Thursday, November 11, 2010

I won't Kill Bill

Not so long ago I overheard two Buddhists discussing films, and was surprised when one of them said that Kill Bill was his favorite movie. Really? I wondered. Are Buddhists supposed to watch--or rather enjoy--movies like that?

If you haven't seen it, Kill Bill bears Quentin Tarantino's bloody signature--gore, violence, rape, and other nasty subjects. I haven't seen the movies in years, but I do remember disliking it. Not because I was a Buddhist (I wasn't practicing then), but because it just struck me as crude and senselessly violent (in one scene Lucy Liu gets her arm severed and paints the room--I mean literally paints the room--red with blood).

So should Buddhists watch these kind of movies? Zen sometimes takes a liberal stance regarding morality. Stories abound in Zen lore of eccentric masters who drink alcohol and visit brothels, all in the aims of saving people (the Bodhisattva's Vow) via upaya or skillful means. Or so the stories say. But then again, violence and drinking alcohol are two different things entirely.
And still, every book I've read about Buddhism disparages violence. Thich Nhat Hanh, a modern Zen master and near iconic Buddhist figure, rejects any form of anger as poisonous.

On a personal level, I question how I can claim to dedicate myself to a life of peace and nonviolence when I'm watching movies like Predator and Goodfellas on the weekends. Am I taking this too literally, am I being a stick in the mud?

Then again, don't movies saturated in violence violate the core Buddhist tenets of metta, karuna, and bodhicitta? Based upon the historical Buddha's teachings, he clearly rejects any forms of violence.

Part of me thinks that changing what we view or read to coincide with the Dharma is just taking Buddhist practice too far or too seriously; while another part of me thinks that this is exactly what practice requires--a complete and utter dedication to walking the Path. It's not just about sitting on a cushion, chanting, or walking meditation. If we want to transform ourselves we need to transform all of ourselves. Right?

And yet I still love Conan the Barbarian and Fight Club. I haven't watched them in years. Not because I'm Buddhist, but because I have children and don't have any time!

And if we choose to renounce violence, where do we draw the line? Shakespearean drama is rife with it--just read Macbeth or Othello. But that's considered high culture. And how about other explicit content? Should we give it all up?

Is there a difference between Hamlet and Laertes' duel and Lucy Liu slaughtering dozens of Yakuza mobsters in a literal bloodbath? I think there is.

Or maybe I'm just backpedaling. Maybe Thich Nhat Hanh is right and all violence is wrong. My gut tells me that the Buddha would agree.

Either way, at the end of the day each person has to make his or her own personal choice about what to watch, read, and view, and what not to. Personally, I know that I won't be watching Kill Bill or any film like that. And this time not just because of my children, but because I'm trying to cultivate compassion and stop feeding the flames of anger.

Basically because I'm a Buddhist.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: luvi.


  1. I think you're doing the right thing here, simply questioning all of these things. I've done the same thing with the music I listen to as well as the movies I watch.

    But don't put Fight Club in the same category as Kill Bill. One (Fight Club) was well written and has deep philosophical undertones where the violence was really just in the background, and the other was a very lame attempt at art with no substance or message to deliver, which only served to glorify cinematic violence and martial arts movies.

  2. I totally hear you, and have thought about this topic a lot. Once those images are planted in your mindstream, you can't get them out. At any rate, I agree with Adam that just asking the question and investigating it is good.

    Personally, I make a distinction between movies that are just gross and whose violence and gore are purely gratuitous, versus movies where (as Adam suggests) there's something else going on. In the former category I would put popular movies like "Saw" and "Hostel" -- the kinds of movies I have no interest in even seeing. But I would put "Kill Bill" in the latter category, along with "Fight Club" and "No Country for Old Men" and many other movies that were quite violent but whose violence was in the service of an actual message. (And it doesn't necessarily have to be a "deep philosophical" message...violence can even be funny sometimes, as Itchy & Scratchy cartoons demonstrate...if only because it shocks us and makes us realize how desensitized we have become, and we laugh as much at ourselves as we do at what's on the screen.)

    "Kill Bill" was a hilarious send-up of a campy genre of movies, and the violence in it was cartoon-like -- so it didn't bother me much. But then, I also happen to be a big fan of martial arts movies. "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon" would have to be in my top five movies of all time.

    A lot of it comes down to personal tastes and tolerance levels, which are really individual -- and I'm the first one to break my own rules. Everyone I know raved about what a good movie "There Will Be Blood" was, but I could hardly sit through it. The scene at the end where the despicable, evil-hearted main character beats to death another character with a bowling pin left me feeling sick for weeks. So completely gratuitous and vicious, without any redeeming qualities. Totally nauseating -- far more so than any of the stylized, comic-book meta-violence in "Kill Bill," which was really a form of parody.

  3. I've been asking myself the same thing. The other day, my Dharma teacher told us that the precept of refraining from intoxicants should also be understood as refraining from anything that is intoxicant, not just chemicals. He gave as an example: music that alters mind's natural state.
    I'm having trouble accepting this (lol) I enjoy listening to Marilyn Manson (:o yes, I know :P) and I enjoyed Kill Bill too. But I guess this is why it is called renounce...

  4. I think it really comes down to your own choice. You have to ask yourself, "does this follow the path?"

    Personally I have found, since becoming a Buddhist, that these types of movies don't entertain me anymore, they always leave me longing for something more fulfilling. They almost repel me. I'm no movie snob, I do still enjoy a good movie now and then, but now I'm more critical, more mindful of what I'm watching. This goes for TV too.

    Like I tell my kids, garbage in, garbage out. If you listen to your own inner Buddha, you will find the way for you.

  5. I definitely believe that garbage in is garbage out. The ones I avoid are crime dramas like CSI and all their clones. Watching them, you'd think there were serial killers everywhere, and it's simply not true. In fact there are so few serial killers that we know them all by name! These shows increase fear, as do horror movies, which I completely avoid. I have enough of my own real fears to take on someone else's fake ones.

  6. Maybe they enjoyed it because Kill Bill is a Buddhist allegory.