Buddhism and American Cinema
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Buddhism and American Cinema

John Whalen-Bridge, Gary Storhoff, John Whalen-Bridge, Gary Storhoff

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eBook - ePub

Buddhism and American Cinema

John Whalen-Bridge, Gary Storhoff, John Whalen-Bridge, Gary Storhoff

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In 1989, the same year the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a decade-long boom of films dedicated to Buddhist people, history, and culture began. Offering the first scholarly treatment of Buddhism and cinema, the editors advise that there are two kinds of Buddhist film: those that are about Buddhists and those that are not. Focusing on contemporary American offerings, the contributors extend a two-pronged approach, discussing how Buddhism has been captured by directors and presenting Buddhist-oriented critiques of the worlds represented in films that would seem to have no connection with Buddhism. Films discussed range from those set in Tibet, such as Kundun and Lost Horizon, to those set well outside of any Buddhist milieu, such as Groundhog Day and The Matrix. The contributors explain the Buddhist theoretical concepts that emerge in these works, including karma, the bardo, and reincarnation, and consider them in relation to interpretive strategies that include feminism, postcolonialism, and contemplative psychological approaches.

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SUNY Press

Representation and Intention


Buddhism and Authenticity in Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth

The daily wars that occur within our thoughts and within our families have everything to do with the wars fought between peoples and nations throughout the world. The conviction that we know the truth and that those who do not share our beliefs are wrong has caused a lot of harm. When we believe something to be the absolute truth, we have become caught in our own views. If we believe, for instance, that Buddhism is the only way to happiness, we may be practicing a kind of violence by discriminating against and excluding those who follow the other spiritual paths. When we are caught in our views, we are not seeing and understanding in accord with reality. Being caught in our views can be very dangerous and block the opportunity for us to gain a deeper wisdom.
—Thich Nhat Hanh, Creating True Peace
Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth (1993), the third feature film in his Vietnam War trilogy,1 straddles the cultures of Vietnam and America as faced by the Vietnamese American heroine Le Ly2 (Hiep Thi Le). In the sweeping epic tradition of Hollywood cinema, the film chronicles the trials and tribulations of Le Ly from childhood to adulthood. It ranges, in the words of critic Rebecca Stephens, from “poor Vietnamese peasant girl in black pajamas to California millionaire who sports a sophisticated hairdo and multiple gold chains” (Stephens 663). Heaven and Earth is an impassioned film about one Vietnamese woman’s personal perspective on a war she has lived through, and her life, survival, spirituality, and success in America—all of which is guided by her religion of Vietnamese Buddhism.
In our analysis, we first focus on Buddhism and Buddhist forms of worship as practiced by the Vietnamese people of a central Vietnamese village like Ky La, as well as by Le Ly’s family, especially her father. Next, we analyze Buddhism as practiced by Le Ly herself as she tries to adapt in America, as she attempts to resolve the difficulties of family life and finances. Finally, the chapter explores her attempt to negotiate the experience of war in Vietnam with her life of peace in America. Heaven and Earth achieves its purpose in not only dramatizing the experience of a young Vietnamese woman caught in a bitter war but also emphasizing how she survives because of her firm grounding in lived, traditional Vietnamese Buddhist beliefs and practices.
A constant presence onscreen, Le Ly is seen struggling to survive the pillage and plundering of her village of Ky La in central Vietnam, first by the French, then by the Viet Cong.3 She is also victimized by South Vietnamese government soldiers, who are covertly aided by their American advisors. She works as a house maid for a rich Saigon family, but Le Ly is seduced by her master, suffers unrequited love, and bears an illegitimate son. She becomes a petty hustler on the city streets of Da Nang, a major U.S. base in the war. As a black marketer and drug dealer of marijuana, she prostitutes herself to an American soldier hours away from returning home. After being wooed by an older U.S. sergeant (Tommy Lee Jones), Le Ly moves with him to America. There, their marriage turns sour, leaving Le Ly as a battered wife. After her husband’s suicide, she is a widowed mother in America before finally becoming a self-made woman and returning for a visit home to Ky La.
Before Stone’s film, relatively little attention was paid to the two volumes of Le Ly Hayslip’s4 autobiography on which the movie is based, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1989) and Child of War, Woman of Peace (1993). In both volumes, with the first even subtitled A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace, Le Ly Hayslip offers the reader her perspective on the Vietnam War. The film Heaven and Earth catapulted her to wider attention, including that of the Vietnamese community in southern California. There, Le Ly Hayslip was widely condemned, even hated, for her conciliatory attitude toward the Communist government of Vietnam, since anger against the Communist regime was prevalent among the Vietnamese in the diaspora in the 1990s. In America, much scholarly interest has centered on her two memoirs and, particularly, Stone’s film.

