Buddhism in Popular Movies and Songs

by Peter Hata

I'm sure many of you have seen the Disney movie, "Pocahontas." How about "The Lion King" and "The Empire Strikes Back?" How many of you have heard the music of the rock group Green Day, or of producer Quincy Jones? I've really enjoyed these movies and songs myself. Of course, on one level, these are just "good movies" and "good songs." On another level though, I think the reason I am especially fond of certain movies and songs is because there's something about them that touches me somehow, that communicates some wisdom or truth that I personally find meaningful. When I think about it, these truths often seem to me to be very similar or even identical to the teachings of Buddhism. Of course, I'm not saying that a particular movie producer, screenwriter or composer is actually a Buddhist, but that their works, or passages from their works, do in fact remind me of the Buddhist teachings. I think it might be especially interesting to look at some passages that seem to illustrate various aspects of the Buddhist teaching, and then try to find specific correlations to them in our "traditional" explanations of the Buddhist teachings, like those on the What Is Buddhism Page from our Living Dharma website.

The first example I'd like to look at is the song "Time of Your Life," by the group Green Day:

When Green Day's Billy Joe says, "Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go," I think he is talking about "impermanence," one of the most basic teachings of Buddhism. For comparison, I'd like to quote from our What Is Buddhism Page:

One of the most basic teachings of the Buddha is impermanence. This is the fundamental truth that all life is always moving, flowing and changing. Buddhists call this truth the Dharma. Buddha awakened to the Dharma of impermanence while meditating under a Bodhi tree. The Dharma, or truth, humbled him; he saw that his own life was fleeting.

This last phrase is interesting. It points out that, initially, the truth of impermanence was a negative and humbling truth to the Buddha, because it meant he himself would someday die. Again, here's from our What is Buddhism Page:

But (besides realizing the impermanence of life) he also realized that not just he himself, but that all living things - his loved ones, the bird, the tree - would someday also be destroyed by impermanence, and he felt great compassion for every living thing, and saw that all life is interdependent."

So, in contrast to the negative aspect of impermanence, we are told that the Buddha's awakening of compassion and realization of the interdependence of life was a positive and dynamic aspect of his enlightenment.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into Green Day's lyrics, but I think the phrase, "I hope you had the time of your life," expresses a kind of compassion, and is why I really like this tune. Billy Joe could have said (as many other contemporary artists do), "I hope I have the time of my life." But he said, "I hope you had the time of your life." I really appreciate that.

The next selection I'd like to quote from is "Colors of the Wind," from the movie Pocahontas:

In this scene of the movie, we see that, in contrast to John Smith, Pocahontas has a very different attitude towards the other life in the forest. While John Smith is arrogant and can only see the life around him on a selfish, materialistic level, Pocahontas is very humble and doesn't put herself in any way above the other life she shares the forest with.

Again, for comparison, here is a quote from our What Is Buddhism Page:

(the Buddha) saw that we suffer because we tend to consider our "self" (our ego or identity) as something that is fixed and permanent (and as something that exists separately from other life) but that this puts us in conflict with the truth of impermanence.

When Pocahontas sings the phrase, "Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?," I believe she is alluding to the interdependence and oneness of all life. In the movie, John Smith's arrogant ego-self initially prevents him from the experiencing this world of oneness. But in the particular scene where this song is sung, we see Pocahontas take John Smith by the hand for a wonderful, eye-opening tour of the forest, trying to teach him, to awaken in him his true connection to all the life around him. In essence, I think she is saying, "Can't you see that your self-centered attitude is preventing you from awakening to and appreciating this greater reality." As the tour progresses, we see John Smith's eyes open wider and wider and a great smile come on his face.

This brings us to one of the most important points in Buddhism: The relationship between our self and this world of oneness that surrounds us. From the What Is Buddhism Page:

All Buddhists join their hands together and bow their heads in deference to the Dharma. Shin Buddhists call this act gassho. In addition, as we bow, we say "Namu Amida Butsu." "Namu" indicates the attitude of the humble student or seeker of the truth; "Amida Butsu" means the Dharma of impermanence (or truth, life, oneness, wisdom and compassion). Thus, "Namu Amida Butsu" essentially means "Bow to the Dharma." If we imagine our head as a "cup" which is currently full of our self-centeredness, the act of bowing "empties our cup" so that it can then be filled with the Dharma (truth). This is the essence of the Buddhist awakening.

And continuing from the What is Buddhism Page:

Shinran Shonin (the founder of Shin Buddhism)...saw, as did the Buddha, that what stands in the way of our awakening to the Dharma is really only us. Specifically, it is our ego, or that illusion we have that we are a fixed and separate entity apart from everything else. Thus, Shin Buddhism starts by getting us to see our egocentric, arrogant and self-centered nature.

