Talking Buddhism, film, and literature with John Whalen-Bridge

Danny Fisher interviews John Whalen-Bridge about his new writings on Buddhism in America and Buddhist themes in pop culture.

Danny Fisher
8 November 2010

Danny Fisher interviews John Whalen-Bridge about his new writings on Buddhism in America and Buddhist themes in pop culture.

The National University of Singapore’s John Whalen-Bridge is without question one of the hardest working and most prolific scholars involved in the study of Buddhism in the West these days. Best of all, he’s working on important areas that have really been unexplored in a serious way until now. These qualities combined with his warmth, wisdom, and sense of humor made him irresistible to us for an interview. I caught up with him via email for a discussion about his four (!) new books, and thoughts for future projects.

John, tell us about your and Gary Storhoff’s The Emergence of Buddhist American Literature. Also, what is included in the category of “Buddhist American literature?”

All of my friends in History and Cultural Studies are writing books about terrorism and disaster, earthquakes and militarization. How can we Buddhist writers hope to keep up sales? So, Emergence of Buddhist American Literature—at least it has “emergency” in its title…

Gary Storhoff and I started to discuss the idea in 2002 or 2003, and then we sent out a call for papers, thinking we’d get enough material for a book. We got more than that and so started the SUNY Press series “Buddhism and American Culture.” The internal evolution has had to do with the pluralization of “Buddhism”—we became more and more aware that we had to have our authors say which Buddhism they meant.

I guess I would say “Buddhist American literature” refers to the corporate sense of “literature,” which involves authors, texts, and the process of interpretation. If that overall sense emerges out of postwar American writing, then it can be considered a secondary question as to whether the writer has a Buddhist passport, as it were. Perhaps the writer found Buddhism a more compelling vision than any other. Or perhaps the text seems to resonate with Buddhist buzz words. Or perhaps a non-Buddhist text by a non-Buddhist author can be read Buddhistically (f you’ll forgive that gross word). For example, Ellison’s Invisible Man talks about the great challenge of “whipping the mind” in Invisible Man, and someday I’d like to work out a Buddhist reading of that book. It is annoying when people worry too much about whether a writer is “really” Buddhist, a question that comes up about the later Kerouac and the later Salinger. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

You two also have another book about Buddhism and literature in the works called Writing as Enlightenment. How is that one different from Emergence of Buddhist American Literature?

Writing as Enlightenment has the less grandiose subtitle “Buddhist American Literature into the 21st Century,” and the book sets out to go above, beyond, before and…beside…the “usual suspects,” if by that we mean the best minds of Allen Ginsberg’s generation. Shaku Soen, Okakura Kakazu, Jackson Mac Low, Don DeLillo, and even Gary Snyder—we look at the various ways in which literature has been a vehicle for transmission. Not all the writers are Buddhist—our title is a nod to Don DeLillo’s statement that “writing is the final enlightenment.” Gary Storhoff has a careful look at DeLillo’s Buddhist themes, especially in Libra. (We don’t know if DeLillo is a dharma bro.) Linda Selzer’s essay on “Black American Buddhism” shows us that there is so much more there than generally gets discussed—it’s rich. The final third is a set of interviews. Julia Martin asks Gary Snyder about his post-Mountains and Rivers work, and I interviewed Charles Johnson and Maxine Hong Kingston together. (Fun!) Finally, “After the Poetry Wars: What Really Happens at Naropa” is a set of interviews with Naropa University writers (Keith Abbott, Reed Bye, frequent visitor Joanne Kyger, Andrew Schelling, and Elizabeth Robinson) about poetics, pedagogy, and practice. All in all, eight essays which are not unenlightening! Jan Willis has done the foreword, as well. It’s soon to be hot off the press!

Remarkably, you two are also editing a third book about Buddhism and film right now, which is set to be titled Buddha at the Movies: Buddhism and American Film. Are these films about Buddhism, relevant to a Buddhist audience, with Buddhist aspects, all of the above…?

Well, we play it as it lays. Causes and condition reveal themselves, then you draft your introductory essay, then you revise it to try and prevent people from thinking what you said is other than “Truth.” It’s a mug’s game if you really are trying to boil down absolute truths, but with a bit of humility you phrase things more contingently. We hope to take a conversation a bit further along.

So, we’ll probably devise an approach that distinguishes films that are ABOUT Buddhism and those that apparently proceed from a desire to offer some sort of Buddhist teaching. And both of those could be entirely separate from a really good movie that is not Buddhist in content or intention but which can be discussed fruitfully in relation to Buddhism.

And the movies have to be good. Liking a movie more because you and the director are on the same team somehow doesn’t strike me as “Right View.”

My favorite Buddhist movie is Groundhog Dog, especially the part in which Phil catches the boy who has fallen out of the tree and says, “You have never thanked me!” I wonder if our teachers ever feel just that way…

I’m curious: It seems like Groundhog Day and The Matrix and a small handful of other films get so much play in conversations about Buddhism and film that we should probably retire them for a while. What are some films you find interesting from a Buddhist point of view that maybe don’t get discussed as much or even at all?

If the category is “less talked about than should be,” I like The Razor’s Edge, with the old and new versions seen back-to-back. There’s an interesting contrast in how Shangri-la (or Shambhala, if you like) comes across in black-and-white versus color. The Bill Murray version is a nice advance on the older version’s raw Eurocentrism.

