popular culture

“Bodhisattva, Superstar” – a film about popular culture and Buddhism

A new “allegorical documentary” about Western perceptions of, and misconceptions about, Buddhism, looks to be very interesting. The following is from the movie’s website:

Bodhisattva, Superstar, a new film by multimedia artist Michael Trigilio, confronts American popular culture’s habit of addressing the subject of religion with alternating degrees of deluded piety or flippant scorn.

Popular culture’s treatment of Buddhism often is ensnared by the language of marketing, using Buddhist language or images to sell shampoos, candy bars, or self-help recipes of one kind or another.

As one contemporary Buddhist author interviewed in the film suggests, many Americans expect Buddhism to be simply “a mash up of every Eastern philosophy they’ve ever heard of.”

Bodhisattva, Superstar sustains a documentary point-of-view by interviewing Buddhist “experts” – authors, chaplains, monks, scholars. The film also relies on an apparently scripted character (played by actress Deanna Erdmann) who navigates her own emotional landscape of wonder, wandering, and contemplation. Trigilio refers to this form as “allegorical documentary.” As pop-cultural myths about Buddhism are deconstructed in the film, so, too, is the nature of authority and authorship within the film itself. The heart of the film sits with the notion of spiritual authority which comes from within and not from above or beyond.

As the film careens towards its end – and as Trigilio, the filmmaker, become a subject of the interrogation and investigation – the audience is encouraged to see the subjective process of filmmaking itself as a practice just as complicated as the film’s subject matter.

Bodhisattva, Superstar ends with audiences being forced to come to terms with the popular idea that Buddhism is an anti-authoritarian religion. The film encourages audiences to discern for themselves what to accept and what to reject from the film in front of them.

And here’s the trailer:

And here’s a link to the movie’s website: https://www.starvelab.com/superstar/

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Movie Review: ‘Unmistaken Child’

Detail of Unmistaken Child poster, showing a Tibetan monk and child standing by each other, looking into the distance.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: For Tenzin Zopa, a young Nepalese monk, finding the reincarnation of his dead Tibetan master, Geshe Lama Konchog, is more important to him than his own life.

Since he was 6, Tenzin Zopa dreamed of becoming a disciple of Lama Konchog. While his parents hoped that he would marry and work someday, Tenzin envisioned a life of meditation.

As a young boy, he asked Lama Konchog to take him in, abandoned the material world and learned the rules of the monastic life from one of the most revered monks of Tibet. Twenty-one years later, the death of Lama Konchog left a glaring void in Tenzin’s heart.

In Nati Baratz’s captivating documentary “Unmistaken Child,” we follow a heartbroken Tenzin as he embarks on a four-year search to find the person who gave his life a sense of purpose and direction. How difficult such a journey must be for someone who already feels lost.

‘Unmistaken Child’
Rating: Not rated but PG in nature.
In English, Tibetan, Hindi and Nepali with English subtitles.

As Tenzin travels from village to village, looking for a child 12 to 18 months old, he is faced with disappointment, worry and joy. Presenting Lama Konchog’s rosary beads to child after child, he finally encounters one who won’t let go.

The sense of relief and contentment that follows shows that the film is not only about a journey to find a “special child,” but also about Tenzin’s ability to cope with a devastating loss. As he grows closer with the child, Tenzin is revealed as a humble, compassionate and sensitive person, ready to give the rest of his life to continue serving his long-lost master.

“Unmistaken Child” presents us with a remarkable search for spiritual balance, juxtaposed with shots of beautiful mountains and “dancing” trees.

The scenery is breathtaking but it is not enough to account for the film’s only flaw — its informational holes. For those unfamiliar with Buddhist thought, Baratz’s documentary may generate more questions than answers.

After four years, the search comes to an end, and the child is accepted as the reincarnated Lama Konchog. His parents agree to give him up and he must now live the rest of his life as a monk, in meditation and with the purpose of saving all sentient beings.

In one scene, the boy is faced with a portrait of the departed Lama Konchog and, after staring at it, he eerily says, “That is me.” The moment seems to be as surprising to Tenzin as it is to the audience. But, then again, it’s hard (and perhaps this is simply a foreign outsider’s reaction) not to see the child as any other normal young boy, wanting only to play and be held by his grandmother.

Original article no longer available.

