Sunday, April 23, 2006

your Sunday dose of Buddhism

Exercise: identify as many Buddhist tropes in this movie preview as you can.

The entire trailer is a Buddhist sermon, a treasure trove of Buddhist words and images. It's very much in the spirit of "The Karate Kid" (now with Nick Nolte in the Mr. Miyagi role, wearing a Sean Connery-style head of hair and beard), with a bit of kung fu hocus-pocus thrown in.

To be honest, I'm not really a fan of the hocus-pocus when it comes to shows involving Buddhism (or other religions, for that matter), not least because such shows perpetuate silly stereotypes and outright misconceptions. One of my great disappointments with the "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues" TV series was the fixation on Shaolin superstition. One particularly embarrassing episode featured Kwai Chang Caine fighting a demon, then getting temporarily possessed by it before ultimately defeating it. Other episodes showcased Caine hanging spiderlike from flat walls, teleporting in the woods (to the consternation of the bad guy), multiplying himself into four Caines so as to surround an opponent, and so on.*

The best episode out of that series was the least magical: it was the one where Caine, our priestly do-gooder, helped out a mother and son. The mother was being physically abused by her husband, a bitter police officer, while their young son could only watch helplessly. The episode was well-constructed and even touching. The drama remained human the entire time, as far as I can remember. Even the one major fight sequence was understated, stripped of the usual exaggerated sound effects and over-the-top music. In that sequence, the abusive husband found out his wife was taking kung fu lessons at Caine's kwoon, and he tried to attack Caine. Caine's defense against the attack was undramatic and even plausible. There was a lot to like about that episode.

Trivia: Bodhidharma, the Indian monk known as the First Patriarch of Ch'an (Zen, Seon) Buddhism, supposedly taught at the original Shaolin monastery. Read about him here.

*For those asking the inevitable question, "If you hated the series, why did you watch so much of it?", my answer is that I have a sentimental soft spot for the series thanks to the original 1970s cult TV show. An attachment, I suppose.



Sperwer said...

I read this book years ago. I don't remember the hero having to overcome a crippling accident; in fact I'm sure that the conceit of the book was that the hero was supremely successful, faced no unusual challenges but when he met the levitating mechanic rather epiphinously realized the emptiness of his lefe. The film thus undercuts both the message of the book, and its own message about the primcay of mental hindrances to living well and the power of mind to transcend the obstacles that it itself has created, by making the hero's task that of overcoming a physical problem. And while it's true that the film - at least as represented by the trialer - has a lot of "buddhist" motifs, I think it would be more accurate to say that it has a lot of motifs that are shared by buddhism and various other varieties of practical wisdom (warriorship) and perennial philosophy (philosophical taoism). As far as the trailer is concerned I don't see anything specifically "buddhist" about it.

Kevin Kim said...

Aaaarrrrggghh, I can always count on you for the stubborn contrarian response!

Not having read the book (and having only seen the entry), I can't say how Buddhist the book is, or whether, in the end, the book is actually trying to articulate an explicitly Buddhist position. I gather, from what the author has written online, that he wasn't aiming for Buddhism, per se.

As for the movie trailer, I grant that many of those tropes could belong to more than just the Buddhist tradition, but the trailer as a whole strikes me as Buddhism-flavored when you view all those tropes together (mindfulness, focus on this moment, putting aside ego in the form of fear, etc.). But I suppose you're right: Buddhism-flavored isn't the same as Buddhist.

All the same: the central message of the trailer (and it may be that the film itself will betray the trailer's message) strikes me as: "right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration," none of which are possible without the first two parts of the Threefold Learning: right views, right intentions, right speech, and even right livelihood (the trailer contrasts our young hero's hard-drinking, hard-partying lifestyle with his seriousness of mind after his motorcycle accident).

For me, the best argument in favor of a Buddhist interpretation of that trailer is that a thought experiment involving other traditions proves more difficult to sustain.

Viewing the trailer through a Christian prism, for example, leads to insights about compassion, love, and personal responsibility, but nothing about the power of God or Jesus in one's life.

A philosophical Taoist interpretation of the film would fare better, given how many themes Taoism shares with Zen Buddhism. But Nolte's remark that "the brain is a reflex organ; it reacts" seems more explicitly like Zen Buddhism's "mirror mind" than Taoist contemplative quietism.

(I'm open to argument on that one; Zen and Taoism do share quite a few themes, and one could argue that contemplative quietism is no less mirror-mind than the mirror-mind in Zen.)

I don't know enough Western philo to say which philosophical system might best map onto the entire trailer, but I suspect that none does so as well as Buddhism.

"My two scents," said the skunk.


Sperwer said...

I try, I really do, to play along with the other kids, and not to be negative, but I've been a curmudgeon about stuff like this since i was a kid.

I really was only being critical about the film, which (from what can be seen of it in the trailer) I think does a serious disservice to the book and to the message of the book, as I've already explained. Even though it avoids the mawkishness that attends the film's story of physical adversity overcome, the book, btw, suffers from its own sort of sentimentalist babbitry).

I don't disagree that it plays heavily on buddhist themes, just the suggestion that in doing so it is buddhist, since (as also explained) those particular "buddhist" themes are also shared with other traditions and (again from what I've seen) the film doesn't really deal with those themes in a particualrly buddhist way, i.e., by linking them with, say, the ideas of annatta or the four noble truths.

On the other hand, as your own reaction evidences, I think the film will be seen, particularly in the States, as another epiphenomenal blip on the radar screen that tracks the buddhist penetration of popular culture.