March 10, 2005
David L. Simmons
With Hollywood still buzzing about the recent 77th Academy Awards ceremony, this is a good time to consider one of the most influential forces shaping our attitudes about religion: the movies. My favorite movie from the past year was ignored at the Oscars: Quentin Tarantino's second "volume" of his epic tale of bloody, inexorable revenge, Kill Bill. Taken together, the Kill Bill movies demonstrate some bona-fide Zen Buddhist doctrine, and can be read as a filmic meditation on the Zen koan that provides the philosophical keynote for the plot: "If you meet the Buddha, kill him."
If it seems outrageous to suggest that Tarantino might have anything to teach us about Zen, recall that in the West knowledge of East Asia and its religions has always been inseparable from mythmaking about them: every Japanese Pavilion has its Mikado, and the Beat Generation that brought Buddhism into the cultural mainstream was informed as much by Hermann Hesse's novel Siddhartha as by the groundbreaking scholarship of D. T. Suzuki.
Moreover, the introduction to the United States of both Zen Buddhism (at the World's Parliament of Religions) and the film industry (with the demonstration of Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope) occurred the same year, 1893. The first movies filmed in Hollywood were westerns, and they were a decisive influence on the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa (an admirer of John Ford), which in turn provided the model for the "spaghetti westerns" of Sergio Leone. The Kill Bill movies pay homage to this historical interweaving of eastern and western film and religion.
The koan about "killing the Buddha," which can be heard in the beginning of Kill Bill: Volume 1 via the voiceover of the Japanese actor Sonny Chiba, is attributed to Rinzai (Ch. "Lin-Chi"), a ninth-century Chinese monk who developed a school of Buddhism that focused on "sudden enlightenment." In order to rid his disciples' minds of the attachments that prevent enlightenment, Rinzai prescribed meditation on a "saying" (the koan) designed to break the habits of mind that caused these attachments. If the disciple persisted in these habits, Rinzai was also known verbally and physically to attack the recalcitrant monk. Indeed, his violence became as legendary as his koans.
Rinzai's techniques lie at the heart of the samurai code, the "Way of the Warrior," that has become famous through movies about hit men, such as Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai and Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. The connection between Zen and the "flying swordsman" kung-fu movies from which Tarantino liberally borrows is also evident in the films of King Hu, the director of the aptly titled Touch of Zen who is credited with inventing the genre in the 1960s.
How are we to understand Rinzai's admonition to kill the Buddha as a training tool to achieve enlightenment? In Zen Keys, an introductory "guide to Zen practice," the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explains: "For the [student] who has only devotion, this declaration is terribly confusing. But its effect depends on the mentality and capacity of the one who hears. If the student is strong, she will have the capacity to liberate herself from all authority and realize ultimate reality in herself."
In Kill Bill, the character who embodies these Zen principles is The Bride, an assassin played by Uma Thurman (who happens to be, in real life, the daughter of Robert Thurman, a renowned scholar of Tibetan Buddhism). Her weapon of choice is a hand-crafted samurai sword, and it is in the context of a religious ceremony, in which the sword smith bestows the weapon upon its wielder, that Rinzai's koan is repeated. By the end of the Kill Bill cycle, the sanguinary Bride (whose given name is revealed to be Latin for "she who blesses") achieves a salvation of sorts, liberating herself from all worldly authority by following the Zen warrior code.
Perhaps Tarantino's references to Rinzai's school of Zen Buddhism should be understood in the same light as the fictive "Ezekiel 25:17" speech Samuel L. Jackson's character recites in Pulp Fiction: it's just "something cool" he once heard in a movie. On the other hand, the religious aspects of Tarantino's films are too often overlooked. Kill Bill is the work of a master storyteller in a powerful medium, and a tale of a warrior's spiritual journey that is as convincing a representation of "samurai soteriology" as anything I know of on film.
David L. Simmons is a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a Martin Marty Center dissertation fellow.