Some days back, I rented "Being There," a 1979 film starring Peter Sellers and directed by Hal Ashby. I had seen bits and pieces of "Being There" before, but had never sat down to watch the entire movie. The story centers on Chance the gardener, who tends the Washington, DC estate of the Old Man, an unnamed character who dies at the beginning of the film. Chance looks upon the old man's corpse without registering much understanding or deep feeling, and the housekeeper, Louise, initially yells at Chance for not grasping the significance of the Old Man's death. Louise quickly repents of her anger, though, for she recognizes that Chance has the mind of a child, and that he is absorbed by only two things in life: gardening and TV. She tells Chance that she and he will both have to leave the home, and bids Chance farewell. Chance soon finds himself on the street, and the rest of the movie portrays Chance's misadventures as, like his cinematic descendant Forrest Gump, he finds himself inadvertently walking the halls of power and prestige, with-- eventually-- thousands of people hanging on to his every word. Chance's encounters with people (business magnates, Russian diplomats, and even the US president) are characterized by how charmed his interlocutors are at his simplicity and honesty. Time after time, people mistake Chance for someone more profound than he actually is, not realizing that Chance's constant retreats to the metaphor of the garden are a function of the fact that gardening, and TV, are all that Chance knows.*
A few days before I saw the movie, I read my friend Steve Honeywell's review of it. Steve understood why people thought this was Peter Sellers's greatest performance, but he was frustrated, I think, by most viewers' reactions to Chance: like the characters that Chance encounters in the film, many viewers also take Chance to be a profound being, one perhaps touched by the divine-- a Christ-figure, or in Steve's language, a "Zen Buddhist saint, a person who is purely and totally in 'the now' because he has no effective mental past and no real conception of the future." Steve then asks a crucial question in which he summons me, djinn-like, to provide an answer:
But how saintly is [Chance] if he got that way through no design of his own? How much wisdom really falls from his lips if he doesn’t understand the wisdom himself (Kevin, I expect an answer on this)[?] The final (and I admit, truly wonderful) shot of the film only emphasizes this impression.
So Steve has very kindly given me a metaphysical mission. I see this mission as having two phases, each answering a different question. The first question is: is Chance, as portrayed in the movie, really a Christ-figure or a Buddhist saint? The second question is Steve's own question: how much of a saint/divinity can Chance be if he doesn't understand what "wisdom" he utters, and if his wisdom, far from being earned, comes through "no design of his own"?
1. Christ-figure? Buddhist saint?
Christ-figures are fascinating subjects. They appear often in stories and movies: Melville's Billy Budd has been interpreted as such a figure; more recently, JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Wachowski Brothers' Neo (from "The Matrix") have been viewed through a christic lens. Some Christ-figures have, arguably, appeared before the Christ himself: the Suffering Servant image in the book of Isaiah ("by his stripes are we healed") has been retroactively interpreted by Christians as a prophetic reference to the coming of Jesus.
I think, though, that we need to set some ground rules when talking about Christ-figures. What does it take to be classified as one? I'd say that it takes more than the ability to perform miracles: a Christ-figure must walk a sort of via dolorosa, and must do so for the sake of all humanity. Strangely enough, just such a figure is visible in Charlton Heston's movie "The Omega Man," a zombie-apocalypse film based on the novel I Am Legend (and later remade into the movie "I Am Legend," starring Will Smith in the Heston role). In "The Omega Man," Heston's character, Dr. Robert Neville, is one of the few people to survive the zombie-virus outbreak. Because he is a scientist, Neville, who is immune to the virus, uses his own blood to create a serum that can counteract the effects of the virus and restore the infected zombies to normalcy. In this version of the story, however, the zombies are sentient and are led by Mathias (Anthony Zerbe in fine, evil, B-movie form), who rallies the infected against Neville. The zombies eventually kill Neville by casting a spear at him while Neville, having just given his serum to a group of uninfected people for replication, is standing in a public fountain. The spear strikes Neville's side; Neville slumps into the crystal-clear water and dies, arms spread wide in a beatific gesture reminiscent of Christ on the cross. Blood and water flow.
