Everybody's Doing It:
Buddhism and Popular Culture
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What is art? What isn't! Everything we do (and don't do) has its art. Somewhere along the line, however, somebody sorted and divided everything into two heaps, "high" and "low" ("fine" and "popular"). It was a political thing, I guess, but hey, that's another story.
This boundary's unwritten, but as divisive as that between East and West. So, if you're studying Shakespeare, da Vinci, or Beethoven, there are walls of books for study. But arts of haiku and tanka, tangka and sumi-e, shakuhachi and the Tibetan Dance of the Skeleton Lords, have been relatively unknown in the West. Interestingly, their ultimate purpose is to go beyond words, putting us in direct contact with reality, in the here and now. No need for walls of books. (What else can we say?!)
Call them skillful means. Vehicles of the Way. Opportunities for awakening mind and heart, and for expressing that awakening. In that sense, Buddhist arts are all popular arts: anyone can appreciate them. As in any art, appreciation is amplified by understanding the basic recipes, the formal game rules. But first, pick your art form. In Japanese, "do" means way, and it applies to chado (tea way) and chikudo (bamboo way), kado (flower way) and kyudo (archery way). And so we hear now too about the Way of Pooh and the zen of changing diapers. Indeed, where's the museum of things that aren't art?! Where's the temple of things not to worship?! It's all meditation ~ which is an art.
Buddha at the Movies
[ excerpted with permission from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism2nd edition, by Gary Gach, © 2004. ]
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Looking back, the most popular art form the twentieth century bequeathed to posterity was ä movies! Nothing goes around the world like a ticket to the movies. This holds for TV, too, also speaking the universal language of cinema but on a much reduced scale. As mystic movie maven and filmmaker Stephen Simon says, "Movies are the most electrifying communications medium ever devised and the natural conduit for inspiring ourselves to look into the eternal issues of who we are and why we are here." So, of course, this has its Buddhist lights, and we can break that down two ways: film itself as Buddhist, and Buddhist films.
Now Playing: Film as Buddhist
Whatever's playing, I always enjoy the hush that settles in when the lights dim before the show. The sheer act of gathering together with fellow villagers for some storytelling around a campfire (the flickering lights and shadows on a movie screen) has primal roots, deep within the sacred. And film can, in and of itself, provide an apt model for our mundane consciousness; conscious of somethingãbut what? Illusion, quite often. Plato once described the unexamined life in terms akin to sitting in a theater never aware of the projection booth where the images come from; instead, we take what we're seeing for reality. So it is, the Buddha shows, with the projections of our own minds, which we take as the reality of our experience.
There's a visual metaphor in Buddha's motto: "Come and see!" Vipassana: clear seeing into the nature of things. Burmese vipassana master Sayadaw U Pandita notes that when we watch a movie, the process can be like insight meditation. Each has four phases:
- Appearance of object
- Directing of attention
- Close observation
In insight meditation, 1) we focus attention on our belly, say, which leads to 2) appearance of rising and falling of the abdomen, followed by 3) noting the process and our feelings, then 4) discovering special characteristics and how they actually behave, not how we think they do.
Watching a movie, 1) we focus attention on the screen, which leads to 2) appearance of characters and scenes, followed by 3) making out what's happening by observing carefully, then 4) discovering the plot and appreciating the movie.
Cinema provides another metaphor: for reality's Eternal Now. I remember once sitting behind a five-year-old and an adult at a matinee, and every ten minutes or so the kid would ask the adult, "What's happening now?" and the adult would answer, "Now they're getting to know each other." Or "Now they're going to get married." Or "Now they're on their honeymoon." If you think about it, every moment in a movie is (like life) always about "now." Continuous present tense. (Even flashbacks.) And this Film Now can be elastic, instead of like clock time: 10 minutes compressed into 3, or 3 stretched out into 10 (very reminiscent of quite a few sitting meditations I've had). Indeed, the more familiar we become with the eternal nowness of time, the more we sense its elasticity.
