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by seamus enright | april 13th, 2001

Scorsese and Eastern Mysticism

When Martin Scorsese made Kundun, a biopic of the early years of the Dalai Lama a few years ago, many commentators were puzzled. It seemed incongruous that the Roman Catholic ItalianAmerican chronicler of Manhattan’s Mean Streets would turn his attention to the erstwhile peaceful Buddhist enclave of Tibet. It was also argued by some that the movie became more “Western” in it’s second half as Tibet was violently invaded by China. To me, these views seem to betray a simplistic understanding of the dialectic between Occidental and Oriental theological systems that permeates much of this directors’ oeuvre.
It has to be admitted, though, that, at least on the surface, Martin Scorsese’s movies are “Christian”. References to the Bible and images of the Virgin and the Crucifix are a major leitmotif in his films from Mean Streets
on. Yet his characters worldviews and his own philosophical orientation often seem to owe more to Hindu and Buddhist mysticism.
One significant way that this dialectic manifests itself is in the immanence of transcendence in his work. This concept is best demonstrated by contrasting it with the theological basis of more overtly Christian films. In films like The Exorcist, Oh God!, The Omen, Stigmata or Dead Souls, Christian Deities or manifestations of evil are anthropomorphised, much as they are in the Bible. In The Exorcist, God is not demonstrated to exist until the devil manifests himself by taking over the body of a young girl, just as in Bedazzled the first thing the Devil is asked is “Is there a God?” In Touch, a low-budget film starring Skeet Ulrich as a faith healer who bleeds in the same parts of his body where Jesus was wounded on the cross, it’s debated whether to put his shirt into the washing machine or not, as it seems an act of sacrilege to do so. To a Hindu or a Buddhist, brought up in the Pantheistic tradition of religious texts like the Upanishads, this would be anathema. While in Christian rituals, objects are only made holy through a process of consecration, for believers in Eastern religions, all things are innately spiritual. In the Upanishads, this philosophy is expressed thus:
As the spokes are all held together in the hub of a wheel, just so in this soul of all things, all gods, all worlds, all beings, all divines, all vital powers, and all those individual selves are contained in that self. (Upanishads
It’s a philosophy shared by the Bhagavad Gita:
A person who is established in self-realisation is called a yogi… He sees everything as being the same: whether it be pebbles, stones or gold. (6.8)
It’s also common to Zen, and, it could be argued, Scorsese’s films.
            In Mean Streets, for example, God’s presence is manifest everywhere, not just in the religious imagery that permeates the New York Italian settings, but for example, in an amazing scene where the character played by Harvey Keitel lays down with his girlfriend in an imitation of the crucifix, then watches her get dressed in the morning sunlight. It’s important to realise, that while to a Christian this imagery might seem sacrilegious, to a believer in Tantric Buddhism, in which spirituality is affirmed through concupiscence, it could be considered an affirmation of their believes. The imagery of the woman’s naked body being caressed by the morning sun could be suggestive of Edenic, prelapsarian bliss to a Christian, but Morning, as Thoreau reminds us, is also extremely significant in the Vedas, the original Hindu texts. Long before western physicists realised that vision is dependent on reflection of particles of light, the composers of the Vedas credited Indra, the Sky-God with bringing all things into being.
The one who has caused to be born the sun, the dawn, the one who is the waters leader, he is Indra.
The equivalent in Western theology is the “let there be light” moment in the bible. There’s another appropriate moment in Mean Streets when a tiger appears, considered “a little William Blake” by it’s owner, but a threatening wild beast to the neurotic westerners played by Keitel and De Niro. Blake’s poetry also has a strong pantheistic element, particularly in the poem about a clod of earth that is imbued with human feelings.
            The pantheistic element in Scorsese’s movies reaches it’s apotheosis in Kundun, but it’s also evident in Raging Bull, in which long, lingering close-ups that seem to imbue mundane objects with sentience. In another way, it’s perceptible in Taxi Driver. Written at a relatively early stage in human civilisation, the Upanishads sought to achieve a Modus Vivendi between man and the environment which he was just beginning to dominate. One of the central tenets of these texts is that the self, atman, is at one with the universe, Brahman. Just as the soul inhabits the body, so the body interacts with the universe, which is an extension of the self. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle almost merges with the weapons which he carries on his person in a way that prefigures the Terminator and Tetsuo movies, but also echoes the Upanishads:
            He who dwells in the fire, and within the fire, whom the fire does not know,
Whose body the fire is, and who pulls the fire from within, he is thyself, the puller within, the immortal. (Upanishads
It’s interesting that one of the central metaphors in the Upanishads is that the soul is a driver and the body a chariot, and that in Somerset Maugham’s Hindu-influenced novel, The Razor’s Edge, the protagonist renounces all worldly things to become a Taxi driver.
            In that novel, the protagonist considers driving a taxi his dhamma. Dhamma is a concept in Indian philosophy which also sharply differentiates it from its Western equivalents. Western philosophy, from the Bible to the Koran to Immanuel Kant consists of a series of Moral absolutes, or as Kant would say, categorical imperatives. The Ten Commandments, the seven deadly sins all give a clear indication of how followers of Catholicism should lead their lives, a concept which Kevin Smith had a lot of fun with in Dogma. In Buddhism, the Eightfold path gives followers of this religion much more latitude. The fifth noble virtue, for example, is “right Livelihood”. Scholars have debated on what constitutes this and the other virtues, but it seems to me that the Buddha, coming from a tradition of Vedic Hinduism would have wanted his followers to find their own spiritual path. In the Upanishads, it is written:

