4. Revenge of the Sith. Yes, no kidding! Buddhist imagery, especially of the Zen variety, has always been an important philosophical and aesthetic element of George Lucas's two Star Wars trilogies. The Force is a rough mix of Taoism (which influenced Zen) and Christian mysticism, and Yoda is really a loving and somewhat tongue-in-cheek Muppet (and later CGI) tribute to our popular images of the wizened Zen master. The advice Yoda dispenses to Luke Skywalker during his Jedi training, along with his bemused and curmudgeonly attitude toward him, resonate with those familiar with Zen stories and techniques. There are several notable Buddhistic moments in the series, as when, in Phantom Menace, Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (whose name is a play on Qi-Gong, an Eastern movement practice much like Tai-Chi) calmly sits in a meditative posture in order to prepare to face the villian Darth Maul with his light saber. But it is only in the very last chapter (to be released) that Buddhist thinking becomes explicit. After two lumbering prequels, Lucas returns to form with an effective, tightly structured end to his saga.
We find out that the story of how Annakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader turns out to be a Buddhist lesson in space-opera garb: unable to accept the inevitability of his wife's death, Annakin adopts the evil ways of the dark side of the Force in hopes of using his Sith powers to prevent it. He thus embodies the dangers of attachment (an essential Buddhist concept), and the folly of trying to avoid the natural course of suffering. Annakin wants to find a route around the Buddha's First Noble Truth - "life is suffering," and a tragic perversion of his personality results. Ironically, his inability to accept the inherent loss and change of life leads Annakin to a worse form of suffering - that is, delusion. As Yoda says, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."
3. Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Come From The East? This Korean film is a different kind of movie-going experience - one not so much about receiving entertainment, or losing oneself in a story, but of setting the mind in a contemplative mood. It is about a dying old master, his middle-aged student, and a young boy all living and interacting at a tranquil, pastoral monastery. Because the film is so quiet, and proceeds with such a slow, deliberate rhythm, it serves as a kind of template against which the mind of the viewer can bounce and play and work. Ironically, because of its relaxed pacing, it demands a more active, vigilant audience - one willing to participate productively with not only the film but with their own buzzing mind that will inevitably fill in the long silences.
In this respect, it is similar to the recent documentary Into Great Silence, which takes place inside a French Carthusian monastery and, at over three hours long, contains barely any dialogue. In that film we watch the incredibly disciplined monks, who live in almost complete silence for most of their lives, go about their daily activities. On the face of it, the things we see them do are incredibly simple and mundane, but because the spiritual basis underlying them is always present and represents such an awe-inspiring religious commitment, the effect can be hypnotic. Most likely, with a film of this sort, a viewer will either be intellectually energized or fall asleep (which my mother did in the theatre several times; I kept nudging her.)
The same dynamic is at work in Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Come From East? In both films we see basic tasks - cutting wood, pouring tea, sowing - transformed into opportunities for being more absorbed in the present (as the saying goes, before enlightenment: "chop wood, carry water;" after enlightenment: "chop wood, carry water"). Bodhi-Dharma uses the method of dropping a nugget of wisdom and then following it with ample silence; it offers a provocation - such as when the master tells both his student and the boy, talking about the dangers of the outside world, that the human heart is misguided because it is "too filled with the idea of self" - and then invites us to chew over the words as we watch the characters absorb it themselves. In this sense, the film replicates (not duplicates) a kind of meditative experience. It also affords us a chance to see the Buddhist mind struggling for insight at three stages of growth, and how these stages "talk" to each other.
2. The Thin Red Line. Terrence Malick's triumphant return to filmmaking is not explicitly about Buddhism, but in both its quietly observant tone and its subject matter, it is very relevant to core Buddhist ideas. Ostensibly about the invasion of Guadalcanal by American soldiers during World War II, the film is really a spiritual meditation (pun intended) on the forces of cruelty and peace, and on the possibility of transcending violence through the power of mind and sacrificial action. Many characters, played by many famous actors, move in and out of the scenes, representing various stages of moral evolution, but the main conflict guiding the narrative is between Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). The idealistic Witt is always trying to escape his duties for the tranquility he finds living with the natives, while the cynical Welsh is constantly dragging him back and reprimanding him.