Our minds are elastic in the same way. A good analogy is space. As with time, movies are always breaking the ancient Aristotelian Unity of Time and Place (everything unfolding in linear "real time," 1-2-3). A film opens space out like a jigsaw puzzle, constantly changing locations and points of views. So, as audiences, when we're film's space-without-particular-locality, we're also experiencing the limitless possibility of emptiness, and of our own mind. Felt everywhere but nowhere to be seen.When I attended UCLA, film was defined as having two roots: fiction and documentary. But a student at that time, named Jim Morrison, pointed to a third stream, which could be called magical cinema. Such popular art forms as tarot cards, spells, woodblocks, and magic lantern slide shows inspired the invention of movies. This third-stream, pre-cinematic visual element is also present in early Buddhist books and manuscripts, Tibetan devotional art (tangka), and the Zen sequence of ten images known as the ox-herding pictures representing stages of practice (like a film storyboard).
Fiction films are usually a neatly patterned karma tale. For an interesting meditation sometime, buy a ticket to a movie you otherwise don't care about and walk in on the middle (at a multiplex this is easy to do). Then stay for the beginning up until you walked in. You'll see how everything that happened in the second half was a result of the characters' actions in the first half. (You can also try this at home, fast-forwarding into the middle, starting from there, then returning to the beginning.) See karma, study dharma.
Here's another meditation. Watch actors in groups scenes when they're not saying or doing anything, and see if they're compassionately making the other actors look good. Movies can nourish our compassion, as well. Typically, we hope it all turns out ok, and so identify beyond our selves (which is what compassion means, feeling with), identifying with the other characters. And without compassion, we'd be aware we're sitting in our chairs the entire time. And this is a secret part of the fun of watching movies: sitting there in our jeans and T-shirt, and at the same time being superstars, 33-feet tall, and sliding back and forth between the two realms. ("Great kiss! Please pass the popcorn.")
Any permanent, substantial identity is a fiction. In ancient Greek theater, the actors wore big masks called persona. Thus what is a real person? In the Zen-influenced dance-theater called Noh, wooden masks even change expressions as the wearer shows them in different angles and shades of lighting.
If we stop to think about this further, we see that when we're engrossed in a movie our ability to exchange our self with others' reveals the basic insubstantiality of self. It's conditonal on the factors of the story. This is how a great actor such as Laurence Olivier could say, late in life, acting didn't teach him to "get in touch with himself" but, rather, it taught him how he'd no idea who he was, really, having realized his heart's potential for being so many different people. Drama teaches that, given the circumstances, we could change who we thought we were in a second. Like they say, there but for fortune go you or I.
"ä the metaphor of movie for life is an interesting one. The frames go by so quickly that we retain the illusion of continuity and are distracted from the light that shines steadily through each frame."
- Robert Aitken Roshi
"ä If you want to enjoy the movie, you should know that it is the combination of film and light and white screen, and that the most important thing is to have a plain, white screen."
- Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Our Everyday Life Is Like a Movie
But film can never duplicate what I see when I settle on my cushion and look into my own mind screen. This is particularly true in insight meditation, when visualization is personalized. And it's a key feature in Tibetan Buddhism, where visualization empowers us to realize our unity with sacred energies by identifying with pictorial images of deities embodying themãand then recognizing their intrinsic emptiness (returning back to the empty movie screen). And the cosmic implications of Pure Land devotions reveals realms that are inconceivable. Cinema's painting with light pales besides the recognition that we are bodies of light, interbeaming and intergleaming on the luminous mandala of Indra's infinite net of light.
Is Gone with the Wind About Impermanence?: Buddhist FilmsThere isn't an Oscar for Spiritual Cinema, at least not yet, but tens of millions of people enjoy it when they see it. Themes include the nature of reality and identity and time, mythic quests, and the power of love. Within this unofficial genre, there are Buddhist films a-plenty, as testified to by the International Buddhist Film Festival. Their first call for entries in 2003 pulled in 300 films, from around the planet.
My personal all-time favorite has a longish title, Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East? a koan which is asking, in effect, "What is the meaning of Buddhism?" " Is it worthwhile?" A young man renounces city life and makes his way to a remote Korean mountain monastery. The first words we finally hear are, "There is no beginning, no middle, no end." It took producer-writer-director-editor Bae Young-kyun five years to put this intimate spiritual epic together, and it's deservedly made it to the top of many Top Ten lists since. The 2001 of zen films. G. G. says "Check it out."
More films of Buddhist interest include The Razor's Edge (compare the 1946 and 1984 versions), Afterlife (1998), Caravan (a.k.a. Himalaya) (1999), Jacob's Ladder (adapted from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, 1990), Beyond Rangoon (1995), Enlightenment Guaranteed (2000), Fearless (1993), Heaven and Earth (1993), Oseam, and Samsara (2003).
