The Spirit behind the Star

Amos Stevens

New Member
The Spirit Behind the Star
An Interview with Steven Seagal
by Tashi Grady Powers

I had the sublime good fortune to meet Steven Seagal in the early 1980s before he became a movie star. Even then his presence was magnetic. I found him to be a beautiful human being who spoke softly, seriously and profoundly. And yet his heart seemed light and joyous.

I met Steven again in 1996, after his many successful movies had propelled him to stellar star status, and once again, I found him to be luminous and aware, a publicly charismatic man who privately is deeply spiritual.

We spoke again recently. As usual, Steven didn't want to talk about the "boring subject of himself;" rather, he wanted to reflect on some of the questions contemporary spirituality poses to a Westerner.

Steven Seagal was born with a spiritual consciousness and for many years studied various spiritual paths. During a trip to Japan in the late '60s, he visited monasteries and studied Buddhism, and began Zen sitting meditation. He also developed his physical skills through the martial arts and is considered an Aikido master.

In February of 1997, H.H. Penor Rinpoche recognized Seagal, his student, as a reincarnation, or tulku, of the Treasure Revealer Chungdrag Dorje of Palyul Monastery. According to Rinpoche, a tulku is traditionally considered to be a reincarnation of a Buddhist master who, out of compassion for the suffering of sentient beings, has vowed to take rebirth to help all beings attain enlightenment.

While it is generally the case that tulkus are recognized early in life, this is not always so. For example, the great master Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö remained unrecognized for many years while an ordained monk at Kathok Monastery. He was over 30 years old and had completed his monastic education when he was recognized and enthroned as the first reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Wangpo. In his case, he had devoted his life to study and practice, and was thus prepared to take on the full responsibilities of being a tulku at the time of his recognition.

The recognition of a tulku who has been born in the West is especially likely to occur later in his lifetime, because it will generally take much longer for all the conditions necessary for such a recognition to come together.

It is not uncommon for there to be a lengthy span of time between the death of a master and the appearance of his or her subsequent reincarnation. There was a 130 year hiatus between the death of the First Pema Norbu in 1757 and the birth of the Second Pema Norbu in 1887. This is common in all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. As for how these gaps come about, while tulkus are understood to have vowed to be continually reborn to help incarnate beings, it is not necessary for them to take rebirth in a continuous sequence of lives in this world. It is believed that they can be reborn in other world systems where they continue their compassionate activities, returning only later to this world system.

Seagal has been recognized as a reincarnation of a 17th century tulku who founded a small monastery called Gegön Gompa near his native village of Phene in the Kutse area of Derge in Eastern Tibet. The monastery still exists, though no monks live there now, and is well known in the area for its beautiful religious wall paintings.

There is surprising humility in this box office superstar. He sees himself as an artist and is grateful for his ability to bring people happiness and joy through his movies, as well as possibly serving as an inspiration to the path of contemplation. He helps many charities and is especially touched by the needs of children and Tibetan refugees.
I once heard someone describe Steven Seagal as a '90s icon. His unique position as a contemporary martial arts master, his overt Buddhist practice, and his stature as a major movie star make him a great illustration of the complexity of postmodern times.

I trust you will feel the aura of this enormously kind soul whose life touches so many.

How is it you actually became a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner?
When I was in Japan sitting in the monasteries, studying Buddhism and medicine, there were Tibetan Lamas who came for medical treatment because they had been tortured by the Chinese. Although I spoke Japanese, I didn't speak Tibetan, yet I had a better connection with the Tibetan Lamas than with the Japanese teachers with whom I had been studying for a long time. We started communicating while I was treating them, and I began to receive teachings from them.

So how did you start your practice?
Like anyone else. Slowly.

Can you tell us about your current practice?
If people are interested in what practices I do, I will not talk about secret mantras, secret tantras or secret practices of any kind. What I will talk about is compassion. That is what I want to practice. That is what I want to study, and what I want to live. I like to talk about compassion, the fact that we are all one, and that we should all live as one people helping each other.

In teaching Buddhism, many people can mouth the words, the teachings and the scriptures which have been around for thousands of years. Anyone can memorize the teachings; that does not make for a great teacher. A great teacher is someone who can somehow transfer the knowledge to the student and convert it into wisdom.

My teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, depicted the Chinese as friends to the Tibetans, inasmuch as they facilitated Tibetan Buddhism's movement into the West.
In my humble opinion, what Kalu Rinpoche meant is that our enemies are in fact our greatest teachers. And certainly that is one of the greatest lessons. Very few people can, in an instant, convert the onslaught of hoards of enemies and the horrific deeds that they do into compassion and forgiveness, and then learn the lesson that they are being taught. That is certainly something I strive for, as does any other Lama I know.

Do you have any political views about the Chinese?
What I try to do is to convert the political dogma into spiritual teachings. But I don't think anyone was given a human body to allow people behaving in a demonic manner to take his precious human rebirth, to be murdered by them. I also don't think this would protect the dharma (teachings of Lord Buddha), which I think that anyone who loves the path should do.

