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 » A Zen Buddhist Looks at Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ
Ming Zhen Shakya
A Zen Buddhist Looks at Mel Gibson's
The Passion of The Christ
by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
March 13, 2004

There is a peculiar camaraderie, a congealed sense of happy inevitability that Roman Catholic Cardinals experience after selecting a new pope. For days they have been locked together in conflict, tasked with nominating and electing the next Pontiff. Each has brought to the conclave his own preference and the undisguised ambition to see his choice prevail. And there, amidst the sanctuarial splendor of Michelangelo's art, they buttonhole and back-stab, they form furtive cloak room alliances, and with all the infighting and jury-room pressure tactics that we find in political wheeling and dealing, they do their work. The rancor that invariably attends deliberations of this sort never makes for a pretty picture. "The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they'll sleep at night," Otto Von Bismarck is reported to have noted. But with the Cardinals, there is one crucial difference: Theirs was a sacred obligation and they emerge free of resentment, sanguine in the understanding that all the bickering was, in fact, divinely ordained... that it was a vital part of the selection process, that the scheming and manipulations were all necessary for them to arrive at the perfect choice. And so the disparate agonies end in jubilant unity.

Cosmos follows chaos. Often, before a new member can be admitted to an organization, he must submit to pitiless night time hazing and only then, when the dark chaos is complete, can he enjoy the morning's peace and security that brings inclusion in The Order. During the wild revelries of Mardi Gras, the inside-out and inverted debaucheries continue only until the clock strikes midnight and the solemn rule of Ash Wednesday commences. On the eve before New Year's day, all the evil spirits must be lured out in pretense of being placated, and with drunken abandon a man may kiss his brother's wife or whomever else he wishes, but by the time the clock finishes striking the appointed hour, the harsh noises of horn and whistle and the explosions of firecrackers will have destroyed or driven away those evil spirits; and the new year can begin, clean and harmonious.

Nobody enters the cosmos of Zen without first experiencing chaos. He must find himself sinking in the quicksand of a Swamp, alone, desperately flailing his arms, exhausted in the futility of trying to find something left to grab hold of. All his strategies have failed. All the money, friends, and family - everything he used to value - lie far behind him on the shore he has left, of no use to him now. It no longer matters how he came to be in the Swamp, whether he jumped, or waded in, or was pushed. He knows only that he is drowning, and nothing in this world can help him. Resigned to his fate, he whispers, "Lord, I am finished. I have no strength to go on. If I am to survive this place, it will be because of Your will, for I have none of my own left. I am done. Forgive me." And, with no expectation whatsoever, he suddenly feels hard sand beneath his feet; and with joy and gratitude impossible to measure, he drags himself forward to the safety of the Other Shore.

In Zen, when we realize that we have been delivered and are secure in the peace, joy, truth and freedom of our Buddhist Refuge, we understand, as we look back at our old life and review all our errors, that all the wretched things we did by accident or by design directly led us to this fortuitous conclusion. We announce with that sense of happy inevitability, that it was by divine grace that we, too, found our bridge. And so grateful are we for this outcome that if we had to live our life over again, we wouldn't do a single thing differently because to have changed one little thing - like that Chaos theory butterfly, a 'sensitive dependence on initial conditions' - to have altered the most miniscule event might have produced a result, the terrible enormity of which could never be predicted. No, we would not risk a different outcome.

A dozen years ago Mel Gibson was in the Swamp. In Buddhist terms, his life was bitter and painful. His personal successes were meaningless. They could not be otherwise, having everything to do with the material world's Samsara (our hell) and nothing to do with Nirvana (our heaven). He was alienated, and despite the money, talent, looks, fame, and family... in his heart he was desolate, as alone and as hopeless as any man can be. He had the usual symptoms of spiritual abandonment... self-destructive drinking and unrelenting depression; and then, after a series of failed attempts to gain control of his destiny, he was resigned to death and reduced to prayer. We ask the Buddha Amitabha for help. He, a Catholic, asked Jesus.

Salvation gives us all an awareness of a debt that is so huge that we know we can never repay it. Yet, we also know that we can never cease trying. One of the ways Gibson chose to repay his debt was to make a film of the last twelve hours of Jesus' life, The Passion of The Christ.