I think Pocahontas is trying to help John Smith "see" his arrogant and egotistical attitude, to gain an insight about himself. To me, Namu Amida Butsu--Bow to the Dharma--is our humble expression as Buddhists of this insight into the true relationship of our relatively small ego-selves to the greater reality of oneness that surrounds us.

When this insight is gained, the "Buddha-spirit"-the spirit of the true student or seeker of truth-is awakened inside us. When we have this awakened spirit, everything can teach us, the bobcat, the wolf, the rainstorm, river, heron and otter. Ultimately, I think that this is what Pocahontas teaches us.

Next, I'd like to quote a passage from "The Lion King." This is the scene near the beginning of the movie where the wise lion king (and father) Mufasa takes his young son Simba to a hill overlooking their lands.

In our website's Library is an article that covers one of our recent religious retreats, North American District Joint Retreat, which featured Rev. Wada from our Headquarters in Kyoto, Japan. In the article, Rev. Wada says:

"The most important wish, the fundamental wish we all have, is to become one with all life. The Japanese term for this is 'inochi.' After a slight pause, Rev. Wada added, "This wish is life. We are all sharing the same wish to be one...This is the essence of the Shinshu teaching...When Shinran Shonin used the term, 'Jodo Shinshu,' he was not referring to a sect or denomination. He meant that we are all human beings living a part of one great life...regardless of race or religion. Shinshu is not a teaching that criticizes other religions. It is a teaching that says all are yearning to live together in peace."

Later in the article, Rev. Wada explains more about the term, 'inochi.' He says:

"The "i" in the term means "breath, or breathing; "chi" means energy or life-force. 'Inochi' thus is "the energy from within that allows living things to live," he said. He pointed out however, that this "is not my life-force or energy; it belongs to all living things. I am the grateful recipient of this life-force."

Let's "reverse" the procedure slightly and compare what Rev. Wada said to this passage from "The Empire Strikes Back." This is the scene where the Jedi master teacher Yoda explains "The Force" to Luke:

I think this passage again illustrates the common theme in Buddhism, which was talked about earlier regarding Pocahontas, which is how our ego-selves tend to limit our experience of the larger world of oneness. In particular, here Yoda tries to get Luke to not just see a "tree as a tree," but to see all life as an energy that is all around us and that interconnects us. Of course, I'm not saying that becoming a Jedi knight is the same thing as the Buddhist awakening. However, I find this passage from The Empire Strikes Back meaningful because it reminds me that there is a greater and wondrous reality that exists if I can first somehow transcend the limitations of my normal, ego-centered way of looking at the world.

Now I'd like to quote a short passage from the Woody Allen movie, Hannah and Her Sisters. The following is an inner dialogue spoken by Woody Allen himself, near the end of the film. In this scene, after nearly killing himself due to his depression over various difficulties he has just gone through, he somehow finds himself in a movie theater watching an old, zany Marx Brothers film. Slowly, just by getting into the lighthearted, "don't take yourself so seriously" kind of hilarity in the movie, he gradually calms down and gains an important insight about himself and about life. As he is coming to his senses, he says:

I think Woody is saying here that if there is no heaven or afterlife, then maybe I should just accept that now and stop worrying about the inevitable-as painful as it might be-and get on with living and enjoying my life now. He is saying that if we spend a lot of time feeling sorry for ourselves, we will probably also miss all the "good stuff" life has to offer. From the What Is Buddhism Page:

The meaning of the Meditation Sutra, one of the key sutras of Shin Buddhism, is, "Don't try to 'get rid of' the pain of life, or your shortcomings - that is impossible; instead, live with it all, but turn your focus inward and honestly evaluate yourself. This leads to a kind of rebirth. 'Kill' your ignorance and be reborn in the truth, then live with the truth"...What can change is the way we look at our lives and our relationship to others. We can come to see that our lives and, indeed, all life, is both interdependent and precious. This insight can have a profound and transforming effect on how we live our lives.

Finally, I'd like to quote the lyrics from a haunting ballad from a Quincy Jones album called, "Everything Must Change." I realize there may be some of you who may not get the same message from it that I do. But anyway, I'm fond of it because it seems to express, in a very moving way, the Buddhist teaching we talked about earlier, that there is both a negative and positive aspect involved with the Buddhist awakening, that life is, in a word, "bittersweet." Life is impermanent, which is the negative truth that humbles us. Yet, at the same time, we can choose, as Woody Allen and Green Day point out, to simply and humbly accept this truth and go on to live our lives to the fullest. And as Pocahontas, Yoda and the Lion King teach us, if we can receive the humble "Buddha's Spirit" -gain insight into the meaning of Namu Amida Butsu, or Bow to the Dharma-then we can awaken to, learn from, and enjoy the great world of oneness that surrounds us all.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, and I hope that we can continue to learn more about the Buddhist teachings together.

Peter Hata

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