Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies

by Dean Sluyter

Copyright © 2005 by Dean Sluyter
All Rights Reserved
Three Rivers Press
ISBN 1-4000-4974-1



Go throughout the land and spread the dharma in the dialect of the people.
— The Buddha (to his disciples, shortly before his death)

The movies are weird — you actually have to think about them when you watch them.
— Britney Spears  (at the Sundance Film Festival)  

Tibetan temples smell like popcorn. Actually, they smell like the hot buttery goop that’s pumped onto popcorn in the lobbies of movie theaters — as I walk from my car on a clear spring New Jersey evening, past the bank and the vacuum cleaner store, I can smell it a block away. What I smelled in Tibet were butter lamps, simple cups of yak butter with lighted wicks, carried by wide-eyed peasants as they walked in silence from one shrine room to the next, or glowing where the resident monks had set them at the feet of gold-painted buddhas. Like movie theaters, the temples are windowless and dark. The butter lamps, burning there for centuries, have coated everything with a fine layer of sooty grease, so that the stone floors, like the floors of movie theaters, are sticky underfoot.

The earliest of these temples were erected in the eighth century, when Padmasambhava and a few other illustrious teachers carried the dharma — the enlightenment teachings of the Buddha — from India. In Tibet they found a preliterate society, incapable of reading the texts they had brought. Fortunately, they had also brought the lavish system of visual symbolism we still see in the remaining temples, where every detail of the paintings and statues, down to the weapons wielded by a wrathful deity or the color of a lama’s undershirt, conveys some part of the teaching.

In today’s postliterate society, where people can read books but spend most of their time gazing at various kinds of glowing screens instead, perhaps we can find enlightenment lessons in the movies. Perhaps, if we look close enough, there are dharma teachings in the weapons wielded by Clint Eastwood or the color of Grumpy’s eyes. God, they say, is in the details. Maybe, if we take that saying literally, we can find the infinite looming in the way Sonny Corleone dies at the tollbooth or in the shark’s-eye-view shot that opens Jaws. Of course Disney, Leone, Coppola, and Spielberg are no Padmasambhavas, but, like all great artists, in their most inspired moments they touch places beyond their own understanding. Plato imagined people sitting before a fire in a dark cave, watching flickering shadow shows that hint at the higher reality of the sunlit world and that eventually prompt them to emerge into the light. Perhaps our flickering movie shows can help point us to a higher, more light-filled reality, if only we can decipher the hints.

In a way, I’ve been trying to decipher them since I was six, when my parents took me to see Forbidden Planet. Robby the Robot, Dr. Morbius with his dark secrets and his beautiful daughter, the invisible Id monster stomping giant footprints in the dust of Altair-4, the spooky, quavering electronic music — Wooo-ooo-ooo! — all this suggested a mysterious, alluring cosmic dimension. I didn’t know where it was or what it had to do with me, but it was out there and I wanted it. I embarked upon a lifelong love affair with movies, eventually spending several years working as a film critic. Meanwhile, my pursuit of the cosmic led me to study with lamas and yogis, attend retreats in the U.S. and Europe, and trek to cave shrines and butter lamp–filled temples in Tibet and Nepal. Maybe it was inevitable that someday these two passions would once again converge.

So let’s play. What can Memento teach us about the slippery nature of time and “reality”? What can Casablanca teach us about bodhichitta, selfless commitment to the enlightened happiness of others? What can we learn about the insatiability of the self from Jaws, or about God the Father from The Godfather, or about sex and liberation from Jailhouse Rock? What does Invasion of the Body Snatchers say about individuality and conformity on the spiritual path? How can Fistful of Dollars help us deal skillfully with a world of craziness and violence? What qualities of enlightenment are personified by James Bond, Snow White, Humphrey Bogart, the Marx Brothers? How does the radiant beauty of our “stars” express our own intrinsic radiance? Most important, how can movies teach us to taste enlightened awareness silently within ourselves and then find that same flavor in our noisy outer lives?

