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August 14, 1999
Lama Vs Lama
A P Kamath in New York
With some divine intervention, the Dalai Lama could soon join the league of Mary Higgins Clark and John Grisham. He could simultaneously have two bestsellers in America.
He could even do better than Clark and Grisham. For they have never had two bestsellers in hardcover. Usually, while their new hardcover climbs the bestseller list, the paperback edition of their previous year's novel also starts climbing the bestseller ladder.
But the Dalai Lama could have two hardcover bestsellers in the next few weeks.
While his The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living has been on the bestseller list for over six months, the just published Ethics for the New Millennium has received hefty orders from major booksellers across America.
"There are two reasons why the book should do excellent business," says writer Ric Ornellas, an American Buddhist convert. "People have enormous interest in anything that has to do with the new millennium."
"Secondly, the high profile news coverage the Dalai Lama has received in recent weeks has aroused a lot of curiosity about him. He was already a best-selling writer. His new book could much better."
Booksellers say the sale of The Art of Happiness has gone up considerably since the media interest in the Dalai Lama's New York public appearances began soaring about two weeks ago.
The three-day series of talks and chanting featuring the Dalai Lama at the Beacon Theater in New York was a sold out event; by Saturday at least 3,000 people would have heard the Dalai Lama talk about Dharma and the quest for happiness. On Sunday at least 20,000 are expected to turn up in Central Park to listen to him. Unlike the Beacon Theater event, where most tickets went for $ 75, the Central Park event is free.
"I don't feel that I have some higher understanding," the Dalai Lama pronounced calmly at the Beacon Theater to a sharply attentive audience including Hollywood star Richard Gere who has reportedly spent nearly $ 1 million to fund and promote the Dalai Lama events in New York.
"I am just a small, ordinary Buddhist monk," said the 64-year-old Nobel Prize winner for peace endeavors.
The 'small' and 'ordinary' monk has been getting star treatment in New York. As one newspaper said, he received a rock star's welcome in Manhattan on Thursday, the first day of his engagements.
"With the Dalai Lama smiling from hundreds of posters across the town, and with his face on the cover of Timeout magazine, there has been a very serious interest in his visit and in his books," Ornellas adds.
In the past two years, books by Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman and the poet and essayist Rodger Kamenetz (Jews in the Lotus) have provoked tremendous amount of interest in Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama.
In October 1990, Kamenetz traveled to Dharamsala in India as part of a group of Jewish delegates to meet with the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. What followed in his eloquent, profound and often funny book is the story of the movement of some Jews toward Buddhism over the past 20 years, the problems of Jewish religious life today, and the possibilities of Jewish renewal. It also presented the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader who is deeply curious and respectful of other religious traditions.
Last year, a documentary based on Kamenetz books and bearing the same title was released to acclaim and grossed nearly $ 1 million in America -- a good box-office gross for a documentary film.
Though Martin Scorsese's film, Kundan, a freewheeling screen bio of the Buddhist leader, grossed a miserable $ 10 million at the American box-office, the ample of coverage it received in the media created a lot of buzz about the Dalai Lama. Seven Years in Tibet, a film dealing with the younger years of the Dalai Lama and the mentoring he received from his Austrian tutor was a much more successful film grossing about $ 45 million in America.
"Despite the suffering and humiliation he has endured at the hands of the Chinese, the Dalai Lama has lived a pious, useful and optimistic life," says Linda Swift, an admirer. "And he radiates genuine warmth. People want to know how he remains eternally gracious and optimistic."
In his newest book, the Dalai Lama pleads that happiness based in contentment, appeasement of suffering, forging meaningful relationships -- can act as the foundation for a universal ethics.
But he does not prescribe magic bullets.
His medicine isn't always easy to swallow, however, for it demands of the reader more than memorizing precepts or positing hypothetical dilemmas. The Nobel Peace laureate invites us to recognize certain basic facts of existence, such as the interdependence of all things, and from these to recalibrate our hearts and minds, to approach all of our actions in their light. Nothing short of an inner revolution will do, he says gently but firmly.
Fascinated by science and technology as a boy living in isolated Tibet and certain that such advances would improve people's lives, the Dalai Lama was surprised to discover very early in his life how prevalent feelings of isolation and despair were in the rich societies.
Disdainful of the untrammelled love for affluence and technology, he advocates a spiritual revolution but he quickly points out that it should not be tied to religious institutions.
Stating bluntly that it is far more important to be a good human being than to be a religious believer, he encourages his readers to act out of concern for the well-being of others rather than indulge "our habitual preoccupation with self."
Religion, he muses, may or may not encompass the value of compassion, while spirituality always must. True happiness is based on an inner peace which is unperturbed by circumstance; such peace is only attained "when our actions are motivated by a concern for others.''
At the Beacon Theater, he said: "I am not here to convert people."
"I think it is better to keep your own traditions," he continued. "Everybody has the potential to make a contribution to human development."
Ornellas believes it is precisely such a broadminded approach that endears the Dalai Lama to thousands of Americans.
"A Christian evangelist would have said you must first embrace Christ and only then look for happiness," Ornellas added. "The Dalai Lama is a person from another planet."
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