Robert Neville is a true Christ-figure. He hits all the right notes: if "zombiism" symbolizes human sinfulness, then Neville, with his immunity, is inherently pure and naturally free from the shackles of sin. His solution to the problem of sin comes through the redeeming effects of his own blood, thus making his serum a kind of sacrament. Neville's gift of blood is for all of humanity, which now stands awash in sinfulness. Some among the sinful will accept the serum/chrism; many won't. Neville, standing in that fountain, also makes the ultimate sacrifice in a spirit of imitatio christi. His dying posture seals the deal, reaffirming the Neville/Christ analogy. (Note, too, that "Neville" comes from the French neuve ville, or "new city," itself perhaps a biblical reference to a new phase in human/cosmic history.)
Resurrection imagery may also be a factor for Christ-figures. Harry Potter was killed by the Avada Kedavra curse: as the celestial Dumbledore tells Harry in Heaven's anteroom (a sort of cleaned-up version of London's King's Cross station-- "King's Cross" itself being a significant hint at Harry's Christlike nature), the young man is free to move "on"-- i.e., heavenward-- if he so desires. This means Harry is definitively dead, although he has the power to, like a bodhisattva, turn back from Heaven's gate to complete his unfinished work. Dumbledore has also told Harry over the course of Rowling's seven books that Harry is a being filled with love, and this self-sacrificial love is what makes him powerful. Christ's life is characterized by universal love; this, it seems, is an essential component of a Christ-figure. Harry is also carried forward by a sense of mission that is crystallized in the fifth book (Order of the Phoenix) when he hears the prophecy about himself and realizes that he will be-- must be-- the one to take down Voldemort.
Meanwhile, Neo's path in "The Matrix" cleaves to a christic death-resurrection-ascension paradigm. Neo's character, as conceived by the Wachowski Brothers, follows something of an intertwined, double-helical path, simultaneously tracking both the Buddha's enlightenment and Christ's fulfillment. But Neo qualifies as a Christ-figure not only because of the resurrection moment after Trinity(!) revives him, but also because he can perform miracles, and because he operates in a spirit of liberating love for all enslaved humanity. Once Neo realizes who he is and what he's about, he moves forward with a sense of deep purpose. As a being who confounds the rule-bound nature of the computer-generated Matrix (perhaps symbolizing the sin-shackled nature of the world), Neo is Christlike because he is a death-transcending, messianic figure of promise.**
So I would contend that, to qualify as a Christ-figure, a character in a story or a movie should possess most of the following qualities:
•ability to perform miracles
•all-encompassing love for humanity
•messianic (i.e., revolutionary/paradigm-changing/leadership) potential
•a character arc that follows a via dolorosa
•a sense of mission
•resurrection/resuscitation and other prominent tropes (crucifixion/sacrifice, etc.)
The three characters mentioned above, Robert Neville, Harry Potter, and Neo, all possess at least five out of seven of the above traits. I've charted everything out below:
|Robert Neville||Harry Potter|
|love for humanity|
|sense of mission|
But by the above standards, Chance is not a Christ-figure. A Christ-figure tends to be proactive and purpose-driven, whereas Chance is more of a benevolent witness to, and sometimes inadvertent participant in, the events occurring around him. Chance, being of simple mind and heart, cannot be said to be possessed of a sense of mission: he has no agenda. He is a compassionate being, true, but the film provides little evidence that Chance's compassion is synonymous with a conscious, all-embracing love of humanity. As I noted earlier, Chance's two foci in life are gardening and TV. Chance does have one distinctly Christlike trait, of course: he performs miracles-- two, in fact. The first and more obvious miracle is his walking on water, as seen in the final moments of the film. The second miracle, somewhat less obvious but present all the same, is the heart-healing that Chance brings to most of those whom he meets. Almost no one is immune to Chance's charms. But unlike Neo, Harry Potter, and Robert Neville, Chance undergoes no via dolorosa, and he certainly doesn't die a self-sacrificing death, nor does he harbor much, if any, messianic potential (although it may be that the millions of TV viewers who saw his on-camera interview might be willing to follow him to the ends of the earth). In all, Chance violates the christic paradigm in too many ways to be considered a Christ-figure. His concerns and his compassion are too parochial in scope to make him christic. It may be that Chance, taken purely on his own terms, qualifies as some sort of divine figure-- one miraculously untouched by the restrictive laws and doleful vicissitudes of nature-- but Chance's character defies any obviously Christian interpretation.
