The Essayist

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I Can't Believe It's Not Buddha

The late, great David Rakoff on Steven Seagal’s career as a teacher of Tibettan Buddhism

I will come to know it as the Omega Hug: the official embrace of the Omega Institute of Holistic Studies. The woman in the fringed halter top and wraparound skirt sees someone se knows. Walking across the wide planked veranda—long limbed as a Modigliani, her ankle bracelets of tiny silver bells tintinnabulating as she moves—she embraces her friend, eyes closed, a beatific smile on her face, her hand moving slowly and healingly up and down the other’s back. The Omega hug is long and intense—it takes a full half minute to execute—but I will see it countless times over the next three days.

At the moment, there is plenty of time to hug. About 200 of us are sitting around waiting for Steven Seagal to arrive at the famed New Age retreat center. Set in Rhinebeck, New  York, among the gently rolling hills of the Hudson Valley, the Omega Institute usually expends its exquisitely positive energy offering hundreds of courses and seminars, led by such reigning spiritual superstars as Deepak Chopra. Courses like “Out of Body Experiences and Dream Exploration,” “The Art of Everyday Ecstasy” and “Women’s Sacred Summer Camp.” But this Memorial Day weekend the seminar is title “Cultivating Compassion & Clarity,” and the teacher is none other than Seagal—movie star, aikido master and, lately, teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.

According to the Omega minivan driver who picked me up at the train station, a Santa type who lives six months of the year in a nudist colony in Florida, this weekend’s seminar is quite an occasion, second only to the one led by Thay Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and author who attracts seven hundred attendees. There is some concern that it is Seagal’s reputation as a aikido master, as opposed to his fame as a movie star, that will bring out the crazies. “You know,” says the driver, “guys who want to be able to say they mixed it up with Steven Seagal.”

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