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Auntie Suvanna: Breaking up, the Buddhist way

The Break-Up Movie poster

Dear Auntie,

I only recently decided to become a Buddhist, so I’m still trying to work out how best to apply it to some situations in my life. I was especially wondering if there is a good way to break up with someone in a Buddhist manner. I am currently in a relationship that just isn’t working out, but I can’t think of what to say to end it without causing a negative situation. I really don’t want the person to be hurt, or for there to be bad feelings between us. Break ups most often do seem to end that way, but I was hoping that by taking a new approach this time, in keeping with the Buddhist tradition, it could work out better for both of us. Do you have any advice for me? Thank you very much!

Concerned Beginner

Dear Concerned Beginner,

Your question is not an easy one. You might as well have asked, What is the best way to separate someone from what they desire?

Traditional Buddhism has had little to say about relationships. Part of the reason is that Buddhist texts were preserved by celibate monks who spent their days memorizing suttas and doing formal practices such as Recollecting the Loathsomeness of the Body. So you probably wouldn’t want romantic advice from these people (or perhaps Auntie underestimates them?)

At any rate, Buddhist practice generally focuses on the cultivation of impartial love, friendliness and awareness. How can you apply this in your situation? What might it mean to break up with someone “in a Buddhist manner”? Might it mean, for example, leaving in the middle of the night while they’re asleep? That’s what the future Buddha did before his awakening. This really pisses people off. Turns out, this story is apocryphal; the Buddha probably was never even married. Ha Ha!

Considering the celibates and the accounts of the deadbeat Buddha-dad, not to mention the various Buddhist abominations to good taste (at least in titles) such as ‘If the Buddha Dated,’ we don’t have much to go on here. Perhaps Auntie may be excused in turning now to a non-Buddhist source, such as Richard Nixon, for guidance.

Here’s what he said at the White House after he resigned:

Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.

Not that your former girlfriend or boyfriend will necessarily hate you, but they might. And even though you seem pretty mellow at the moment, you could start hating him/her later. (And all this in response to the person we gazed at with doe’s eyes perhaps only days before — tragic!) And even though of course in many ways he was an unethical person, take the good advice from Tricky Dick and try not to get swept away by aversion. Set an intention for yourself to speak in a way that you can be proud of later – or at least in a way you will not regret.

Beyond this it’s hard to make specific suggestions about how to approach this without knowing the particular personalities. [Dear readers, when you ask for Auntie’s advice PLEASE give her more detail!] Moving into the future, examine your mistakes as much as possible and resolve not to repeat them or, at worst, resolve to bring more awareness to them next time around. Try not to base choices in your life on what is essentially a pheromone fog. This will reduce suffering for all.

Auntie Suvanna

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The Dollhouse and the Dharma

Eliza Dushku, DollhouseSo far there’s only been one episode of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, so perhaps it’s a bit early to be talking about overarching themes, leitmotifs, or its deeper meaning, but this is a show I’ve been long anticipating and so my mind was primed right for the start to resonate with any thematic elements to do with identity and selfhood – for that (I confidently announce, based on one episode and a trailer) is what Dollhouse is about.

But first to step back a little. Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, is most famous as the creative force behind (in chronological order) the seven seasons of the hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the somewhat less well-known five seasons of Angel, the science fiction cult classic Firefly (which didn’t quite complete one season), and the three-episode web-based mini-series, Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Do you sense a pattern in those descriptions?

Whedon, although superbly creative, has not been faring well. His material has gotten no less brilliant over the years, and in fact I’d argue that Firefly is one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen, but in terms of popular exposure, he’s not been doing well. Is Dollhouse his last chance to show he’s a fit for prime-time television? Or has prime-time television been showing that it’s incapable of recognizing real talent? Either way, Whedon and Whedonites are surely hoping that Dollhouse will be a hit.

So was it? To be honest, the first show did not quite ever sizzle. The acting seemed a little off, the script was not electrifying, and the first show had a lot to do, introducing the main characters, the show’s premise, and a single-episode storyline, all inside 50 minutes. That was a lot to pull off in a show that you might have expected to start with a two-episode pilot that would allow the director to do all three of these things thoroughly. But at least the program showed promise, and that’s enough to get me, at least, to tune in next week.

