A site for posting essays and notes, especially on Alan Watts

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Fight Club: Violence as Yoga

(Please note that this article is a movie spoiler. It also needs some editing. So read at your own risk!)

By Dzintars Dzilna

Abstract: This essay is an interpretation of the movie Fight Club as a Zen Buddhist allegory, specifically, a search for identity in a world of consumerism and abstraction. By defining himself with the illusions of a consumerist lifestyle—foisted on today’s modern society by an advertising machine that perpetually imposes unattainable desires—the protagonist Jack feels frustrated because he can never achieve those illusions of identity. He uses fighting and terrorism as his yoga to destroy the abstractions of maya, or illusion, that identify him. The essay draws insights about Zen from Alan Watts’ lectures and his books, most notably, The Way of Zen.

[1] Some time ago, audiences were watching Tom Cruise fight his way through The Last Samurai, a movie about bushido, the tao of the warrior—essentially the application of Zen Buddhism to the art of war. Cruise’s character is told he fights with “too many mind” and trains with the villagers. By the end of the movie, he is transformed from a drunken mercenary to noble warrior. Both discipline in fighting and an understanding of the samurai way of life provide him the means for spiritual growth.

[2] Even with Westerners’ facile understanding of martial arts, the idea that spiritual growth can come hand-in-hand with disciplines of Eastern defense practices like judo or karate is plausible. But what about spiritual growth from violence itself? One should note that Buddhism does not view violence as something that is inherently evil or to be necessarily evaded. In fact, Buddhism enables the individual to see past social judgments and principles that deny justifications for violence in any form. Alan Watts,[i] an author and interpreter of Eastern traditions, describes the Buddhist experience as “liberation from conventions of every kind, including the moral conventions.”[ii] While Buddhism is not a revolt against convention, it “does not share the Western view that there is a moral law, enjoined by God or by nature, which it is man’s duty to obey.” [iii] The Buddha did prescribe precepts of conduct in his Eightfold Path, including no killing, stealing, lying or using intoxicants. But the precepts are intended only to remove hindrances from clarity of awareness, rather than impose moral retribution for violent acts that an individual commits.[iv]

[3] While The Last Samurai plays up the spirituality and honor that samurai defend, audiences will also remember Fight Club (1999), the movie that has the same theme of individual transformation, but is hidden behind the plot’s characteristic brutality. At face value, Fight Club—based on the eponymous 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk—is a slick Hollywood story about a guy who is tired of his 9 to 5 job and life revolving around Ikea catalogs, so he blows up his apartment, starts a fist-fighting club, moves on to become a terrorist mastermind revered by all other men and gets the girl in the end—while his super-cool alter ego fucks with latex gloves on and lets him know that he was the cool guy the whole time. He even tells off his boss and extorts a free salary from a despicable carmaker that lets people die to save money on recalls.

[4] But another interpretation of Fight Club, as spiritual allegory, gives a different view: the guy gives up all his possessions, gains a following of monks and then shoots himself and lives—at the same time destroying his illusion of himself and becoming liberated from samsara, which translated from the Buddhist term, is the vicious circle of suffering that people experience in life. While getting rid of possessions and finding liberation is not limited to Zen Buddhism, the tradition’s openness to make use of violence as a means for spiritual growth may be, indeed, uniquely Zen Buddhist. The central character Jack uses fighting and terrorism as his yoga to destroy the abstractions of maya, or illusion, that he uses to identify himself. By constantly defining himself with the illusions of a consumerist lifestyle—foisted on today’s modern society by an advertising machine that perpetually imposes unattainable desires—he feels frustrated because he can never achieve those illusions of identity. With insights about the Zen Buddhist tradition from Alan Watts’ lectures and his book, The Way of Zen, we can see how Fight Club is a Buddhist spiritual journey, where the path is a search for identity in a world of consumerism and abstraction. [v]

[5] To Be Somebody
[6] Search for identity is initiated by the very first line of the movie where the narrator, spoken by actor Edward J. Norton (let’s call him “Jack,” from the quote “I am Jack’s medulla oblongata” etc.), says “People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.” We assume that Tyler Durden is not the narrator who’s got a loaded pistol wedged in his mouth. At the end of the movie we of course learn that Jack and Tyler are the same person. The line thus immediately sets up an inquiry of how an individual is identified, both by others and by the individual himself. Do you know Tyler Durden? Do I know me?

[7] At this point, whoever Tyler Durden is, Jack is not. Jack is a self-professed yuppie whose search for identity leads him to ask, “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?” His identity is defined by the furniture and clothes he owns. As Jack describes to the arson investigator, “I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that was destroyed. It was me.” He wants to be someone, in the postmodern, consumer sense of “environmentally-friendly unbleached paper” and “Planet Starbucks.” Even his apartment complex is called “Pearson Towers”—one letter away from “person”—which is “A Place to Be Somebody.”

