Projecting Buddhism

BY CATHLEEN FALSANI, Chicago Sun-Times, May 11, 2007

Followers drawn to 'Groundhog Day,' 'King of the Hill,' 'Simpsons'

Chicago, IL (USA) -- Applying a religious label to anything other than a person has always left me feeling a little squirrelly. Only a being with volition and free will could choose to call him- or herself "Christian" or "Buddhist" or "Jewish."

So the notion of "Christian music" or "Buddhist film" or "Jewish art" seems like a fallacy to me because a creation of human hands, especially one as subjectively viewed as a work of art, cannot be inherently religious.

Or can it?

In my own religious tradition, which is Christian and, more specifically, evangelical Protestant, when something, be it a movie, an album or a book, is marketed to me as "Christian," my instinct is to be leery, as if the person doing the selling is trying to dictate ahead of time how I should interpret what I'm about to see or hear or read.

Worse yet are the occasions when someone refers to me as a "Christian writer" or, Lord help us, a "Christian journalist."

Bleh. If I were a savvy reader, that kind of labeling would make me run, quickly, in the opposite direction.

My response, by way of qualification, when someone calls me a "Christian (insert noun here)," is to explain that I am a Christian, albeit a really awful example on most days of what one should act like, who happens to be a writer and a journalist and whatever else it is I might do. But the label feels confining, controlling even.

From subtle to obvious
I suppose it's a reaction against those who would give their creation -- be it a manuscript, an economic strategy or, say, a political ideology -- a religious designation as some kind of divine imprimatur. That, to me, is the worst misuse of religious labels.

Still, there are many creative folks who happily accept religious labels for their work, Christian or otherwise. For every U2, there is a Jars of Clay, metaphorically speaking.

Both musical groups produce music and lyrics infused with Christian ideas and imagery. One produces its work under a Christian label, while the other does not.

To my mind, the label doesn't make one iota of difference in the effect the music has on the listener, nor does, frankly, the intent of the artist.

That's the beauty of art.

I got to thinking about religious labels being applied to art, in particular, while reading about the International Buddhist Film Festival being held in Singapore next week.

Even more intriguing to me than the existence of the festival itself were the films being screened. The Chinese drama "Shower" and documentaries about a monk from Bhutan and a San Francisco chef (and Zen priest) are to be shown alongside episodes of "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill."

It was that last part that really got my attention.

I wonder whether Matt Groening and Mike Judge realize they've produced Buddhist fare. The "Simpsons" episode is the one from 2001 in which Lisa Simpson, disillusioned by the commercialization of Christmas, decides to become a Buddhist.

"Won't You Pimai Neighbor," the title of the "King of the Hill" episode chosen by the festival committee, tells the story of a group of Buddhist monks who have traveled to Arlen, Texas, because they believe Bobby Hill is the reincarnation of "Lama Sanglug." Bobby goes along with his new identity until he's told lamas aren't allowed to have girlfriends.

The International Buddhist Film Festival purposely includes works that contain "the most subtle reference ... to the most obvious," explained the festival's executive director, Gaetano Maida, by e-mail from China earlier this week. "We first look for good stories well-told. The criteria for inclusion are: Buddhist subject matter, director, context or implication."

'Lays out what it's all about'
Director Harold Ramis, the native Chicagoan best known for comedy classics such as "Animal House" and "Caddyshack," once told me that one of the best compliments he has received about his oeuvre came from a Buddhist newspaper that declared his film "Groundhog Day" to be "the greatest Buddhist movie ever made."

In "Groundhog Day," which was filmed in Woodstock, Ill., Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again until he becomes a better man.

"It's a movie that doesn't mention the Buddha or Buddhism once," Ramis, who describes himself as "Buddhish," said, "and yet it kind of lays out what it's all about."

When I asked Maida what films are considered Buddhist "classics," he listed Martin Scorsese's masterful bio-pic "Kundun," about the 14th Dalai Lama; the 1997 Korean gangster-comedy "Hi! Dharma," and "Jacob's Ladder," the 1990 thriller starring Tim Robbins about a flashbacking Vietnam veteran that was based partly on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a Buddhist text that describes the consciousness between death and rebirth.

"Buddhist philosophy has a core insight that this world is a projection of [the] mind," Maida says. "Film [is] a contemporary medium [just] as suited to expressing Buddhist ideas as the thangka painting or sculpture more closely identified with Buddhist traditions."

So, film is literally a projection of the mind, and, in turn, of the world, whether the particular lens is "Kundun" or "King of the Hill."

When you think about it that way, perhaps giving works of art religious labels isn't so troublesome.

Maybe I was just projecting.