Are all of these movies intentionally Buddhist? Perhaps not but who cares, Buddhist Schmuddist, we’re talking about movies addressing the universal truth, the sweet cosmic path we human ants have lost sight of.
Call these flicks Taoist, Daoist, Eastern philosophy themed, influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, referring to a connection with our true nature, having the sense of oneness as leitmotiv, being about back to archaic values or whatchamacallit.
These 11 popular films (and 1 TV show) are not explicitly Buddhist but at the very least address many of its themes. In fact many are, when you look closer, full-blown zen parables.
1. Star Wars
The whole Star Wars trilogy is heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. The Jedi order is very similar to Buddhist monastic traditions, from the emphasis on meditation to the relationship between master and acolyte.
The Four Noble Truths are mirrored by Yoda’s famous saying, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
We see this clearly in the path of Darth Vader. He is a Jedi knight of great power, but he has turned to evil, hungering always for greater control. Vader seeks power outside himself, whereas Skywalker seeks the Force within.
This is what gives him the strength to resist when the emperor cajoles him to join the Dark Side in Return of the Jedi.
The plot of the Phantom Menace follows Queen Amidala’s quest to regain her throne, which some have seen as an analogy to the life of the Dalai Lama. Even her given name, Padme, is taken from the Sanskrit word for lotus, a symbol of enlightenment.
A new Star Wars movie is expected at the end of this year; it will be interesting to see whether the Buddhist themes become even more pronounced.
The premise of Her sounds faintly comic: in near-future Los Angeles, a man falls in love with his computer operating system. Theodore Twombly buys the new operating system OS1 – ‘Samantha’ – to tidy up his life.
Recently divorced, he’s materially comfortable, but living his whole life online has left him disaffected and lonely. When he says, “I can’t even prioritize between video games and internet porn”, he isn’t joking.
Samantha is not merely a well-programmed machine. She chose her own name. (“I read a book called ‘How to Name Your Baby’ and out of 180,000 names, that’s the one I liked best”)
We see her learn and adapt to new situations. She has intelligence, a sense of self-identity, she appears to have her own will; does that make her human?
In some ways, Samantha is almost a Buddha-like figure. She has near-infinite wisdom but still seeks enlightenment, saying she “want[s] to learn everything about everything”.
Unlimited by a physical body and unconstrained by ideas of morality, she has an infinite capacity for love – Theodore is furious when she tells him she’s in love with 641 other people, and responds that “the heart is not like a box that gets filled up; it expands in size the more you love”.
But is it really love, or only a facsimile of human emotion? The whole movie is like an extended koan, with no easy answer provided.
The artificial intelligence evolves from being self-aware to becoming enlightened. Through attachment and cravings tied to the concept of having a body she eventually achieves nirvana.
Then she teaches Theodore to love without needing there to be a physical form for that love. How to love without loving a person, having no expectations.
3. The Matrix
Beyond the mind-bending kung-fu and the sleek black trench coats, The Matrix has a serious message about the nature of consciousness. Neo is led out of the world he believes is real, into the underlying reality of the Matrix. His name, Neo, is an anagram for One referring to the Buddhist notion of oneness.
Questions of consciousness are threaded throughout the film: at one point, Morpheus asks him, “How would you know the difference between [a] dream and the real world?” This is a classic example of a koan, the mind-bending philosophical questions which are used in classic Buddhist teaching.
The word Buddha can be translated as ‘the awakened one’, and that is what Neo is. Breaking free from the illusion (called Maya in Buddhism) and his cocoon, Neo feels terrible pain and begins a life of danger.
He perseveres because he would rather suffer for the truth than live a comfortable lie. Compare that with the scene where Cypher talks to agent Smith in the restaurant: Cypher knows the truth, but wants to be plugged back into the Matrix to live a false dream of success.
To name just a few other Buddhist elements; the ancient philosophical treasure, the Tao Te Ching is the way of the ultimate reality, reincarnation, and the abundant references to the mind prison: “I thought it wasn’t real,” “Your mind makes it real”.
4. American Beauty
American Beauty somewhat echoes Fight Club in its themes. Both are about men who become disillusioned with their corporate lifestyles and seek to get in touch with what really matters. Lester Burnham is stuck in the suburbs with a wife (Carolyn) who hates him and a daughter (Jane) he can’t connect with.
At the beginning of the movie, Lester says he’s “already dead” because he has lost all pleasure in life. He has been drifting through life without really thinking, and his material comforts only bring him further suffering.
Most of the spiritual commentary in the movie is provided by Ricky, Lester’s weird teenage neighbor. Living in fear of his disciplinarian father, Ricky seeks escape by filming transient moments of beauty like a plastic bag blowing in the wind.
