Remembering David Rakoff: “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha”

He used to be just another harmful action figure. But then Steven Seagal pulled a Dalai Lama, reemerging as a Tibetan Buddhist master. (Don’t ask how. It’s very mysterious.) Prepare ye the way of bad karma.

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 she 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.