I’m Not a Real Buddha, but I Play one on TV
In which the author sells his lack of soul

I’ve written a few popular books on Buddhism, so some few years ago, when a current events talk show producer called me to be a last-minute fill-in guest, I was ready to roll. He said his live show—“Talk of the World,” a multi-country satellite feed—needed me for a discussion of contemporary spirituality. It was Friday evening and they wanted me for Saturday morning. I figured a producer would normally have contacted me through my publishers, but they were already closed for the weekend so he found me directly. It’s not difficult. (This reminds me of how shocked I was as a fresh-faced grad student when I learned that famous professors were simply listed in the phonebook, all over the country, just like regular folks. It amazed me they weren’t just besieged by fawning, phone-calling admirers. I was really like that back then.)

So I thought, great, I’ll be able to spread the Dharma (the Buddhist teachings); I’ll do some publicity; I’ll get some exposure; and even if it’s slightly off, as these things often are, hey—as I can still hear my marketing manager saying—“Any publicity is good publicity. Just don’t slug the host.” But he gave that advice when he was warning me about the Michael Savage radio show (the name makes the man). Compared with that, this would be a cakewalk. And they wanted me to bring a copy of What Would Buddha Do?, too, no doubt to show the admiring world. So it was fabulous; it was golden.

Next morning I drive across town in my wise-but-casual TV clothes and walk into the energy of backstage. The host is likeable in a Tom Selleck kind of way and shakes my hand while we’re in make-up. The other guests seem relaxed. I learn they’re in fact all regulars who invite a new person each week and focus the discussion on the newbies. Sounds perfect. They all seem open enough and I think “This is better than I could have hoped. This is a real chance to shine, to bring a bit of Buddhism to, who knows?, maybe millions of people.” Of course now I’m getting jazzed and hoping I can measure up to my tradition. (I was really like that back then.)

But speaking of measuring up, we sit down at the table in front of the cameras and I can immediately tell my chair is two inches shorter than everyone else’s. Oh no. Could this be an accident? Was the previous guest, 6’ 7”? I should say something, but there’s no time because now the first question comes and it’s something like “The Buddha lived 2500 years ago; what could he possibly teach us now?” And, worse yet, someone else jumps in and answers it, saying “nothing, it’s impossible,” and there’s general agreement. So now, because I am a dim bulb but not completely dark, paranoid questions start creeping into my mind: “What if this show is one of those evil-minded, in-your-face, intentionally confrontational pseudo-intellectual circuses, where they bring in the new guests to trash them and all they stand for? Am I the fresh meat: a heaping helping of Franz Metcalf with a side of Gautama Siddhartha for afters? Am I going to have to sit here, defending my book, my religion, and religion in general from these sharks who are clearly saying things they don’t believe, simply to try to piss me off on live, worldwide TV and make themselves look clever (the audience being apparently unable [unlike my wife] to identify smugness as a fault—not that smugness has anything to do with me, no-sir-ee bob)?”

Alas, these were not paranoid questions. I sat there with my broken hopes and broken words, and as it got worse I tried to find in myself the energy to fight these people, to cut them off as they did me, to shout down their destructive falsehoods, but I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. In fact there was a moment, off-air, during a commercial break, when the host challenged me to do just that, to be more intense, and I thought, “Yes, he’s not a bad guy, he just needs good ratings; he’s trapped just as much as I am.” But of course when the break ended (he was doing the good-cop/bad-cop thing, being sweet off-air and brutal on) he asked, point blank, “Isn’t this book just a blatant sellout, a vicious, calculated exploitation of the religion?” and then of course he cut me off just as I began to stammer out some incredulous and unconvincing reply. Or he’d ask, “Is there any Buddhist justification for being loud and brash and aggressive and fighting fire with fire?” Now, religions seem to specialize in exactly that, these days, but by then I was reeling and couldn’t marshal much of a Buddhist attack, even though it was exactly what was called for. I wanted to fight fire with fire, to buck myself up to use these people’s own foul methods against them, but I was too full of compassion. I wasn’t angry enough; in fact I wasn’t angry at all. That was not only very odd, it wasn’t very good. I was walking my talk (as we spiritual leaders are taught to say now), but dammit if it was doing these creeps any good! Was it helping the audience? What would Buddha do? How many times did I ask myself that question during my hour in the star chamber!

