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I, Cannibal: Horror and Buddhism

Question:

About a year ago, I become interested in Buddhism, mainly as a philosophy. I still stand by this philosophical stand point, but I still have questions.

Maybe the Bloodiest Movie Ever!

Maybe the Bloodiest Movie Ever!

You see, when people ask me what my religion is, I generally just say “I’m an atheist, but I share some Buddhist beliefs also”. Now generally after saying this I quickly get such responses as “But you listen to metal!” or even “But you watch really violent and gory movies!” and this apparently makes me a bad person. It’s true though, I’m a fan of the more extreme side of music, with stuff like Death metal, Black metal, and Grindcore. This isn’t certainly the only music I listen too, and the same goes with movies.

I enjoy my share of violent movies such as Zombie, Cannibal, and exploitation films. Because of this, people tell me that I’m a bad Buddhist, after which I usually ask why. They will go on about how it makes you violent, dangerous, and over all mean person. But I’m the exact opposite, I’m a very happy and easy person to get along with. So enough of this, but I’m wondering for someone else opinion. If such movies and music are having no negative effects on my behavior, actions, or even thoughts towards harming others. Is it really bad? I’ve always heard it’s good to perceive the world as it really is, and the world isn’t always happy and full of sunshine.

Answer:

Not often, but once in a while I get a question where I chuckle the entire time time I’m writing the answer.

I had to laugh when your email came in, because I had just finished watching the first two “Saw” movies only minutes before. I am a major fan of horror films, always have been and probably always will be. Generally, I prefer the less gory ones from the 50’s and 60’s, but I like a good modern “bloodbath” film once in a while (Romero and Fulci’s zombie movies are great!). I’m going to talk about movies from here on, but the same goes for music and videogames.

There are two conflicting ideas here: That Buddhists are pacifistic nonviolent people, and horror movies depict murder, torture, sadism, as well as gratuitous blood and gore. The real question is whether or not these two ideas are incompatible.

Here are my thoughts on the subject; feel free to add your own comments.

1) Do you believe that horror films and loud music (video games too!) cause violence? There is research that goes both ways, but most of it has been done on impressionable children, and even then, it’s an arguable point. You don’t sound like a child, so I also assume you are a grown-up who has learned the difference between right and wrong, fantasy and reality, film and life. Children may not always have that ability, but you do.

Meditation on a... Nah.

Meditation on a... Nah.

2) You like zombie and cannibal movies. I’m guessing you aren’t a cannibal. Do you fantasize about eating people? I suspect not; if I’m wrong about that, keep it to yourself. If you don’t do the actions or think about doing them, whats the harm in watching them? Horror movies are a release from the tensions and fears of real life, which, in their own way, reduces suffering. As I write this, I am reminded of “A Sensitive Topic” from last week, and I suppose the two situations do have their similarities.

3) Buddhism is very much about stripping away illusions that we carry around with us. You know that these movies aren’t real, and if anything, Buddhism should help reinforce that idea. Not only aren’t the movies real, in many ways, your normal life isn’t what you think it is, either.

4) This might be stretching things a bit, but we have talked here before about the practice of “meditating on a corpse,” where a meditator concentrates and imagines various stages of death. I think the “in your face” approach to death that movies show may not offer the same benefits, but there’s probably an argument in that idea somewhere; experience with death reduces fear of death.

5) What you are REALLY dealing with here are other people’s preconceived notions about what a Buddhist SHOULD be like. Use the opportunity to “enlighten” them about what Buddhists believe and why you are a “real one.” Never turn down an opportunity to teach others.

There may or may not be more productive uses for your (and my) time, but that’s not really a topic for right now.

15 comments to I, Cannibal: Horror and Buddhism

  • Killing, in Tibetan Buddhism, is considered the worst karma. Watching a film about killing should make one develop aversion to killing & therefore one would not want to watch more such films. The average person would be spending their time more wisely watching films about saving lives & fostering virtues such as patience & generosity. Let’s not be caught in deluding ourselves as to the level of our understanding….

  • From email:

    I LOVED the piece, Brian!

    About Buddhists being pacifist or pacifistic, I was talking to a buddy who is deep into Dzogchen. I asked if he was going to the rea-end retreat outside of NYC with Lama Surya Das, as he had done in the past.

    He told me he was not, that his teacher, John Makransky, had split off from Lama Surya Das.

    I said that I hope the break-up was not acrimonious.

    “Please,” was his response, “We’re Buddhists!”

  • Timothy Hilgenberg

    While I personally don’t like these kind of films I think there may be at least one use for them – look at what you are thinking while you are watching. What emotions are active, what is it that make you enjoy these kind of films – this could let you strip away the “layers” and open you up to a better understanding of yourself and overcoming “illusion”.
    Namaste,
    T

  • Diane

    I consider myself an Asian hardcore Buddhist who believes strictly in the beliefs of Buddhism but not necessary the religion’s rituals. I believe each person is and has his or her own Buddha in heart; therefore, I’d rather the person determines whether to carry through certain actions instead of outsiders saying otherwise. Horrifying and violent movie, or even music, may cause violent thoughts and actions in some people but not in others. It is within yourself to determine how it affects you personally. The only advice I have is if you do honestly believe these types of stimuli do affect you negatively, as in yourself having these violent thoughts and actions, DO stop being exposed to them if you choose to live your life as a Buddhist. But if you are confident you’re not affected negatively by these, I don’t see why you’d have to stop enjoying them. One of the symbols of Buddhist, the lotus, symbolizes the idea of growing in muddy swamp but still beautiful and fragrant.

