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Buddhism and Battlestar

posted by Davee Evans

Ethan has encouraged me or maybe even teased me a couple times to blog Buddhism themes in the sci-fi TV show Battlestar Galactica, and clearly it’s something he thinks about too. Ok, maybe I should accept my nerdy karma and go with it. Yesterday some of us in Portland went to see the final season of Battlestar at a local theater. The theater projected the show on the big screen with hundreds of rowdy nerds eating pizza and drinking pitchers of beer. The episode was shocking and at times a complete hush fell over the crowd; we looked on in utter disbelief and i though ‘holy frak!’ a few times. Without commenting on or spoiling the current story arcs, I thought I could talk about Buddhist themes generally and where i think it is inconsistent with Buddhist views. It’s one of the few shows on television with an explicitly religious narrative. 
If you haven’t seen the show, a very brief primer: it’s in space. a group of humans are being chased in ragtag spaceships by cylons – their cybernetic and now murderous progeny – who are hell bent on wiping out all of humanity. the humans have an ancient religious text describing a place called Earth that thousands of years ago was settled and now they’re following breadcrumbs to find it and find refuge.
Battlestar is one of the few shows on TV to include religious themes, plus a subversive critique of the war on terror, and perhaps only gets away with it as science fiction. Ellen Leventry reviewed Battlestar’s connection to Mormom cosmology for beliefnet three years ago and in that she mentions some buddhist topics. What strikes me most however is not the conflict between polytheists, monotheists, and atheists, but rather how the very identity of the main characters are called into question frequently. This is because the cylons have sleeper agents, who are indistinguishable from humans until they are “switched on”, and a common theme for the characters on the show is their own questioning if they are human. And this asks us the similar question, are we more than our memories? If we were to wake up one day and discover that all our beliefs about ourselves were in question, what would that be like? Or in Buddhist terms, are we really “me” or are we a collection of aggregates, completely interdependent with our situation and environment?
There are more familiar Buddhist ideas included. The cylons reincarnate, by downloading into new cybernetic bodies when they die, and there is a sense conveyed by mystical “hybrids” that we are all trapped in an endless cycle like samsara with no ultimate refuge found in our schemes. But there are also themes involving destiny and prophesy, implying to me a kind of determinism that the Buddha I think would have frowned about. With determinism, there is no free will and therefore no path based on practice. While the present moment arises from reasonable causes and conditions, and our choices are strongly influenced by habitual mind, we have a choice. The future is not set in stone.
Another theme is fear. The cylons fear the humans, and vice versa. This fear manifests as a wish that the other would just disappear, as in the initial story arc of the cylon’s plan to destroy humanity. Isn’t this the typical response to fear of the “other”? The idea of working with the fear directly and leaning in and understanding the “other” seems so much more work than erecting walls or declaring war, or even just growing a tall hedge between you and “that” neighbor. I think the show does explore how aggression as a path doesn’t ultimately work and the characters have had a chance to evolve. But I don’t want to spoil any major details.
The most Buddhist theme to me is still the groundless feeling that your identity might be an illusion. And if you happen to be a cylon, that your very notion of mind might be more collective or your memories mixed with your peers. That’s not unlike how I see my identity now – a mix of cultural norms and opinions and family karma and my own choices. And within the show, loyalty and a sense of identity as a group are also mutable. A character in the show might have a best friend for years, who suddenly is a cylon, but that doesn’t make them necessarily evil. This has been masterful, I think. The show has been brave enough to transcend false dichotomies of good and evil and explore groundlessness and play with it.
Ok, I’d love to hear what you think, and please no serious spoilers in the comments. Thanks!

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Davee Evans

posted January 18, 2009 at 2:21 am

Eva, sorry if this forces you to post another mixtape tracklist. :)

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sitting monkey » guest blogging

posted January 18, 2009 at 3:56 am

[…] posted my first guest blog at today, a pretty nerdy post comparing battlestar galactica and buddhism. why such a dorky topic? i mentioned to folks at our regular interdependence project thursday […]

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Ethan Nichtern

posted January 18, 2009 at 7:26 am

Oh wow!
This makes me wish I was back in Portland, except I’m not drinking beer or eating pizza these days due to my wheat free diet now. But I would certainly love to be there.
I missed the first episode of the new season and will have to watch soon.

