2016-06-30
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.
They're all 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.

That's why I think John C. Reilly is going to the heart of that problem with the song "Mr. Cellophane." He's hinting that there's got to be another way than always being at the mercy of other people's views, or of worldly gain. It's really the most authentic moment in the movie.

These murderers and incredibly unethical people do a lot of harm to others, but there are ultimately no consequences for their actions. How did that strike you?
This really isn't a movie about karma and receiving the karmic fruits of one's actions! [Laughs] The only woman on the cellblock who was hanged was the only innocent one. And John C. Reilly, the only wholesome character in the movie, ends up in the dust. I guess you have to take a long-term perspective of karma and assume that the repercussions of their deeds come about later, or in later lifetimes!

Though I suppose the fact that Velma (Zeta-Jones) and Roxie end up without celebrity at the end--Roxie doesn't even get her picture taken after her trial because another murderess eclipses her--is a karmic comeuppance.
Yes, but they do get their big show together and have a lot of notoriety at the very end.

Most of the movie takes place in Roxie's mind. Ande none of the characters have seeking the true nature of reality as a goal.
I thought it was very interesting how there were levels of what's going on in physical reality and then there were the characters' inner worlds. Reality is completely elastic. Richard Gere's character manipulates the truth, Roxie manipulates the truth. The whole movie was a blend of fantasy and projection and hopes and fears.

Roxie spent most of her time daydreaming, in fact. In Buddhism we talk about how that can cut us off.
And that's exactly what happened with Roxie. She's so lost in her own mind that she's actually creating a world that doesn't exist. She's putting so much energy into it that she's almost making it real. It's good for the movie, but it's a big form of delusion.

It also makes it very hard to have any compassion, because you're getting what you want by creating a certain world regardless of what it means for others. The way Roxie treated her husband, for example. He's like an object in her eyes. That's the essence of abuse or violence. It's when the other is really an other that we can do the most damage. We don't get the sense of their feeling any pain because we're living in a world of our own making.

You're friends with Richard Gere. Has he ever talked to you about whether his Buddhism informs what roles he chooses?
No, but I've heard him say how much fun he had on this movie and that everyone was like a family. You can feel their camaraderie.

In so many films, prison is the place where a character gains some insight into their condition. But you don't see anyone getting religion in "Chicago."
No, it's just another angle on life. It's interesting that people bring different things to oppressive and difficult situations, when they're reduced to the barest terms of survival. That's what provides tension in a lot of films. But again, John C. Reilly's character is the only one who reveals some insight. And Catherine Zeta-Jones, to a lesser extent. She did have some awareness of the impermanence of her position and how her fame depended on making deals. But she wasn't using her time to deepen her spiritual life!

What do you think the Buddha would have said about movies?
He probably would have disliked them and considered them a terrible distraction. But he did talk a lot about gladdening the mind. That's moving your mind toward goodness and openness and light. That openness is what gives you the strength to look at suffering.

When one of my meditation teachers, Sayadaw Upandita, was in the United States teaching in 1994, someone asked him how long you should pay attention to physical pain in meditation before moving on to something else. Upandita was a fierce, demanding teacher and I expected him to say "stay with the pain until you fall over." Much to my surprise, he said "don't be with it for very long. Move your mind to something that's easier to be with. Not that it's wrong to focus on the pain, but you'll end up exhausted. Freedom isn't without suffering, but we need to the openness to deal with it. It's about balance, really.

So, I don't know what the Buddha would say, but I would say you need a break sometimes. We were preparing to go to war when I saw "Chicago" and it was a terrible time. Once in a while, you have to let your mind just go.



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