The Tallahassee Democrat / Knight Ridder Tribune, Jan. 4, 2003
By Franklin Awori
For decades celebrities have influenced public taste in fashion and diet. Even politicians scramble for the favor of the rich and famous.
Occasionally even religion draws followers because of celebrity practitioners.
One such religion is Buddhism, which has attracted attention through the testimony of rock and soul diva Tina Turner. Turner’s endorsement appears to be having its biggest impact in the African-American community.
For example, it was Turner who influenced Cheryl McIntosh to turn to Buddhism. A few years ago, McIntosh, a black female who was just coming out of a divorce, happened to see the Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”
“I was amazed by the change Turner said Buddhism has brought to her life,” said McIntosh, who holds degrees in law and education from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan.
“That she was able to break away from her abusive husband and lead a dignified life through Buddhist practice gave me something to think about.”
In a recent issue of Christianity Today, author Stan Guthrie attributed the growth of Buddhism in America to “a surge in Asian immigration and celebrity endorsement from the rich and the famous.”
“Recent films, such as ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ based on the life of Turner and ‘The Little Buddha’ with Keanu Reeves, present Buddhism as attractive to a culture groping for spiritual understanding.”
Other stars like Richard Gere, Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, Italian soccer star Roberto Baggio and Nobel Prize winner the Dalai Lama give Buddhism more recognition and visibility.
The Turner film, in particular, is noted for creating a wider interest in Buddhism among African-Americans.
McIntosh said Buddhism has made her much happier, less angry and less hateful. In the film, the Turner character credits Buddhism for restoring her dignity. She also says it gave her the strength to reconstruct her life after being abused by her husband, Ike.
“I like how I’ve changed my life practicing Buddhism,” the Baptist-born Turner told Elle magazine.
Serenity and calm in the midst of adversity are some of the features of Buddhism that people find attractive, according to Dan Lusthaus, a visiting professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Lusthaus said certain forms of Asian culture, such as martial arts and kung fu films, have been popular among African-Americans, making the next step of taking on Asian forms of spiritual practice, such as Buddhism, intriguing and acceptable.
Scholar Lori Pierce observed that blacks and Hispanics becoming Buddhist or joining Buddhists groups is a function of the wider dissemination of Buddhism in popular mass culture.
What any celebrity does is to raise the profile of something in such a way that it gets more attention, said Pierce, a postdoctoral fellow in the Asia Pacific Leadership Program at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
Turner’s story of going from poverty to selling 50 million albums worldwide inspires a population entrapped by poverty and abusive relationships.
The Buddhist Soka Gakkai International Web site, www.sgi.org (http://www.sgi.org), notes that women in a Washington battered women’s shelter were inspired by the film.
“When these women saw the film, they cheered when Turner fought back. It became their favorite movie,” the site reported. “They watched it again and again. They also started chanting ‘Nam Myoho-renge-ryo,’ just as Turner did in the movie.”
When people hear Gidget Hawkins of Kansas City, Mo., chant, they often say she sounds like Turner’s character in the movie. But Turner was not the source of the black woman’s conversion from Christianity more than a decade ago; her grandmother was.
“She had read about Buddha, and all I can remember her saying was that chanting will bring whatever one wants in life,” Hawkins said.
But she noticed that after Turner’s life story appeared on television, more people began asking questions about the faith.
“What strongly attracted me to Buddhism was its teaching that we have the power to change our lives,” she said. “I also liked the emphasis it placed on one taking personal responsibility of his or her life.
“I used to look upon other people, including my family, to steer my life. But Buddhism has taught me that I can determine my life direction.”