Is Chance, then, more of a Buddhist saint? There are two primary paradigms when considering Buddhist sainthood: the Theravada notion of the arhat, and the Mahayana notion of the bodhisattva. Buddhism arose as a response to the empirical fact of human suffering in all its forms, great and small. It acknowledges that being is both process and interrelationship, which immediately implies that there is no permanence or inherent self-being (aseity, to use the proper term) to be found anywhere. Even the apodictic realm of 2 + 2 = 4 is subject to the unalterable laws of interdependence: there can be no 2 without 1 or 3, and each number immediately implies the rest of the number line, just as a single flower implies the entire universe.
The arhat is nothing more or less than a person. He is not a deity. At best, we might consider him a teacher or a guide, leading us across the world to the one-person bark that we must row ourselves to cross the great river of ignorance. In Theravada thinking, this sort of person represents a saintly ideal, incarnating within himself the Buddhist virtues laid out in the Eightfold Path: right views, right intentions, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. There is a "self-propulsive" aspect to Theravada Buddhism: you don't get where you need to go unless you yourself are willing to make the effort. As with the christic paradigm discussed above, then, we see that proactivity is a crucial component of this form of Buddhist sainthood.
How does Chance measure up to this ideal? Can Chance truly be described as mindful, for example? In a sense, yes: he is very attentive to the lives of plants, and seems, on some pre-intellectual level, to radiate a tranquil, compassionate bonhomie that relaxes his interlocutors and keeps him more or less in tune with his social surroundings. Without a doubt, Chance is calm and centered and kind. But at the same time, Chance's limited intellect keeps him both naive and unaware. Early in the movie, a newly homeless Chance walks into a group of street toughs who threaten him. His response to this threat is to bring out his remote controller, taken from the Old Man's house, and to click it in an attempt to "change the channel," so to speak-- that is, to make the toughs go away. Chance seems blandly surprised when the boys don't disappear, and this surprise indicates the extent to which our protagonist has divorced himself from reality. That's as far from Buddhist virtue as one can get.
How does Chance fare when viewed through a more Mahayana Buddhist lens? Before we tackle that question, we should stop and do a bit of background work on Buddhism. Although Theravada is arguably the older form of Buddhism, "closer to the Buddha's original teachings," as some Theravadins proudly claim, Mahayana is without a doubt the more popular, widespread form. In this form of Buddhism, the saintly ideal is represented by the bodhisattva, a being that stands at the threshold of nirvana but, instead of stepping across that boundary into bliss, turns around in favor of compassionately helping others across. This form of Buddhism is less about "self-propulsion" and more about emphasizing the compassionate connections that bind all sentient beings together. Why does a Mahayana monk do what he does? "I do it for you," is the monk's answer. In the West, one of the most famous expressions of Mahayana thought is Zen Buddhism (about which I've written here, and about which style of meditation I've written here). Zen is the Japanese designation for Ch'an; this style of Buddhism has its origin in China, a country and culture in which Buddhism underwent a rather fundamental makeover. As Noss and Noss write in the 1984 edition of Man's Religions:
The general religious attitude in East Asia differs from that of India in important respects. While India tends to give the value of an illusion to nature, or at least yearns to triumph over it in thought, the Chinese and Japanese do not do this easily. They have cultivated an aesthetic appreciation of nature, which, even apart from Buddhist and Taoist influences, has reached such heights of satisfaction as to make the East Asian want to prolong life in this world as long as possible. Nature is a real and not deceptive structure of forms and forces, and it displays sublime order and beauty in both action and being. Some Chinese (like Chuang Tzu) might qualify this, seeing nature as pointing beyond itself and signifying the operational presence of the only wholly real entity in the universe-- the mysterious Tao. But even this view has had the effect of intensifying appreciation of nature.
