Samurai Soteriology

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by David L. Simmons, March 10, 2005

With Hollywood still buzzing about the recent 77th Academy Awards ceremony, this is a good time to consider one of the most influential forces shaping our attitudes about religion: the movies. My favorite movie from the past year was ignored at the Oscars: Quentin Tarantino's second "volume" of his epic tale of bloody, inexorable revenge, Kill Bill. Taken together, the Kill Bill movies demonstrate some bona-fide Zen Buddhist doctrine, and can be read as a filmic meditation on the Zen koan that provides the philosophical keynote for the plot: "If you meet the Buddha, kill him."

If it seems outrageous to suggest that Tarantino might have anything to teach us about Zen, recall that in the West knowledge of East Asia and its religions has always been inseparable from mythmaking about them: every Japanese Pavilion has its Mikado, and the Beat Generation that brought Buddhism into the cultural mainstream was informed as much by Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha as by the groundbreaking scholarship of D. T. Suzuki.

Moreover, the introduction to the United States of both Zen Buddhism (at the World's Parliament of Religions) and the film industry (with the demonstration of Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope) occurred the same year, 1893. The first movies filmed in Hollywood were westerns, and they were a decisive influence on the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa (an admirer of John Ford), which in turn provided the model for the "spaghetti westerns" of Sergio Leone. The Kill Bill movies pay homage to this historical interweaving of eastern and western film and religion.

The koan about "killing the Buddha," which can be heard in the beginning of Kill Bill: Volume 1 via the voiceover of the Japanese actor Sonny Chiba, is attributed to Rinzai (Ch. "Lin-Chi"), a ninth-century Chinese monk who developed a school of Buddhism that focused on "sudden enlightenment." In order to rid his disciples' minds of the attachments that prevent enlightenment, Rinzai prescribed meditation on a "saying" (the koan) designed to break the habits of mind that caused these attachments. If the disciple persisted in these habits, Rinzai was also known verbally and physically to attack the recalcitrant monk. Indeed, his violence became as legendary as his koans.

David L. Simmons is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Martin Marty Center dissertation fellow. Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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