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Davee Evans

posted January 18, 2009 at 1:31 pm

definitely. i found a great interview with ron moore about the episode, but i really don’t want to post too much about it and spoil some of the surprises. after you see the episode, read the interview.
the episode is named after the similarly titled ken kesey story. and he had some interesting things to say about despair that are explored in the episode, that i think are safe to share without spoiling too much: “For those of us here on Earth, the dream could be many other things. It may be the house you saved all your life for but now can no longer afford to make payments on. The career you fantasized about since high school, went to college to prepare for, finally landed and loved, then lost when your company downsized. The woman or man you met who seemed to be everything you ever wanted to find in a lover, who betrayed your trust or left you or died. The flood waters that swept your entire neighborhood away. The war in a far away land that took your son or daughter or husband or wife. The spot on an X-ray that now wants to eat you alive.”

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Andrew Bowler

posted January 19, 2009 at 11:43 am

BSG is poised to be one of the best complete shows ever. Some seasons are better than others but for the most part, the show has maintained a very high level. It never jumped the shark (forgive the ancient reference).
The show also has a chance at an amazing ending to the series by really breaking down the difference between humans and cylons. Everyone one is a cylon and everyone is a human. We are all the same. I don’t mean from a literal narrative standpoint, I’m just talking about the thematic of the final few episodes. I would love the show to end on a “we are the same as our enemy” type note. Now that would be an ending from the middle way.

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Davee Evans

posted January 19, 2009 at 2:23 pm

Thanks for the comment Andrew. I really agree. The events hinted at 2000 years ago, that coincide with humans leaving Kobol, in my mind will allow the show to flip who has the moral high ground.
This is something that gets me about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Gaza, the reporting about them and cultural thinking about them often forgets or ignores the long chain of interdependence leading up to them. We seem puzzled with the Iraqi’s didn’t welcome Americans in the more recent war, forgetting that so many Iraqi’s died the first time we paid them a visit. And we forget how we militarized the region in a cold war proxy battle before that. and we forget the causes of the cold war. etc. etc. My wish for Battlestar is that we see a similar sense of causation leading to the current events.

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Bija Andrew Wright

posted January 19, 2009 at 3:25 pm

I think what makes BSG resonate with me the most is the personal quest that each character is on. For instance, the Cylon sleeper agents realize, at one point, how little they know about themselves. This of course isn’t just sci-fi; as we meditate we discover how little we know about ourselves, who we really are. We might have programming deep in our minds that we never consciously knew about, and we don’t know when it’s going to activate.
Add to that, everyone around us is the same. We don’t know who the sleeper agents are.
This is given a different twist when the concept of the Final Five is introduced. D’Anna has a religious quest, to find out who the Five are. When she finally has a vision of them, she says to the last one, “I’m sorry. I had no idea.” This reminds me of some passages from the Lotus Sutra about the future Buddhas of the world. There are Buddhas we never expected, and when we treat someone with contempt or anger, we may be speaking to the next Buddha.
I like how the show addresses the complexity of ethics and insights. This isn’t Star Wars where you have wise old Yoda giving platitudes; this is a world where everyone is stumbling toward enlightenment, but not quite there. The overall narrative doesn’t take a side, right or wrong. It’s like a koan, guiding us to contemplate these issues that come up whenever people face people.

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Andrew Bowler

posted January 19, 2009 at 5:57 pm

For as optimistic as I am about the ending of the series playing with notions of right and wrong – and I do think we are in store for a good one – can anything be better than the raid on “insurgents” in New Caprica? The night vision POV shots? That was so brave when you think about how much night vision stuff we were seeing on the news around that time and the emotional state the country was in. And with our heros as the insurgents?! Crazy. I’m surprised that didn’t draw more fire. That kind of bravery is what won them their Peabody, I’m sure. Sorry, I just had to reflect. Man am I looking forward to this ending.

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posted January 19, 2009 at 6:23 pm

So say we all!
(hell yeah nerds)

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Davee Evans

posted January 20, 2009 at 1:25 pm

Wonderful thoughts, Bija. Thank you. Life so feels like stumbling to me. And I love your connection to seeing all others as the next Buddha! Almost of the opposite of fearing your best friend is a spy.
Andrew I was shocked too and pleased by the overt war critiques on New Caprica. Now I’ll have to practice patience for the final episodes. :)

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svenska spel bingo

posted July 16, 2014 at 12:19 pm

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don’t realize this. You should proceed your writing. I am confident, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

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