Noss, John B. and David S. Noss. Man's Religions, 7th Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1984. (p. 232)
Some scholars refer to the India/China contrast in terms of world-denying or other-worldly (Indian) versus world-affirming or this-worldly (Chinese) religious perspectives. Zen Buddhism takes a decidedly Taoist route in its advocacy of present-orientation (to which Steve Honeywell alluded in his review), naturalness, spontaneity, and harmonious flow. Where does Chance fall on this spectrum? Is he a world-denier or a world-affirmer? From what I observed above, it seems Chance is a combination of both: blissfully unaware, yet simultaneously (paradoxically?) in harmony with his circumstances.
My own encounters with Zen monks, however, lead me to believe that Chance is nothing like them. Monks are the products of hard work and study-- of deliberate action. They may labor to attain a state of non-attainment, but their lives are always, always characterized by disciplined striving, notions of wu-wei notwithstanding. Chance, by contrast, simply is. He has attained nothing because, as the housekeeper Louise points out in the middle of "Being There," when she sees Chance on TV, Chance was simply born to be the way he is. If anything, I take Louise and her sharp awareness to epitomize the Zen ideal: like many Zen monks I've met, Louise is blunt, perceptive, and unflaggingly truthful.
Could it nevertheless be that Chance is still, somehow, a bodhisattva? One characteristic of a bodhisattva is that he radiates compassion wherever he goes. This radiation is automatic, not necessarily willed. Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is a perfect example of this. As my old Buddhism prof humorously explained, such cosmic beings are like dispensers, doling out doses of compassion automatically, volitionlessly. Chance certainly qualifies as a bodhisattva in that respect, and it's also obvious that his compassion, though perhaps unwilled, is nonetheless genuine: significantly, Chance cries when his rich benefactor, Benjamin Rand, dies in his bed. (This stands in contrast to Chance's numb, affectless reaction to the Old Man's death at the beginning of the film, and indicates that Chance's character has evolved, even if only a little.) But if a bodhisattva's job, like that of Christ, is to provide compassion for all sentient beings, then we again run into the problem that Chance's concerns are parochial and rather mundane-- not cosmic in the least.
I conclude, then, that Chance can be classified neither as a Christ-figure nor as a Buddhist saint of any type. Although he possesses some Christlike and Buddhalike traits in tantalizing quantities, Chance cannot be summed up in either Christian or Buddhist terms. His character doesn't map well onto either religious template.
But if we insist on mapping Chance onto some religious template, then I would suggest out-and-out Taoism. As I mentioned above in talking about Zen Buddhism, Taoism emphasizes such aspects of the world as naturalness, harmonious flow, spontaneity, and present-orientation. Taoism's deepest insights are of the wordless, nondiscursive, yet painfully ordinary sort: "The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal Tao." Simple, plainspoken Chance clearly demonstrates his oneness with the Tao in true magico-religious Taoist form at the end of the movie: by walking on water, like the legendary Taoist sages of old who rode the clouds, hopscotched along mountaintops, and survived pounding waterfalls unscathed, he shows that his non-mastery of the world is itself a sort of mastery. Like Bodhidharma, the First Patriarch of Zen Buddhism (and an Indian saint reimagined the Chinese way) who famously crossed the Yangtze River on a reed, Chance has no argument with the still water of the lake on which he stands, so the lake doesn't complain when he stands on it.
Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu are both concerned with how a sage should act; they see the sage as the embodiment of certain Taoist virtues. From Chapter 33 of the Tao Te Ching:
Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self requires strength;
He who knows he has enough is rich.
Perseverance is a sign of will power.
He who stays where he is endures.
To die but not to perish is to be eternally present.
