With a little help from Tiger Woods and PBS, Buddhism may finally shake its counterculture image.

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April 6 2010 5:49 PM

You've Come a Long Way, Buddha

With a little help from Tiger Woods and PBS, Buddhism may finally shake its counterculture image.

The Buddha.
The Buddha

When America's most famous Buddhist tees off at Augusta later this week, I'll be watching more closely for the bracelet he's promised to wear—a popular symbol of his professed faith—than for what he does to the ball. In some ways, Tiger Woods' recent and very public return to Buddhism is more interesting than his return to professional golf.

That Woods was raised Buddhist is nothing remarkable; what's striking is the down-to-earth, family-guy image of Buddhism projected in his comeback campaign. Cynical or sincere, when Tiger faced the cameras back in February, his mention of Buddhism was clearly meant to convey (Brit Hume's Christian proselytizing notwithstanding) a safe and reassuring sense of groundedness and traditional values. "I need to regain my balance and be centered," Woods intoned. Or as he told an interviewer more recently, "I quit meditating, I quit being a Buddhist, and my life changed upside down."

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The image of Buddhism in America has not always been so, as they used to say, square. I can't help thinking of Hugh Grant as a very worldly art dealer in Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks. Asked at a Manhattan dinner party whether he studied art in school, Grant replies: "No, I didn't. I often think I should have done. I studied literature. Then inevitably wound up as a stockbroker. Then I dropped out, went to Japan, became a Buddhist, blah, blah, blah."

That's more like it. The exquisite "blah, blah, blah" nails a certain type of cosmopolitan poseur everyone seems to know—and an attitude toward Buddhism that's all too common. Indeed, when you think of Buddhism's place in mainstream American consciousness, it's most often seen as, if not a punch line, then a fashionable cause (think Tibet), a counterculture relic (think the Beats and their psychedelic '60s followers), a marketing gimmick (think "Zen" teas and glossy yoga magazines), a quasi-spiritual travel itinerary (think generations of Western backpacker-seekers in Asia, among whom, I confess, I must count my younger self)—or some combination of the above.

For the most part, outside of religion departments and the pages of Buddhist magazines and blogs, it's rare for Buddhism to be seen squarely and simply as what it is: a vibrant global religion and spiritual practice that's been offering "balance" and "centeredness" for 2,500 years and counting.

Oddly enough, the Tiger Woods spectacle coincides with the arrival on Wednesday night of a high-profile PBS documentary, The Buddha, which sets out to do precisely that rare thing. By telling the life story of Siddhartha Gautama (aka, the Buddha)—and letting us hear directly from some very articulate Buddhists, in clear and accessible terms, what the stories mean to them—the film manages to convey something like the essence of Buddhist teaching. It's a two-hour Buddhist Sunday-school lesson for grown-ups, and perhaps their kids, as well, courtesy of public television. (Feast on that, Mr. Hume.)

Buddhism, of course, isn't exactly news to Americans. Way back in 1958, the year of Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, high-tide of the Beat era, Time profiled Zen popularizer Alan Watts, who'd just published his famous essay "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," and declared that Buddhism was "growing more chic by the minute." (In 1997 Time put "Buddhism in America" on its cover—thanks to Martin Scorsese's Kundun and Brad Pitt in Seven Years in Tibet—and reported that it was more than a passing fad.)

By 1967, Beat icons Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were chanting and circumambulating San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, headliners for the epochal Human Be-In along with Timothy Leary, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), the Grateful Dead, and others—a scene painted by Don Lattin in his new book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club. Until the 14th Dalai Lama became the face of Buddhism to the West (with an assist from Hollywood and the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize), that Beat/counterculture image—unkempt and trippy, libertine, a little vague and undisciplined yet politically engaged—clung to Buddhism in America. Discernible traces of it still do.

Poets Ginsberg and Snyder, even more so than Kerouac, are the key figures in the history of that image. As their fascinating, 40-year-long correspondence (published in 2008) reminds us, they represent distinct sensibilities and trajectories as counterculture Buddhism merged into the mainstream. Snyder—who trained for years under Zen masters in Japan—blazed the trail, taking the more traditional and rigorous route. (His Mountains and Rivers Without End, which he calls "a kind of sutra," spans four decades of poetic and Buddhist practice.) Ginsberg's path, if no less sincere, was more eccentric, more "counter," and a lot more visible. The idea that Buddhism is more about personal liberation from oppressive social convention—call it sex, drugs, and yoga—rather than a self-disciplined practice leading, above all, to an ethics of compassion, is (deservedly or not) one of the counterculture's lasting legacies.

Now along comes The Buddha on PBS, a documentary that seems to say, ever so quietly, goodbye to all that. Filmmaker David Grubin gives us a Buddhism that's ready to be seen as just another part of the religious landscape—no longer exotic, countercultural, "New Age," or in any way sensational. (Even the film's too-predictable narrator, Richard Gere, stays out of the spotlight—tastefully offstage, heard but not seen.)

Grubin opens with women working in lush fields and the sound of Indian-inflected strings and flute, as Gere's voice gently begins what could be a bedtime story: "2,500 years ago, nestled in a fertile valley along the border between India and Nepal, a child was born who was to become the Buddha"—which, as we learn, means the "awakened one," an enlightened being. "The world is filled with pain and sorrow, the Buddha would one day teach," Gere's co-narrator Blair Brown tells us. "But I have found a serenity, he told his followers, that you can find too."

Tracing the arc of the Buddha's life—an epic physical and interior journey to enlightenment, a kind of extended parable passed down by oral tradition and eventually preserved in scripture—Grubin takes us on a pilgrimage to the four major sites of Buddhist lore. Along the way we're treated to gorgeous photography of a contemporary—and idealized—religious India. The camera moves over Buddhist art from across Asia, illustrating the narrative. It's high-class stuff. Even the playful, dreamlike animated sequences, wisely used to dramatize the mythical and supernatural elements of the ancient stories, have a classical feel.

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