When you finally do achieve enlightenment, Judge Mike Pinsky says you will be thankful to cast off mediocre material possessions like this dull DVD.
"So awareness through education."—the Dalai Lama
There is an old koan that remarks: If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him. Perhaps it means that any alleged Buddha you might meet in the material world cannot really be what he claims. Perhaps it refers to an inner journey, and that along the road of your life, you can only attain true enlightenment by casting off the literal tenets of your belief system. Or perhaps it means something else, since, after all, it is impossible to explain or express the way to enlightenment. That is why koans develop—spiritual puzzles that can only speak indirectly about a philosophy that is often known for its maddening indirectness.
In this way, the role of the 14th Dalai Lama in the West has become deeply ironic. In Buddhism, withdrawal from the world, rejection of maya, is a spiritual virtue. And yet, political realities have forced the Dalai Lama into exile and placed him in the role of activist. He must represent the Tibetan people as captives of the oppressive Chinese government, and thus, he becomes our contemporary replacement for the Mosaic leaders (Martin Luther King, Gandhi) who spoke in defense of freedom and against colonialism throughout our recent historical memory. He must be engaged in the world in a fashion almost counter to the precepts of his religion. And it is a testament to his intelligence and humor that he has managed to play that role for Western liberalism for half a century.
In September of 2003, the Dalai Lama came to New York under the sponsorship of Tibet House for a conference on "Ethical Revolution and the World Crisis." Dropping the potentially contentious word "revolution" from the title, indie cabler Link TV and Wellspring have packaged segments of the conference into Ethics and the World Crisis, a 68-minute presentation that is ultimately neither fish nor fowl.
Segments of this show are taken from the conference itself, in which panelists representing topic areas sit on stage, make lengthy comments about the responsibilities of those in power to act for peace and justice, and listen to brief remarks (sometimes in English and sometimes translated by interpreter) by the Dalai Lama agreeing with them. The Dalai Lama really has little to do here but bask in the glow of his fans. Instead, Susan Sarandon and the editor of The Nation lecture us (while pretending to lecture the Dalai Lama) about the responsibility of the media. Russell Simmons lectures us about the responsibility of corporations. They are usually right. But that is not the issue with Ethics and the World Crisis. That is not the reason that I found this presentation so frustrating.
I approached this as a critical thinker interested in the problem of ethics. I have written on the subject extensively (as longtime readers of DVD Verdict are probably sick of hearing by this time). But watching this closely, listening to the words, taking notes on what the Dalai Lama says (even though I am not an adherent of Buddhism), there is nothing really quotable here. Or insightful beyond what I already knew. This reinforces criticisms already made about our responsibility (or lack thereof) regarding the state of world affairs, from economics to the environment. And I suspect anybody who would watch this already agrees with most things that are said here. When the participants namedrop Chomsky and complain about corporate influences, it is preaching to the converted. Thus, the function of this program is to see the viewer's point-of-view endorsed by an authority figure, namely the Dalai Lama.
This is not to say that the Dalai Lama is wrong when he makes his occasional pronouncements here. When he says that America's real strength is not weapons, but democracy, and that the way to solve the "world crisis" is to meet face-to-face, listen to that other—well, he is almost certainly correct. Ironically, however, Ethics and the World Crisis is not about listening to multiple points of view and negotiating the common ground. It is about one point-of-view. Admittedly, the intent here is to pit this point-of-view against the dominant corporate conservatism mantra, generated by the White House and megacorporations and repeated uncritically by Fox and friends. Really, why does the White House need to pay journalists to sell its agenda, when most of them are already doing it in order to get airtime on their corporate-owned networks?
Anyway, the point is this: If this is intended to counter the party line in the spirit of open dialogue, it really only manages to close itself off. There are no dissenting viewpoints presented in the stage show itself—no genuine dialogue at all. Only a single voice spoken by different people. And this is unlikely to be marketed toward or purchased by anyone who does not already agree uncritically with everything said here. Even though I do agree with most of the things said during this presentation, this monolithic approach disturbs me.
What gives me hope, however, are the moments in the presentation where participants like Simmons or ice-cream mogul Ben Cohen tell us, "We did this," or, "Our company took this stand." In other words, these are the moments when these talking heads shut up and actually did something. In Buddhism, the world is ultimately only a stepping stone to higher awareness. The current Dalai Lama is perhaps different from his predecessors in that his exile, the awareness that his home country is suffering a genuine political crisis, has forced him to be more engaged in the material world, to be more pragmatic than a life of monastic worship would otherwise entail. And so he travels, converses, leads as both spiritual leader and advocate for nonviolence.
But without a homeland or specific agenda (like Gandhi and Indian independence), the Dalai Lama has become pure celebrity, the embodiment of spiritual purity that marks a rallying point for contemporary liberalism in the same way that, say, the average pope acts as a rallying point for conservatism. Spiritual leaders give your beliefs legitimacy. Irrespective of what the Dalai Lama actually writes in his books, he does not need to say much of anything here—he only has to nod and say he is happy or unhappy with some abstract situation. Then the fellow participants on the stage explain their own positions, say, "We need your wisdom" (his nods indicate that whatever wisdom they seek is being psychically transmitted rather than concretely spoken), listen to a sentence of vague agreement, and then continue lecturing us.
After wading through an hour of this, with no subtitles and occasionally garbled sound (a product of the live recording process), the viewer might feel a little disconnected. The live segments are constantly interrupted by taped segments of the participants continuing to press their particular agendas. Each thematic unit (media, economics, environmentalism, et cetera) lasts no longer than it takes to lay out one side of the issue without debate. And we hear far too much from everyone except the Dalai Lama.
Only in the last section, which explicitly addresses politics, does the Dalai Lama seem to wake up and take charge. This is because the devastating reality of the Tibetan situation is finally brought to the foreground. China holds his people, six million Tibetans, hostage. But then the group on stage veers off on a rant about the evils of nuclear technology, which leads to a blanket statement that the whole planet should be demilitarized. Finally, the Dalai Lama calls the audience childish for blindly clapping at everything and tells them to go take action. And of course, the audience goes back to clapping blindly. Did they even hear him?
Ethics and the World Crisis is filled with good intentions. But it tells me nothing that I did not already know, offers no concrete solutions or even clear elaborations of specific problems. It reinforces many of my existing beliefs without offering any critical perspective or pragmatic guidance. Ethics is about encountering the other, learning something new. It is about evolution. In this sense, I find that Ethics and the World Crisis fails in its ethical mission. It simply spins in a circle, like a Tibetan prayer wheel.
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