But if the category is “Buddhist Movies That Never Use the ‘B-Word,’” I’m going with one of my favorite Bardo movies: The Sixth Sense. If we think of the film from Haley Joel Osment’s perspective, the movie helps us see the continuities we call “karma,” and we can see the film as an allegorical description of consequentiality as found in the natural world. That is, we can see it as a picture of a world in which ghosts exist and demand our understanding, or we can enjoy the film as a figurative encounter with psychological baggage that “haunts” us.

The big reversal of the film comes when we see the kid rather than the psychiatrist (wonderfully played by Bruce Willis) as the One Who Supposedly Knows. We are not always so ready to think about the student-teacher relationship as volatile in this way, as subject to such a revolutionary spin.

Think about Bruce Willis’ role as an allegorical rather than literal expression, and you come to see exactly how Emptiness frees you. He may seem like a victim of death at the movie’s end, but actually he is a victim only of his misunderstanding of death. When his ring falls off and he sees that his experience—that which the audience has shares throughout the flick—has been a partial fabrication meant to shore up an impermanent self.

I can’t think of a film that reveals the Buddhist notion of Emptiness more successfully, but the B-word never comes up.

So tell us about American Buddhism as a Way of Life—the book and the idea.

Well, it came about as part of a series. We sent out a general call for papers, and we received quite a bit on social issues. So we made a book.

One aspect we wanted to foreground was the presence rather than potential of American Buddhist social practice and philosophy. Whether there are a lot of Buddhists or less than one percent, Buddhist punch above their weight as social theorists, and the patterns are interesting. We have essays on family, racial and gender identity, bio-ethics, and so forth, and we wanted to show that American Buddhist thinking is not just an idiosyncratic or eccentric set of utterances but rather an ongoing conversation. There’s a stable sense of traditional thought on the one hand, and there is a bit of creative vitality—a sense that Buddhist social thought is something we make rather than something we mere receive—as well. Middle way.

There are some good lone gunmen out there like David Loy, and we want to show that, more and more, Buddhism ain’t a fer’ner anymore. Got the green card, bought property, here to stay.

So, American Buddhism as a Way of Life is about how American Buddhism is a way of life. To channel Phil from Groundhog Day, it’s “A way, not THE way.”

You spoke about Buddhism in the plural earlier. In compiling this book, what did you learn about the diversity within American Buddhism? In addition, what kinds of shared values did you notice across the board?

I can say more about the latter than the former, but maybe the sensitivity to actual practice is symptomatic in a good way. We tried to get people to say what Buddhism they were talking about wherever and whenever an author channeled what “Buddhists” think. As scientists now know, no two Buddhists agree about anything! We have to contextualize. Always historicize, the Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson says, and this is a good rule. Under what conditions do Buddhists think X, Y, or Z?

I’m not sure if this academic practice bespeaks a maturation of intra-Buddhist awareness. The books in the “Buddhism and American Culture” series don’t necessarily help with that question, though we’d love it if someone did offer us a book that told us, you know, how many Buddhists there are and what we think. What we can do for now, as editors, is get people to use the word “Buddhists” more carefully, and to the degree that all the authors understand this, it shows a maturation, I think.

Other than that, everyone knows that North American and European Buddhist communities tend to favor democratic decision-making, that gender fairness is an important value, and that Engaged Buddhism is widely appreciated. No real news there, I don’t think.

John, you’re obviously interested in lots of different things. What’s piquing your interest right now? Any sense of future projects?

What a delightful question! I love brain books, and someone who loves Buddhism and brains has so many books to choose from, these days. But my next book is going to be, I think, about Tibetan Buddhism and “modernity.” We usually think of the modern as meaning something like “up-to-date-and-humanistic.” There are lots of reform Buddhisms in Taiwan and in the Euro-American world, and we often think of Vajrayana as a hold-old in some ways—“those guys are not giving up on magic” and whatnot. But we have all these interesting ways of bringing science and education into the Vajrayana world. We know about Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche looking like the Hellraiser character Pinhead in that photograph of him being studied that made the rounds—all those wires. And we know about Matthieu Ricard and the “science of happiness.” But I want to take it beyond these carefully arranged dialogues.

I imagine something I call “University of Tibet” in which the impulse to be modern and the impulse to preserve a culture against modernization co-exist. Each chapter will represent an area of interaction and will be modeled on a possible university faculty. “Science,” as discussed, will review all of the cognitive science and happiness hubbub.

“Politics and Government” will take us into political issues, the realities of “engaged Buddhism” as experienced in relation to Vajrayana Buddhism. I’m especially interested in protesting monks in the months before the Beijing Olympics. How did their activities mesh with policies of Tibet’s Government-in-Exile?

“Education” is a possible faculty. I’m interested in Tibet’s “Basic Education Policy” in relation to Buddhist doctrine as enunciated by modernists (in my opinion) like the Dalai Lama. The science education projects with Emory University fit in here.

“Film” and “Popular Culture” and “Cultural Studies”: these chapters will look at Buddhism in world cinema and popular culture after the exoticism has worn away. How does Tibet stay novel and exotic?

And something for the “Business School”: I want to write about “spiritual tourism,” and that is not a phrase at which I sneer. Anyone who reads English literature in depth knows that Chaucer’s pilgrims were not entirely concerned with spirituality. We can rank pilgrims according to their disembodied and ascetic aims, but that’s not where I want to go. Teachers like Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche are trying to reinvigorate the idea of pilgrimage. It should be difficult in some ways, but it should also be kind of joyful.

Wish me luck! And thank you for all your wonderful questions.

Danny Fisher

Danny Fisher

Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008. In addition, he is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. A member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, he serves on the advisory council for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.