If there are non-virtuous acts being committed, we should never put ourselves in harm's way, and we should do everything we can to remove ourselves from a situation like that. I, for example, am first a man of peace, then a warrior when I have to be to protect the dharma. I have a style of warring that does not include punching, kicking, shooting, stabbing or anything aggressive like that. Rather it directs the aggressive energy and movement and power of an attacker back to him.

What do you see in our future as Buddhism enters the West?
Religion should be something that helps people develop and purify themselves to be better human beings, to treat others with kindness, ease the suffering of others, and make the world a better place. If that is Catholicism, Hinduism or Islam, I am happy. Those religions which damn you for not being of their religion will eventually turn back on themselves. In the greater way there should be tolerance for all paths, in the understanding that they probably all lead to the same place.

When I look into the future, I am hoping for all people that we see more tolerance, a beginning of growing closer together in an understanding that we are all the same, all related. With this inner connectedness, karma has occurred. In order to learn the lessons from the teachings, all circumstances, from our greatest friends to our greatest enemies, should be viewed as our teachers.

In terms of the Buddhist dharma and fundamentalism, one of the things I admire about the Tibetans is that when they brought back the teachings from India they immediately put the teachings into Tibetan. I teach in English because I mostly work with people who speak English as their primary language. Many of us have had to study Buddhism in Tibetan and in Sanskrit. I don't feel any sacred doctrine should be kept in only one language, but rather should be spread throughout the world.

Merging quantum physics and metaphysics gives us statements like, "The Truth is not discovered, it is made." What do you think of the merging of science with spirituality?
Within each man, no matter what it is he is studying, if he has the karma to take whatever he is "on" and have that lead him into a path that is going to teach him some of the greater truths, then I am happy. But one of the dangers of quantum physics may be that those who think they cannot understand the true nature of the mind use their intellectual reckoning, circumventing the process of letting go, which must occur in order to transcend grasping; i.e., knowledge has to transform into wisdom.

Don't the Tibetans tell you that the mind cannot understand, only the heart can comprehend the nature of reality?
That's right.

What do you think of all the problems in the New Age communities? What is so often demonstrated is not love, but isolationism and fundamentalism very well disguised behind enlightened New Age lingo. So much corruption has given me a sense of fragility about the dharma in the West.
It is increasingly evident that the students, the communities and even the teachers are still flawed, even if the teachings are pure!

All human beings are born with poisons and this develops into a vicious circle that originates in suffering and perpetuates suffering. Even the "enlightened" ones still have poisons, just to a lesser degree. The antidotes for the poisons that we as human beings are born with, and are indoctrinated into through our Judaic Christian culture in the West, are the sublime path and the sublime teacher. The answer I see is to find a truly sublime teacher with an unbroken lineage who can help us stay on the path and purify our obscurations (veils of ignorance). That is our only hope. That is what I place my faith in-the Buddha (enlightening example), the dharma (teachings), and the sangha (spiritual friends)-knowing within all of that there is an answer for a way to prosper and for protection along the way.

What do you think is needed to help us bridge these gaps?
What is needed is more teachers who speak English well and have higher levels of education in both the East and the West. Because I was partially raised in the Orient, studying Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism has given me an understanding of the older traditional ways. Therefore I feel very strongly that the traditional teachings should be protected and upheld. For example there are some Western "teachers" who are preaching the diminishing role of the guru and advocating the alteration or destruction of a traditional path. I feel like this is pouring poison in our own source of pure water.
It has helped me tremendously to have had one foot in each world. This bridge is what is needed.

And yet aren't bridges tricky things? In an essay by Richard Rorty contained in the book "The Truth about the Truth," there is a story about an American anthropologist who visited Japan at Christmas and noticed that the stores had begun to display some of the symbols of Christmas. When he wandered into a large Tokyo department store he saw a Christmas display that prominently featured Santa Claus... nailed to a cross.
Yes, I have noticed this type of thing. I did a huge event where 20,000 people were present, and one of the interviewers asked me on camera, "I understand that you were recognized as one of the Dalai Lamas." This is a good example of the natural confusion that happens when one culture enters another.

What's ahead in your professional life? Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?
I have an anti-war movie called House of Thunder that is scheduled to shoot in the Brazilian rainforest. I'm also completing a music CD.

Hollywood and spirituality seem worlds apart from each other. How do you mix Buddhism with your film career?
How do you mix soup and salad?

If you were on a desert island and there were no teachers left and you were it, do you think you could gain enlightenment from within?
Absolutely, because I think we all have the Buddha nature within us. Is it more difficult? Yes, it is more difficult and it is slower. I am lucky because I have already in my life had these seeds planted and given to me. Whether I understand them now or later is not important. It is important that I remain on the path and that eventually I get there.

Mama San

Thank you, Grandson!
It's so very good to read something positive for a change!
Hopefully, very soon, we will be hearing/reading a lot more
on a positive note!
Thanks again!
God bless,
Grandma C. [Mama san]