than any more recent films.

Current American Tibet Chic includes a new make-up called Zen Blush, a
TV sitcom called Dharma And Greg, a fruit juice called Passion Potion
(the container you reincarnate rather than recycle) and shops like the
Bodhi Tree in west Hollywood.

David Halle, professor of sociology at UCLA, says 'creative people are
always looking for something new and something different, so I don't
think it's surprising that LA is the place where new ideas and fringe
stuff flourish.' But it's hardly fringe: there are 1,200 Buddhist titles
currently on bookshelves, from serious meditations to cook books.
Pro-Tibet concerts pack them in. There are now an estimated 100,000
American Buddhists. And since 1989 (the year the Dalai Lama got his
Nobel Peace Prize) Buddhist teaching centres in the US have more than
doubled, from 429 to 1,062.

Of course the path to true Enlightenment never runs smooth. The
revelation, after filming Seven Years In Tibet, that Heinrich Harrer was
a member of the Nazi Party was certainly an embarrassment. 'I always
thought Harrer was SS,' explains Gere. 'The story's about transformation
anyhow, so in terms of story -telling, the worse he is in the beginning,
the more powerful it is at the end.' To many Jews in the film industry,
time and money could have been better served than by glorifying an Aryan
pin-up. Still, at least some Hollywood Jews can take comfort in their
alliance with Scientology and its own Tinseltown guru John Travolta
(whose film Phenomenon, about a simple man who attains instant mystic
powers, is pretty much a recruitment campaign for that creed).

When Travolta and his expanding Church of Scientology (whose members
include Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Kirstie Alley and Anne Archer) went
on the rampage against the German government last year, claiming that
legislation had discriminated against practising Scientologists, 34
non-Scientologists from the US movie industry - including Jews Dustin
Hoffman and showbiz lawyer Bertram Fields (who represents Cruise) - took
out a full-page advertisement in the International Herald Tribune
addressed to Chancellor Kohl. 'In the 1930s, it was the Jews,' it read.
'Today it is the Scientologists.' Travolta is even rumoured to have
offered to go soft in his portrayal of the President in Primary Colors
in return for Clinton bringing diplomatic weight to bear on the Germans.

But judging by the number of red ribbons adorning wrists these days in
the shopping malls of LA's chic west side, the fastest-growing club now
seems to be the one marked Jewish Mysticism by way of devotion to a
doctrine called the Kabbalah, which counts Roseanne, Elizabeth Taylor,
Barbra Streisand, Sandra Bernhard, Jeff Goldblum, Laura Dern, Donna
Karan, Isaac Mizrahi as prime exponents, and, most famously, Madonna
(new album: Ray of Light), who has been known to throw the odd Kabbalah
bash with potato latkes and knishes at her Beverly Hills offices.

Kabbalah is the hip spiritual movement, unusual for an obscure branch of
Judaism - part philosophy, part mathematics - once deemed beyond even
the most dogged of Jewish scholars. It is now in the mainstream thanks
to The Bible Code, the bestseller, which purports, according to
Kabbalitic principle, that the Old Testament can be decoded as a
blueprint of man's destiny.

'The ancient Kabbalists revealed in the Zohar, their definitive book,
that as we approach the Hebrew year 7560, which happens to correspond to
the year 2000 - actually September 11, 1999 - their teachings will, for
the first time, reach the far corners of the earth,' says Bill Phillips,
the chirpy spokesperson for LA's Kabbalah centre. Sabbath services have
grown 'to capacity crowds of 400, and that's in addition to centres in
New York, Chicago, Toronto, Paris, Mexico City, Chile and Argentina.'
That Kabbalah is intelligible to a bunch of showbiz flakes rather than
learned Rabbis is because the new method permits students to skip all
that tiresome reading - Kabbalah Trite as some cynics have called it.
Phillips says: 'It transcends age, it transcends gender, it transcends
socio-economics.' It would also seem to transcend religion in that many
of the new practitioners - notably Madonna, who recently renounced the
older Hollywood devotion of working out in favour of yoga - aren't
Jewish at all and can dabble without having to give up the faith of
their birth - important for those style-conscious celebrities not quite
prepared to make that lifetime commitment. Instant Karma, if you will.

This has been most evident within Buddhist circles where Stephen
Batchelor's how-to book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, which suggests
getting rid of all that boring karma and reincarnation stuff, has been
countered by leading Buddhist authority Professor Robert Thurman (Uma's
father), who acted as spiritual adviser on both Seven Years In Tibet and
Kundun. He protests that you can't simply have your Buddhism karma-free,
like a self-help doctrine for Hollywood types who've already worked
their way through the Chicken Soup For The Soul books and New Age gurus
like Marianne Williamson and, of course, Deepak Chopra. Courtney Love,
for example, seems to have had a crack at both Buddhism and Kabbalah.

Indeed, a furore has already erupted over the ordaining of
violent-action star Steven Seagal as a Tulku, the reincarnation of
revered holy man Chokden Dorjee and an emanation of the Buddha, who
eases the suffering of others.

Seagal, who has been known to flash hardware during business meetings,
recently made The Glimmer Man, portraying a devout Buddhist buddy-cop
who kicked a lot of ass. It is easy to see why some western Buddhists
find it all a tad embarrassing. One observer says: 'Steven Seagal is the
only person I know who can use the words motherfucker and Dalai Lama in
the same sentence.' 'I don't know what to think,' chuckles Gere when the
Seagal question is raised. 'I have seen stranger things.' Perhaps the
sudden clamour for spiritual well-being on behalf of the entertainment
world has a simple explanation. Professor Halle says: 'If you ask
Americans whether the Bible's literally true or not, 30 per cent say
every word is true, every word is God's word; 26 per cent say it's
written by men but inspired by God.

'You know most Americans go to church. I wouldn't underestimate that. I
wouldn't think the Hollywood crowd are different. They want to go to
something that's like church but jazzed up. You know, they're different,
but they're also similar.' Or maybe it's just plain old escapism. As
Madonna has said, the Kabbalah centre is 'the one place I don't feel
like a celebrity'.

'Material possessions don't necessarily generate inner fulfilment,' adds
Phillips. 'Kabbalah gives you a DNA-like ability to do some spiritual
genetic engineering in your life and that has peaked the interest,
whether for Hollywood or the average person in the street. These people
just showed up at our door. Whether it's Buddhism or quantum physics for
that matter, people are searching for answers.' But watch out. As Buddha
himself decreed, everything is cyclical. Last December saw the huge
World Culture and Sports Festival III in Washington, graced by a number
of leading musicians. The gig (and mass wedding of 30,000) was presided
over by Reverend Sun Myung Moon head of the Unification Church, a sect
dismissed in the 1970s as a bunch of brain-washers. The Moonies, too,
are back.

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