Documentaries include The Jew in the Lotus (1996), Peace Is Every Step, The Saltmen of Tibet (1998), Chasing Buddha, Genghis Blues, Jews and Buddhism: Belief Amended, Faith Revealed (1999), Regret to Inform (2000), Rivers and Tides (2001, Words of My Perfect Teacher, Home Street Home (2003), and Ellen Bruno's films about Tibetan, Burmese/Thai, and Cambodian women (Satya, Sacrifice, and Samsara).
There are dozens of Buddhist films from Japan. Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp (1956) is a response to the search to find spiritual meaning after the destruction wrought by war. We see a Japanese soldier injured in Burma at the end of World War II. A Buddhist monk takes care of him, and he returns to his military unit in Buddhist robes. In the films of Yasujiro Ozu (Early Summer, The End of Summer, etc.), the Buddhism's implied rather than explicit. A character doesn't experience a climax so much as undergo a subtle change that enables them to appreciate the suchness of things. And we mustn't forget Rashomon (1950), in which a monk hears of one event told from different points of view.
Hollywood films can have unintended Buddhist themes, such as It's a Wonderful Life, in which we see what life would be like if one single person hadn't lived, revealing how each person affects everyone else. A film worth seeing more than once is Groundhog Day (1993), in which one man relives the same day 10,000 times until he gets it right. (Paul Schindler has compiled a lucid, deep portal to explorations of the film's spiritual resonance shedding light on the interface of spirituality and cinema in general, as well as the unique message of this film in particular.) George Lucas refused to specify whether The Force referred to by Yoda in Star Wars stands for the Tao, the Holy Spirit, Buddha-mind, etc., nor whether Luke Skywalker's journey represented the Buddha's. After all, the motto in Hollywood has been: "If you want to send a message, use Western Union." A more recent phenomena was the Matrix trilogy, with threads from several traditions. (Question, when does a luminous message outweigh violence served up piping hot?)
Recent films about Tibet, such as Seven Years in Tibet (1997), Kundun (1998), and Windhorse (1999), have come a long way from the Hollywood moonshine stereotypes of Lost Horizon (1937). Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha (1993) crosscut the life of the Buddha (played by Keanu Reeves) with the fictional story of a contemporary boy in Seattle thought to be a reincarnated Tibetan lama. Plus, there are now such documentaries as Anguish of Tibet and Wheel of Time (2003). And, from nearby Bhutan, The Cup (2000) was the first film made by a Buddhist lama, Khyentse Norbu, who followed his debut with Travellers & Magicians (2003).
And there are films in which Buddhist elements pop up like weeds between cracks in concrete, such as in the 1993 biopic about Tina Turner, What's Love Got To Do With It. Just one line in a movie can be undeniably Buddhist, such as in Monsters, Inc., when Mike says to Scully (about Boo), "Oh no!, now that you've given it a name, you'll become attached to it!"
For filmmakers, new technology is raising the bar to entry. It's relatively easy to shoot a video, edit it on a home computer, and put it up on a Web site. As the media octopus expands, I hope it's not idle speculation to anticipate the eventual reality of a Buddhist TV channel, as there is in Amsterdam as well as Korea. I want my B-TV! Meanwhile, I'll just wait ä and sit on my cushion, set my mindscreen up, and inquire into what's projected there. (Please pass the popcorn.)
"What if the worst is true? What if there's no God, and you only go around once and that's it. Well, you know, don't you want to be part of the experience? You know, what the hell, it's not all a drag. And, I'm thinking to myself, 'Geez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.'"
~ Woody Allen, Hannah and Her Sisters-->
Apparently this topic of Buddha + cinema is becoming popular, as evidenced by the International Buddhist Film Festival, and Stephen Simon's growing Spiritual Cinema community, as well as growing online discussion. As to the latter, our favorite Top Five:
- Paul Schindler's rich yet lucid coverage of Groundhog Day is a classic interpretative text on a film about a man who relives that same day 10,000 times ... until he gets it right.
- Dick Dillon's compilation of cinematic interpretations of Buddhism at his portal, buddhism.about.com
- Yiu Chan's write up of Anna and the King
- Mauro Sanchez' inimitable Dharmawood (rhymes with Hollywood)
- Stephen Simon's Mystical Movies is a must-visit site by someone who not only appreciates that spirituality is a genre, but has contributed such classics as What Dreams May Come.
