How are we to think about the relationship between the dharma and popular culture? What are we Buddhists to do about our daily interactions with the media? Is it possible to live off the grid, away from the siren call of TV, radio, and film? Or must practitioners consider mass culture, if only because it raises issues of right speech? If most people, most of the time, are more interested in film, television, and popular song than they are in books, articles, and dharma talks, then is there a responsibility to use contemporary media to teach Buddhism? And if the answer to that question is “Yes,” then we are forced to contemplate a koan: how to construct a compelling narrative about a man who sought wisdom by sitting still and doing nothing. An image of Keanu Reeves in Bernardo Bertolucci’s ill-fated movie Little Buddha comes to mind: a silent, immobile figure in the lotus position, impassive in the face of Mara’s forces; impressive, perhaps; but cinematic? Well, maybe not.
Of course it depends on how you define the word “cinematic.” And the Second International Buddhist Film Festival [IBFF], held this past winter in the San Francisco Bay Area, posed these questions starkly by including in its offerings everything from Hollywood blockbusters to independent documentaries; from lo-fi do-it-yourself movies to a cartoon sitcom. Organizer Gaetano Kazuo Maida sees the festival as a “signaling device” for audiences and communities, a means whereby we might learn more about what’s out there in the world of cinema and television. “We’re not interested in only preaching to the choir,” he says. The IBFF is meant to be a “big tent, no boundaries, everybody’s welcome. And by ‘everybody’ I mean all Buddhisms and all artistic efforts in that broad realm.”
The big tent metaphor is a compelling one. A film festival, like a circus, may be judged by its surprises, big or small. One might be lured under the tent by the promise of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun or Liliana Cavani’s Milarepa (the latter film enjoyed its U.S. premiere at IBFF), but once you’re there it is the unexpected treats that stay with you. For cinematic blockbuster values one couldn’t beat Sutape Tunnirat’s Angulimala, a 2003 Thai feature film about the legend of the infamous bandit and murderer of Buddhist legend. Thomas Gonschoir’s documentary Buddha’s Painter, a compelling portrait of a master thangkha painter and teacher in Mongolia, is a quiet study in perseverance and that intangible thing called charisma. For art movie fans, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man offered an extraordinary cast and settings (and haunting music, courtesy of Neil Young) in an existential Western that might now have an unexpected dharmic angle.
Indeed, the screening of Dead Man raised the question of how one might define a Buddhist film. Are Buddhist films only those movies that are explicitly concerned with the dharma or with its teachers? Or is any narrative that teaches something important about suffering, impermanence, and awareness somehow a “Buddhist” film? (This reviewer urges IBFF to consider Stephen Frears’ The Hit next time around as a non-Buddhist Buddhist entry.) It is perhaps less important to know how to answer these questions than it is to understand how a movie like Thomas Riedelsheimer’s Rivers and Tides brings us into the moment through its reorientation of our sense of time. At IBFF, Neal Hutcheson’s The Prison Sutras, the extraordinary story of Fleet Maull’s time in prison re-framed as a kind of retreat, showed us yet another paradox—how to make a film about a man who sits still in prison. It shouldn’t get any duller than that, but the odd juxtaposition of Maull’s motor-mouth delivery and the quiet wisdom of his practice was among the highlights of the festival.
While guest speaker Michael Wenger of the San Francisco Zen Center almost apologetically described One Particle of Dust as like a “home movie,” anyone who has ever encountered the teachings of Suzuki Roshi would be fascinated by these clips. And somehow at IBFF it seems not such a stretch to consider the TV cartoon show King of the Hill, in its send-up of Kundun (“Won’t You Pimai Neighbor?”), as not so much antithetical but complementary to the various documentaries about spiritual teachers such as Lesley Ann Patton’s Words of My Perfect Teacher and Rick Kohn’s Destroyer of Illusion.
Pop culture’s collision with Buddhism cannot be halted; it’s more a question of how to think—and what to do—about it. Recent books like Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx and Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen are the first reports from a younger generation of practitioners who move quite freely between TV, movies, music, and the dharma. If IBFF presented a broad range of possible links between Buddhism and film, a related conference titled “Speaking for the Buddha? Buddhism and the Media” (held in conjunction with IBFF at the University of California, Berkeley) blew the debate wide open. At the third panel, on “Authority and Transmission,” Vipassana teacher Gil Fronsdal and Zen priest Norman Fischer addressed some of the problems head-on. Fronsdal pointed out that the best strategy for selling a book (and by extension, one might suppose, a film) may not always be the best tactic for teaching. Where publishers demand amusing anecdotes and charming personal tales, the teacher-author may seek a less visible role in the story. But in the marketplace, of course, questions of authority and pedagogy are secondary to what sells. Norman Fischer condemned the media as “deranged” and flatly asserted that “the world I live in is not broadcastable.” And yet, under questioning from the floor, it was conceded that the media cannot be understood dualistically, that “good” and “bad” are at play within the world of pop culture.
What is being raised here is the issue of skillful means, and the question of whether we might come to see media narratives as forms of right speech. Of course, one of our more prominent teachers these days, Khyentse Norbu [see interview, page 96], has come to our attention in part as a result of his work as a filmmaker (The Cup; Travellers and Magicians). Meanwhile, a piece like the I [HEART] Huckabees Infomercial (in which the “existential detectives” Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin reprised their roles from I [HEART] Huckabees alongside Robert Thurman) points to increased interest in the dharma from writers, directors, and producers in the media industries. And surely it is not the mass-mediated nature of speech that matters but whether it is truthful, helpful, and timely.
As Bernard Faure points out in his recent book Double Exposure: Cutting Across Buddhist and Western Discourses, we should be alert to the extent to which Buddha’s teachings already come to us as a result of translation, and therefore mediation. “It may be that, with the transition from orality to writing, the very truth of Buddhism changed—not just the way it was expressed… We ourselves are still living in one of those written cultures, but the changes being brought about within and around us by the information revolution (and its apparent return to a kind of orality in the audio-visual dimension) might result in yet another mutation of Buddhist truth.” In the end, maybe all our experience is “unbroadcastable,” and yet still we struggle to speak. Within film studies and media studies these days there is a vast body of knowledge and criticism that Buddhists would do well to consider. Rather than reinventing that wheel, let’s acknowledge that it is already turning.
What’s fascinating here is that research on film and television has been wrestling for years with the issue of how media narratives help to construct subjectivity. A meditative, episodic documentary like One Day under the Bodhi Tree brings a different viewer to the screen than does a more traditional piece such as Daughters of Everest, a marvelous account of the first Sherpa women to ascend Mount Everest. Likewise, Kundun—with its traditional structure that features a central “hero” at the heart of the action (in this case, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama)—offers not just different content, but a completely different kind of experiential position for the viewer, than a film like Dead Man. The debate about Buddhism and film, about the dharma and the media, takes us to the heart of the teachings not only because of issues involving right speech and skillful means, but because stories presume subjects, and because narratives, myths, and legends, whether from Indian folklore or from the Hollywood Western, tell stories to some kind of a “self.” If that self is fluid, then the business of constructing audiences through the telling of a tale becomes a matter of practice, whether we like it or not.
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