Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Using "Fight Club" to Teach Buddhism: 1st of 2

Good teachers are always looking for new ways to effectively communicate their subjects. They want to use the best methods possible in order to engage their students in the material. The more memorable, the better. Over the past five years, I've taught ten or more sections of courses like Old Testament, New Testament, Life of Paul, and Introduction to World Religions. But I can tell you that I'm far from the teacher I want to be. I haven't gotten it all figured out.

Recently, I came across an article by Charley Reed published in the online Journal of Religion and Film. Reed's work led me to start thinking about using clips from the 1999 film Fight Club as way of exploring Buddhism in class. It's an interesting possibility to me. And, in fact, one of the movie's leading actors actually hinted at the connection back when the film was still in production. According to an interview article in Premiere Magazine, Edward Norton remarked, "In Buddhism there's Nirvana and then there's Samsara, the world of confusion and disharmony. That world is our testing ground, where we have the experiences that help us become enlightened. . . . Fight Club . . . is kind of that idea: You're challenging yourself to break out of the world."

Anyway, I think this way into the subject is something my students would like. At the same time, the project does have its pitfalls. I'm thinking especially about how Fight Club just happens to be one of the most violent and profane R-rated films out there. A classroom full of college students is a mixture of personal and religious sensibilities that a movie like this might trample on. People who are uncomfortable or upset about something are not really available at that point to learn something else. So I think that when using a movie, especially one like this, it's important for the instructor to (1) issue some sort of non-endorsement disclaimer and (2) carefully edit the clips that are used in class. That said, here's what I've put together so far:

Fight Club begins with the main character played by Edward Norton. Ironically, viewers never learn this character's name. In most discussions of the movie, he's usually referred to as "Jack" so I'm going with that. Jack has it all, or so it would seem. He's a young man, with a corporate job and a stylish apartment on one of the upper floors of a city high-rise. There's only one problem. Jack personifies the empty person who is controlled by fadish, mudane American consumerism. As Reed describes him, he's "a person who values the material wealth of his life more than his actual life and as a result of the blandness of his existence, finds himself constantly lying awake at night."

The First Noble Truth

So Jack goes to a doctor, asking for something, anything that will get him over his insomnia. The doctor refuses to prescribe a drug, assures him that he's not going to die, and mentions that Jack should get more exercise. And then, Jack announces the first of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths: "I'm in pain!" This is the truth about human life from beginning to end: dukkha. To live is to suffer, said the Buddha.

Samsara and Reincarnation

The doctor suggests that Jack should look in on testicular cancer support meetings. That's real pain, he says. So Jack goes. And there he begins to sympathize with the pathetic men at the meeting. He even cries. As a result, he's able to sleep soundly again. In time, Jack becomes addicted to his visits to support meetings for all sorts of victims. Seeing, hearing, and sympathizing with people in real pain is his chosen path of therapy. Of course, he hasn't solved his own problems. He's only seen the greater pain of others. In a sense, he has simply discovered samsara, an idea that Buddhism inherited from Hinduism. Samsara expresses the notion that life is a circle from which we cannot (or do not) escape. Because of the failure to escape samsara, individuals are reincarnated many times over. Leaving one of the support meetings, Jack narrates, "Every night I died, and every night I was reborn." Samsara. Reincarnation.

At that point, Jack's method is derailed by the appearance of Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter). Like him, she's a faker who comes to all the meetings because, as she says, they're "cheaper than a movie and there's free coffee." Disturbed by the presence of another impostor, Jack finds that, once again, he can no longer sleep. (The previous sections--on the First Noble Truth, Samsara, and Reincarnation--correspond to chapters 3-5 of the Fight Club DVD. These chapters contain a minimum of vulgar language, and no violence or nudity).

Jack's Koan

About that time, on one of his business trips Jack expresses something that sounds very much like a Zen Buddhist koan. A koan is a paradoxical question used in order to break up tired old patterns of thinking and open up the mind. One example of a koan goes like this: A man hangs over a precipice by this teeth, which are clenched in the branch of a tree. His hands are full and his feet cannot reach the edge. A friend leans over and asks him, "What is Zen?" What answer would you give? (Warren Matthews, World Religions 6th ed., 2010, p. 126). In the airport, Jack asks himself: "If you wake up in a different time in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?" It is no accident that, at this point in his life, Jack meets up with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Tyler is this completely self-assured nonconformist who, like the Buddha, rejects the importance of material possessions. (This section corresponds to chapter 8 of the DVD which is mild in content).

Fight Club as the Eightfold Path

Soon, Jack and his new friend, Tyler, begin Fight Club. It's a series of clandestine meetings where disenfranchised young men have brutal, bloody fist fights. In one scene, Tyler describes the members of Fight Club and the source of their rage: they are all "slaves with white collars . . . the middle children of history." They have "no purpose or place. . . no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war's a spiritual war, our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off." Without an interpretive key to all of this, Fight Club might seem like mindless brutality to go along with a mindless existence. Why not? Alternately, the club can be seen as the last of the Four Noble Truths.

First, said the Buddha, to live is to suffer.

Second, our suffering is the result of our craving, our thirst for life itself and for permanence. Such desire is always, invariably frustrated (and frustrating!) because we're all marching towards death, and nothing ever stays the same.

But, said the Buddha, if one eliminates such craving, he would in effect eliminate suffering. This is the third noble truth.

The fourth and last noble truth is that one can defuse desire by following the Eightfold Path. Among the English translations, one finds variations. But here's a typical version of the path:

1. Right Understanding
2. Right Thought
3. Right Speech
4. Right Action
5. Right Livelihood
6. Right Effort
7. Right Mindfulness
8. Right Concentration

Notice the connection to the number of Fight Club rules announced by the Brad Pitt character, Tyler Durden:

The first rule of Fight Club is, You do not talk about Fight Club
The second rule of Fight Club is, You do not talk about Fight Club.
The third rule of Fight Club: Someone yells "Stop" the fight is over.
Fourth rule: only two guys to a fight.
Fifth rule: one fight at a time fellas.
Sixth rule: No shirts, no shoes.
Seventh Rule: Fights will go on as long as they have to.
And the Eighth and final Rule : If this is your first night at Fight Club, . . . you have to fight.

As Reed says, "there is not a literal translation of the eightfold path in Fight Club." On the other hand, it's obvious that the number of rules could just as easily have been five or seven or ten. Clearly, then, the values and the fighting of the club represent the commitments and activities demanded by the Buddha's Eightfold Path. This is why the viewer should try to look past the film's violence, which is common, often graphic, and sometimes comical. It is a depiction of what it means to be a disciplined Buddhist. Jack makes little progress, though. Going down the list in order, Reed describes him like this:

"He is unable to understand Tyler's thinking,unable to think for himself, he minces his words in discussing Tyler, does not participate fully in Fight Club or its later form in Project Mayhem, does not fully accept the sacrificial aspect of his living situation, does not put the effort to rid himself of his worldly possessions, and of course, keeps the two divisions of his personality, the narrator part and the Tyler part separate."

This is the root of Jack's prolonged suffering throughout the film. (This section relates to Fight Club, chapter 15, which includes lots of violence and some profanity).

Okay, more later. Till then, feel free to add your comments. Tell me what you think.