- PLUS: Gary Gach's Screening as Event is an evolving repository of Notes Towards a Phenomnology of Film ... necessary since film is not just reels of celluloid in metal cans.
Extra credit : Plato proposes an allegory of life being like a cave/( which resonates with the set-up of cinema (echoed in such films as The Truman Show, (a riff on the Platonic conception of simulacra).) the apparatus : interrestingly, the camera and the projector are essentially the same. )
Music may be the oldest of human arts, requiring only a hand beating on a knee, or a solo voice. And it's perennially new, being created in the present moment; as jazzman Eric Dolphy once said, "Music's in the air. You can never have it back."
jump to Play It Again, Samadhi!
~ Musical Meditation
Music's a present-ation, making present. So it's Buddhist to the degree it attunes us to the freedom and fullness of the present moment, and its impermanence.
***proofreading: stet "present-ation" above.***
***along the path begins***
Along the Path
Broaden your horizons. If you've never listened to World Music (sitar, African drums, flamenco, etc.), now's your chance. New rhythms, harmonies, melodies, and scales seem strange at first, then eventually familiar as an old friend from far away. Follow how a single note can slide, wander, and go boing in elastic, mind-bending ways. Let your body and soul become one big ear. Be one with the musicians and the music, feeling each note resonate in your heart. And with your hands in meditation you, offer silent applause every moment.
Each land has its own musical flavor. I find Korean music invigorating, for example, once you get accustomed to its tendency to zigzag like a hummingbird or dragonfly. Vietnamese chanting, such as recorded by the monks and nuns of Plum Village, is, to me, one of the most soulful sounds on the planet. But the dharma has one taste. Let's spotlight some traditional and some newer Buddhist examples.
***along the path ends***
Giving Buddhism Its ChantsSinging in the shower isn't exactly essential but just fun to do. A little icing on the cake of life. But why do you suppose we sound so good in the shower? Because the tiles create a little extra reverb. And that reverb is what human self-awareness is, really. Icing on the cake. Other living things have awareness, but we humans are aware that we're aware. Wired with an extra layer of filigree. An addition of cortex to our brains. Maybe that, too, is another reason why we like singing in the shower! The self-awareness factor.
Mindfulness Exercise #93: Listening to any music, follow your breath, and note how the music moves it, taking us out of ourselves and bringing us back.
In and of itself, music is a mystery. Where did it come from? Who knows. We just do it, anyway, humming a little tune just because we like to hum. Maybe we're serenading the microorganisms. Joining the music of the spheres. Vocalizing the deep rhythms of life that surges in each cell of our protoplasm and throughout the galaxies.
The idea of the music of the spheres (a perfectly harmonious music, thought by Pythagoras and other philosophers to be produced by the movement of celestial bodies) may not be so far-fetched, now that we know that matter is really energy. Tibetan Buddhism has an ancient notion of bija mantra, "seed sounds," with physical properties when pronounced. A guru gives a student a special bija mantra upon initiation, but Om is a universal one, for example.
In this light, Buddhist skillful means we've already mentioned that reverberate with the music of the spheres are deity invocation, recitation, and mantra practice. Whether it's the Heart Sutra, or the name of Amitabha Buddha or of the Lotus Sutra, chanting in community makes it even more powerful.
"Music is part of life, not separate from it, and life itself is musical, with its rhythms, variations on themes, episodes, fugues, counterpoints, cadences, silences, and tonalities. When we listen to music, we are contemplating the very structures and colours that make up our own lives."
~ Thomas Moore
"After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music."
~ Aldous Huxley
If you haven't heard Tibetan chanting before, check out the CD by the Gyuto Monks to get a sample of this unusually deep-toned vibrational resonance. The monks chant two octaves below C, a feat unrivalled in Western music. Such tones of low vibration travel farther and through more obstacles than high-frequency sound. Asian and African elephants communicate long-distance using this "silent thunder." Whales can communicate this way from Newfoundland to Puerto Rico (what might they be saying?). Actually, the monks chant so that you can hear the overtones in just one note ~ they're actually singing a chord! Sanskrit scholar and poet Andrew Schelling has described it as "craggy guttural prayer, like the sound of stones crumbling down a mountain precipice ... comforting to hear as your own mother's voice, but above that, almost on wings, a distinctly audible angel's tone, sublime as its originating note is terrifying."