[8] But the possessions are merely representations of what he wants to be. He doesn’t really care about the actual stuff—where it came from, how it was made or what it really looks like—as long as it reflects the desires being fed to him by the “Ikea nesting instinct.” For example, the “green glass dishes with the tiny bubbles and imperfections” are “crafted by the honest, simple, hard-working indigenous peoples of… wherever.” As he scans the apartment, his mind fantasizes, populating rooms with abstractions right out of the catalog. His identity is an abstraction of his material goods lifestyle—he is what the goods represent, and not what they actually are. The stuff represents a type of consumerist spirituality for Jack, as when he pines for his sofa destroyed in the blast: “I was so close to being complete”—the same completeness that he feels later when crying in the bosom of the Big Moosie, played by Meat Loaf Aday, when he feels “lost in oblivion, dark and silent and complete.” Even his work is based on formulas (which are simply mathematical symbols) for deciding who lives and who dies: “If A times B times C is less than X, we don’t do a recall.”

[9] By seeking identity from abstractions, Jack is not really a person—he is just a representation of one, like the color pictures of furniture in the catalogs he reads. He literally sleepwalks all day, “where nothing is real” and “everything is just a copy of a copy.” In Buddhist terms, Jack’s state is samsara, which is the cycle of birth and death, also known as wandering—the perpetual daze that Jack finds himself in. Watts puts samsara in more modern terms: “a squirrel cage … the rat-race,” “a vicious circle.”[vi]

[10] According to Buddhism, samsara is caused by desire in any form: desire for wealth, sex, love and, indeed, identity—the need to define one’s self. People desire because of maya, a Hindu term that, generally speaking, means illusion.[vii] According to the Hindu tradition,[viii] maya is that which overlies Brahman, which Westerners might conceive of as God. In terms of identity, maya leads people to come up with ideas about themselves. Indeed, consumerism is a form of maya, leading individuals to desire beautiful but unattainable images, such as the body by Calvin Klein. “We’re by-produces of a lifestyle obsession,” as Tyler observes. “We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'll all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars—but we won’t. We’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” In not measuring up to the abstractions that an individual identifies with, one feels frustrated and suffers.

[11] Buddhism is to help people find freedom from maya and samsara—to become liberated from endlessly needing to define one’s self and measuring up to that definition. In Sanskrit, the title “Buddha” literally means “the awakened one”—one who is released from the very sleepwalking rut that Jack is stuck in. As Watts observes, liberation can be seen as “the discovery of who or what I am, when I am no longer identified with any role or conventional definition of the person.”[ix] Jack can be liberated when he does not need to define himself with any abstractions, such as those represented by material possessions.

[12] At this point, however, Jack is a “consumer,” and to deal with his suffering, reaches for an opiate of today’s masses: sleeping pills. But his doctor refuses to prescribe them. Instead, the doctor sends him to, of all places, First Methodist, a church where self-help groups will show Jack “real pain.”[x]

[13] Initially, the meetings help. Jack is able to sleep soundly and has feelings of liberation: “I found freedom. Losing all hope was freedom.” Participants are told to “really open ourselves up,” which is to say, become open to who you are, and let go of the abstract standards and conventional thinking about whom you are supposed to be.

[14] But Jack isn’t really liberated. He is identifying himself with another representation, this time a poor, sick little “me” that gets recognition because of a lie that he has testicular cancer, AIDS or tuberculosis. He only pretends to be the identity of Rupert, Cornelius or “whatever name he gives himself each night,” as Marla points out. The liberation Jack experiences, when “every evening I died and every evening I was born again, resurrected,” is just a vacation from samsara. He is a tourist who is “addicted” and “needs this.” Jack also starts desiring Marla, whose chicanery of identity—by attending the testicular cancer group, she even feigns gender—reflects Jack’s.

[15] Single-Serving Friend
[16] Once Jack confronts Marla and exposes his own lie to himself, he considers the question, “If you wake up at a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?” The question is significant because it involves a discussion about how the past is another abstraction of identification that Jack must be unburdened from to realize liberation from samsara.

[17] As if to answer Jack's question, Watts points to a few lines from T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets which echo Jack’s inquiry: “When the train starts, and the passengers are settled… You are not the same people who left that station/Or who will arrive at any terminus.” The individual who gets on a train—or a plane, in Jack’s case—is not the same person who gets out at the next stop. Who someone was 10 years ago, a month ago, yesterday and even two minutes ago are long gone and not the same person he or she is right now.

