Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Chaps' Dharma Talk - For Halloween: Buddhist Horror Cinema

Hello all!
This Dharma talk will be on a lighter note and can fit in with this month's Halloween observance - horror films with a Buddhist theme. When people think of movies that have a Buddhist theme, usually it is about Buddhism directly, like Little Buddha, Seven Years in Tibet, foreign films like South Korea's Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall...and Spring Again, or movies that could easily fit in with Buddhist concepts, like The Matrix or Groundhog Day. However, I think we can also learn about Buddhism through horror films, especially Asian horror films (sometimes called "J-Horror" as most of them were made in Japan). The kind of Buddhism we can learn from them is not necessarily its deep, philosophical concepts, but about how Buddhism interacted with the popular beliefs, customs, and cultures of the countries that Buddhism penetrated. Learning about these popular folk beliefs is just as important for the study of Dharma as the intellectual part; in many ways, they are still present in the countries we may be stationed in or deployed to. Here are some films (they're available on DVD) to witness this:

Kwaidan - (Japan, 1964) This is a collection of 4 Japanese ghost stories originally written by the American writer Lafcadio Hearn, who lived in Japan in the 1800s and adopted it as his homeland. One of the most famous stories is "Hoichi the Earless" about a blind biwa player haunted by the ghosts of samurai. A Buddhist monk writes the Heart Sutra on Hoichi's body to make him invulnerable to the ghosts, but forgets to write on his ears! This story reflects the belief of the power of Buddhist sutras to ward off evil spirits. Because of the influence of Christianity in the West, crucifixes are believed to ward off vampires and evil spirits - in Buddhism in the East, it is not the image of the deity, but the power of the written word, especially in its Sanskrit mantra form, to protect the believer. You don't hold up a picture or statue of Buddha to ward off evil, you use Chinese characters! It demonstrates the power of the Dharma not residing in the physical person of the Buddha, but in his teachings, and in the value of literacy in premodern society.

Nang Nak - (Thailand, 1999) This is a film about Thailand's most famous ghost, Mae (Nang) Nak. Nang Nak is a young wife who dies in childbirth while her husband, Mak, is away at war. When he returns home, he does not realize that his wife and their baby are dead; Nak kills the local villagers who try to tell him the truth. Eventually Mak learns that his wife and son are dead, and flees to his village temple. Buddhist monks eventually convince Mae Nak to leave the world of the living. In Thailand this movie was bigger than Titanic and the rural setting itself is filmed very beautifully (it's not so much of a horror film as a tragic love story). The scene where the head monk speaks to Nang Nak is reminiscent of the tale of the Buddha and Kisa Gotami, who also refused to accept the reality of death. Many Thais believe Nang Nak was a real person who lived in the 1800s and a shrine to her is in modern Bangkok.

- (Japan, 1960) This is a very bizzare film! and best to be viewed with sake perhaps. "Jigoku" is the Japanese Buddhist word for Hell (Avici). Essentially, the film's characters do bad deeds, die as a result, King Enma (the Buddhist lord of hell, Yama) sentences them, and the second half of the movie is them being graphically tormented in jigoku (in the best way that 1960 special effects could offer). These scenes are essentially copied from medieval Japanese texts and illustrations depicting the torments of hell (especially Genshin's Ojoyoshu), and it's very similar also to the Tibetan depictions in the wheel-of-life mandala. Many Buddhists believed (and still do believe) in the existence of hell realms, but, as the final scene in this film shows, existence in the hell realms, or any other realm, is not permanent but transitory.

Ju-on (Japan, 2003)/The Grudge (US, 2004)- The original Japanese film and the American re-make about a vengeful ghost (onryo) actually touches on Pure Land Buddhism in a roundabout way. The beliefs about people who died angry or unfulfilled was a very fearful idea in medieval Japan, and still in Buddhism, dying angry is one of the worst things that could happen. Pure Land Buddhism - the belief in Amida (Amitabha) Buddha's salvific power to save all beings, manifested through devotional nembutsu recitation - rose in popularity, especially during the 1100s-1200s, a time of social upheaval and violent conflicts: as long as one believed in Amida and had faith through recitation of nembutsu ("I take refuge in Amida Buddha"), one could be spared becoming an angry ghost, even if one died in battle, or suddenly from some illness or misfortune. Pure Land Buddhism was also especially popular with women: many believed that women were especially susceptible to becoming evil spirits, because of their inherently evil karma . It is unappealing to us today but there's a reason why all these Asian horror films have female ghosts!

While we may or may not believe in ghosts or the supernatural, it is important to understand that such beliefs were very real and even vital to Buddhists in the past. Today, these beliefs may continue to exist in some form, even here in the US. Rather than look at these beliefs as "mere susperstition" (and remember, one person's superstition is another person's devotion), try to look at them as how Buddhism affected a particular society's beliefs in the afterlife, about the natural world, or relationships with others (for example the roles monks played in society as teachers and protectors). Therefore, we can not only enjoy the "scary" aspects of these movies (and they are really not that scary!) but we can also learn about how Buddhism was practiced and believed in the lives of everyday people.
Namo amida butsu

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