Now, a common mantra exercise you can practice to center yourself is breathing in and on the out-breath chanting "Aum." Feel its one syllable form three waves: ahhhh, as your breath releases, ooooouhh expressing your calm and peace, and sealing it off with your lips, mmmmmmm. Then do it again, slower, longer, calmer, and lower; then one more time. Over time, see if you can let the chant come from way back down deep in your throat and resonate in your belly. Close your eyes. Follow it with your mind.
Blowing ZenThe oldest wind instrument on the planet may be the Australian dijeridu, long wooden trumpets whose continuous traditions date back at least 30,000 years. Tibet has a similar length horn made of copper, ten feet long, said to represent the strength of the earth. It's often played with shorter horns representing the delicacy of the heavens, bringing these two forces into balance in the mind of the listener.
Hon ne: "root"/"sound," inner voice. The Japanese word for meditative music, honkyoku, can mean the original tuning for a particular instrument, but can also be read as "sounds from the origin."
The word for the Japanese zen flute, shakuhachi, means 54.5 centimeters, referring to its length. The Japanese word for playing shakuhachi, suizen, means "blowing zen" (just as zazen means sitting zen). No duality: sitting is zen, blowing is zen, it's all meditation.
If the long horn's unique to Tibetan Buddhism, so is the Japanese flute called the shakuhachi truly zen. Made of the root of thick timber-strength bamboo, its sound is made by blowing perpendicularly across the end, rather than directly down into the flute. Just as it takes time to learn how to sit zen, or serve tea, or make one line with a bamboo brush, so with blowing one note on the shakuhachi: the hard-earned result, in both cases, can express the player's distinct signature. The sound is hauntingly like a voice and all its moods but, as with a rock garden, abstracted somehow.
Listening to shakuhachi, I wonder where else have I heard the sound of thunder echoing within precipitous peaks, the cry of distant deer, and the voices of cranes as the young ones leave the nest? The music is also reminiscent of haiku and zen brush scrolls, as well as Debussy's impressionism (evoking fireworks, goldfish, dancing snowflakes, gardens in the rain, and so on).
Rhythm isn't foot-stompingly obvious, but there's always a pulse or heart rhythm. There's a melodic line, but sometimes the notes seem placed at random, like an act of nature. Each note's variable, the listener's mind slows down to pay due attention to each one, and, like good jazz, you're continually surprised to find where it's going next. Just like life.
Country 'n' Eastern, and Other SoundtracksIf you have the opportunity, go hear a live concert of shakuhachi or Tibetan chant, that's how such acoustic music's intended to be experienced. Meanwhile, everything's becoming available electronically, and the selection can be dizzying.
One of my favorite genres is country 'n' eastern, which is country 'n' western plus Eastern influences. Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely are two good examples. My flat-footed favorite is Butch Hancock, composer of such mindful ditties as "My Mind's Got a Mind of Its Own" and "Just a Wave, Not the Ocean."
For your Buddhist listening pleasure, I heartily recommend two more composer-musicians who've both done double duty with soundtracks: Kitaro and Philip Glass. Shelved under "New Age" somewhere in between Enya and Yanni (say those two names together fast, three times), Japanese composer-musician Kitaro ("Man of Many Joys") interweaves traditional Eastern instruments with electronic synthesizers to make ever-unfolding, soundscapes to heartily, mindfully hum along to. I recommend Mandala, for starters.
Contemporary lyrics with Buddhist meanings, intended or otherwise: the Beastie Boys' "Bodhisattva Vow" and "The Update," Steely Dan's "Bodhisattva" and "Roll Back the Meaning," Donovan's "The Way" and "The Evernow" (from Sutras), George and Ira Gershwin's "I've Got Plenty of Nothing," Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now," Malvina Reynolds', "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" John Lennon's "Imagine," Lennon and McCartney's "Give Peace a Chance," Natalie Merchant's "All I Want," Alanis Morisette's "All I Really Want," REM's "Everybody Hurts," Patti Smith and Tom Shanrahan's "1959," and Van Morrison's "Hymns to the Silence."
On first listen, Philip Glass's music might sound like something's stuck. Actually, he weaves wonderful soundscapes out of very small, rhythmic, repeated haiku-like fragments. He has a huge body of work, but start anywhere: string quartets, violin concerto and symphonies, operas, and film scores. Listening to Glass is meditation.
So, to sum up: sing in the shower. Join a choir or a recitation sangha. Serenade the spheres. Listen, and you shall hear. Stay in tune!
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