Friday, May 27, 2011

Edwin Nig: The (Zen) Buddhist Heart of I ♥ Huckabees

The (Zen) Buddhist Heart of I ♥ Huckabees
By Edwin Ng
Journal of Religion and Film

David O. Russell's I ♥ Huckabees (I Heart Huckabees) tells the story of Albert Markovski, poet and environmentalist who hires a husband and wife team of "existential detectives," Bernard and Vivian Jaffe, to explain a string of seemingly absurd coincidences in his life where he repeatedly encounters a mysterious "African guy." Together with peer-support buddy Tommy Corn, Albert's identity quickly unravels as the Jaffes encourage him to question the meaning of life and confront his rivalry with nemesis Brad Stand. Brad and his girlfriend Dawn also engage the Jaffes and begin to confront their own existential conundrums. The characters' existential crises unfold in a series of increasingly absurd events and come to a head when all but Brad experience epiphanies to gain insight into the nature of reality, self, compassion, joy and misery.

[2] Huckabees bills itself as an "existential comedy" and its philosophical musing is less than subtle, if somewhat silly. The film is littered with footnotes and references to an array of philosophical and artistic/critical ideas, from Sartrean existentialism to psychoanalysis to surrealism. Reading the film from any one of these (secular) perspectives would certainly make for an interesting read. But as Donna Yarri notes in her review of the film, Huckabees also has distinctive religious undertones; the existential questions asked in the film are perennial religious ones.1 Albert expresses this in no uncertain terms when he tells Vivian, "I want you to find out� about my life ... and about the whole thing, about the universe, you know, the Big One." Russell, I argue, attempts to answer these questions from a Buddhist perspective. I will demonstrate that he is predominantly influenced by Zen. I will highlight how the film invokes the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada) and principles of meditation before offering a close reading of a special effects sequence to demonstrate that Russell employs the visual vernacular of contemporary media culture to "practice" Buddhism, reworking film as meditation and meditation as film to engage us in ethico-political reflection. Zen, Indra's net, and �interconnectivity.'

[3] Russell has admitted that Huckabees is predominantly influenced by Zen. He first encountered Buddhist philosophy at college with Indo-Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. His exposure to Buddhist ideas at college inspired him to later spend several years living in a Zendo.2 While Russell did not pursue Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition of Thurman, it appears that Thurman had nevertheless left a lasting impression on him. Russell mentioned in an interview that the character of Bernard Jaffe was modeled after Thurman. Bernard's philosophy of "universal interconnectivity," however, does not appear to be inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, rather it is distinctively Zen. In his first consultation with the Jaffes, Albert is shown the "blanket." Bernard puts his fist under and moves it across different parts of a plain white blanket, asking Albert to imagine that it represents something different, "You ... me ... Vivian ... the Eiffel Tower ... war ... a museum ... a disease ... an orgasm ... a hamburger." He then tells Albert that these different things are not distinct from one another but are interrelated and "unified." This recalls the Buddhist metaphor of Indra's net, a central thematic of the Huayen school of China which D.T. Suzuki has characterized as quintessentially Zen.3 Francis Cook translates the metaphor as such:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.4

[4] The blanket clearly lacks the celestial trappings of Indra's net but the modest fabric nevertheless expresses the same wisdom. Cook describes the symbolism of Indra's net as the "infinitely repeated interrelationship of all the members of the cosmos."5 Indra's net is a metaphor for the Buddhist doctrine of pratitya-samutpada, dependent origination or dependent co-arising: Because all beings, objects and phenomena are interwoven in a web of causality, there is no separate or intrinsic self. Rather, all beings and phenomena are not self-existent but co-constituted, interpenetrated, or as Bernard puts it, "interconnected." Bernard's blanket, his philosophy of "universal interconnectivity," expresses the wisdom of pratitya-samutpada. For Cook, Indra's net implies that "there is no centre, or perhaps if there is one, it is everywhere."6 Bernard echoes this when he impresses upon Albert the significance of the blanket: "The universe is an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere." To realize this is to relinquish self-centeredness, which for Buddhism is the root of existential discontent. He even teaches Albert a method to realize the wisdom of the "blanket". Forgetting the self in meditation.

[5] The method involves Albert lying in a body bag, which Bernard claims would "help shut down your everyday perceptions and give up your usual identity that you think separates you from everything." At this point, we enter Albert's consciousness to witness a relentless stream of random thoughts and macabre fantasies: the film segues into one of its many surreal moments as it cuts from images of the external world falling apart like jigsaw pieces to flashbacks of past events to disembodied talking heads abusing Albert.

[6] The sheer bizarreness of the scene aside, it does capture the experience of Buddhist meditation. Russell mentioned that he wanted to debunk the popular (mis)conception of meditation as an esoteric or mystical practice. Meditation for him is to simply close one's eyes to "see what's going on in there."7 Buddhist meditation aims at taming what is widely called the "monkey mind." Through meditation one turns attention inwards to see that the mind is always active, restless and full of thoughts. This is what Albert experiences when he climbs into the bag. But the aim of meditation is not to forcibly suppress the mind. Rather, through sustained practice, one cultivates mindfulness or awareness to observe the mind with equanimity. In this equanimous space, the mind comes to rest on its own accord and the meditator begins to gain insight into its habitual tendencies. The meditator gains insight when conceptual projections, especially the fiction of the self, drops away. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that "if we continue in our mindful observation there will no longer be a duality between observer and observed." In the absence of the observer-observed duality there is only observation. In this space of pure observation, the meditator begins to understand the nature of bodily sensations, feelings, the mind and mental conceptions, experiencing them as impermanent, contingent, and without intrinsic essence, and hence, develops the wisdom of Indra's net.

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