Monday, November 22, 2010

Mr. Tortilla Head

Just for fun, I'm always on the lookout for new ways to understand or apply the Dharma to pop culture. Last week I was watching Toy Story 3 with my four-year-old daughter and I found myself puzzling over a clever little scene Pixar cooked up.

Woody and the rest of the Toy Story gang have been accidentally donated to day care. There they are imprisoned by an evil gang of toys. As part of their impossible escape plan, Mr. Potato Head must free himself the sandbox where he has been locked. Because his potato body is too big to fit through the narrow hole in his cell, he tosses his appendages--arms, ears, eyes, mouth--through the hole. He then proceeds to attach his parts onto a tortilla! In a jelly-like, wobbly mess, Mr. Tortilla Head maneuvers his way around, eventually helping the heroes escape.

Immediately my mind was sent reeling. "Wait!" I thought, "how can his body parts operate without his potato body? That doesn't make sense."

Where was Mr. Potato Head's control center, his essence? Was it inside of his potato body, or in his individual parts? If the former, then the scene would be impossible because his parts were acting with a life of their own, without his body. If the latter, then in which individual part (eye, ear, nose) did his essence reside? Both were impossible.

By now you probably see the Buddhist connection. Buddhism posits the idea that there is no inherent self or essence abiding inside of us; rather, what we generally refer to as the self is simply the participation of the five skandhas--form, sensation, perception, mental formations (or volition), and consciousness. Nowhere inside (or outside, for that matter) of these will you find any evidence of a self.

The same goes for Mr. Potato Head. There is no essence to him; it can neither be found inside of his entire body nor his individual parts. Because it's a conventional reality. This self-clinging, from a Buddhist perspective, is the root of all suffering, for from it comes all subsequent forms of clinging. This is not to say that the day-to-day 'I' ceases to exist (because it never had any concrete or ultimate reality in the first place). I can still function and refer to myself as 'I,' but now I see the self for what it is--a construct designed for conventional purposes. Mental shorthand.

The Toy Story scene culminates in a symbolic masterpiece, at least in Buddhist terms. Mr. Tortilla Head is pecked to pieces by a pigeon. His tortilla body falls apart, thus exposing the conventional nature of the self.

Mr. Potato Head photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: KiSS_Ze_CHeF.

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