It is not easy for a Zen Buddhist to review the film. It is likewise impossible to see it, to watch the audience's reaction to it, to sample the plethora of critical commentaries, to hear Gibson discuss the experiences that moved him to create it, and then, after all this input, to be objective about the work, analyzing it as if it were just another cinematic production.

We who are not cinematographers, script writers, actors, or members of any of the professions involved in film production, lack the expertise to judge Maia Morgenstern's Mary or James Caviezel's Jesus, the costumes, sets, script, and so on. And certainly we who are not Christians are unqualified to give our opinions as to whether or not Gibson's version is faithful to the New Testament's accounts.

We have to resort to the "average Joe's" criterion for judging a work of art: "I don't know anything about art. I only know what I like." And frankly, of all the criticisms to which we are exposed, this criterion is the most meaningful. We are not members of the Academy. We have nothing but the price of a ticket invested in the enterprise. With no agenda, we can be honest.

So, with Joe in mind, I'll say that I appreciated the film. It had a spellbinding quality. I never once looked at my watch (I fell asleep during The Last Temptation of Christ which was, I thought, even more boring than My Dinner With André - which plunged into anybody's definition of 'boring' and plumbed new depths of meaning.

The only problem I had with Passion was the "over the top" characterization of the Roman soldiers. It was the same problem that I had with Dances With Wolves. Kostner was so anxious to make the bad guys bad that he had to make them stupid as well. Anybody, especially soldiers, knows that if you're trying to sneak away from pursuing Indians you don't fire a rifle - the sound of which can be heard for a ten mile radius in the open plains - just to kill a non-threatening wolf - for whom the movie audience has developed a fondness. It was "character overkill." The United States Army just as the Roman Army was an essentially disciplined force. And while Kostner's American soldiers may have been operating beyond the watchful eye of their superiors, Gibson's Roman soldiers were apparently oblivious to the chain of command that terminated under the nearby nose of the Imperial governor. Historically, these soldiers were professionals, cold and efficient, matter-of-factly able to flay Jesus alive had that been the order, especially when they were on duty at court, during 'sensitive' holy days. But to make a point that did not need to be made, Gibson renders them sort of drunk and scuzzy, gleefully sadistic, and totally out of control. Several times a superior has to remind them that they were told to whip Jesus and not to beat him to death. Gibson's Romans were so undisciplined they could not have taken Beverly Hills let alone Judea.

Which brings me to another comparison that I could not ignore. The night before I saw Gibson's film I saw a PBS production called The Medici which depicted Galileo's summons before the Inquisition. To illustrate Galileo's predicament the film dramatized the immolation of Giordano Bruno. Softly, the narrator intoned, as we watched the flames rise and Bruno start to choke on the smoke, "If the victim was lucky they put little sacks of gunpowder around his neck." And sure enough we saw somebody improve Bruno's luck by giving him a couple of gunpowder necklaces. I supposed that when the flames finally reached the leather bags and ignited them, Bruno's head would be blown off... but by that time...

I had to keep remembering that in the name of Christ the priestly Inquisitors ordered Bruno murdered because he believed the universe was infinite, and such a belief was contrary to Church doctrine. The execution was public. That the Jews might have wanted Jesus killed because he was disrupting commerce in the temple or continuing to assert that he was the Messiah after the high priests had decreed that he was not, was not such a great stretch. In religion, that's how people are. We don't find this hateful craziness among the truly saved; just among those who are crazed with power.

Gibson is the consummate professional. And beyond the requirements of his art, he knows the supreme joy of being roused awake, of having passed through nightmarish darkness into the light of redemption. No filmmaker that I know of has yet tried to depict the years Siddhartha struggled in spiritual desolation, wretchedly unfulfilled by wealth, position, family and friends; going from surplus into deprivation, searching for years before finally finding peace, joy, truth and freedom on a night that the planet Venus rose over a Bodhi tree. Gibson knows that kind of travail and it might be nice to see him dramatize the psychological events of an earlier "man who awakened."  

Last modified: July 11, 2004
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