Pod people: Gunga Galunga goes CNN

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Carl: So I jump ship in Hong Kong and I make my way over to Tibet, and I get on as a looper at a course over in the Himalayas.

Angie: A looper?

Carl: A looper, you know, a caddy, a looper, a jock. So, I tell them I’m a pro jock, and who do you think they give me? The Dalai Lama, himself. Twelfth son of the Lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald… striking. So, I’m on the first tee with him. I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one — big hitter, the Lama — long, into a ten-thousand foot crevasse, right at the base of this glacier. Do you know what the Lama says? Gunga galunga … gunga, gunga-lagunga. So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.

Caddyshack (1980)

The Dalai Lama has an impressive resume: chief monk of the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, symbol of Tibet’s aspirations for independence, human rights leader, champion of interfaith dialogue, Nobel peace prize laureate, and cultural icon. While he may be heartily disliked by the Chinese government, Tenzin Gyatso (Dalai Lama is his title) has achieved a degree of renown in his lifetime equal to statesmen such as Nelson Mandela, or faith leaders such as John Paul II.

But this renown, coupled with the Western worldview held by most reporters, serves to obscure news reporting about the Dalai Lama.

In this week’s episode of Crossroads, a GetReligion podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the tendency of Anglo-American journalism to hang the Dalai Lama in a Christian frame. The first 15 minutes of our conversation focused on bullying by The Guardian newspaper of the Church of England in the run up to its vote on July 14, 2014 on women bishops, while the second half moved to Tibet to examine a CNN report on a statement made by the Dalai Lama on the occasion of his 79th birthday last week.

The Tibet story was drawn from my GetReligion article: “Do the words of the Dalai Lama matter to all Buddhists?”, where I argued:

The bottom line: What the CNN team is doing in this story is projecting Christian assumptions about a church and hierarchy upon a non-Christian institution. These assumptions make the story intellectually accessible to a Western reader, but present the issue in a false light.

In his birthday address to the faithful, the Dalai Lama called upon Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka and Mynamar to halt their violent campaign against Muslim minorities and act in a way more befitting their faith. CNN quoted him as saying:

“I urge the Buddhists in these countries to imagine an image of Buddha before they commit such a crime,” he said in the Indian town of Leh. “Buddha preaches love and compassion. If the Buddha is there, he will protect the Muslims whom the Buddhists are attacking.”

The argument I proffered was the approach taken by CNN confused the Western popular culture image of the Dalai Lama (man of peace, Nobel laureate, Tibetan spiritual leader) with an Eastern religious viewpoint (chief monk of the Gegun school of Tibetan Buddhism). In practical terms the Dalai Lama’s strictures about Buddhism hold no juridical or spiritual authority for the monks of Sri Lanka and Mynamar — but may influence those attuned to his status as a world figure.

Is this an example of “Orientalism”, the school of thought popularized by the late Columbia University professor Edward Said? Orientalism was the existence of a “subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and their culture”, Said argued which arose from Western culture’s long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia. Said’s critique focused on the Middle East, but his adherents in the new sociological school of post-Colonial studies have applied this to all non-Western cultures (China, Native Americans, Pacific Islands).

Keith Windshuttle notes that among Said’s claims for Orientalism was that it helped define Europe’s self-image.

“It has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world.” The construction of identity in every age and every society, Said maintains, involves establishing opposites and “Others.” This happens because “the development and maintenance of every culture require the existence of another different and competing alter ego.” Orientalism led the West to see Islamic culture as static in both time and place, as “eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself.” This gave Europe a sense of its own cultural and intellectual superiority. The West consequently saw itself as a dynamic, innovative, expanding culture, as well as “the spectator, the judge and jury of every facet of Oriental behavior.”

While Said’s work has come under sharp criticism from scholars in recent decades, his insights about the “Other” (drawn from his readings Foucault) are germane to reporting on the Dalai Lama. CNN approaches the story about the Dalai Lama in a Christian worldview format. It assumes his authority is that of a Buddhist pope, the hierarchy of Buddhism is akin to the Christian priesthood, and that the moral strictures of Buddhism are the same as those of the Christian (post-Christian) West.

I have argued on the pages of GetReligion that it is a mistake to assume that right and wrong in America is the same as right and wrong in China. My Christian faith teaches me that my understanding of right and wrong is universal — but have I authority to impose this view on other cultures? I can impose this view if I understand that I am engaging in proselytizing — evangelizing for the Christian faith. (And I am conscious that this is the perspective from which I work.)

The issue of perspective becomes a problem, however, when the author is unaware of his own bias or worldview. The CNN story — which was a well written, well-sourced article — came up short because it approached a non-Western faith through Western faith assumptions, and was unaware that it was doing this.

The Dalai Lama was not a religio-political leader, in CNN’s eyes, but a pop culture icon, a highbrow version of Caddyshack‘s gunga galunga skit.

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  • bob

    Interesting. It reminds me of how journalists take it for granted that one Orthodox bishop in Constantinople (Istanbul) is the “Orthodox pope” when there’s no such person. Another orientalism. Orthodox converts frequently practice a kind of occidentalism, tagging anything they left behind as “western” and something to judge harshly. It can sound silly. The Lama is as *cool* as Orthodox clerics with beards, funny hats and incense, and nobody listens to either. They both tend to be more traditional about things like men marrying women.

  • Julia B

    A Western journalism prejudice I find baffling is this : strange and exotic costumes are really cool if worn by people in the East (or by indigenous people in the West); in the West wearing such garb is abhorrent and the sign of idiocy.


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