[18] But people don’t see that. They see the illusion, the maya, that the individual who got on the plane is the same one now stuffed into the economy-class seat. Belief in the continuity of one’s self from one moment to the next is based on the need to define and hold one’s own identity. “The desire for continuity is the desire for the perpetuation of a past self or a string of selves, with which we identify ourselves,”[xi] Watts observes. “To identify one’s self with [the past] is to perpetuate an illusion, resulting in incessant frustration—resulting, indeed, in that very vicious circle, which the symbol of the wheel [of samsara] represents.” If you can dig it, Watts contends that Buddhism recognizes the past as perpetually vanishing, so that “there really is no past to continue—and therefore to cling to it.”[xii]

[19] Thus, liberation from samsara is also freedom from clinging to the abstract past, which is another source of false identity. To get onto the path of liberation, Jack asks “Can you wake up as a different person?” and literally creates Tyler Durden. Indeed, just as Jack considers the question, Tyler—played by Brad Pitt—makes his first appearance as a fully materialized form.[xiii]

[20] Tyler is effectively Jack’s guru—his “liberator” who will “realign” Jack’s “perception.” As a guru, Tyler is a “single serving friend,” whose one purpose is to lead Jack out of the illusion that identification with abstractions brings. At Jack’s first meeting with Tyler, Jack is asleep, praying for death, and metaphorically "wakes up" just as Tyler is sitting next to him. Tyler immediately starts debunking abstractions. Emergency evacuation procedures at 30,000 feet and airplane information cards provide the “illusion of safety”—maya that individuals can survive even a plane crash. Ironically, Jack writes off Tyler’s revelations as abstractions: “That’s an interesting theory.”

[21] The first step in Jack’s path to liberation via guru is to lose the stuff. Tyler destroys Jack’s apartment so that he can “reject the basic assumption of civilization and especially the importance of material possessions.” Possessions per se are not bad or evil, but as Tyler notes, “the things you own, end up owning you.” Abstractions that possessions represent limit an individual’s identity to them. Tyler asks Jack how he knows what a duvet is, even though it has nothing to do with survival “in the hunter/gatherer sense of the word.” The need to own things to identify himself has metaphorically pulled the wool (in this case, a blanket) over his eyes.

[22] After destroying Jack’s stuff, the guru sets up Fight Club, a kind of discipline that will further destroy the abstract identifications that Jack has. Fighting is a way to literally smash Jack’s conceptions of who he is: “How much can you know about yourself without having been in a fight?” Participants find freedom from the illusory identifications of everyday life: “You weren’t alive anywhere like you were there. Who you were in Fight Club was not who you were in the rest of the world.”

[23] As part of the discipline, Tyler asks Jack a string of hypothetical questions—which double as koans, or ‘problems’ that Zen masters use to tease students out of illusion—of who he’d fight. For example, Tyler asks, “If you could fight any historical figure, who would it be?” Jack’s chooses Gandhi, Tyler chooses Abraham Lincoln—two liberators who are heroes of Eastern and Western civilizations, respectively. By evoking responses to questions about who Jack would fight, and Tyler’s responses count as Jack’s because they are the same person, Tyler is going after Jack’s idols—images that he identifies with—enabling Jack to recognize idols for the abstractions they are. Jack will be able to see these “figures” literally as figures, in the abstract sense of the word. In addition to being illusion, maya is also a way of measurement, of “figuring.” Fighting itself is a way to make the most basic and concrete comparison of who an individual is compared to another. Tyler’s questions enable Jack to see himself mano a mano with his idols—without abstract ideas about their greatness–to literally knock them off Jack’s pedestal.

[24] Fight Club is effectively Jack’s yoga. Not the way a typical Western audience might understand yoga, for example, sitting quietly and concentrating on something. Rather, yoga is a way to suspend conception or thinking in abstractions. In the Yogasutra, yoga is defined as “citta vritti nirodha,” which as Watts points out, in Sanskrit means “the cessation of turnings of the mind. These ‘turnings’ are the thoughts whereby the mind endeavors to grasp the world and itself. … In other words, the attempt of the mind to catch hold of itself, which is what we call thinking. Worrying. So you could say loosely, yoga is the cessation of thinking. It’s not the cessation of awareness, but of symbolizing, trying to catch, clutch reality in terms of thoughts, symbols, descriptions, definitions.”[xiv] Fight Club enables participants to end clutching at abstractions, and to literally feel the concrete—like the basement floor with fists flying. As Jack describes, “The club wasn’t about winning or losing. It wasn’t about words. Nothing was solved but nothing mattered.” Winning, losing, words—they are abstractions that bind individuals to the suffering that comes from comparison of reality with pre-conceived, illusory notions of identity and time.

[25] Indeed, Zen Buddhism is distinguished from other types of Buddhism in that its “flavor,” as Watts portrays, is a certain “directness.” Whereas awakening seems almost superhuman in other schools of Buddhism, “something to be reached only after many lives of patient effort,” Zen has a feeling that awakening is something quite natural, something startlingly obvious, which may occur at any moment.”[xv] Zen’s way of teaching points directly to the truth of reality, not trifling with symbolism, describes Watts.