Taoism may not be a perfect fit for Chance, but it comes close. Look how the above verses end: "...eternally present." Is this not the core meaning of being there? Whether Chance is even capable of making the effort to know himself and others, whether he is able or unable to master himself, whether he even knows-- consciously-- that he has enough is impossible to determine. But as my friend Nathan notes in his magnificent review of "Being There":
For one thing, the aptly-named film is a testament to a tremendous human need: the need for others to “be there” for us. All of the silliness that gets in the way of this and that hurts us, personally and collectively, could be pared away, the movie is suggesting. All Chance does, apart from speak in the language of the garden, is to “be there” for others; this fills some of them with an intense loyalty to him that overrides on more than one occasion even sexual jealousy. At the same time, the scoundrels of the movie–not so much the street gangsters in the opening scene as the suspicious journalist, the philanderer attorney who wants to enter politics, and the back-room politicians themselves–come off looking very bad indeed in comparison.
Chance is, if nothing else, present to the people around him. Like the Taoist notion of the Uncarved Block, or Chuang Tzu's tales of the Stinky Tree and the Great Yak, Chance simply is, and maybe that's enough.
2. "No design of his own"
Can one be a true saint if one has done no deliberate work to attain sainthood?
Chance epitomizes the Taoist ideal of wu-wei (non-doing, non-action): there's a sort of deliberate non-deliberateness about him. Chance can carefully examine a tree in front of the White House and conclude that it's sick and in need of care; at the same time, his lack of intellectual complexity means that he faces every human encounter with a fresh, open, and happy mind. Chance is untroubled by the world, but not through any effort of his own. His "enlightenment," such as it is, comes without exertion on his part. He was simply born that way. As Louise bitterly observes while watching Chance become a celebrity on TV:
It's for sure a white man's world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I'll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between th' ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you've gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want. Gobbledy-gook!
This is by far the most accurate perception of Chance in the entire film, which is why I consider Louise the movie's resident Zen master. She cuts to the heart of the matter, which is that Chance is as stupid as a box of rocks. "Being There" is a comedy, and one of the movie's fundamental jokes is that people ascribe to Chance virtues that they read into him. Again consistent with Taoism, Chance is an empty vessel, a protean field of potential: he can be anything to anyone. And that is, perhaps, the film's central irony: if Chance is, in reality, an "absent presence" wherever he may be... is he truly being there for anybody? Pluck Chance out of Benjamin Rand's posh residence and plunk him down in the midst of urban blight, and Chance will produce the same effects on the downtrodden citizenry as he does on the rich and privileged. Why? Because Chance is a mirror, not an actual presence.
This may fit the idea that we shouldn't consider Chance human. Perhaps Chance is more of an angel, an uncomplicated being with an immutable nature that emanates spiritual warmth-- a being at once there (visible and audible) and not there (ethereal and intangible). Nathan, in his review, hints at this possibility when he writes:
In the movie’s events, God plays no role, but Chance effects more change than anyone, and so Chance is in effect a character foil for divine interference in human affairs–a role that is part of a tradition going all the way back to the ancient Greek playwright Menander, who personified Chance in a position formerly reserved for Olympian deities.
Whatever Chance's ontological status, we need to separate the moral worth of Chance from the moral worth of Chance's words. We commit the genetic fallacy when we dismiss a claim or argument because of its provenance, i.e., its genesis. If a crazy or stupid person says that the sun is shining outside, and the sun is indeed shining at that moment, then that person is right no matter how stupid or crazy he or she might be. It would be wrong to deny the claim by saying, "You can't trust what that person says; he's crazy!" So: can a simple gardener dispense saintly wisdom? Of course he can. But is Chance himself a saint, despite the fact that he has done nothing to attain his beatific state? This is a harder question, to which Taoism may provide an answer.
We'll start by noting, again, that Zen Buddhism takes its cue from Taoism. It uses the simple, often discourse-subverting language of Taoism to express truth, which means that Zen Buddhists frequently utter perfectly obvious inanities. As blog-friend Lorianne wrote in 2004 in reminiscing about an exchange between her and Zen Master Dae Kwang during her precepts-taking ceremony:
ZMDK: Your new name is Won Jin, which means Original Truth. So, Lori, what is this Original Truth?
L: (claps hands)
ZMDK: Is that all?
