Jane N. Iwamura

"Gurus, Masters, and Lamas: Asian Religions in the Age of Virtual Orientalism"

On October 9, Professor Jane Iwamura, Assistant Professor of Religion and of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California spoke on “Gurus, masters, and Lamas: Asian Religions in the Age of Virtual Orientalism.” Based on her current research project which explores the intersections of religion and popular culture in the United States, Iwamura foregrounds her presentation on the question of the status of scripture in contemporary media of a neoliberal United States. Iwamura argues that the figure of the “Oriental Monk” in contemporary media represents the convergence of Orientalist notions of the East with the desire and disillusionment of the West. As “exotic spiritual specimens,” these mystical monk figures manage and configure diverse groups through cultural representation.

Citing Edward Said’s work on Orientalism and his particular focus on networks of binary representations, Iwamura places the “Oriental Monk” within virtual Orientalism-a media environment where stereotypes of a mystical and racial other construct western understandings of Asian religion and cultures. The compelling visual representations of virtual Orientalism follow a particular script to facilitate an encounter, albeit a limited one, with Asian religions and culture. These virtual encounters secured by the iconic Oriental Monk figures reinforce stereotypical views of what is known about an exotic other.

The appearance of the virtual Oriental Monk in the United States is particularly visible between 1950 and 1975. This was a period when media became prominent and also witnessed an increased ingress of Asian religions in the United States. Prior to the 1950s, the Oriental Monk had been prefigured in varied media representations. Asian religious figures had featured prominently for the first time in newspapers reporting from the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893. The fictional Chinese American detective, Charlie Chan appeared in a dozen films from the silent era to the late 1940s. From the 1950s, media portrayals of the Oriental Monk are more purposive as representations of alternative spiritualities. Media reports on D. T. Suzuki in the 1950’s always portrayed him in a suit and tie, focusing not so much on Suzuki’s lectures but on the experience of seeing him lecture. The incomprehensibility of Suzuki’s lectures also buttressed the experience to underscore the West’s desire for the mysticism of Zen Buddhism. Tumultuous political developments in the 1960s opened up disillusionment with the establishment and forced people to grapple with their religious identity. At this juncture, Maharishi Maheshyogi arrives onto the scene riding on his popular association with the Beatles. With his Transcendental Meditation enterprise, Maheshyogi embodies the “spectacle of celebrity,” a hyper-real dimension to the West’s understanding of Asian religions. The “celebrity” functions as a metonymy of presence or accessibility of the Oriental Monk in the West through the programs and publications of Transcendental Meditation.

In a development towards visual media, the Monk makes his appearance on screen as an animated representation. The “Kung Fu” television series in the 1970s was a first for an Asian protagonist and also the first time television audience encountered Asian religions. As an encounter between western ideas and counter-cultural values, “Kung Fu” typifies the emergence of a new generation melding the eastern with the narrative of a “Western,” a hippy “Eastern Western.” In the 1980s, the counter-cultural values of the new generation package the Monk in more family-friendly representations. Yoda (Star Wars), Mr. Miyagi (Karate Kid), and Splinter (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) are Monk figures that even children can relate to. The Dalai Lama’s rise to prominence in the 1990s continues the new generation’s encounter with the Oriental Monk in terms of a symbolic embrace.

Referencing the narrative structure of “Karate Kid,” Iwamura posits that these moments on the Oriental Monk in the West follow a basic script. A solitary Monk tutors a child figure from a dominant culture. The child has ambivalent relations with his/her culture allowing a break or reconciliation with the marginalized sense of self. The Monk seizes and develops this half, and becomes the mentor. In this relationship, oriental wisdom and insight is transmitted from the Monk to the child. As an embodiment of revitalized hope, this Monk-child relation represents salvation of the dominant culture.

Iwamura contends that rather than benign narratives, the Monk figures are underwritten by corresponding domestic and global politics. For instance, D. T. Suzuki’s coverage in the 1950s is foregrounded against the integrationist relations with a post-war Japan. Ambivalent representations of Maharishi Maheshyogi, as both a cult leader and a celebrity, underscore the United State’s problematic relations with a defiantly non-aligned India of the 1960s. Iwamura 2.jpg

Nuanced readings of the Oriental Monk allow entry points into the status of scriptures in the contemporary media age. Multiple cultural options facilitate maneuvering beyond Judeo-Christian traditions. Media inscribes otherness in the figure of the Monk and bridges the gaps in correspondence between these varied traditions. By accessing such a Monk figure, the West connects with the religious complex inscribed in that particular Monk figure. Hence, media displaces the textuality of “scriptures,” —despite the absence of texts, visual inscriptions of/on the Oriental Monk evoke a connection with the Orient.

For further discussion:

1.    Edward Said theorizes Orientalism as form of domination of western imperialism. In order to push the theoretical boundaries, could the Oriental Monk also be read reflexively as a form of mutual domination? Does the virtual-ness of the Oriental Monk have the potential to displace Said’s binary of the Orient and the Occident?
2.    In the figure of the Monk, contemporary media explodes the erstwhile fixed and text-ured “scripture” as a fluid and open category. Nonetheless, the Monk is inscribed on terms determined by canonical meters of the west. What are the possibilities for expanding and problematizing “scriptures” as an analytical category into cultural critical projects such as contemporary American religious sensibilities?
3.    Representations of the Oriental Monk can be read reflexively as a commentary on the West’s constitution of its self. How do these Monk figures signify within Asian American communities, particularly with regard to Asian American religions?

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