bodhisattva, superstar

Bodhisattva, Superstar is an interesting movie. A self-described “allegorical documentary,” it’s got all of the talking heads one would expect, but it also has the documentarian himself, Michael Trigilio, right in there along with a few scripted characters who find themselves at various places along the path, struggling with what it means to be a Buddhist in America. America is a place and a time where Buddhist ideas, terminology, images — indeed Buddhists themselves — can be co-opted in any number of ways that often make the purists (for lack of a better word) among us cringe.

There’s a lot in this film. At 83 minutes, it’s practically a feature-length movie, so I don’t think that it would be right of me to try and sum up all of my thoughts on it in a blog post of all places. I find myself at a place in my life where I’d very much like to get off the information superhighway and resist its demand that we always comment on everything and anything that happens, immediately offering up our opinions and criticisms and acting as if those opinions and criticisms aren’t what they truly are — knee-jerk reactions to information overload; no, I’d rather hop off the twenty-four-hour comment-athon from time to time, thank you, and allow for things to sink in, give myself permission and time to reflect on things before coming up with My Definitive Word on the Subject. But, clearly, that’s a different rant for a different day.

While watching Bodhisattva, Superstar, I found myself reacting to a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. What I’d like to do here is simply offer up some cursory reflections on one bit in the film, excerpted below. But, really, what I’m doing is reflecting not so much on the film as on my own practice, my own precarious place somewhere out here between academia and the real world, between scholar and practitioner.

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It seems to me that Mr. Trigilio is suggesting that one cannot be Buddhist in America in the same way that one can be Catholic, say. I could, if I was in the mood, make this post one that would fall squarely under the header of Posts that Make the Angry Asian Buddhist proud and point out that this particular problem Mr. Trigilio is identifying is one endemic to a particular kind of American Buddhist, namely privileged converts. But I’m not in the mood to get into that whole “two Buddhisms” quagmire, thanks. Maybe some other time. What I really want to do is linger for a bit on his statement that you’re not really allowed to be a “non-devout” or “secular Buddhist walking around the culture.” He seems to be suggesting that to be a Buddhist in America, one is expected to actually do something, to be committed, devout.

Most of us know folks who are nominally Catholic — they’re the ones who only go to church on Easter or Christmas. Ask them about transubstantiation and they’ll likely tilt their heads and, at most, mutter something incoherent before changing the subject. Most of us probably know (or are at least familiar with the concept of) secular Jews — folks who are Jewish by birth and maybe they feel some strange familial pressure to have their sons circumcised but they have no qualms about eating bacon. Do they believe in God? Meh. It’s not really an issue. For some reason, these nominally religious folks are given a pass. We’re familiar with them and we don’t press them too much about their religious or spiritual lives.

But in many a Buddhist quarter, as soon as you announce to a crowded room that you are, in fact, “a Buddhist,” invariably the first question someone’s going to ask you is some form of the “do you practice?” question which almost always translates to “do you meditate?” And if, god forbid, you say no, you’re likely to suffer the stigma of not really being a Buddhist. Real Buddhists do stuff. Real Buddhists are devout. Real Buddhist mediate and act like monks or keep the precepts or do something more than merely showing up at temple for Hanamatsuri or Wesak or Bodhi Day.

I think that’s what Mr. Trigilio is suggesting. And since I watched his film last week, I can’t get this idea out of my head.

You see, I’m a lousy Buddhist. That is, if your definition of a “(real) Buddhist” is someone who does stuff, someone who mediates or whatever, I suck. I could give myself the Shin Buddhist pass and say, hey, that’s not what we do. In fact, we’re not really supposed to “do” anything. But I know that’s not really true, that whereas there may be a doctrinal or philosophical (or, god, even an ontological) reason why “I” don’t “do” anything in Shin Buddhism, the fact remains that Shin Buddhists are, generally, pretty busy people — rituals, practices, festivals, ceremonies, activities, events, lectures, dharma talks, retreats, etc., etc. And I’m lousy with all of that, too. Lazy lazy lazy.

Lately I’ve been thinking of my scholarship as a form of practice. This isn’t something I generally tell people; I’m not really sure if I want to believe this, truth be told. I mean, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to consider what one does for a living to be a form of practice; I don’t have to go too deeply into Buddhist doctrine to find support for this idea. It’s right there in the fifth step along the Eightfold Path — Right Livelihood. What’s considered “right” versus “not-right” livelihood is pretty explicit, and one gets pretty good karmic props for being a teacher. Moreover, there is a long and venerable tradition of “scholar monks” within Buddhism, monks who, in addition to whatever spiritual proclivities or powers they may have had, were also academics, monks who were busily unpacking and interpreting what the Buddha taught, writing treatises, translating sutras into dozens of languages, and enabling the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia and, later, the west. I consider myself (and I know plenty of other scholars out there who also consider themselves) to be a part of this venerable tradition, and I am humbled by the thought. Nevertheless, I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of my scholarship being my practice. Most importantly, I am not a scholar monk. Obviously I’m not a monk, and I think that it would be a great insult to actual monks — and to nuns, to anyone who has made that commitment, anyone who has sacrificed anything to follow the path with such dedication — to call myself a scholar monk. I’m just a scholar. And unfortunately being a scholar comes with its own baggage in this country that is rife with anti-intellectualism, an anti-intellectualism that seems to shed far more light on the crazy-wisdom-fools and nutty iconoclastic Zen masters in Buddhism’s history rather than take seriously the fact that those very same iconoclasts were themselves pretty serious, hardcore, polyglot scholars. But. I digress.

Regardless. Whatever lofty idealization I’d like to impose upon my scholarship and its relationship to Buddhist practice, at the end of the day, my scholarship is what I do to pay the bills. It’s my job. And I have a hard time reconciling the idea that what I do for a living is the end all be all of my Buddhist practice. Shouldn’t I be doing something else? Isn’t there a retreat I should be headed off to? Shouldn’t my ass be on a cushion more often than an office chair?

At a different point in the movie, Mr. Trigilio says that “Buddhism just isn’t that big of a deal.” Perhaps he’s right. Perhaps these guilt-ridden bouts of worrying about practice are all sort of beside the point. When asked “what’s your practice?” or “do you meditate?” where’s the shame in replying, “Meh.” Where’s the shame in being honest about my Buddhist practice being nothing more than trying my best not to be a dick to people, trying to be mindful of what’s going on around me (and inside me), and occasionally hanging out with other Buddhists where we sometimes talk about Buddhism (and more often just eat), and maybe throw a little incense on the fire for good measure. Why incense? Why not?

Note: Currently, this film is available for purchase from the director. I highly recommend buying it. Regardless of whatever your particular take on any of the above is or, for that matter, anything in the film, the fact of the matter is that it’s a great film by a independent artist, and, as the son of a great artists, I can’t pass up the opportunity to encourage folks to support art.