But this isn’t exactly meant to be a television review, so let’s get onto the show’s theme and how it relates to Buddhist practice…

The premise of Dollhouse is that a private organization is hiring people out as programmed tools to meet the needs of its clients. The show starts with the show’s star, Eliza Dushku, in an interview of sorts. It’s pointed out to her that “actions have consequences” — a very familiar teaching in the Buddhist world, where that phrase stands in as a modern restatement of karma. Dushku seems pressured into taking on some kind of role, but as yet we don’t know what that is, nor do we know what she’s escaping.

Dushku plays “Echo,” who is one of the reprogrammable agents hired out by the Dollhouse to do whatever the clients want. Echo can have her brain rewired to be — so far — the perfect girlfriend for a wild weekend of fun, or an “experienced” hostage negotiator. In principle she can be anything or anyone. This isn’t just the downloading of skills and knowledge that you see in the movie, The Matrix, but the imprinting of the personality culled from a real person, or even from a collection of people, complete with personal memories going back to babyhood (at one point we see Echo having an imprint removed, and we see her thoughts rewind to the point where a mother is bending over a crib).

If the owner of the personality imprinted on her brain had asthma, then Echo will have asthma, bringing up the fascinating question of the relationship between the mind and the body, and the powerful effect that beliefs can have on our physiological responses. If the “original” was abused as a child, Echo will have the memories and feelings associated with those events. These were elements that proved to be crucial to the plot of the first episode.

When Echo is in character she seems to have some awareness of her programmed role; she talks about getting her “treatment,” which is what the programming process is called. It’s unclear exactly what her understanding is of what a “treatment” consists of, but it seems that in her programmed state she has no awareness whatsoever that she has another life between “engagements.” In fact, between assignments she drifts around the Dollhouse in a childlike state of innocence, blankly serene, naive, and being talked to as if she were a rather slow child. Her normal personality — which we discover at the end of the show through a home movie to have been bright, intelligent, and irreverent — has been erased.

I suspect however that not all of Echo’s original personality have been removed. This is a show, I believe, about Echo attempting to find what is real inside her. After a fake date near the start of the date she remarks “It’s not often you find something real.” In her Dollhouse life, of course, she never finds anything real — at least not about herself.

However it may be a trace of her “real” former curious self that leads her to wander around in parts of the Dollhouse where she’s not supposed to be, and that leads her to witness another girl getting her first “treatment.” An image of this flashes back into her mind while she’s in character, bridging the gap between her programmed “engagement” personality and her wiped “Dollhouse” personality, or non-personality.

There are no signs yet of her original self, but at least we’ve seen that the Dollhouse’s programmer cannot create an absolute firewall between the different facets of her life. I predict that in future episodes we’ll see more memories or “echoing” across the boundaries of her various lives, including memories from her original life.

Echo, I expect, will be engaged in a search for her “original self.” In Zen Buddhism of course there is the idea of the “original face.” This phrase comes from the koan, or existential question that is inaccessible to rational understanding, “What did your face look like before your parents were born?” The “original face” is our essential nature, which is emptiness. This rather puzzling concept points beyond the self-definitions we have that are based on an attachment to impermanent factors such as thoughts, feelings, memories, and cultural conditioning.

We all have an idea of who were are that is based on these things. And yet our feelings, thoughts, and even our memories change. So our sense of having a self that is in some way continuous and stable is delusive. Like Echo, we believe ourselves to “be” the personality we currently have. If we tend to be rather serious, we think that’s who we are, as if we could never be anything different. A bad-tempered person might say, “That’s just the kind of person I am.” We get attached to particular configurations of mental states and we identify with them. We think that they constitute, in some absolute sense, what our identity is. But when we observe the mind in meditation we discover that every aspect of ourselves arises, exists for a while, and then vanishes.

We also discover through practice that even powerful personality traits can vanish. I have a friend who became interested in Buddhism in the following way: He had an employee who was very prickly and hard to work with. And over a period of just a few weeks she became much mellower and relaxed, and a pleasure to be around. He was curious about this and asked what had happened to her. “Meditation,” someone told him. “What kind of medication?” he asked. “No, meditation.” A major aspect of a person’s personality had just changed. She was in some sense a different person.

Through introspection and the mental “treatment” that meditation, mindfulness, and ethical practice can bring about, we can reprogram our personality — not in quite the same way as happens with Echo, but in a way that can make a real difference in our lives.