[26] However, Zen and yoga are not to be considered as a system of self-improvement, “for all ideas of self-improvement and of becoming or getting something relate solely to our abstract image of ourselves,” as Watts points out. "To follow them is to give ever more reality to that image.”[xvi] Once an individual starts ‘doing’ yoga to improve one’s self, it’s another form of grasping for identity. As Tyler says, “Self improvement is masturbation. Self destruction…” Tyler leaves it at that, because he does not want to give the show away. “Hitting rock bottom is not a weekend retreat. It’s not a goddamn seminar”—like so many yoga sessions offered today.

[27] Instead of being means for self-improvement, Watts proposes that yoga could be simply done for fun. According to Watts, when Suzuki Daisetz, a Japanese scholar of Buddhism, was asked what it was like to have satori—Zen awakening—he answered, “Just like ordinary everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground.” Indeed, Fight Club is a spiritual celebration that is far more satisfying than any rote church service that drags on with long hymns and longer faces. “The hysterical shouting was in tongues—like a Pentecostal church,” Jack observes. After fighting, “We all felt saved.”

[28] But the yoga of Fight Club is not complete for Jack. He still is frustrated by emotions, namely anger and jealousy. Marla has become Tyler’s sex partner and has “invaded” Jack’s “home.” And Jack continues to identify himself with abstractions in bodily form, “I am Jack’s Raging Bile Duct,” but now also in spiritual terms: “I became the calm, little center of the world,” “I was the Zen master,” “I wrote haikus.” His newly found spirituality becomes a way to protect his bruised ego. “I got right in everyone's hostile little face. Yes, these are my bruises from fighting. Yes, I'm comfortable with that. I am enlightened.”

[29] In response, the guru hammers at Jack’s spiritual abstractions, applying lye to Jack’s hand. Jack tries to deal with the pain by thinking of a forest scene and “going to my cave,” i.e., the guided meditation he had at the support group. His mind even forms abstract pictures of “seering” and “flesh” written in a dictionary. But abstractions such as a nice, far-off place and book knowledge are not real. They will not effectively solve the concrete, non-conceived suffering of lye on his hand, burning a kiss-shaped scar. “This is your pain. Don’t go to your cave. Don’t deal with it like those dead people do.” And more useless are abstractions about spirituality that bind individuals to moral principles, for example. “Fuck hell and fuck redemption,” Tyler barks. Faith in the typical Western image of God the Father, a benevolent old gentleman who loves us is similarly futile: “Our fathers were our models for God. And if our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? You have to consider the possibility that God doesn't like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you. We don’t need him.”

[30] The lye scene also sets up Tyler’s break down of Jack’s conceptions of death as another means to liberation. Tyler will give him vinegar as neutralizer only when “First you have to know, not fear, know that someday you’re gonna die.” Fear itself is another form of abstraction, worrying about one’s conception about the future. The terror of death keeps individuals clinging, as Watts observes, “to ourselves and our lives in chronic anxiety, however pushed into the back of our mind. But when the time comes where clinging is no longer of the least avail, the circumstances are ideal for letting go of oneself completely. When this happens, individual is released from his ego-prison.”[xvii] Jack feels “premature enlightenment” because he is “one step closer to hitting bottom,” Tyler notes.

[31] Tyler uses the same gambit on the deli clerk, played by Joon B. Kim, by putting a gun to his head. “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day in Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal than you and I have tasted.” It will be the best because Raymond K. Hessel has experienced death and knows that it can happen at any moment. Life is to be lived right now, instead of living for future, conceived hopes and dreams. “Even the Mona Lisa,” an icon of Western beauty, “is falling apart.”

[32] Thus, the practice of Buddhism is to relieve the individual from possessions, idols and beliefs, because they all represent abstractions with which an individual frustrates himself. As Watts notes, “The practical discipline of the way of liberation is a progressive disentanglement of one’s Self from every identification. It is to realize that I am not this body, these sensations, these feelings, these thoughts, this consciousness. The basic reality of my life is not any conceivable object. Ultimately it is not even to be identified with any idea, as of God or atman.”[xviii]

[33] On the other hand, Watts points out that the act of breaking down abstractions presents its own vicious circle: “So long as we turn over ideas in our minds about ‘symbol’ and ‘reality,’ or keep repeating, ‘I am not my idea of myself,’ this is still mere abstraction.”[xix] So Zen masters are glib and cagey about their disciplines, instead aiming Zen’s concrete reality straight at students. Indeed, the first two rules of Fight Club are: you do not talk about Fight Club.[xx] Disciples are to see things just as they are, “nothing good, nothing bad. There is no symbolic self to be forgotten and no need for any idea of a concrete reality to be remembered.”[xxi] As Tyler observes, “It’s only when we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” "Things" themselves-one's self, feelings, conceptions of time and fear-are created by the illusion of maya.

[34] In Project Mayhem, We Have No Names
[35] Tyler’s method of breaking down Jack’s abstractions echoes the Hindu who says “Neti, neti,” translated “not this, not this” or simply “no, no”. There’s a certain logic to it: if everything an individual senses, understands or believes is maya, then one way to realize enlightenment beyond them is to deny the illusion. As Tyler teaches, “You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You are not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.”