L: Your robe is gray!
And a moment later:
ZMDK: Yeah, my robe is gray: that’s plain old ordinary truth... but is it Original Truth?
L: Of course it is!
The above exchange echoes the simplicity of Chance's gardening metaphors. When the US president asks Chance for his opinion on the nation's economic future, Chance offers conditional optimism ("As long as the roots are not severed... all will be well in the garden"), refers to the progression of seasons, and ends with an allusion to the assured return of spring. Is Chance speaking truth-- even Original Truth? I should think so: Chance is responding to the demands of the present moment in the only way he knows how. By the Zen reckoning (which is a close cousin to Taoist reckoning), Chance is a Buddha. But then... we all are. So this is nothing special.
Because Taoism lifts up naturalness as a virtue, it is enough, in the Taoist way of thinking, for something simply to be what it is to express its harmony with the Tao. There's no need to overthink things, no need to bring ego into the mix. Happiness comes not from recognizing that we are all part of a great flow: it comes merely from flowing. From the Taoist perspective, then, a figure like Chance, who placidly yields to all circumstances, embodies harmony with the Tao. Chance may not fit the template of a Buddhist saint or a Christ-figure, but his words of wisdom (holy wisdom? foolish wisdom?) spring from the present moment and are consistent with his inner nature, and that's a dynamic one finds in Taoism.
Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard;
the gentle overcomes the rigid.
Everyone knows this is true,
but few can put it into practice.
Therefore the Master remains
serene in the midst of sorrow.
Evil cannot enter his heart.
Because he has given up helping,
he is people's greatest help.
True words seem paradoxical.
—Tao Te Ching, Chapter 78
Like the characters Chance meets, we viewers are at liberty to perceive Chance however we wish. He is a blank slate, an Uncarved Block, a mirror reflecting his surroundings. He could be an earthbound divinity, or merely a person favored of God, because as we all know, God protects the insane and the simple.*** "Being There" would never have worked as a comedy had it taken a more "Mr. Bean"-like approach. If Chance had fallen victim to a soul-crushing series of mishaps-- attacked by a gang, smashed by a car, spurned and mocked by the rich and powerful-- we wouldn't have had the same movie. Not at all. Can Chance be considered a saint? From an explicitly Christian or Buddhist standpoint, I'd say no. But from a Taoist perspective, Chance simply is who he is: a being at one with the Tao. And as a mark of sainthood, maybe that's enough.
*This makes it strange that Chance so often relies on gardening imagery to express himself, but almost never quotes anything from television.
**Both Robert Neville and Neo have been subject to critique as Christ-figures, however, because of their gun-toting, violent ways. How Christlike can these characters be, after all, if they personally participate in the annihilation of their fellow sentient beings? There are several ways to answer this critique. One is to shift the messianic paradigm slightly so that Neville and Neo are viewed through a more apocalyptic filter: the Christ we meet in the Book of Revelation is far less meek and mild than the Christ of the gospels, and he is more in tune with ancient currents in Jewish messianism, in which the mashiach was seen as more of a powerful political leader who promised an upheaval of the temporal/terrestrial order; any reference to a "new heaven and new earth" was meant politically, not metaphysically. Another way to answer the critique is to take all the weaponry symbolically, the way academics do when considering a symbol like the sword in Indian thought and tradition. In India, the sword represents that which cuts away ignorance and unwisdom, leaving only unburdened, unfettered enlightenment. Sword-brandishing deities are not inciting violence; to the contrary, they are holy threshers, cultivating wisdom. There may thus be a symbolic sense in which Neo's and Neville's guns serve the same purpose: they can be viewed as releasing the foolish from their bonds of foolishness. All the same, it is perhaps because of this tendency toward cinematic violence (even Harry Potter has employed magic in a violent, combative manner, including two of the three Unforgivable Curses, and not against his arch-enemy Voldemort) that I did not include moral purity as one of the christic criteria.
***In fact, a theistic reading of "Being There" would note the invisible divine hand at work, lovingly and protectively smoothing out every path before Chance treads on it.