Actions that are blameless, these should be performed, not others. (
In the Gita:
Even a man of knowledge acts according to his own nature: for everyone follows the nature he has acquired. (3.33)
            Though Scorsese comes from a background of Catholicism, the most dogmatic of Christianreligions, his characters are often able to find their own Dhamma. In Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle epitomise this. Working partly within mainstream society (in the Gita we are encouraged to adapt to changing circumstances) he is able, through a programme of discipline similar to the Yogic principles enunciated in the Gita, to reach his own set of moral values and act upon them. In the Gita it’s also emphasised that we should not become attached to the fruits of our actions, this is perhaps why the child prostitute played by Jodie Foster is returned to her parents. Incidentally, one of the most famous speeches in the movie “some day a rain will come and wash all this filth away” has many echoes in Hinduism where water is the supreme spiritually cleansing force.
            One character even more eager to determine his own Dhamma is Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. On more than one occasion those around him tell him that he needs to make compromises in order to become the world middleweight champion but he insists on doing things “his own way”, no matter how disastrous the consequences. It could easily be argued that boxing is inimical to the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, but Anjuna, the protagonist of the Gita, is also told that he must fight, this is his dhamma… No-one claims Hinduism and Buddhism are straightforward belief systems. Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy takes the theme of dhamma in Scorsese’s work even further with his lack of willingness to accept that he has no talent. A comic character, he is easy to laugh at, but provides us with an insight into the egoism necessary to become a comedian, or indeed a film director; someone once said that only egomaniacs could enter this profession. Hinduism and particularly Buddhism are anti-ego religions, but in the gita it is written:

            The one who is indifferent or silent in censure or praise… that person is dear to me (Gita, 12.19)
This could be the mantra that all of Scorsese’s main protagonists chant.
If in Hinduism there is a divine force which permeates all things, in Buddhism the same force is hiddenbehind a wall, or to use the Buddha’s own term, a veil of illusion, or Maya. This concept is familiar to viewers of The Matrix, which draws on virtually every major religion, but it can also be found under the surface of Scorsese’s films. A popular conceit in cinema from Caligari to an obscure Japanese Manga film called Perfect Blue is that what is happening is not real, that there is an illusion within the illusion. I think Scorsese is a bit more subtle. When I watched Taxi Driver for the first time, it struck me that it was made in the same place at almost the same time as Woody Allen’s Manhattan. It occurred to me that Travis is a sort of of Dantean Virgil taking us below the glossy surface of Manhattan into it’s dark, stygian Mean Streets (if you will) But then Travis himself hides behind several walls of illusion. To the Cybil Shephard character he is a confused innocent, to the FBI agent he is genuinely interested in joining the force, to the Jodie Foster character he is a responsible father figure, to his colleagues, he is just another Taxi Driver. But the veils of illusion are peeled off before the film ends. This is also true of Goodfellas, where the Ray Liotta character is allowed to see how superficial the veil of affluence that rests on the surface of gangster families is. It’s also true of The House of Innocence, where the almost oppressive opulence conceals endless back-stabbing and conniving among Manhattans fin-du-siecle elite. Also, Casino, not Scorsese’s best movie by a country mile, we are shown the inner workings behind the gloss of a Vegas Casino, a place recognised as lacking any substance by Foucault, Baudrillard and others.
Perhaps the most pervasive Buddhist theme in Scorsese’s work is the first two noble truths:
1.     All life is Suffering
2.     The Cause of Suffering is Desire.
Or, as the Gita would have it:
One who abandons all desires and becomes free from longing… attains peace. (Gita 2.71)
Observe, for example, his early short, The Big Shave. Thought at the time as being a metaphor for the war in Vietnam, this tale of a man who shaves his chin soclose he bleeds to death seems the enunciate a major leitmotif in Scorsese’s work. Though the prevailing current of his work is tragic, many of his protagonists reach some sort of equanimity by repressing their desires for superfluous things. If you watch his films of the 70’s in succession, there’s a kind of Growth from Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, who can never get out of the endless cycle of gambling and borrowing money, to Jake La Motta, who seems to learn that desire is the cause of his suffering and even to accept the principal of karma:  “I’ve done a lot of bad things and maybe now I’m paying for them” Tragically for those around him, he only learns this after his desires, whetherto win the championship, believe in his wife’s fidelity, or be able to eat as much as he likes, alienate him violently from everyone he has ever loved. It’s only at the end, thrown out of his opulent house and forced to work as a piss-artist poet-comedian that he achieves any sort of equanimity. The same could also be said of Ray Liotta in Goodfellas, who only ever settles down when he leaves a life of crime. Likewise, those Scorsese characters who try to escape, rather than overcome their fate, like Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t want to live her Anymore, find that they can run but not hide, or to quote the Gita:
Just as one sun illuminates the whole world, similarly the creator illumines the entire creation. (Gita 13.34)

It’s worth recalling that when Martin Scorsese was making some of the movies in question he was suffering the effects of desire himself, the desire in question being to get extremely high on Coke. If his protagonists achieve a sort of equanimity that eluded him until later life, perhaps we can credit these movies with some element of catharsis. Remember also that the Buddha himself is said to have led a life of dissipation before attaining knowledge of the absolute.

I hope I’ve managed to establish that Kundun doesn’t represent a hiatus in Scorsese’s work, but if I’ve learnt one thing from the Gita it’s that one shouldn’t become attached to the fruits of one’s actions. Writing this essay has been a fascinating, cerebral, cathartic experience but now it’s time to finish.
The translation of the Gita I used can be found at:
That for the Upanishads is at:

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