Through meditation (and in other ways as well) we can become more aware that we in fact don’t have a “personality” at all, but that we have a variety of “sub-personalities” that are in often conflict with each other.

Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University and the author of Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human argues that the self is not a single entity but a multiplicity:

Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds­—like TV shows and novels and virtual-reality experiences—that don’t actually exist.

It’s as if within us there are various characters who can take the helm of the self and steer us in different directions, depending on which one is in control. The sub-personality that thinks at night that we’ll get up early in the morning to go out running is not the same sub-personality, often, that we wake up with. And we can seamlessly switch from one sub-personality to another, with no awareness that this is taking place. We do this, often, by rationalizing. The self that wants to lose weight gets shoved aside by the self that likes eating pizza, and the pizza-loving sub-personality tells us that we’ll do some extra exercise tomorrow. Usually that’s enough to stop us noticing that our priorities have shifted 180 degrees.

I’ve written about this before, and suggested that ethics can help us develop more of a unitary self:

For example the five or ten precepts … provide an “objective” reference point to turn to when competing selves may drive us to act in a way that’s against our long-term happiness. When we find ourselves about to blurt out something hurtful, say, we can note that this goes against our ethical code, pause, and find a more skillful way to express ourselves — one that takes into account other needs, such as the need to be in harmony with others. We end up with more of our needs met when we act this way — both the need to express our reservations about something and the need to have harmonious relationships.

I also pointed out that both samatha (calm abiding) and vipassana (insight) meditation lessen the tensions between sub-personalities:

Over time the “distractions” — the other selves — simply manifest in awareness less and less. We become more concentrated and happy. The meditating self becomes more complete and sufficient, able to take care of the underlying needs of the multiple selves for prolonged periods of time without needing to suppress those selves. This is what we call samatha or “calm abiding” meditation.

In vipassana meditation — which is complementary to, rather than opposed to samatha meditation — we observe different “selves” arising and passing away, in the form of stray thoughts, fantasies, and emotions. We can develop equanimity as we watch these arise and pass, and realize that none of them is ultimately “us.” If they’re just passing through “us” — as clouds pass through a clear sky — how can they be part of “us”? Which leaves the question of what, ultimately, we are.

And that brings us back to the notion of the original face, or what we are once we realize that we are not in any ultimate sense the impermanent and insubstantial currents of sensation, thought, and emotion that pass through us. In attaching to impermanent and aspects of ourselves and believing them to be permanent and substantial, we are fundamentally failing to understand who we are. To see who we really are we have to look for our “original face.” The “us” that these things pass through is, perhaps, our “original face” — the true self.

To recognize our true face is to become spiritually Awakened. When this happens we no longer identify with the contents of the mind, but instead we recognize that we are the space in which experiences arise. We can therefore experience joy, suffering — any experience, really — and remain in a state of peace.

Perhaps, rather than (or as well as), Echo discovering that she was born in such-and-such a place, had such-and-such a name, had experiences a, b, and c, and options x, y, and z, she will come to the realization that these things don’t define her anyway. Perhaps she’ll find her original “self” and realize that it’s in some sense no more hers than any of the roles she played. Perhaps she’ll see beyond the flow of impermanent sensations, thoughts, feelings, and memories, and perhaps she’ll see that she’s essentially undefinable. Perhaps by the end of the show she’ll have seen her original face. I’d like to think so.

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Ask Auntie Suvanna: Enlightenment and “The Matrix”

Keanu Reeves as Neo in The Matrix

My Dear Auntie,

My daughter is seven, and the other night I rented The Matrix and we watched it together. She loved it, and wants to see Matrix Reloaded with me too. So I was wondering: Am I a bad father? The other thing is, I recognize many Buddhist principles, such as the four noble truths, but I don’t want to be a vegetarian, and meditating is no fun. Can I call myself a Buddhist?

Thanks in advance, Conrad

Dear Conrad,

Firstly be warned that your daughter may have a very hard time following the dialogue in The Matrix Reloaded. Not that it matters.

And I’ll let you in on a secret: meditation is great fun! Often we forget to tell people this. To prove it, I will recount an experience I had. Once after many days of meditating in silence, I walked into the bathroom and saw that the wall was covered with ants. (It was hot — spring in the Sierra.) The ants were moving in fascinating patterns. I was riveted — and stood there like a zombie, contemplating various implications, staring at them for a long time. Now doesn’t that sound like fun? Plus, it was free.