The Critical Reception of Heaven and Earth

Criticism of the film has been especially negative. This invites the following critical revaluation. Traditionally, the film is often accused of distorting the history of the war, Orientalizing the image of the Vietnamese woman, romantically dramatizing historical fact, and essentializing the immigrant experience in America. For example, Matthew A. Killmeier and Gloria Kwok write:
The Vietnam proposed by Stone and Hayslip is still a myth, a romanticized vision that the West and United States, in particular, would like to see. This is the Vietnam that Le Ly, now a Viet Kieu (Vietnamese expatriate), and most Viet Kieu remember before they left their country in the 1970s … such idealizations are part of the mentality of Vietnamese peasants. … Indeed, Le Ly has romanticized her memory of Vietnam with time, and she offers both nostalgia and desire for a Utopia, a wonderful but non-existent place. … Today’s Vietnam is not the nation that the Vietcong fought for. Vietnam is rife with corruption, poverty, and prostitution; capitalism triumphs over Marx, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh. The powers have changed hands in Vietnam; the Communists and transnational corporations have replaced France and the United States. (Killmeier and Kwok 265–66)
Such criticism ironically identified Hayslip with the Viet Kieu, who despised her for her cooperation with Communist Vietnamese when seeking bureaucratic help in facilitating her first visit home in 1986. This was a time when the United States still enforced a trade embargo against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Killmeier and Kwok’s conclusion is particularly inappropriate for the historical context of the memoir. When author Le Ly Hayslip returned to Vietnam in 1986, Ho Chi Minh (or “Bac Ho,” Uncle Ho), Karl Marx, and Chairman Mao were still the ideological mainstays of a Vietnamese Communist party that only in that year passed the policy of đổi mới (renewal/renovation) that allowed for a modest acceptance of capitalism. This policy would eventually transform Vietnam along the lines the critics describe from the vantage point of 2005, over a decade after the time of Le Ly Hayslip’s memoirs.
Other analyses of the film pointed out the supposed superficiality of Buddhism as depicted in the movie. These critics accused Stone and Le Ly Hayslip of co-opting Buddhism and refashioning the religion to be more in tune with the Western/American Christian understanding of spirituality and the concept of God. Particularly harsh words were voiced by Julia L. Foulkes:
[O]nly a superficial, Americanized veneer of Buddhism emerges. … Heaven and Earth uses Buddhism only to provide truisms rather than to explore the vast difference between Vietnamese and America cultures. … Most incongruous is the casual use of the word “God” by proclaimed Buddhists, even in the early village scenes. (Foulkes 1273)
Foulkes argues that the depiction of Buddhism in the film is especially offensive because it is reductive, simplistic, and Westernized—a kind of “New Age” version of Buddhism that strips the religion of its seriousness.5
Yet despite these detractors, the question must be asked: to what extent has Oliver Stone captured some truths of Buddhism as practiced and experienced by common Vietnamese laypeople? As we demonstrate, Stone’s chronicle of Le Ly’s life from a young girl born and raised in a wet-rice agriculture village to an adult in suburban America incorporates important and recurrent aspects of Vietnamese Buddhism as experienced by Vietnamese of Le Ly’s peasant background. Within the film, allusions to folk Buddhist beliefs and practices are cinematically visualized through the mise-en-scène and articulated by Le Ly’s voice-over narration. Through her voice-overs, Le Ly offers a view of Buddhism as a set of religious beliefs and practices that serve as a highly spiritual, morally inclined guide by which she lives her life.