Here’s my theory. The Buddha is Cher in Moonstruck, slapping us upside the head and saying, “Snap out of it!” Buddha means “awakened one,” and Buddha/Cher is challenging us to join her in snapping out of our stupor, to wake up and become Buddha/Us. As we do, we discover that the nature of existence itself, just as it is, is so startlingly rich, so infinitely satisfying, that it makes all our old attempts to sleepwalk our way to satisfaction seem laughably clumsy. We’ve been stumbling after so many things, and missing the One Thing.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
— Matthew 13:45-46

This pearl of great value may seem like a mystery, like the glowing contents of Marcellus Wallace’s stolen briefcase in Pulp Fiction — we never see it, and no one in the film ever names it, but they all stare at it in awe, agree that it’s beautiful, and are willing to risk their lives for it. I think most of us catch fugitive glimpses of that pearl, especially in childhood, but later we find ourselves pining away for it, like Citizen Kane pining for the Rosebud of simple, childlike happiness, never suspecting that he’s had it in his mansion all along, obscured by the clutter of bigger, better, less satisfying toys.

So this enlightenment, or kingdom of heaven, is already ours. It’s like a treasure locked away in a safe, and what religions offer (at their best) is mouth-watering descriptions of the treasure to motivate us, diagrams of the safe, and a box of time-tested safecracking tools. I find that the Buddhist teachings provide especially clear diagrams and especially nifty tools, but when someone hands me a big stick of dynamite with a lighted fuse, I don’t spend a lot of time quibbling about who the manufacturer was. So I draw on all traditions. It’s all just means to an end. Once we’ve got our hands on the treasure we lay our tools aside, and we see that the descriptions were hopelessly inadequate anyway.

In American Beauty, a teenage filmmaker glimpses it in the form of a discarded plastic bag:

Ricky: It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it, right? And this bag was like, dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. And that’s the day I knew there was this entire life behind things, and . . . this incredibly benevolent force, that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. . . . Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it, like my heart’s going to cave in.

In the enlightened state you come to see that that beauty is in the world not just sometimes but always. And by acclimating gradually, you find that you can take it. Your heart doesn’t cave in but opens out, to meet and embrace everything. And it’s all perfectly ordinary and normal.

Movies are the expression of our collective yearnings, and our yearnings are ultimately spiritual, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not. But in choosing films to explore, I’ve deliberately skipped those where the spiritual content is too literal or obvious. That includes most cases where people have told me “Ooh, you have to write about — ” Where’s the fun in finding what’s already spelled out? But if The Force is really with us, so that we can really Wax-On Wax-Off our way to mastery, and thus escape from The Matrix, then such truths must lurk even in films where there’s no Yoda or Mr. Miyagi or Morpheus to explain them. And if occasionally I work overtime to find these truths (the Tibetans call this “squeezing the legs out of the snake”), then so be it. I think I still have my first-grade report card, on which Miss Somebody wrote, “Dean has a lot of good ideas, but sometimes he gets carried away.” Too late to change now. Like James Brown in “Cold Sweat,” all I can say is, “Excuse me while I do the boogaloo.”

I’ve also limited myself to American films (aside from one spaghetti western, which is faux American). I want to stick with familiar, domestic fare as our way into the supposedly unfamiliar, exotic realm of enlightenment. We’re Americans, not Tibetans or Japanese or even Europeans. By the 19th century, European visitors were shocked to see our alien custom of putting our feet up and leaning back in our chairs. This is the land of peanut butter and jelly, blue jeans and rock ’n’ roll. Just as Padmasambhava made the dharma Tibetan by integrating indigenous Tibetan gods and myths into the temple images, maybe we can make it American by integrating it with our blue-jeaned movie gods and their big-screen myths. At the core of the enlightenment experience is the discovery, like Dorothy’s discovery in Oz, that there’s no place like home. Everything we sought in exotic lands and far-out ideas is right here, far in, so intimate to our own being that we simply overlooked it. The ordinary turns out to be the extraordinary; the boy next door is your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

So let’s pick a seat (sixth row, right aisle for me, please), put up our feet, and soak up some enlightenment lessons. And don’t forget the popcorn. As it happens, our ritual moviegoing snack is an enlightenment lesson in itself, the product of a dramatic transformation. Something small, hard, and unpalatable explodes and turns inside out, becoming tender and tasty as it expands. This is just the kind of transformation we want our own lives to undergo: to explode out of hard constrictedness, to blow open our kernel of truth, to bring to the outside the tender, tasty enlightenment that was already inside. Let’s see what we can learn about this process from the movies.

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