Tea House

Daily Perspectives and Stories on Buddhist Trends, People, and Ideas

Tag: pop culture

Pop Culture: The Case for A Greater Buddhist Presence

Siddhartha and Yasodhara, from the “Buddha” animated film.

I never bought the argument that sacred stories, figures, and themes should not be brought to pop culture media like films or novels. Some of our more powerful and compelling pieces of modern fiction (and indeed, fiction from any era) was informed by not just the author’s spiritual identity or values, but by their intentional deployment of religious figures and ideas to shape the narrative and deliver the message of the novel, comic, film, or cartoon.

A long time ago I got into a discussion with someone about the accuracy of Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha manga serial. The animated adaptation hadn’t yet been released—the two films have not been critically successful, although I would argue it is largely due to the film’s internal structure and poor use of Tezuka’s source material rather than any overarching problem with depictions of the Buddha. The manga itself was far more self-referential, bawdy, and subversive than this particular person was prepared for. His main complaint, however, was that it depicted the life of the Buddha inaccurately and therefore risked misleading people who were sincerely searching for the Dharma.

I want nothing more than for more people to draw closer to accurate Buddhist teachings. However, I have real difficulty with this argument.

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Shaolin (2011): A Guilty Pleasure

I have mixed feelings about films that have an overtly religious element, especially when the religion plays a central role in a movie focused on bone-crunching action, head-crushing martial arts, and temple explosions. I class Shaolin, which is an overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the martial art masters in Republican-era China, as one such guilty indulgence. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the film. The action and martial arts film lover in me was very happy with it, and I like how the Shaolin monks are depicted faithfully as defenders of the dispossessed and redeemers of superstar Andy Lau’s character, a warlord-turned-monk who forgives the lieutenant that betrayed him (played by Nicholas Tse).

At the heart of the film is not just the redemption of Andy Lau’s character, but the insight that violence and cruelty are cyclical: it takes a big, brave man to break the cycle of revenge by choosing forgiveness, letting go of hate, and transforming enemies in the process. Wu Jing, who is currently China’s most sought-after male star thanks to his role in the wildly popular Wolf Warriors 2, also makes a welcome appearance as one of the more experienced monks. His character dies defending the temple, along Yu Xing’s character (Yu Xing himself is a 32nd generation Shaolin monk).

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What was Possible, and What is no Longer: A Buddhist Dimension in La Dolce Vita

A poster of the final scene in La Dolce Vita in Brussels. From Buddhistdoor Global

It’s a classic moment in film, one of quite a few from Federico Fellini’s black and white cinematic masterpiece. The charismatic but emotionally lost gossip columnist Marcello Rubini, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is at the beach, holding his hands up in bemused resignation as he struggles and fails to discern the shouts of a young girl in the distance. Eventually, he can’t make out her words and leaves. The girl’s name, played by Valeria Ciangottini (she was personally chosen by the director) is Paola and Marcello (Rubini) has seen the character before in a restaurant – a sweet angel from a lost world of innocent affection, when love just meant love and nothing else. What might have happened had he been able to respond to her waving and shouting? The implication is that it would have been an encounter far removed from and superior to his Roman world of fallen aristocrats, broken celebrities, and suicidal intellectuals.

But the causes and conditions just weren’t there. He certainly behaves that way. He doesn’t rush to her. He seems hardly desperate to escape the emptiness of his life and reach for that remote if possible alternative future. His languid posture as he kneels on the sand, his reluctance and even laziness to move at all, speaks of a spiritual lethargy and “giving up” that has crippled him permanently as far as Fellini is concerned. This is no Hollywood where the protagonist cornily realizes the error of his ways and makes amends.

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