Vietnamese Folk Beliefs and Buddhism

To accentuate authentic Vietnamese folk beliefs tied to Buddhist religious teachings, despite an occasional conflict with formal Buddhist theology, the film opens with a rolling prologue:
This film is based on the true life story of Phung Thi Le Ly Hayslip, from Ky La, a rice-farming village in Central Vietnam. It is the early 1950s and Ky La has been under the domination of France for nearly seventy years as part of the country’s vast Indochinese colonial empire. The French rulers are far away in Saigon, Hanoi or Paris, but in Ky La, life goes on as it has for a thousand years, protected by Father Heaven, Ong Troi, and Mother Earth, Me Dat. Between Heaven and Earth—Troi va Dat—are the people, striving to bring forth the harvest and follow Lord Buddha’s teachings. (Stone)
This juxtaposition of the Vietnamese folk belief in Father Heaven and Mother Earth with Buddhist theology is apparent from the very beginning of the film. Of course, in Buddhism the idea of heaven and earth is not anthropomorphized, nor has this folk approach any place in Christianity. To give visualization to the folk ideas expressed in the prologue, Stone cuts immediately to long shots of lush rice fields. He adds the ringing of a gong from the village temple and gives a medium shot of a village monk lighting incense and praying toward an altar, leading to the medium zooming shot of a bronze statue of the Buddha. Through editing, we get a long sequence of various shots depicting life in the village of Ky La at the time: for example, people go about their various activities, two monks in orange robes with orange umbrellas walk across the vast and lush rice field, and an elderly man kneels and prays at an ancestral altar. In his introductory collage of images, Stone succeeds in capturing Vietnamese folk religious practices as inexorably wedded with Buddhist teachings. As Philip Taylor has observed, “ancestral altars can be found in most houses of the Viet ethnic majority …” (Taylor 19).
From this sequence, we are cinematically oriented toward the pastoral, idyllic milieu of a simple and religious peasant life. For as Stone’s film captures Le Ly’s childhood memories of her past, the focus is by degrees subjective and unapologetically idyllic. It is Le Ly’s subjectivity that gives Heaven and Earth its structure and content, and in her memory of village life, the positive and peaceful momentarily outweigh the negative and brutal—a nostalgia that Stone expresses with lyrical visual imagery. As a recurrent thread holding together this subjective yet authentic experience, the emphasis on Buddhism as perceived by the Vietnamese of Le Ly’s peasant class is foregrounded, taking precedence over more formal, doctrinal Buddhist theology. By examining the historic and cultural practices of peasant Buddhism, we see that Stone’s depiction of Le Ly’s beliefs, practices, and moral code as contextualized by a Buddhist framework is much more nuanced and realistic than understood by most American film critics. Its portrayal is actually very much in line with the form of Buddhism that is lived, practiced, and followed by lay Vietnamese people, both in Vietnam and in America. Le Ly’s self-avowed Buddhism, as portrayed in the film and in her own memoirs, does not follow a strictly philosophical or theoretical mode of that religion. Her form of Buddhism is a practical, village-based religion that has been influenced by Vietnam’s culture, its traditions of animism and ancestor worship, and its agrarian culture.

