Barbara O’Brien reviews Wonder Woman, and explores some of the movie’s Buddhist confluence.
Escaping into a movie theater for immersion in sight and sound, not to mention popcorn and air conditioning, is one of the delights of summer. While many summer blockbusters may be guilty pleasures, Wonder Woman — a feminist, action-packed hit about a superheroine who tries to save humanity from war — is far less so, and even has some Buddhist confluence.
On the surface, the plot might remind us of the great foundation story of Buddhism.
Here’s a spoiler-free plot summary, if you haven’t seen the film: The Amazons, an advanced civilization of warrior women, live in isolated splendor on the Island of Themyscira. One day an American pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the nearby sea, pursued by a World War I-era German warship. Diana (Gal Gadot), daughter of the Amazon Queen Hippolyta, chooses to leave her privileged life and go with the pilot to try to stop the war. In the end she succeeds, in a sense, but not in the way she originally imagined she would.
On the surface, the plot might remind us of the great foundation story of Buddhism. Prince Siddhartha also left a life of privilege, escaping his father’s palace in the night, to begin his quest for enlightenment. And in the end, he succeeded, and taught the dharma for the benefit of mankind.
But while these two stories have parallels, there also are significant differences. For example, the Diana who leaves Themyscira is supremely confident about where she is going and what she is destined to do. Our Prince Siddhartha knows only that he must go, because his personal anguish over sickness, old age and death will give him no peace.
In Amazon mythology, Ares resembles an asura, an iconic being of Buddhism with godlike power and privilege who is consumed by jealousy.
I see other themes harmonious with Buddhism in Wonder Woman, though they aren’t necessarily obvious. Let’s take a look.
First off, the Amazons are, obviously, devas. In old Buddhist cosmology, those born into the deva realm of the World of Desire (kama-loka) enjoy pleasurable lives of wealth and privilege, without anxiety. They are not immortal, but they live for a very long time ― 30,000 years or so, by some accounts. The disadvantage is that devas do not learn the truth of suffering, and so they don’t bother to seek enlightenment. And, in the end, they die, and they may be reborn somewhere far less pleasant.
The Amazon island retreat is beautiful and bountiful, and on it the Amazons have built a gracious civilization that provides for their needs. But the Amazon’s world is cut off from the ordinary world, and the Amazons pay no attention to humankind. Even World War I escaped their notice. They are oblivious to the suffering taking place beyond the mists protecting Themyscira.
Even so, the almost immortal Amazons train tirelessly for some future time in which they may be called upon to save the planet from war ― or, more specifically, from the god of war, Ares. In Amazon mythology, Ares resembles an asura, an iconic being of Buddhism with godlike power and privilege who is consumed by jealousy. The asuras usually are shut out of the blissful deva realm and are forever trying to fight their way back in, without success. In the Wonder Woman backstory, Ares had a falling out with the other gods because he was jealous of Zeus’s creation, humans.
Now, back to our story. Diana is powerful but naïve. She is certain Ares is behind the world war, and she sees her job as a simple one ― find and kill Ares to save mankind. At first, she takes little notice of individual humans (except for a baby; there are no babies on Themyscira). But then her heart opens, and she appreciates her mortal companions and the preciousness of human life. And, of course, she falls in love with Steve Trevor.
I trust it won’t spoil the film for you if I tell you that World War I does end. Whether Diana finds Ares is a significant plot twist, and I won’t give it away here. By the closing credits, however, Diana has learned the truth about the simple mythology she’d been taught on Themyscira. She had believed human destiny was shaped by gods, for good or ill. But she learned that the course of human life is shaped by humans. And while humans are capable of great brutality, they also are capable of great heroism and compassion.
Gods, however, have little to do in the human world. They can disguise themselves as humans and can nudge the course of events this way or that. But they cannot override human will with their own.
If there’s a dharmic message hidden within Wonder Woman, it is: we humans are responsible for ourselves and for each other.
The Buddha sometimes was asked about the existence of gods, but gave no direct answers. Sometimes he was silent. Where gods are mentioned in the oldest canonical scriptures, they are not beings to be prayed to or asked for favors. They don’t control the weather, or harvests, or war, or peace. Usually these gods are beings with their own problems who don’t interact much with humans.
Among the Buddha’s disciples, there may have been some who believed in gods, and some who didn’t. The important point is that, in Buddhism, gods have nothing to do. The natural world, from the courses of stars and planets to the sprouting of seeds, is ruled by natural laws, the Buddha said.
Karma also is a natural law. The Buddha taught that karma is not a cosmic criminal justice system administered by supernatural judges, but is instead the natural cause and effect of our own volitional actions. And it is the karma we create ourselves that shapes our lives, not the intervention of gods.
And so, if there’s a dharmic message hidden within Wonder Woman, it is: we humans are responsible for ourselves and for each other. We can’t push that responsibility off on any other sort of being. And as Diana says at the end, only love can truly save the world.
If the planet ever is invaded by malevolent super-beings, we should be so lucky as to have compassionate, mighty heroes with magic shields and lassos and kick-ass martial arts skills fighting for us. In the meantime, pass the popcorn.