But let me venture a guess here a minute: instead of the above-documented fun of sitting for hours and hours and hours in silence, you prefer to spend those hours with your daughter watching violent special effects, right? Tell me Conrad, how long do you think it’ll take you to get enlightened that way? On the other hand if you stick to The Matrix (original) you can still be a Buddhist — just focus your attention on what Morpheus says and watch your breath.

Auntie Suvanna

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Spirituality Joins Sex, Shoes in Women’s Magazine (Yahoo! News)

Is this a sign of the times or what? The British edition of Cosmopolitan, the glossy bible of sex and shopping for the single girl, has launched a new monthly column on spirituality.

“I’ve come to the painful realization that men and shoes are not enough to make me happy,” Hannah Borno, the magazine’s new spirituality editor, wrote in the March edition. “The key to true contentment lies elsewhere.”

God and guidance would hardly seem to suit the “Cosmo girl.” British media have mocked the magazine for asking what happens now after years of breathless stories about dressing sexy, finding men and having multiple orgasms.

Borno, 32, says reader feedback has convinced Cosmo that many young women long for something more than the materialist life.

“Lots of women say ‘I have a great job, I have a great relationship, so why am I unhappy?,’” she told Reuters.

“We have been covering everything else. We already cover the mind and the body but we needed the spirit as well.”

Nina Ahmad, acting editor of the British Cosmopolitan, said the magazine had 1 million readers in Britain and did not want them to “feel alone on their spiritual journey.”

“We want women to be the best they can, in every respect of their lives,” she said.

Cutting out the middleman

In the United States, Cosmopolitan’s main American edition has not copied the British example. But the editor of a leading Web site on faith and spirituality said he was not surprised by Borno’s new job.

“There is clearly a huge number of people who are either disassociated with or disgusted with organized religion but are seeking spirituality by other means,” said Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet in New York.

“They are cutting out the middleman,” he said. “It’s in the nature of modern society that people are spiritual free agents now.”

“Institutions are no longer imposing a message on the faithful,” wrote Frederic Lenoir, a French sociologist of religion. “Individuals are freely taking what suits them from various traditions,” he added, referring to what is sometimes derided as supermarket spirituality.

Borno bore that out in her first spirituality section, advising readers to tap their dreams to hear their inner voice and use ancient Chinese meditation tricks to think clearly.

“An amazing 44 percent of you think either you or someone you know is psychic,” she told her readers.

“More than 50 percent of you believe in the accuracy of tarot cards and palmistry and 38 percent of you believe in mind-reading.”

Nowhere near a church

As in many other European countries, this new search for spirituality has nothing to do with established religions, which these days attract only a small fraction of the population.

“We’re looking at spirituality rather than organized religion, because that’s where there seems to be a demand from our readers,” Borno explained.

“They want something a bit more alternative.”

Borno has no religious training herself and does not pretend to be an expert on dispensing theological advice.

“First and foremost, I’m a journalist,” she explained, adding that she would consult experts to explain complex topics in what she called “Cosmo-friendly language.”

“There is so much on offer out there and I will try to sift through the whole lot and extract the stories we think are interesting,” she said.

That includes explaining meditation techniques, reviewing books or asking if traditions such as Kabbalah, an esoteric Jewish mysticism embraced by stars like Madonna and Britney Spears, would help readers lead happier lives.

“Cosmo is all about presenting readers with practical options and tricks and techniques they can use,” Borno said. “We don’t want too much mystical baggage.”

The trend towards “supermarket spirituality” has unnerved some traditional churches. The Vatican issued a long study last year arguing that the spread of “New Age” spirituality was an alarm bell for the Roman Catholic Church.

“The success of New Age offers the Church a challenge,” it said. “People feel the Christian religion no longer offers them — or perhaps never gave them — something they really need.”

With people taking an increasingly individualistic approach to faith, Beliefnet’s Waldman saw celebrities driving some of the latest spiritual trends.

“They see that Madonna goes for Kabbalah, so they check it out,” he said. “They see the Dalai Lama has a new book on how to ease stress, so they try it.”

The biggest spiritual leader in the United States, he said, was not any of the well-known preachers but television talk show host Oprah Winfrey. Her popular Web site has its own “Spirit and Self” section.

[Original article no longer available]
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