Killer Karma

In the first of our Oscar series, Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg talks about 'Chicago'

BY: Interview by Mary Talbot

For the third year, Beliefnet is celebrating Oscar season by interviewing five thinkers on the Best Picture nominees. We begin the series, which runs through Sunday, with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of last year's bestseller (and Beliefnet Book of the Year finalist) "Faith." Salzberg trained in India, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet before co-founder of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachussets. She also co-founded the Insight Meditation Society, and conducts retreats worldwide.

"Chicago" is the movie version of the long-running revival of the Broadway musical. A vehicle for the choreography of Bob Fosse and starring Rene Zellwegger, Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones, it tells the story of two women who kill the men who done them wrong. We weren't aware that it's also a vehicle for Buddhist insights, but Salzberg and Mary Talbot showed us that "Chicago" isn't just razzle-dazzle

How did you like "Chicago"?

I had a lot of fun with it. It wasn't especially spiritual, but I loved John C. Reilly's character, Amos Hart, and the song he sings, "Mr. Cellophane." It's about the issue of being so unseen that we don't exist. The whole movie is a take-off on celebrity and the lengths people will go to get it. He was the only one who addressed what it means to have no inner comprehension of who we are. All the others are conniving and calculating and manipulating. They're deliciously fun to watch but it's hard to have much sympathy for them.

It occurred to me that all of the characters in the movie are the personification of the Buddhist kleshas or obstacles to insight--greed, anger and delusion.



so greedy. Richard Gere's character, the defense lawyer, in particular, was a send-up of greed--he had to have his $5,000, and he had to win his case, at whatever cost. Catherine Zeta-Jones' character was jealous and enraged to the point where she committed murder. And Roxie, Renee Zellweger's character, murdered her lover because of thwarted desire--delusion about who she was and how she wanted the world to see her.

And when the world was seeing her as she wanted to be seen, it was never enough. She always craved more.

Everyone changes allegiances according to the whims of fashion and who's going to get them the most advantage. I love the moment when Queen Latifah pops her head up from behind the desk with her hair styled like Roxie's, when she's at the height of her popularity. But when Roxie loses that ground, she's completely lost. The thing is, we always lose that ground. It the nature of celebrity, and it's the continual rotation of samsara. Whether you're on top or not, whether you have success or not, it's not going to last.

Buddhists talk a lot about identification, and the problem of identifying with our external roles. And that's what these characters do in the extreme.

That's right. Roxie killed a guy because her dreams were all tied up with seeing the world in a certain way, and being a star. When her lover thwarted that, she was just beside herself. The whole movie revolves around that point.

We all tend to identify to some extent. We think of ourselves as our titles or our jobs or our position in a family. We depend on being praised by others. But something happens when that praise is undermined. Somebody else may move onto the block that's more popular, or we get a mixed review or something. That sense of who we are that we've been cherishing and that's very threatening and very scary. We are out of control. It's one of our worst vulnerabilities because so nonsensical.

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