Buddhism, the Agrarian Family, and Vietnamese Ancestral Beliefs

The film makes clear that Le Ly derives her spiritual teachings through the oral folk tradition passed down by her father when she was a young girl. This practice is commensurate with the traditional experience of Vietnamese village people. Seldom does the Vietnamese peasantry receive theological instructions in Buddhism from monks at a temple seminary. Early in the film, we see Le Ly’s father (Haing S. Ngor) telling his daughter, “You understand that a country is more than a lot of dirt, rivers and forests? … See this land? Vietnam is going to be yours now. If the enemy returns … you must be both a daughter and a son now” (Stone). The father’s sentiment will resurface again and again as Le Ly makes sense of the violence in her country, even as she tries to maintain her patriotism. From her father’s words spring folk traditions and customs that are syncretically aligned with Buddhism.
In a voice-over, Le Ly narrates, “From my father, I learned to love God and the people I could not see … my ancestors” (Stone). Though the film uses the word “God,” Le Ly’s God is actually Buddha. This terminology, foreign to doctrinal Buddhism, has troubled some critics. However, one should bear in mind the history behind this (mis)translation. I. Pyysiäinen explains that
the Westerners that first came into contact with Buddhism, guided by their Christian background, identified the Buddha and the buddhas as god(s). In due course it, however, dawned on them that the Buddhists did not consider buddhas as gods (devas). … But neither are they mere human beings … the simple dichotomy man-God is not enough to account for the special status of the Buddha and the buddhas in the Buddhist religion; buddhas rather are beings sui generis and thus form a third category, in addition to “man” and “God.” (Pyysiäinen 149)
In her memoirs, Le Ly Hayslip herself uses the word “God,” and Stone’s screenplay follows her lead. The difficulty is also based on the nature of translation: It is unknown what term Hayslip would have used had she written her memoir in her native Vietnamese, and for a purely Vietnamese audience, instead of in English. In English, she was assisted first by a professional editor and later by her American-born son. Faced with the lack of an indigenous English term for the third category of being but willing to choose one nevertheless, Hayslip (and Stone) settled on “God.” Arguably, Hayslip felt a need to indicate to her American readership that the concept of Buddha is closer to that of a god than to a human. She may have felt reluctant in 1989, writing for a mainstream U.S. audience, to use the potentially alienating term “Buddha” itself. For doing so may have led to exoticizing and othering her spiritual beliefs to the point where a Western audience refuses to take seriously her narrative’s spiritual values.6
The scene depicting a male wizard or fortune-teller coming to Le Ly’s parents indicates the danger of an audience reducing sincere folk beliefs to caricature. The wizard visits Le Ly’s parents to tell of her two brothers’ fates after they joined the Viet Cong in North Vietnam. Reliance on such fortune-tellers is an aspect of Vietnamese practice, specifically village-based practice, of Buddhism in that it mixes a traditional custom of believing in fortune-telling with religious principles. In the film, the spirits of Le Ly’s brothers could be called forth if they died away from home, since their lost and unburied bodies were to become a source of much sorrow in her family. They want to give the men a proper burial if they died. This could be done in a spiritual fashion regardless of recovering the actual bodies, in a process akin to Western rituals to finalize grieving in such circumstances.
The need for a proper burial rite for the dead is one of the oldest of Vietnamese spiritual beliefs preceding the introduction of Buddhism. Buddhism as practiced in Vietnam has accommodated this ancient practice. As Suzan Ruth Travis-Robyns writes, “What heaven had in store for the Vietnamese was horrifying. The Vietnamese believe that the soul cannot rest until the body receives a proper burial” (Travis-Robyns 155).
The family’s urgency to complete the ritual explains the need for the wizard, for the family must bring closure to the unknown fate of the brothers. The wizard explains that the shrine in the house is too small for the soul of one of the brothers, who is revealed to be either dead or missing, to come in. He advises the parents to build a bigger shrine outside their hut, which should solve the problem of ongoing unrest for the family. To a Western viewer, the fact that a so-called superstitious element has been assimilated and embedded in overall Buddhist beliefs and practices here may appear ridiculous and unreasonable.
However, to lay Vietnamese people, especially rural people who follow the customs of their village, this practice is not at odds with a more encompassing belief in a Buddhist religious faith system. Philip Taylor explains:
Among the most pervasive beliefs in Vietnam is the view that the spirits … co-inhabit alongside the living. Willful, sometimes retributive beings, they have the power to influence the course of life. The wealth and security of the living depend on maintaining with them relations of mutual care assistance. Each day in homes throughout Vietnam, millions of invitations are whispered to ancestors … ...

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