[36] Tyler also borrows from Nagarjuna, a teacher in the second century who founded the Madhyamika school of Buddhism. Madhyamika is also known as the “middle way,” which uses Buddhism’s dialectic style of teaching. As Watts describes, Buddhism can essentially be seen as a dialogue between a teacher and student, where the teacher would counter any concept the student has with its opposite. For example, when an individual seeks happiness in life, the Buddha would teach the opposite, that life is suffering. When an individual believes in a permanent and eternal self or soul—and clings to that self—the Buddha would teach that there is no fixed self, no ego.

[37] This method of dialogue is not simply a discussion between teacher and student. The teacher imposes a discipline of meditation, prayer, etc. to make the student experience reality—without conceptions, beliefs or desires that maya creates—firsthand. An individual cannot be simply told that there is or is no ego—he must experience it through discipline for himself. Watts gives an example of how someone who believes the Earth is flat cannot possibly be talked out of believing the supposition because the flat-Earthist says, “Look out the window and see, it’s obvious—it looks flat.” The only way to convince him is to literally bring him to the edge that he believes exists. But to get to the edge, the individual needs to use a discipline, a method, so that he does not walk around in circles. So the flat-Earthist is led by the teacher along Latitude 40, for example, strictly and rigorously. When he goes around the world and winds up at the place where he started, the individual sees that the Earth is at least cylindrical—and then go through other rigors to find out the Earth is indeed round.

[38] Project Mayhem—Tyler’s organized underground terrorist group—is the discipline that, as Nagarjuna did, Tyler uses to bring Jack and the “space monkeys” to the edge.[xxii] Lye, demoralizing epithets through the megaphone, manual labor, even having no names to identify one’s self with are all part of the discipline as Watts describes Nargajuna’s method “to undermine, to cast doubts on, any proposition to which his student will cling—to destroy all intellectual formulations and all concepts of the nature of reality or the nature of the self whatsoever.”[xxiii] Students are left without a single concept or abstraction to identify with. In like fashion, Tyler is bringing Jack to “Ground Zero.”

[39] Even the acts of terrorism, e.g., destroying corporate art, blowing up computer stores and smashing car lights with bats, are to bring the disciples to the extreme to challenge their ideas about social conventions of morality. When Jack awakes from his coma, he has become wise to game and sees the acts of terrorism as unnecessary: “You morons! You’re running around in ski masks, trying to explode things. What did you think was going to happen?!” Indeed, Jack’s creation of Tyler is the same gambit of going to the edge. “People do it everyday—they talk to themselves, they see themselves as they’d like to be. They don’t have the courage you have to just run with it,” Tyler explains. “You were looking for a way to change your life. You could not do this on your own. All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me.”

[40] By making the journey to Ground Zero, Jack is slowly becoming… Tyler Durden—himself, without abstractions and conceptions of who he desires to be. Ironically, Jack’s final discipline comes in a car accident-even though all the while as a car insurance assessor he has never been in an actual crash: “This must have been what all those people felt like before I filed them as statistics in my reports.” With the car weaving in and out of oncoming traffic, Tyler barks, “Fuck what you know. You need to forget what you know. That’s your problem. Forget about what you think you know about life, friendship and especially about you and me.” By being brought to the edge of death, where his abstractions of identity—how he has lived, his relationships, his beliefs and desires—are destroyed, Jack has “a near-life experience.” Jack is on the road to living. And he can live because he knows—not fears—that he will die.

[41] This conversation is over
[42] When Jack awakes from his coma—and this time it’s a real awakening—he faces the loneliness of enlightenment. As Watts describes: “The loneliness of liberation, of no longer finding security by taking sides with the crowd, of no longer believing that the rules of the game are the laws of nature. It is thus that transcending the ego leads to great individuality.”[xxiv] Tyler is gone and he is “all alone. My father dumped me, Tyler dumped me.” Jack realizes that Fight Club has spiraled out of control. Just as his father before, Tyler has left to “set up franchises all over the country.” Like “Planet Starbucks,” the house is “Planet Tyler.” Just as yoga that is generally sold today with exercise tapes, cushioned mats and giant exercise balls, Fight Club is using the means of consumerism to spread. Even pictures of soap with the Fight Club brand are used in the movie’s marketing. (Ironically, scenes that speak directly to the audience, such as the description of “cigarette burns” seem to say, ‘Hey, this is a twisted movie about a guy named Tyler Durden. But it’s also about you and the illusions of commercialism foisted on you. You are involved.’)

