This is the second of two posts about teaching Buddhism using the 1999 movie Fight Club. So if you haven't read the last entry here, you might want to take a look and then come back. I recently used this material in my Introduction to World Religions course at Amarillo College, and the class session went pretty well. To repeat, this approach is based on Fight Club: An Exploration of Buddhism, by Charley Reed. The article appeared in the online Journal of Religion and Film in October 2007.
The Tri Kaya Doctrine
A major branch of world Buddhism--and certainly the one that is best known in the United States--is called Mahayana. The word means something like "the great vehicle." It's the inclusive branch of the religion. Mahayana is "great" at least because it includes many people who otherwise would not be Buddhist. Mahayana also refers to a better-than-you attitude towards Theraveda.
By contrast, Theravada Buddhism insists that to be Buddhist means to strictly follow the example set by Siddhartha Gautama, the man who came to be known as the Buddha. When you see a Buddhist monk with his head shaved and wearing what looks like a toga, think "Theraveda." When you remember that Phil Jackson, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, is a Buddhist, think "Mahayana."
One way for Christians to conceive of the distinction between Theraveda and Mahayana is to ask the question, "In what ways must a Christian be like Christ?" Jesus was a first-century Palestinian Jew who apparently worked as a carpenter until he began a public teaching and healing ministry that lasted for three years. At the end, he was arrested and charged by the authorities who had him executed. Throughout his life, Jesus lived in and observed the customs of Judaism, including synagogue worship and participation in major festivals in Jerusalem. He spoke Aramaic and could read the Jewish Scriptures in Hebrew. Jesus was baptized, once fasted for forty days, and washed the feet of his disciples. The particulars of his life go on and on. Question: how much must a person be just like Jesus in these and other particulars in order to truly be Christian? This is the sort of question that Buddhism has asked: how much must a person be like Siddhartha in order to be Buddhist? Theravada gives the conservative answer. Mahayana gives the liberal answer. My sense is that the relationship between Theravada and Mahayana is a little bit like the one between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, sometimes debating and dismissing, but at other times complimenting and cooperating.
Within Mahayana there is a teaching called Tri Kaya, which means "three personalities." The term refers to the idea that the Buddha has three bodies: (1) the Nirmana Kaya, the "apparitional body" (2) the Sambhoga Kaya, the "state of perfect bliss" and (3) the Dharma Kaya, which is the body of "most excellent law" and, according to Reed, symbolizes "the enlightenment of Buddha nature." He also observes:
The connections between the doctrine and Fight Club are blunt: One can easily label Tyler as the Nirmana Kaya, Marla as the Sambhoga Kaya, and the narrator as the Dharma Kaya, but the actual meaning to the story of the film, once these connections are made, is what is more important.
Once a viewer looks through this lens, seeing Marla, Tyler, and the narrator as actually separate manifestations of one common thought, the movie really opens up to numerous possibilities. For one, if Tyler is the embodiment of Nirmana Kaya, then his leadership qualities in the film make a lot more sense, especially as a teacher for the narrator. In Buddhist teachings, the Nirmana Kaya is the idea of the historical Buddha, and is what is referenced when a particular person hopes to become more than just a bodhisattva, and has that internal characteristic about them. Also found in Buddhist teachings, is the idea that the Nirmana Kaya manifestation of the Buddha has compassion for all beings. In the film, Tyler too has compassion for all beings, wanting to free the "middle children of history," almost ignoring the narrator near the end of the film in order to flesh out the larger picture. The same holds true once seeing Marla as the Sambhoga Kaya. After this connection is established, one can then understand why, even though it appeared the narrator had nothing but distaste for Marla, both he and Tyler had romantic feelings for her. In Buddhist teachings, it is Sambhog Gakaya which is needed in order to achieve Nirmana Kaya, which ties directly to Marla being the catalyst for the narrator being forced to manifest Tyler.
The core "body" in Mahayana Buddhism is the Dharma Kaya, which is a constant, enlightened presence in the world which gives rise to the other manifestations of Buddha. In the movie, the narrator is the one tangible character who is sustained throughout, in almost every part of the movie from beginning to end. Dharma Kaya is also seen as the "pure" and "flawless" manifestation of the Buddha. While it may appear that the narrator is the opposite of that idea of Dharma Kaya, it is the conscience of the narrator that causes him to risk his life in order to save his city and nation from a terrorist attack, . . . and his new found self control allows Jack to provide meaning and prospective to his journey.
In addition to illustrating Tri Kaya, Fight Club can also be used to help students understand what Zen Buddhism (a branch of Mahayana) calls "The Three Characteristics of Existence." These are:
1. anicca, which means "change." Reed points out that the big change at the beginning of Fight Club involves the destruction of Jack's apartment, which explodes while he's away. Virtually nothing is left. Humans typically want for our worlds to arrive at and ideal state and then stay that way. Anicca is the word that reminds us that life never works like that.
2. dukkha, which means "suffering" or "pain." One doesn't have to watch Fight Club for very long to figure out that it's all about every kind of pain. The Buddha taught that to live is to suffer. This includes physical pain. But the concept of dukkha includes what many people regard as something worse: emotional or psychical pain. Consider that many counselees say that they'd rather be physically beaten than be verbally, emotionally abused. Jack encounters and endures big doses of all sorts of pain and suffering.
3. anatta, which refers to the concept of "no permanent self." As viewers of Fight Club eventually find out, a major theme of the film is identity. Anatta says that, in spite of my perceptions and desires, there is no permanent, immortal person, no enduring spirit. To think that a person, who once never existed and will someday be dead, has a unified, permanent existence is a little like thinking a car has such an existence. If the car is without its engine, or its tires and wheels, or without an interior, would it still be that car? What if you take the body off of the chassis? Is one or the other, or both, that car? And in that case, would the car have become two? What constitutes the car's permanent identity? At what point did it become a car? How much does it have to decay and come apart before it is no longer considered a car and ceases to exist as such? You could (and should) ask the same question about a human being who supposedly has a singular, permanent identity.