  • Michael

    When someone says that we should not watch violent movies I always wonder what is the threshold between wholesome & violent. Surely is is a matter of opinion.

  • Jami

    I’m a hypocritical fan of censorship. Hypocritical, because there are few things I have not seen (in life and on TV)but most of which, in retrospective, I wish I had not seen or ‘experienced’.

    But life mirrors art. But a bad life may be reflected in filth and trash and increasingly most of us are being entertained by trash. A deep quest should not be interrupted by shallowness.

    Yet censorship, practiced too bluntly, may be counter-productive. I think it was V.S. Naipual or Paul Throuex who, arriving in Iran just after the Iranian Revolution, encountered men standing benath Marlbourough adverts,featuring pretty women, mastrurbating.

    It was a daily ritual,and shows that caution should be used to induce us from are weak resistance to the ‘trite’ and ‘banal’.

  • max

    “nothing is good or bad untill we think it that way.” i think that different people take these films different ways. if it makes you think negitivly, probably dont watch it. if it makes you mindful its probably ok. i personaly think that these films are aimed at a more violent audience, but that doesnt mean you have to be violent.

  • I’m a horror film watcher and Buddhist. I think that’s always dangerous when people try to label what a proper Buddhist is to behave like.

    I do acknowledge that for some, these kinds of moves can be harmful and it’s best to stay away- but only you, on your path know the answer to what’s best.

    To only take in movies with puppies being kind to kittens to generate the paramitas doesn’t really give the full spectrum about what living (and dying) is about.

  • […] at the The Daily Buddhism blog, Brian gives his perspective on a question asked as to whether one is a ‘bad Buddhist’ if they enjoy watching horror […]

  • Gambatte

    Hmm.. Should a buddhist also visit amusement parks and go on the rides? for me horror films amuse on 2 levels. Theres an adrenaline rush from the horror/suspense (simple analogy exlained). In many cases there’s also a new take on an old story, twisting of older mythologies etc

    Should we also not partake of involvement in fairy stories and nursery rhymes which commonly have a gory root?

  • Kurtison

    Believe nothing merely because you have been told it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings — that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.

    -Buddha

  • illy

    wow, fascinating subject. in my tradition of shambhala, there are many references to the protector known as the mahakala. he is a very menacing character with four arms, brandishing a khatvanga, a dagger, a skull cup of blood. his main purpose is to “sever the arteries” of enemies of the practice of meditation. the skull cup of blood is a metaphor for controlling our egos. and the enemies of meditation are not actual beings, but the fear, laziness and other excuses that we have for not practicing!

    trungpa rinpoche used these kind of gory images as a means by which we can remain vigilant in our meditation practice.

    i don’t really think that there is anything inherently WRONG with depictions of gore, graphic violence, or imagery. i think for many people it is a means by which we can work out strong emotions in a non harmful way.

  • I find this article very interesting and, in a way, a bit validating. I’m a Buddhist. I’m also a horror author. Some people have a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. I’ve written two horror books, PUNCTUATED EQUILIBRIUM: http://t.co/ftZAOuH via @amazon, and
    THE ROT AND OTHER HORRIBLE TALES: http://t.co/LboiJt7 via @amazon . Both books contain Buddhist elements, but The Rot was sort of inspired by them. I think sometimes people miss the basic point of horror as a form of entertainment and messaging, with the power to inspire thought and discussion. I think it’s perfectly normal to be both a Buddhist and a horror fan;)

  • Walker Storz

    I’m not sure whether this should be an entirely separate discussion, but it is related. I am a musician (mainly jazz) who considers art to be an important, enlightening, and indispensable aspect of my life. Much of the art in various forms that I love is controversial, violent, messed-up. I’ll give some examples: first of all, I love the blues. Those guys sing often unrepentantly about meeting the devil at the crossroads, or in a murder ballad shooting their woman down. What hits me is their honesty and sorrow. I love Quentin Tarantino’s films. They include some pretty messed up and needless violence. I love south park. There is some really f-ed up stuff in that show. That’s what makes it funny and sad at the same time. If you were a psychopath or desensitized person, you wouldn’t get anything out of any of these pieces of art, most likely, because you would just think it was normal. In other words, it wouldn’t hit you at all, because you would be so self-centered. I think what makes art great is a level of intense truth, or honest expression of the human condition. Art makes us better people. So, basically, watching movies about positive growth and love and peace will not necessarily make you a better buddhist. As I understand it, Buddhism is about realism, humanity, and honest expression. So, you should only be worried if those horror movies give you relentless, sick fantasies aka Jeffrey Dahmer, or you start torturing small animals.

  • Teresa

    I think you’re kidding yourself about watching these movies, Brian. Your mind works on many levels that we do not understand fully. I have enough trouble in my ordinary life monitoring feelings of anger, despair, and fear. I take care of a dying parent, and one of my dearest friends struggles constantly with serious addiction. If you take the bodhisattva vow seriously, and wish to relieve the suffering of those around you – how can you let your mind feast on gratuitous images of suffering like this without deeply wishing to make it better. It has been proven your mind really doesn’t know the difference between strong emotional images seen on a screen, and those it experiences in “reality.” Be honest with yourself – after you see this movie, don’t be too surprised if, in the dead of night, your mind starts to conjure up evil spirits in the corners of your house, or in your bathroom mirror.