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The Vicious Wheel of Life


Last week I had a brush with a real-live Living Buddha. He was quite fat, and his “triple robe” split open like curtains on his ruddy, sun-spotted breast. As he waddled his way down the jagged path under the aid of a teen novice and our host, he cast a haunting shadow in front of our headlights. “Not to worry.” the Living Buddha murmured to the host, cryptically, as they parted ways. “Things will get better and better.”

All of us had been attending a birthday bash at the foot of the Great Wall, thrown by and for our host, who was celebrating 50 years of his (present) life. A denizen of Beijing’s avant-garde arts scene, this man scooted off to Tibet in the aftermath of Tiananmen uprising in 1989; later he made his name shooting groundbreaking documentary films that demystified the pastoral lifestyles and ascetic traditions of the most world-famous of Communist China’s 55 official minorities; many were shown for educational purposes on state television.

These days, he has an eclectic new dream house in the hills by the emperors’ tombs outside Beijing, Among his oldest buddies from Tibet, he counts many a Living Buddha. His own two boys already have been consecrated embodiments of the next generation. And his spiritual guide, on this night, was the Living Buddha Rigsang Dorjee Rinpoche, great monk of the Thongdrol Samten Ling Monastery in the Xigatse district of Tibet. He had flown up all the way from Lhasa for the event.

The meal was a prodigious barbecue: tenderloin tips, chicken wings, and skewered riverfish, all washed down by wine and beer. The Red Highlands, a female trio considered serious pop stars in Tibet, sachayed their way through a few Himalayan yodels. A bohemian folk posse from Beijing, led by a cuckoo improv singer named Xiao He, did raunchy folk songs. As the night wore on, the crowd, which consisted of aging creatives of the 1980’s hippie generation, plus a few China hands and a least one “princeling” son of a recent Communist Party leader, began to booty dance on the front patio.

Not the kind of event where you might expect to see a Living Buddha. But this was no ordinary Living Buddha. Growing up, his parents had been members of Tibetan Buddhist choral troupes. And he was following in their footsteps. “Here, play my CD,” he said – well, wheezed – soon after he and the novice getting in the car. Like a happy-go-lucky child, he leaned forward from the backseat, hooked his blubbery limbs around the seat-heads in front, and breathed husky Mandarin into the ear of the driver (me). “This is just a demo…But the record should be released later this year.”

The songs were chanted sutras, synthed up in a Guangzhou pop studio with monasterial chimes and similar bells and whistles “This way we can spread our teachings to a lot more people,” the Living Buddha said. The third track was a particularly slow and somber one. We asked him what it was about. “You guess,” he retorted.

Reincarnation?” I ventured.

“Right,” he said. “People live in boundlessness, endlessly seeking, and endlessly missing out, until they grow old and die, and head into Samsara. So why must life be so full of greed? In the end you haven’t a thing in the world. So don’t be agitated. On occasion you should try isolating yourself in contemplation and practice perfection. Just take a little bit of zamba (roasted barley flour) and a little bit of water. Once your spirit is purified, you find you have no demands or desires.”

It’s unlikely Rigsang Dorjee Rinpoche will ever go platinum in China – he’d need a sordid sex life first. But he is playing to a booming market here for distinctly new-age sources of self-improvement and soul-seeking. The trend got going five to ten years ago but was still fairly closeted, mainly figuring on late-night radio and in bookstores. But quietly, a pack of Chinese wellness doctors began vying for the title of “China’s Deepak Chopra”, and books like “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and “Who Stole My Cheese?” were raging bestsellers. Now, in China’s urban centers, it’s become a popular form of group fun. The emergent upper-middle class is out to work out their emotions. And all sorts of people I know – lay people – are styling themselves their gurus…

One Chinese friend, formerly a top investigative journalist in southern China, gave it all up to become a psychiatrist. She’s importing a well-known American self-help program of psychoanalysis meted out at group therapy sessions. Another buddy, a thespian and NGO worker, is giving acting lessons. My wife, who’s Chinese, is currently one of his students. He called me up a couple days, pleading: “Jonathan, when will you join?” I told him it was pointless for me; I only work at the lowest rung of mimesis (journalism). He told me the point wasn’t to teach method acting or anything of the sort. “This will help you come in touch with yourself, express yourself.”

Alternately, you might try reading Psychologies magazine. The debut issue of the brand new Chinese-language title, brought to newsstands by the Hachette Filipachi (the people who publish Elle in France, the U.S. and China), has Sophie Marceau on the cover. It’s got a feature package on building self-esteem, and enlightened tips for the young married woman dealing with the ever-disapproving popo (mother-in-law) and the parents who see their kids as star idolaters and chat-room addicts.

It’s all too easy to chalk up this schmaltzy search for inner strength to a manifestation of how Westernized, globalized, and commoditized China’s urban culture has become. After all, this, we are taught, was a society predisposed to sublimating its individual emotions and neuroses to the mass order of the age – be it the empire, the Confucian family, the people’s commune, or the conspicuous consumption of today, and the attendant peer pressure to keep up with the Zhou’s. Meanwhile, in secular life, fortune tellers, Party neighborhood committees and other social mediators have been counted on to try to make up for the personal problems and interpersonal differences.

Yet now, that much-idealized harmonic tension is the subject of pop parody, not unlike the way it was in the great banned books of Imperial times (The Plum in the Golden Vase, for example). A movie-director friend, has a new film out called Karmic Mahjong. In the sweet n’ sour slapstick drama by Wang Guangli, an impotent football gambler and his mahjong-mad wife only crack their many marital problems, ironically, after their fortune teller is bumped off. Last but not least, there’s the Buddha Machine, one of the must-have “box sets” of 2005, according to The New York Times. A brainchild of the Beijing-bred experimental laptop duo FM3, it’s their takeoff on the music boxes played and sold at Buddhist monasteries around China: three minutes of ambient loops, played over and over again.

But let’s psychoanalyze this kitschy commercial craze for a moment, for there’s more to it than meets the eye. In parallel to it, Chinese have seen one of the biggest meditation movements in history, Falun Gong, banned, tortured and subjected to brainwashing. The ranks of Protestants in house churches and Catholics loyal to Rome have swelled, despite constant harassment from local authorities, to uncounted tens of millions (in contrast to the 15 million or so congregants of China’s legal “Patriotic” churches, which ultimately defer to the Communist Party). And the Internet has become the reckless subconscious of a restrained traditional media, still-owned by the state. In fact, China’s people have got a ton of emotional baggage to unload, and a relative paucity of free and open places to dump it.

So maybe someday millions of people will find peace in the riffs of the Living Buddha Rigsang Dorjee Rinpoche. I, for one, told him I needed to hear his blessing. “Too many people hope the Living Buddha will bless them…” he replied, and for a moment, his tone grew somber. “So that is why there are so many phony Living Buddhas.” (Officially, Tibetan Buddhism boasts around 1,700).

“But how can you distinguish real and fake?” I inquired. “Should you really have to go out of your way to distinguish?” he answered. “As long as the Buddha is in your heart, the Buddha will surely bless you.”

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