It wasn’t too long ago that an unambiguous Buddhist monk turned out to be a shocking imposter in a busy New York street. He went along the High Line asking for cash from clueless tourists under the guise of a robe and rosaries; but in the matter of a few hours, the bogus monk emerged from an elevator near the 14th West Park Street in a crewneck T-shirt and a pair of jeans. The incident not only left locals aghast but is also an allegory for how Buddhism has grown into a hipster way of life for many, losing its true essence on the way.
On Buddha Purnima today, it’s worth reliving a presentation on the visual storytelling website Prezi. Titled ‘What aspects of Buddhism are part of pop culture today?’, it unknowingly throws light on everything that has gone wrong with the adaptation of Buddhism in our times. For instance, the ‘ancient physical practice’ of yoga or movies like Bulletproof Monk, apart from all the Om-themed apparel, tattoos, miniatures, posters and so much more.
The West’s tryst with Tibet, which began in the 1960s, also led to two big-budget movies on Tibetan themes in the 90s – Jean Jacques Annaud’s Brad Pitt-starrer Seven Years in Tibet, and Scorsese’s Kundun, shortly after Berolucci’s ‘Little Buddha’. Richard Gere used his celebrity status to promote Tibetan independence and Stephen Seagal was recognised as the reincarnation of an ancient Lama. But the movies flopped, interest of the masses evaporated and Buddhism’s marriage with pop culture could not make the grade.
Even in India, despite various onslaughts against Buddhism over the centuries, the followers of the faith still comprise around one percent of the total population of the country. In Indian pop culture too, the frequency with which people make Buddhist references – be it that hipster friend who wants to visit the Himalayas for ‘meditation’ or the one who calls himself/herself a hobo after visiting *surprise surprise*Kasol – has only been on the rise.
Unlike the West though, India hasn’t truly explored the potential of Buddhist-themed ads, movies, Kung fu specials and Tibetan fantasies yet. But given that many start-ups in the country have already started branding their products (including apparel, underwear and accessories) on these lines, that doesn’t look too far-fetched a reality either. But if Buddhism’s roots, in their true essence, are sunken into the soil beneath the ground of the current generation, it might prove a beneficent force, even if part of it is utilised to promote the most bizarre goods.