Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Buddhist Imagery In Film

Neo sees the Three Poisons for what they are.
There are a few noteworthy films which are not explicitly Buddhist, but which make excellent use of Buddhist symbolism. Certainly there are more than I can discuss in the brief span of a single blog post, so I will focus on three of my favorite examples: Groundhog Day, Fight Club, and The Matrix.

Starting with Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, we immediately see that even though the film has no obvious connections to Buddhism, its underlying premise is extremely relevant to Buddhism. The premise is this: a cynical and worldly man (Bill Murray) becomes trapped in a time-loop, wherein he is forced to relive the same day over, and over, and over again. Does it sound like it's related to Buddhism yet? Think samsara, and being trapped in an endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth.

While Murray's character is trapped in this hellish cycle, he quickly realizes that life is no longer consequential, and he begins to indulge in hedonistic pursuits--sex, food, breaking the law, etc. He becomes attached to sensual experience and more importantly to existing. Later in the film, Phil (Murray's character), realizes the emptiness in these pursuits, and becomes determined to end his life: he becomes attached to the idea of not existing. Ultimately, his various suicide attempts fail, and every death is followed by a reboot of the time-loop. In Buddhist terminology, his attachment to non-existence blocks his escape from samsara, and thus he is reborn a countless number of times. Finally, it isn't until Phil learns compassion and the wholesomeness of living for the sake of others that he is released from this nightmarish loop.

It's not surprising that Groundhog Day is often listed as a favorite among Buddhists for these reasons.

Next let's consider Fight Club. A cult classic starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. This film is difficult to describe to someone who hasn't seen it (five or more times). Simultaneously, it's an indictment of capitalism, materialism, consumerism, and everything that stems from those things, as well as an implicit celebration of Buddhist principles.

The film opens with the unnamed protagonist--played by Edward Norton--explaining how he is seeking to fulfill his life by buying just the right things (IKEA furniture mostly). As the movie progresses, (spoiler alert if you haven't seen the movie) the protagonist's alternate personality--played by Brad Pitt--slowly forces the former to let go of all of his attachments. In one particularly memorable scene, Pitt's character forces Norton's character to "just let go" of his false sense of control of life symbolically by literally letting go of his control of the car he is driving.

This point is congruent with the Buddhist teachings of no-self. Since there is no driver (self), there can be no control of the car (life). The mind has no option but to go with the flow.

In another scene, Pitt's character makes excellent use of meditation and mindfulness.

In this scene, Norton's character attempts to shut out pain inflicted by lye sprinkled on his hand by using meditation. Pitt's character points out that he is experiencing "pre-mature enlightenment" and is actually being counter-productive by shutting out the current moment. Instead, Pitt's character insists that the protagonist "stay with the pain." Furthermore, the famous quote "it's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything at all" exudes Buddhist sentiment. In other words, we're not free until we rid ourselves of delusion, greed, and hatred, and all the fetters that bind us to the material world.

In the final scene of the film, the protagonist is at war with his alter ego. To show that he has become enlightened (and that he no longer needs his alter ego), Norton's character shoots himself non-fatally in the cheek (through his mouth) after stating that "my eyes are open." My take on this scene is that by opening the wound in his cheek, the unnamed protagonist has symbolically opened his third eye, signifying that he is, in fact, enlightened. Additionally, what the protagonist realizes that causes his enlightenment is the middle way. He realizes that his previous lifestyle of material indulgence and Pitt's character's lifestyle of anarchic-asceticism are two extremes that must be avoided.

Finally, let's examine The Matrix. This action-packed classic from 1999 needs little introduction as it has been probed extensively in all of its philosophical orifices. While the movie shares many parallels with other philosophies and religions besides Buddhism such as Christianity, Plato's Allegory of the Cave, and your cookie-cutter typical Joseph Campbell/Jungian archetypes, let me direct you to my favorite scene of the film:

This scene starts with Neo's realization that he is the one. After this breakthrough, he finally sees the world for what it truly is: desolate of real phenomenon and instead composed of the artificial green rain (the cascading green text that he sees around 0:43). Moreover, with his new knowledge, Neo is able to finally thwart his three enemies and be truly liberated. This chain of events is roughly identical to those of Buddha's enlightenment. First the Buddha realized the true nature of reality: that everything is empty of its own intrinsic essence and that everything is interdependently originated. Armed with this knowledge, the Buddha defeats the Three Poisons (greed, delusion, and hatred) that in the Matrix are symbolized by the three Agents. After which, the Buddha is said to have entered a state of supreme tranquility known as nirvana. Neo's flight at the end of the film can be said to be symbolic of him reaching nirvana as it shows near absolute liberation (in his case from the rules of the Matrix).

Also observe how Neo breathes at about 1:52 into the clip. This, in my opinion, is a testament to the level of detail that the Wachowski brothers fill their movies with. The way Neo breathes in this scene is very reminiscent of a meditative state (as focusing on the breath is a common technique in meditation), and the way he opens his eyes suggests a remarkable epiphany as well as an extremely tranquil disposition. He has become an enlightened being.

I'm certain that there are other parts of the three films that I've mentioned here that can be mapped on to Buddhist teachings, but the parts that I did mention give a good enough representation of how Buddhist concepts translate beautifully into film. Next time you watch Groundhog Day, Fight Club, or The Matrix, I urge you to approach the film from a Buddhist angle and see what you can pick up.

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