But Witt feels the mystical impingement of a bolder duty than even the military affords, and signals his superior toward it. The crucial exchange between the two comes when Walsh tells him, "In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain't no world...but this one." Witt replies, "You're wrong. I've seen another world." He then comes to show, in Buddhist fashion, that the "other world" may not be another place but simply a different state of mind.
Towards the end of the story, he follows through on his spiritual vision with selfless action, when he saves his fellow soldiers' lives by letting himself be taken by the enemy. Throughout, Witt has an almost unnerving air of calm detachment and compassion that is one of the hallmarks of the Zen adept. He moves through the battle scenes as if one foot is already in the 'other world." Eventually, his altruistic death comes to move and change (in the deepest sense of the word) the mind of Welsh.
The character of Witt could definitely be considered a Christ-like figure, but he is also similar to a Bodhisattva, the Buddhist practitioner (and mythical figure) who delays his or her own enlightenment to help save all beings. Malick mirrors the state of Witt's mind with hypnotizing camera work that lingers and absorbs the scenes of nature, and also the scenes of battle, with an intelligence and purposefulness that will create a spiritual, watchful attitude in the viewer. The director is famous for this kind of thing, and he is only one of a handful of filmmakers (Kubrick, or Fellini in the last lyrical scenes of Amacord, or P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood come to mind) that has the uncanny ability to build atmospheres, full of tension, that heighten our senses and that are as palpable as any character.
1. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring. In the small canon of specifically Buddhist films, Korean director Kim Ki-duk's is the first bonafide masterpiece. It tells the story of a master and apprentice who live on a secluded monastery floating in the middle of a lake. The master teaches the young boy lessons about cruelty and empathy, and awareness of other beings (tying a rock to his leg just as the boy has done to a helpless frog). Although portraying a monk's practice, Ki-duk suffers from none of the pious awe or idealization demonstrated by Western filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (who tackled the Dalai Lama in Kundun) or Bernardo Bertolucci (who missed an opportunity with Little Buddha). As he grows up, the apprentice eventually faces the most brutal challenges life can offer, and the director does not shy away from frankly engaging them. Knowledge of his budding sexuality comes to the monastery in the form of a young woman, and once he leaves the monastery for the outer world, he commits a sordid act of violence. Yet the most sophisticated form of a Buddhist life is not about naiive purity, or avoiding emotional extremes or temptations, but about penetrating more comprehensively into their psychological nature.
There is some "kiss, kiss, bang, bang*" here, although it takes place in a larger context of the reaching for transcendent understanding of one's own nature. Ki-duk, who has made films of harrowing violence and stark sexuality (such as in The Isle), in this film aptly takes his dexterity with extreme subjects and effectively applies them to hard-won spiritual lessons. The results are spectacular.
When the apprentice returns to the monastery a struggle for redemption and insight begins, portrayed in all its existential difficulty with harrowing and ingenious images. In the climactic scenes, the apprentice enacts a ritual exemplifying the wisdom he has gained, pulling a heavy stone seemingly for miles up a mountain in a grueling ordeal. Reaching the apex, he drops the literal and metaphoric weight and then meditates gloriously atop the mountain. The sequence is one of the most amazing and profound cinematic symbols of Buddhist spiritual practice.
Samsara (for showing the difficult relationship between romantic love and the search for enlightenment; n/a on DVD);
Siddhartha (for its cinematography);
How to Cook Your Life for Zen in the kitchen;
Kundun (for its loving portrait of the Dalai Lama from a man usually obsessed with Christian hypocrisy and violence);
The Matrix (for its extended metaphor that addresses parallels between the concept of samsara, the internet, and "virtual reality");
I Heart Huckabees (for its comedic take on identity and the unforgettable line "What happens in the meadow at dusk?!");
American Beauty (for it's questioning of consumer culture, its "bag floating on the wind" scene, and the last lines by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey): "...there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday.");
Tommy (for its somewhat muddled but powerful commentary on the nature of sensory information and its relationship to spiritual insight through the story of a "deaf, dumb, and blind boy");
and Fight Club (for illuminating the strange and complicated parallels between Buddhism, nihilism, and fascism that arise in the project of deconstructing the Self).
*Pauline Kael famously writes in her book of criticism Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, the sex and violence her title refers to is "perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies. This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this."
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