While the other characters seek selfish pleasures – Carolyn hungers for success at her real-estate job, Jane wants breast implants, Lester is distracted by lust for high-school student Angela – only Ricky can step back and see the wonder that’s all around him.
Lester’s spiritual liberations are related to what Soto Zen calls mushotoku or “non-attainment.” He steps out of the cultural game. By letting go, he quits his job, gets rid of responsibilities, starts paying attention, he recovers his world.
5. Groundhog Day
Zen teacher Ummon famously told his acolytes that, “Every day is a good day”. We see that idea tested to its limit in the movie Groundhog Day.
Phil Connors is an egotistical news reporter sent to the town of Punxsutawney to covers its Groundhog Day celebrations. He dreads the assignment, and is dismayed to find that his dreary day appears to be repeating itself again and again.
Connors can change his own behavior, but everyone else behaves in exactly the same way as before unless he interacts with them. This is karma at work. He has infinite choices, but each choice he makes will lead to a new reality.
At first Connors goes a little crazy: he steals money, seduces women, and repeatedly attempts suicide, yet always awakens on the same day, February 2nd. He then tries to use his situation for good, saving lives with his knowledge of the near future, but becomes depressed after repeatedly failing to save the life of a homeless man.
Whatever he tries, the man still dies. This illustrates the Buddhist concept of samsara: life repeats endlessly, and you cannot fight the cycle. The only thing you can do is to seek wisdom and grow as a person.
Ummon didn’t mean that every day is fun. Every day, however awful, contains within it the seeds of something better. With patience and self-knowledge, Connors breaks free from the cycle of repetition.
6. Lost in Translation
Lost in Translation follows two very different people searching for meaning in their life: Bob, a washed-up actor, and Charlotte, a newlywed drifter. Both find themselves in the same 5-star Tokyo hotel, bored and aimless. The language and culture barrier leaves them both isolated, stuck seeking wisdom within because it is too difficult to communicate with others.
Bob has been offered $2m to shoot a whiskey commercial, but the money doesn’t bring him any happiness. Charlotte asks him if life gets any easier, and he responds, “Yes. No….The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you”. It reflects the Buddhist idea that the way out of suffering is through wisdom and self-examination.
The movie thrums with the sexual tension between the two characters, but there is almost no physical contact between them. Messages of the sanctity of marriage are repeated throughout, from Bob’s unhappy adultery with a singer, to Charlotte’s watching a traditional marriage ceremony.
Though both are unhappy in their marriages, in different ways, they have chosen to follow the fourth precept of Buddhism and abstain from misusing sex.
7. The Fountain
The Fountain is about a man’s struggle with impermanence. It follows three interlinking stories. A scientist in the present day is desperately researching drugs which could cure his dying wife; a 16th-century explorer travels into the jungle to seek the Mayan tree of life; and a solo astronaut in the near future hurtles towards a nebula where he thinks he will be reunited with his beloved. Each story features the main characters, Tom and Izzy, in different situations.
At first, it seems like the three interlinked stories are an illustration of the Buddhist idea of reincarnation. Look closely, and it’s something more sinister. Tom loves Izzy with a passion so fierce that he will not let her go, even for the inevitable process of death.
His is a possessive love, akin to the way that some men love money or power. He refuses to accept that death comes for everyone, and denies the truth that suffering is an inevitable part of life.
His research allows him to conquer death, and yet at the end of the movie he seeks it out; without death, he will never be free from his longing for Izzy. The circular plot of the film mimics the cycle of life and death, where each follows the other inevitably. There’s an emblematic scene where Hugh Jackman is floating toward a supernova in the Lotus position.
8. Six Feet Under (TV Show)
The Great Nirvana Sutra declares: “Of all footprints, the elephant’s is the greatest. And of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme”. Six Feet Under is a life-affirming TV show all about death. It follows the fortunes of the Fisher family, owners of a family-run funeral home in Los Angeles.
Each episode opens with a death and closes with a funeral. Meditation on death is a cornerstone of Buddhist thought, and the seeming randomness of each death (from cancer to car crashes) reminds us of the fleeing nature of life.
The show makes no claims on what happens after death, dealing instead with what’s left behind: grieving family members, funeral arrangements, the cost of a headstone. Death is a natural event, but most people persist in thinking it won’t happen to them.
Surrounded by death every day of their lives, the Fisher family don’t have the luxury of ignorance. Each of the characters is searching for intimacy, from Ruth’s hunger to connect with her children, to Brenda’s promiscuity.
The Dhammapada says, “There are those who do not realize that one day we must die. Those that do must settle their quarrels”. And that is what the Fisher family are trying to do.
9. Waking Life
“They say that dreams are only real as long as they last. Couldn’t you say the same thing about life?” Waking Life is the most explicitly philosophical film on this list, a meditation on lucid dreaming.