Ah, and the hour just flashes by. I reach back now and touch these little moments where things went well (okay, there aren’t many of these) or especially poorly. Many of these latter, because things make their natural progression from bad to worse as the show wears on. There’s a call-in section where we listen to these calls in their foreign languages (remember, it’s a live feed out to dozens of countries), but apparently my earphone isn’t working (surprise!) and the translation doesn’t reach me. Actually, by now I figure they’re doing this on purpose, to make me look clueless. The odd thing is that though this is totally evil, it seems completely natural and appropriate and banal, unfolding the way it must, like a virus slowly, blamelessly spreading. And we collaborate, as we must: yes, please let’s soldier on; no I don’t mind the blood, really. Ah, but now a caller is querying me in French. I speak French! This is a great chance, but there are two problems: the caller has totally misunderstood my earlier point about killing the Buddha on the road (Why in Buddha’s name did I say that?), and the host totally misunderstands the caller and her question. This confusion causes me to miss my perfect opportunity to show up the evildoers by answering in French. Hèlas, I’m too off-balance and le mot just just won’t come. And, as I answer in my quotidian English, the host accuses me of misunderstanding the question, lidiot! Now what am I supposed to say? I can’t accuse him of idiocy on his own show. (Damn that compassion! I’ve got serious work to do on the killer-Buddha-instinct thing.) The guy is no doubt actually quite smart and may even be pretending to be dumb to set me up for something—this is how things work on these shows. As they all must, this moment passes.

Ah, but it’s such a weird scene! This pompous Brit industrialist and this geeky Gen X tech columnist and this fanged bimbo who says she’s totally happy with her possessions and her desires and, no, she doesn’t really want anything more profound or satisfying; no, this is enough, and she can’t understand what I mean by being in the moment (“What moment? I’m sorry, was it the one that just went by? Or no, it’s this one? So what do I do now? Oh, it’s gone.”)

And I haven’t even gotten to the part where one of the guests manages to accuse the Tibetans of being responsible for having their country raped by the Chinese. I naturally take the intellectually correct but strategically brainless tack of saying you might as well accuse the Jews of being responsible for the Holocaust. And no sooner are these words out of my (foolish! foolish!) mouth than the next caller is accusing me of anti-Semitism and no no no no no no, oh my god I’ve blown it now. Oh I can’t believe I’ve got to think of a three second self-exoneration and explanation of the banality of evil or my entire career is over, over! Must speak now, must save career! But they won’t let me talk; there’s no time, no sense, no reason—Oh Jeez, when is this going to be over? But I’m not mad and I can’t believe I’m not mad, it’s more like horrified in this glazed-over, head-shaking, paralyzed way and then and then and then—dare I hope—Yes! Yes! The host is saying we’re out of time. Oh, too bad, we were just getting started on this fascinating topic and look for us next week when we talk about the need for future foreign invasions or why we should hold back cancer cures or whatever he’s saying and as he begins to sign off he’s getting more and more personal and peevish about me, in fact he’s getting impossibly personal and ludicrous now and—Hey, who are all these people coming on the set? They’re producers, but they’re almost in the shot. And hey, isn’t that Fred Kennamer, my old and amusingly evil-minded friend who’s working on a reality TV series where they take unsuspecting people and—oh my god, oh my god, I’ve been set-up! This whole thing is a set-up! I can’t believe I fell for this. It’s so totally obvious; it’s transparent. It’s so fake, a kind of high-tech “Candid Camera” called “SpyTV.” I knew about the show and still fell for it. Didn’t they choose me well. Oh, it’s a good thing I’m such an idiot and good sport. Aren’t I funny. Ha ha ha. That’s right, ha ha ha.

Yes, everyone is laughing and clapping now, and patting me on the back (they actually do this) and saying it was great and making happy and oozing around like a great, banal mudflow. Everything is good again, but I’m asking myself “Did I help spread the Dharma?” and “Was I splendidly pacific, or was I a total wimp?” and “What would a real Zen master have done?” And I’m telling myself “I knew, absolutely. Yes, all along I suspected, perhaps. How come I didn’t know, at all?” But it’s okay because the tide of dirty smiles carries me out of the room into another where it’s calm and I exhale into the quiet cool and there’s just me and my old, evil friend and this strikingly beautiful woman in this honest and wholesome and yet not quite pure way who just wants me to sign this little paper and agree to have my likeness shown on national television, oh this will be great, and give NBC exclusive world rights to my words, my face, my name, and, you know, little things like my life, my work, my reputation, my future, my soul (ah, but I have none!) in all markets in all languages on all websites and channels and stations in perpetuity throughout space and time for the princely sum of $500—or was it thirty pieces of silver? I forget. Sign here. Oh, this will be great. Sign here. My legacy throughout space and time. I forget. Sign here. This will be great. I sign. I forget. Great.