[43] He also sees through the abstractions that formalized religion can lead to. When Jack’s friend and Project Mayhem space monkey Big Moosie dies, the monkeys conclude, “In death, a man in Project Mayhem has a name,” that is to say, he has an identity. They are effectively applying the abstraction of identity as a life after death—deluding themselves that there is something higher, something better in an afterlife. As Watts notes, they “transpose the future into a spiritual dimension, figuring that this material world is not the real world, but that the spiritual world is the real world. And there will be somewhere, somehow an eternal life for [them].”[xxv] Notions about an afterlife are the same abstraction that followers of traditions—Western and Eastern—fall into the grasp of. As Watts observes, “This hope for the future is a hoax. It’s a perfect hoax. Maybe we will make spiritual progress. [But] everybody puts it off. Maybe if I work at yoga for 10 years, 20 years, I will eventually make it to moksha, to nirvana, whatever. That’s nothing more than a postponement. Because you’re not fully alive now, you think someday you will be.”[xxvi]

[44] In the end, Jack has been transformed from an individual who is a victim of abstractions to a man of virtue. When he realizes Project Mayhem’s plan to blow up several financial-services buildings, he tries to stop the plot. In his loneliness, he declares, “I am Jack’s broken heart.” Notice the transformation: Jack started his yoga training as “Jack’s medulla oblongata,” the brain function, representing how individuals are plagued by conscious thinking and worrying. He ends as Jack’s “heart,” or hsin—roughly translated from Chinese as the “heart mind”—regarded by Easterners as human’s center. Appropriately, the soundtrack ends the movie with the Pixies’ song, “Where Is My Mind?” As a man of virtue, Jack is, as Watts points out, “a human hearted man. And the meaning of this is that one should, above all, trust human nature in the full recognition that it’s both good and bad. That it’s both loving and selfish.”[xxvii] However, Zen enlightenment does not simply end with becoming a virtuous person as Jack does. On the contrary, the life of Zen just begins with “a disillusion with the pursuit of goals which do not really exist—the good without the bad, the gratification of a self which is no more than an idea, and the morrow which never comes.”[xxviii] In language characteristic to Zen simplicity, Jack is now “okay. Everything’s going to be fine.”

[45] In a final gambit to Ground Zero, Jack pulls the trigger on himself, in effect, getting rid of his abstraction in Tyler. “By dying to yourself and found that you don’t exist, you are reborn,” Watts observes of enlightenment.[xxix] Jack is free of the last abstraction that bound him to a self-frustrating identification. Just like “the true, nonconceptual self is already the Buddha and needs no improvement,”[xxx] he is who he was in the first place, Tyler Durden.

[46] For a more complete discussion of Watts’ interpretations of Buddhism and Zen, check out his lectures and books, especially The Way of Zen.

[i] Watts (1915-1973) wrote over 20 books and recorded over 50 lectures.
[ii] The Way of Zen, 1989 printing, p. 107
[iii] The Way of Zen, p. 52.
[iv] On bushido, Watts writes, “The association of the peace-loving doctrine of the Buddha with the military arts has always been a puzzle to Buddhists of other schools. It seems to involve the complete divorce of awakening from morality. … [While] Buddhism is not a revolt against convention, and in societies where the military caste is an integral part of the conventional structure and the warrior’s role an accepted necessity Buddhism will make it possible for him to fulfill that role as a Buddhist. The medieval cult of chivalry should be no less of a puzzle to the peace-loving Christian.” (The Way of Zen, p. 107)
[v] Dhyana Buddhism------need explain what dhyana and zen are?? p. 80 and 85
[vi] Zen Bones and Fundamentals of Buddhism
[vii] According to Watts, the word maya is “derived from the Sanskrit root matr-, ‘to measure, form, build or lay out a plan,’ from which we obtain such Greco-Latin words as meter, matrix material and matter.” (The Way of Zen, p. 39) So saying that the world of facts and events is maya is to say that ideas of any kind are just terms of measurement—rather than realities of nature.
[viii] ----need to explain connection between Hinduism and Buddhism???
[ix] The Way of Zen, p. 36
[x] The Buddha can also be seen as doctor, especially in the summary of his teachings, called the Four Noble Truths. As Watts observes, the Truths are “patterned on the traditional Vedic form of a physician’s diagnosis and prescription:” the identification of the disease, the disease’s cause, a prognosis whether the disease may be cured, and the prescription for the remedy. (The Way of Zen, p. 46)
[xi] Fundamentals of Buddhism
[xii] Fundamentals of Buddhism
[xiii] Up to now, we have seen glimpses of Pitt/Tyler in key parts of the movie’s development, foreshadowing his symbolic significance: first when Jack describes insomnia, then when the doctor says, “if you want to see pain” and finally when Jack looks at Marla longingly. Tyler is thus literally the embodiment of illusion, pain and lust. Tyler is who Jack wants to be when he is under the influence of samsara.
[xiv] The Way of Zen, p. 50 and Symbols and Meanings
[xv] The Way of Zen, p. 77
[xvi] The Way of Zen, p. 125
[xvii] The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, p. 34
[xviii] The Way of Zen, p. 48
[xix] The Way of Zen, p. 126
[xx] Indeed, part of the genius of the movie is that the yoga it presents is concealed by its graphic nature, so that its opportunities are not imposed onto viewers as dogma, but revealed to those who are searching, in the same spirit as Watts observing, “Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist, ought to have his head examined.” (---get lecture----)
[xxi] The Way of Zen, p. 127 (new version)
[xxii] The house on Paper Street is essentially a Buddhist monastery. Just as Watts describes monasteries of the East centuries ago, disciples or “applicants” in the movie must stand outside the door for several days before they are allowed to enter. And like the Buddha’s Eightfold path, a set of precepts for ending self-frustration, Fight Club has eight rules.
[xxiii] Buddhism as Dialogue
[xxiv] Psychotherapy East and West, found towards the beginning of chapter 5-----
[xxv] Symbols and Meanings
[xxvi] Symbols and Meanings
[xxvii] Man in Nature
[xxviii] The Way of Zen, p. 125
[xxix] Symbols and Meanings
[xxx] The Way of Zen, p. 125


