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Buddhism as Orientalism on American Cultural Landscape: The Cinematic Orientalization of Tibetan (Tantric) Buddhism

Author(s): Che-ming Yang

Journal: Arts and Social Sciences Journal
ISSN 2151-6200

Volume: 2010;
Start page: ASSJ;
Date: 2010;
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Keywords: Orientalism | Said | Bhabha | Buddhism | Dharma | Americanization | Misrepresentation | Orientalization | Cinema | Little Buddha | Music and Lyrics

In this paper I will just cite two American movies—Little Buddha and Music and Lyrics—to illustrate how (Tibetan) Buddhism (or Dharma) has long been misrepresented and Orientalized on American cultural landscape. Since its spread to the West in the 19thcentury, Buddhism has long been a target or source in the Westerners’ creation of Orientalism in the arts or even mass media. In mass media, Buddhism (especially Tibetan Buddhism) has long been a source for commercial films (e.g. The Little Buddha, directed by Bertrolucci in 1993). Some of them may have been an attempt to present Buddhism as some Oriental spiritual practice or an Oriental mysticism that looks appealing to the American/Western audience and thus satisfies the Westerners’ exotic taste. Reasons of the Americanization or secularization of Buddhism may be caused by Buddhist diasporas that lead to the alienation and contestation of Dharma in a Christian context. Hence, misinterpretation is the way of understanding/interpreting a new culture. On the other hand, the misrepresentation is an inevitable phenomenon when an idea or object is translated into a foreign culture in which there is no equivalent to the idea/object. Since cinema is a main medium for public entertainment and commercial profit in the contemporary postmodern world, it could easily reflect the mass consensus of some cultural phenomenon. Hence, the misinterpretations or stereotypes of Buddhism revealed on the American cinema at least highlight the emerging need and popularity of the Dharma/Buddhism in western spiritual practice as well as its decline.
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