Talking Pictures

The Accidental Buddhist

David Appleby

The High and the Flighty: Brad Pitt stars in ‘Seven Years in Tibet,’ which folk-singing Buddhist Peter Rowan thinks is heavy.

Folk-singing Buddhist Peter Rowan discusses the smoking ’60s, the brutal ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and the always popular noble eight-fold path

By David Templeton

Metro Santa Cruz writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he calls that loquacious bluegrass Buddhist, Peter Rowan, in Austin, Texas, to discuss the sprawling spiritual epic Seven Years in Tibet.

PETER ROWAN IS TELLING a story. “I’d been living in Nashville,” he says, his distinctive voice a bit rough and raw this early in the morning. “I’d been into Buddhism for a while, and suddenly I was in Berkeley feeling like the only Buddhist in the world. One day, I was going somewhere, was lost, and I needed to ask directions. So I stopped at this one place, and a woman opened the door. And I saw a Tibetan painting in the back of the hall, and I said, ‘Oh. Are you a Buddhist?’ And she said, ‘Well . . . only accidentally.’ “

Rowan laughs, an infectious, raucous rumble of a laugh. “An accidental Buddhist,” he chuckles. “I loved that! It’s an apt description of a lot of us who started out in the ’60s holding that vision of heaven on Earth. What we wanted to see was a little less aggression, right, a little more compassion? Well, that’s the Buddhist path.”

That path has now led Rowan–best known as a member of Bill Monroe’s legendary Bluegrass Boys and as the wild-eyed yodeling ringleader of the psychedelic folk band Free Mexican Air Force–around the world and through numerous musical incarnations. His poetic, mystically tinged songwriting, along with his surprising and energetic showmanship, have gained him an international following among those who applaud the twisting and blending of traditional musical forms. Though an occasional song reflects the spiritual side of the musician, his religious beliefs have yet to make an appearance in his music.

“Bluegrass and Tibetan Buddhism don’t really mesh too well,” Rowan laughs. “Though they do have something in common. It’s all mountain music, isn’t it?”

Last night in Austin, Rowan was able to see the film Seven Years in Tibet, which stars Brad Pitt. Based on Heinrich Harrer’s memoirs of the same name, Seven Years is a lush retelling of then-Nazi Harrer’s life-changing experiences in the Himalayan mountains. At the start of WWII, he was sent to conquer a Himalayan mountain peak “for the glory of Germany.” Instead, he was captured by British troops.

After escaping from a POW camp in India, Harrer made his way to Tibet, where–through a series of accidents–he became the tutor of the young Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet until that country’s violent occupation by China in the 1950s. China, not surprisingly, has denounced the film.

“There’s an underlying sadness in this movie that is just heartbreaking,” Rowan describes. “On one level, it’s the story of an arrogant, egocentric mountain climber and his gradual awakening to kindness. But the deeper theme is the tragedy of Tibet itself. I didn’t know it was going to be so strong of a statement. No wonder the Chinese are upset. It’s brutal. One of the people I saw it with last night is a long-time follower of the Dharma. She was pretty bummed.”

Bluegrass Boy on a Dharmic Path

A FOOTNOTE AT THE END of Seven Years in Tibet announces that since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, millions of Tibetans have been killed, and thousands of monasteries have been destroyed. “But the culture is still alive,” Rowan insists. “Just go to Nepal. It’s there. The Tibetans have moved down into Katmandu. You go out to Bohda. It’s a major, thriving area. There are, like, 15 monasteries. There were only five monasteries when I was there in ’92. It’s tripled.

“For people who’ve been connected with this for years, there’s another level at work in the movie, too,” he continues. “They showed that the Dalai Lama was wanting to know about this other world beyond Tibet. He wanted Harrer to tell him about everything–even to build him a movie theater. And, lo and behold, the irony of the thing is that now, the outside world is his world. You’ve got to admit that’s pretty ironic.”

One of the results of the Dalai Lama’s exile from Tibet is his frequent trips to the West–and to America in particular–as an unofficial ambassador of Buddhism. Although Zen and other Eastern religions have enjoyed waves of popularity among Westerners, Buddhism has never had so high a profile here as it does today. Gone are the days when Rowan felt like the only Buddhist in town.

So what accident was it that bumped a bluegrass boy onto the dharmic path?

“You know what it was?” he rumbles. “It was Aristotle.”


“Oh, yeah,” Rowan says. “In the late ’60s, I was living in Cape Cod and there was a guy there who offered a class called ‘In the Writings of Aristotle.’ There were a bunch of us in the class. We were just hippies, smoking pot but making our philosophical inquiries. One day, I asked, ‘What kind of society could ever survive while devoting themselves to a life of the mind?’ That’s when he told me about Tibet, a culture that dedicated itself entirely to philosophical inquiry.

“Shortly after that,” he goes on, “I was touring in Scotland, and I dropped in on a Tibetan center there. I met the Lamas. I learned about the noble eight-fold path–kind of a Tibetan how-to to enlightenment. To my addled mind, which was suffering under a lot of confusion and guilt at that time, it just seemed a very orderly way. It was comforting to learn that the only thing we owe each other, in this receipt-ridden world, is kindness.”

With another chuckle, he adds, “I can live with that.”

From the Oct. 23-29, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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