  • At 10/28/2004, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    been thinking about the whole Fight Club, Last Samurai and violence and yoga thing since you left. today at the end of my yoga class i had a thought that maybe it's not so much "violence as yoga" as it is "yoga
    in the violence". It's difficult for me to articulate it, but while maybe it's nothing more than semantics, it is something that could explain the samurai and bhuto. meditation, yoga and related disciplines
    train both mind and body and increases not only control over the body and mental concentration, it allows a person to tolerate (with patience) the suffering and pain that occur in life - and the samurai's way allows them to move through the pain and suffering that comes with that life that they were born into (samurai generally did not "choose" to be samurai. they were born to it, and so must learn to accept it).

    so yoga is a tool to move through the violence (in a way - as i said, it's very difficult for me to articulate). a way of mastering the destruction inherent in violence and not being destroyed yourself.
    (sounds a bit theatrical, but it's the best i can do).

    so in Last Samurai - Cruise's character is learning this way dealing with the violence of the life of a soldier. but in Fight Club, I would say what's happening to Norton's character is more that he is letting go. it's often the first step towards gaining discipline. we place so much stigma on certain things, importance on others, that our view starts to become twisted by those pressures. you have to let go of the
    guilty and judgmental feelings, towards yourself and others, and sometimes the first thing that happens is that things that have been suppressed because they are "bad" come rushing out. Fight Club would be
    an extreme example of it. Also there is the aspect of voluntarily "destroying" his repugnant life. Creative destruction. Norton does eventually moves to a space where he no longer feels the need for that violence and becomes able to shed the Tyler Durden persona.

  • At 10/28/2004, Blogger Dzintars Dzilna said…

    Very interesting observations. I don't think we are far off. I think what you're saying is that the discipline and mastery that the samurai had--and what the yoga practicioner strives for as well--are the means for letting go and thus being able to get through the violence of the battlefield or just everyday life. Bhuto (or is it bushido?) and yoga are disciplines or means that can lead to tolerance, spiritual enlightenment or learning to deal with violence on the battlefield or in life.

    But I would suggest a few things. One of the points of my essay is that Fight Club shows how violence itself can be a means for tolerance, enlightenment, etc. We often write off violence as bad, overlooking how it might be an opportunity. Hell, even being mean (to use a bad pun) is considered bad, and I thought so until I hung out with Ray! Meanness can enable the receiver of the meanness to work on their faults, right a wrong, etc. Maybe the person being mean is not even being mean--it's just the receiver's perception. Maybe the mean person is just being funny, but one considers it mean and tries to avoid it--and so losing the opportunity to learn from it.

    When you say "letting go to get discipline," I think the opposite: discipline as a way to let go. Just as yoga can be loosely translated as "bridge," a way of getting from here to there, discipline and concentration are not the end, things to "get to." This may be a question of semantics, but we might recognize that means can very easily become the end. I remember how Watts talks about how the Buddha observed, "One suffers because one desires," and how his disciples went away and put themselves through all kinds of disciplines, trying to stamp out desire. When they came back, the Buddha observed, "you are desiring not to desire." They were still desiring! Discipline as an end won't necessarily help. But as you point out, Norton's character no longer needs the violence, nor Tyler for that matter, because they were a means (Tyler as guru) for his enlightenment. I think you come around to seeing this, that by letting go of guilt and judgmental feelings (even of mean people), one can get past them.

    For another perspective, here's an article that may be of interest: http://www.killingthebuddha.com/oral/sp_exercises.htm. May warrant a scan. Thoughts? dz

  • At 8/22/2005, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thank you for an amazing essay.

  • At 11/22/2005, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    FABULOUS essay.
    Thank you very much.

  • At 12/09/2005, Anonymous von Brauns said…

    T u bija skaidrah prahtah kad sho uzrakstihja? Andrejs Kulnieks tikko irėradas, doshu vinjam, kah profesoram naakaas, davai , tiekamies ar Zaprauski NY!
    com! T. Brauns, S!A!K! XXX

  • At 1/13/2006, Anonymous joel said…

    I succeeded. I achieved my goal, I am successful, I set myself a target and did it, I wanted to do it and I have done, I am really pleased with myself, I am so happy I just want to tell everyone about my success, I did really well.
    improve self esteem
    Self Improvement Services.

