In May, the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar will publish an in-depth interview with Benedict Cumberbatch in which he discusses the influence that Buddhism has had on his life and his flourishing career as an actor. Cumberbatch has previously described himself as a Buddhist “philosophically,” emphasizing the role meditation has played in improving his mental focus and helping him become a kinder person. He has also talked fondly of the time he spent during his student years in the mountains of northern India teaching English to Tibetan Buddhist monks. While Cumberbatch has given numerous interviews over the course of his career, this is the first to appear in a major Buddhist publication.
Of course, Cumberbatch is only one of a not-insignificant number of celebrities and public figures to reveal that they are inspired by or actively practice Buddhism. Richard Gere, for example, gives every appearance of being one of those admirable people that have time and again demonstrated the sincerity in their practice of Buddhism, irrespective of one’s opinion of his outspoken activism or political stance. Jazz maestro Herbie Hancock has been a Nichiren Buddhist since 1972, while Tina Turner, another household name from the world of music, became interested in Nichiren around the same period. Jet Li, one of China’s most famous actors and international exports, has been candid about his Tibetan Buddhist practice and meditation. From George Takei and Orlando Bloom to the late David Bowie and Garry Shandling, few celebrity media stories are more heartening than those about a beloved artist seeking refuge and finding inspiration in Buddhism.
Of course, celebrities use their fame, their brands, and popularity for a wide range of purposes, some of them extremely beneficial and important. For example, Gere’s religious enthusiasm (which has manifested in a slew of documentaries, narrations, and interviews about Tibetan Buddhism, among other projects) may well have had a positive ripple effect among his fan base and even within Hollywood circles. Similarly, since Cumberbatch has been so publicly candid in expressing his thoughts on Buddhism, many of his fans might be sufficiently intrigued to look into Buddhism for themselves.
While Lion’s Roar is doing excellent work by helping us learn more about Cumberbatch’s affinity for Buddhism, and while any increase in public interest in Buddhism that might be generated through association with stars such as Gere, Bloom, or Li should be welcomed, we nevertheless feel that some cautious caveats should accompany such “celebrity endorsements” of Buddhism. For example, the mass media in general has a responsibility, indeed an obligation, to communicate the spiritual views of celebrities accurately; the secular media’s ignorance of this responsibility has led to a situation in which it sometimes seems that any public figure who makes even a passing reference to Buddhism is quickly labeled a Buddhist. This kind of casual sensationalizing runs the risk of encouraging a “superficial” approach to Buddhism among said celebrities’ fans and followers.
The problem with this situation is that celebrities are, of course, merely human, and their experiences of religion are as complex, conflicted, and sometimes paradoxical as they are for anyone else. The late co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, is perhaps one of the most intriguing examples of a public figure whose affiliation with Buddhism has been examined by the media. After Jobs’ death in 2011, journalist Steve Silberman wrote an article that extensively documented the various ways that Buddhism had influenced Jobs’ life, including his relationship with Shunryu Suzuki-roshi (1904–71), founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. However, even Silberman admits in his article that Jobs’ biographer, Isaac Isaacson, had correctly perceived that the tech guru seemed to bypass at least one fundamental ethical tenet of Buddhism: to treat those around oneself, even perceived enemies, with dignity, respect, and compassion. It is also well documented that his public philanthropy was almost miserly compared with his supposed rival, Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
In his balanced and fair conclusion, Silberman wrote: “It’s tempting now to cast Jobs’ tantrums, casual brutality, and constant berating of ‘shitheads’ as a brave refusal to compromise his ideal of perfection—even as a kind of tough love that inspired his employees to transcend their own limitations. But a more skillful practitioner would have tried to find ways to bring out the genius in his employees without humiliating them—and certainly would have found ways of manufacturing products that didn’t cause so much suffering for impoverished workers in other countries.” One might surmise that for all his fidelity to the Zen aesthetic expressed in his products and corporate vision, Steve Jobs did not appear to live completely in accordance with Buddhist ethics and, according to Isaacson, often flouted them. The genuine influence that Zen principles had on Jobs’ ingenious products contrasts with his well-documented emotional issues and questionable sense of business ethics.
The ambiguity of Jobs’ relationship with Buddhism should therefore serve as an example of the inherent contradictions and ambiguities present when the media seeks to associate Buddhism with a particular celebrity. What implications does such an association have for Jobs, for the Buddhist teachers with whom he was acquainted, or for the Buddhist schools with which he was reportedly associated? These are questions that are seldom held up for scrutiny. We also need to recognize that Buddhist celebrities are, like all our heroes and role models, human, and as such inevitably flawed. Secular media outlets (particularly social media) have a knack for casting issues in black and white, with a tendency to portray celebrities, Buddhist or otherwise, either as saints who can do no wrong or abject failures deserving of public disdain. As with most aspects of life, the truth about celebrities is rarely so simplistic, and Buddhist celebrities are no different. Their aura of fame and charisma does not render them immune to the frailties that make us all human.
Our examination of the relationship between celebrities and Buddhism needs to go beyond the dichotomy between sincere practice and short-lived interest. Whether it is a religion or a social cause, a movement’s moral force can’t be borrowed in a similar way to how a brand strengthens its public relations with an endorsement from a celebrity, which is common in the business world. Imagine an alternate reality in which no celebrities professed an interest in Buddhism. Would this lack of celebrity association render the teachings of Buddhism any less valid? Its message any less profound?
The answer, obviously, is unambiguously no. This is not to dismiss the worthy contributions of sincere Buddhist celebrities, who would also recognize that their merit is not predicated on their brand or fame. Indeed, we hope they will feel no inhibition in sharing more about their spiritual inspirations, so that their association with Buddhism can be used to benefit all beings. That would be a way for celebrities to do right by Buddhism and by their loyal fans.
What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really? (PLOS Blogs)
List of Celebrity Buddhists (Dhamma Wiki)
Movie Star Benedict Cumberbatch Credits his Success to Buddhism (Buddhistdoor Global)
Herbie Hancock: Jazz, Grammy Awards, and Nichiren Buddhism (Buddhistdoor Global)