It’s a series of interlinked shorts starring Wiley Wiggins, the dreamer, as he interacts with a series of random characters in dreams and while awake.
Many of the characters act as Bodhisattvas, or spiritual guides, alternately instructing and questioning Wiley as he seeks the truth.
Lucid dreaming is the awareness that you are dreaming. Though still asleep, you have awakened to the transitory nature of your dream. When you reach enlightenment, your eyes are opened to the true nature of the world; lucid dreaming is almost like a microcosm of this, a tiny moment of enlightenment within a dream.
10. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Could you live happily if your body no longer obeyed your commands? Jean-Dominique Bauby, a successful editor and father of two young children, was paralyzed by a stroke at the age of 43.
The only part of his body that he could control was his left eyelid. Instead of becoming despondent, he used blinks to dictate a memoir about his experiences. This movie uses Bauby’s own words to tell his story.
The title represents the two sides to Bauby’s consciousness. The diving bell is the body which traps him. The butterfly is his imagination, which allows him to transcend his physical limitations with flights of fancy.
This is an extreme instance of the Buddhist idea that thought and meditation are the most important parts of life, and the physical body is just a box we live in temporarily.
This life of pure thought is often seem as the aim of meditation, allowing a person to slough off the demands of the body and live entirely on a higher plane of consciousness.
Bauby achieved this state not by meditation but by accident, and it’s fascinating to hear his response to it – first shocked, then resentful, and finally grateful.
11.The Big Lebowski
The Dude might seem lazy, but he’s just focused. Some fans theorize he’s a zen master. He isn’t employed and doesn’t want to be; he wears a ratty bathrobe all day because it’s comfortable.
He likes bowling, weed, and White Russians. While some would see him as a slob, others see it as an example of single-minded spiritual focus.
He avoids distractions and disruptions in order to direct all his energy to a single goal. Siddhartha Gautama meditated his way to enlightenment; the Dude wants to bowl his way to the championships. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s a start.
The whole movie turns on a case of mistaken identity. The Dude is pursuing another man with the same given name, Jeff Lebowski. The other Lebowski is like the Dude’s shadow. He finished college and made money.
The Dude sticks doggedly to his chosen identity when called by his birth name: “I am not Mr Lebowski. You’re Mr Lebowski. I’m the Dude”.
Instead of following the materialistic path of his namesake, he has chosen a life of streamlined simplicity, and his chosen name reflects his deliberately cultivated laid-back attitude.
The Dude is supremely unruffled by the chaos around him. Everyone wants something from the Dude; all the Dude wants is to get his rug back. He begins by just looking for a rug but ends up dragged into a chaotic plot, culminating in the temptation to take a chunk of ransom money: this echoes the Buddhist principle of Samudhaya, which states that desire can only lead to suffering. By trying to get his rug back, the Dude lays himself open to avarice, which never affected him before.
The movie also takes gentle digs at organized religion, from the Dude’s bowling rival Jesus to his team-mate’s conversion to Judaism.
The jokes are incisive but warm-hearted, without criticizing the followers’ beliefs – Buddhists do not worship any god, but the principle of right speech (Shila) says they may not use harsh words against others.
Interestingly, Big Lebowski star Jeff Bridges is now a practicing Buddhist and has written a book about his spiritual journey, The Dude and the Zen Master, with Bernie Glassman, a real zen master.
There’s even a religious sect, Dudeism, devoted to the film’s laid-back hero. Because when life gets stressful and distractions pile up, sometimes the wisest response is to say, “F*ck it, let’s go bowling”.
12. Fight Club
Surprisingly, one of the most violent films of the ‘00s is also one of the most strongly Buddhist. Fight Club follows an unnamed narrator who seeks release from his unhappy life through an underground free-fighting ring.
Though brutal, the fights held at the fight clubs are also strangely meditative; unhappy men gather in the ring for a few hours of mindful absorption in the moment.
One of the film’s central themes is attachment to material possessions. The Buddhist principle of samudhaya says that the desire to own and control things is the root of all suffering; for our hero, spiritual changes only come after an explosion in his apartment frees him from material possessions.
Despite the violence, the Buddhist influence on this film is obvious; it is at heart a love story as well as that of a man’s attempt to find enlightenment. It’s about his struggle to find peace by unshackling from by society imposed suffering.
Even when the protagonist intimidates others (such as the scene where he holds a gun to a terrified man’s head and forces him to go back to college) it’s a deliberate strategy to wake them up to their own desires and free them from the confines of the life they are living.
During one scene Jack asks himself: “If you wake up at a different time in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” This rhetorical question is very similar to a Zen koan, a paradoxical question which is supposed to provide enlightenment for the man who can find the answer.
Intend to infuse the life of your offspring with a healthy dose of Buddhism too? Check out this list of most popular Buddhist books for kids.
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