  • At 1/13/2006, Anonymous scim said…

    Superb essay. Thanks for writing and sharing it.

    You really have to wonder if Chuck Palahniuk and David Fincher had the tenets of Zen Buddhism in mind when they produced Fight Club. Or was this just a natural reaction to the values and results of modern culture? Much like the Buddha's actions were a direct reaction to his society's.

    I also have to point out the irony of some of the above spam-bot comments generated as a result of a consumer oriented society that advertise self improvement.

  • At 1/21/2006, Blogger Dminister said…

    Dude...Bobby Baker is not a buddhist!!!

  • At 3/20/2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    very neat essay
    i've read it twice

    really makes you think about yourself and what makes you happy

  • At 5/18/2006, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    sweet essay.

  • At 7/31/2006, Anonymous DaveD said…

    I just want to point out that the protagonist's name is not Jack.

    He only refers to himself as Jack in an allusion to the articles they read while in the basement of the decaying mansion. (The first person essays by organs. i.e. I am jack's medulla oblongata).

    The name of the central character is never mentioned, and it is a testament to the talent of the director and writers (of both the book and film) that this is not noticed.

    It's a significant part of the plot - this character has no name, he is there to be imprinted upon. This character is sometimes Tyler Durden. This character is sometimes Jack's inflamed sense of rejection. This character is sometimes Jack's complete lack of surprise, but this character is never Jack.

  • At 2/15/2007, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    this is all great great stuff
    the next step is to find one blanket statement to reach this said Enlightenment

  • At 4/23/2007, Blogger kari rebekah hexem said…

    I do not agree with your interpretation -- in my opinion, from what I remember of Fight Club, Tyler was the ultimate manifestation of "Ego" (in the negative Buddhist sense), because he was completely self-involved, full of aggression, lacked any sort of compassion, and was not at all grounded in "real life."

    From a book I own called "The Heart of the Buddha,"

    "Egolessness means less "maniac-ness," in some sense -- free from being an egomaniac. Egomania has several levels of subtlety. Ordinary people think of an egomaniac as an obvious maniac, but if we study enough and look enough, we will see that there are subtleties of egomania. The dictators of the world could be seen as egomaniacal people, obviously, because they perform their functions in that way. But more ordinary people also function in that way, including ourselves in some sense. We would like to posess our world, and so we act in such a way that whatever we see around us is completely in order, according to our desire to maintain the security of "me," "myself" -- which is egohood" (Chogyam Trungpa, p.3-4).

    Tyler Durden was the embodiment of a cult-of-personality. This is suggested by the recurring mentioning of his name, to the exculsion of all others. And his use and abuse of others. He was not a guru.

    The idea that hand-to-hand combat posesses spiritual significance is fairly simple, and I don't have any argument with that. But as in the "Art of War," the best martial strategy is the strategy that makes violence unnecessary.

    Buddhists who believe that violence and aggression are the solution to life's problems are few and far between.

  • At 10/01/2007, Blogger David Evans said…

    Chuck Palahniuk took the Landmark Forum which is a three day course based on the "Est" program. Werner Erhard was the founder of "Est". Werner was a close friend to Watts and attended several of his talks on his house boat. Very Zen indeed.

  • At 2/10/2008, Blogger Dzintars Dzilna said…

    To DaveD: I use the name "Jack" in the essay to be able to refer to him. The essay could use quotation marks wherever it refers to him, I suppose.

    But that Jack is not his name--and that he does not have a name--is an excellent point. When he says, "You are not your job. You are not how much money you have in the bank..." he could just as well say, "You are not your name", because a name defines, limits, controls one's identity.

    And yet, after "Jack" metaphorically dies and is reborn, the Big Moosie becomes Robert Paulson ("His name is Robert Paulson"). "Jack" sees the limitations of "Project Mayhem", the name of the destruction Tyler is unleashing. Once he is transformed, "Jack" is able to recognize the violence that Project Mayhem is imposing on others, and enables him to accept who he is, a being named Tyler Durden.

  • At 4/24/2009, Blogger Daragh said…

    It is comical to read the comments people have made where they are writing to "set you straight" on some point that perhaps if they had been present as they read they might have actually read what you wrote. This of course would remove thier opporunity to be unique snowflakes:-) I live in India where I practice Yoga Asana, pranayama and meditation. I see Fight Club as a yogis journey in the real world without the bliss'd out hippy nonsense that is just another mask. Namasate

  • At 1/29/2010, Blogger 我一直亂想怎辦 said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 11/03/2010, Blogger MantasZero said…

    This is a great essay and excellent correlation between what can be misunderstood as nihilism and true liberation of the being.


Post a Comment

<< Home