Tag Archives: television

‘Lost’ and Buddhism

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The TV series “Lost” had hundreds of moments that made me think: “That’s so Buddhist!” I know that themes from every major religion appeared during the six years of the series. But the series finale, which aired in the U.S. last night, ended with a dialog between Jack Shephard and his father (the not insignificantly named Christian Shephard) that had to be the most Buddhist conversation ever heard in an American TV series.

SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading now if you have not watched the final episode.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the DHARMA Initiative and the number 108 to Buddhism. Slightly more subtle is the character name “Richard Alpert”; the real Richard Alpert not only co-wrote a book with Timothy Leary (famous for championing the use of LSD) but later traveled to India, where he studied yoga and meditation. He changed his name to Ram Dass. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

At the end of the final episode of the series, however, the Buddhist ideas flowed like free running water. We have Jack finding his purpose in life — to help other people. And Hurley — his purpose is the same. And Kate? She’s helping Claire. Desmond? He’s helping everyone. In the end, everyone finds their purpose. And guess what? They are all the same.

In the church where everyone gathers, there’s a dharma wheel on the stained-glass window and a Buddha statue on top of the bookcase. (Oh, yes, the dharma wheel — all that “turning the wheel” to move the island!)

How many times were the words awakening, awake, and wake up used in the episode? (Shades of The Matrix: “Neo. Wake up!“)

The dialog between Christian and Jack resembles the best conversations between teacher and student in the Zen tradition.

What was the so-called sideways timeline? I think we have to conclude that “mind makes everything.” It’s a delusion, like the lives we live here, the karma we make. That doesn’t make it not real. It is real. But not really real. There’s reality — and then, there’s real reality. When have you ever seen that on television?

And what does Jack’s father tell him in the end?

Let go.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha!

Breathe.

See also:

The Buddhist Secrets About Lost

‘The Buddha’ on PBS

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Wow, a two-hour documentary about the Buddha is coming on PBS — April 7, 2010 — see the Web site for details!

You can see some preview videos in the “Story and Teachings” section of the site.

PBS also notes that “customized curriculum guides for teaching mindfulness and compassion in the classroom, inspired by the Buddha,” will appear on the Web site later this year.

Karma and the bus: Grey’s Anatomy

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SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen the first two episodes in Season 6 (the current season), don’t read any more.

What happened to George made me think about karma. And that led, in turn, to some thinking about no-self.

One way of understanding karma is to see it in terms of cause and effect. The sutras often say we plant a seed (cause), and the kind of fruit (effect) we get depends wholly on that seed. So then you naturally ask, “What did I ever do to deserve this?”

What did George ever do to deserve being hit by a bus?

Well, the simple answer is: He walked in front of the bus.

I’m not joking. Seriously, that is cause and effect. Now, if you don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, you don’t know George. George was one of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet. He had a lot of friends — most of them women. (He wasn’t really close with guys.) He was never mean or cruel. As a doctor, he was super-sensitive.

You have to ask why a guy like that would get killed in a brutal, painful way — and at a young age. How can that be right?

Karma isn’t about right or wrong. Some people would say George must have done something really awful in a past life — that would explain why he had this painful death. That view assumes that death is a bad thing for the person who dies. But if you watched the season opener of Grey’s Anatomy, you know who’s really suffering — his friends, and his mom. They are all suffering a lot. But George — he’s gone. Do you think the dead suffer?

Now, being hit by the bus would be horribly painful. Pain is suffering. And for the short time George lived after he was struck by the bus, he probably felt a lot of physical and emotional pain. The direct “seed” of all that pain is the bus. And why did George step in front of a moving bus? To save a life. Someone else’s life.

What kind of cruel universe rewards a hero — someone who saves a life — with horrible pain and anguish? Stop. The universe isn’t cruel. It isn’t good, either. The universe simply is. A common word used in English-language texts about Buddhism is suchness. It is as it is. Just that.

George’s intention was to save the woman who stepped into the path of the bus. It was a good intention. And that seed bore very good fruit — the woman’s life was saved. All her friends and family were spared the terrible suffering that George’s friends and family are experiencing now. George’s intention bore wonderful fruit.

What if George had simply been walking down the sidewalk and been killed by a bus that ran off the road? Then there would have been no intention on George’s part. Yet his friends and family would suffer just the same.

I think when people die, the greater suffering occurs among those who miss them. What George’s friends at Seattle Grace are experiencing is their loss of their friend, and it’s affecting each one of them in an individual way.

This is where I started thinking about self and no-self. All the bits and pieces of George’s life up to that moment had made him into a person who would save someone else’s life at the cost of his own. And each one of us is also a conglomeration of bits and pieces. We have not deliberately chosen each bit or each piece — they come from all over, starting at the moment we are conceived.

But no-self acknowledges that we can unwind or unravel those bits and pieces. We can reconstruct ourselves (with time, with Right Effort). That’s why karma is not destiny. In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says you could wipe out all your previous bad karma if you practiced with diligence and attained the perfection of wisdom.

If you could unwind George’s life and examine it, you would see how his impulse to save the woman from the bus fitted perfectly with his whole persona. Whether it was the best use of his talents or his potential — well, that’s not how cause-and-effect works. If you make a decision that yields immediate fruit, then you forfeit the future. If you plant a seed that’s going to take 20 years to bear fruit, maybe you will not be around to harvest that fruit.

In other words, karma can be viewed as a system, just as the whole universe is a system. Everything is interconnected and linked. Each of us influences other people, and other people influence us. But we’re not just leaves blowing in the wind.

We do make decisions. We are able to choose.

Breathe.

Buddhist ideas, American TV: Avatar

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Sometimes you keep hearing about something again and again, forgetting and remembering, until finally, at long last, you go and check it out. That’s how it was for me and the animated TV series called “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” from Nickelodeon (you can read all about it at Wikipedia). Nick has an excellent Web site devoted to the series. At TV.com, you’ll find a compact episode guide and viewer reviews.

Many different people had asked me whether I had seen this TV series. When I said no, they would always tell me a little bit about it, such as “One of the characters is this boy Buddhist monk.” I would think, yeah, yeah, I’ll look into it. And then, I would forget.

So finally someone mentioned that he had downloaded all 60 episodes of the animated series with BitTorrent, and that led me to watch the first season (20 episodes, about 25 minutes each). Whoa. These are really good!

So first, you need to know I do like animation. The original Disney “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) is a lifelong favorite of mine. Recently I discovered the work of the Japanese animation great Hayao Miyazaki, and now I’m on a leisurely mission to see all his films. But I have not seen much of the zillions of anime series from Japan, and I do not run out and watch every Pixar or Disney feature film. So, yes — I like animation, but I’m not a freak for it.

Second, I have a very low tolerance for stupid stories. A lot of U.S. animation (especially on the Cartoon Network) is just junk. It is unwatchable, in my opinion.

So with those two facts in mind, you are about to hear how much I love, love, LOVE “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” I’m up to episode 7 in the second season, and it just keeps getting better and better!

Now, it is true that Aang, the young hero of the series (he is the Avatar, whose task it is to save the world — of course!), is a monk. No one in the series says “Buddhist,” and I have not seen any Buddha images so far. But in episode 4 (season 2), a man with prodigious martial arts skills tells Aang that the whole world is one big living organism, just like the giant banyan tree above them.

“You think you’re any different from me, or your friends, or this tree?” he asks Aang. “If you listen hard enough, you can hear every living thing breathing together. You can feel everything growing. … We all have the same roots, and we are all branches of the same tree.”

Later in that episode, the same man tells Aang and his friends: “Time is an illusion, and so is death.”

Breathe.