In On The Laugh

David O. Russell shows us just how funny Buddhism really is in his new film I HEART Huckabees

Robert Coe

“At the Zendo in New York? No? Maybe in a previous lifetime.” Maybe he’s playing with the journalist from the Buddhist magazine, or maybe he’s not. He talks over his shoulder as he leads me through the house: “You need some coffee? Have you had any breakfast?”

Eventually we settle at a child’s half-size table in his backyard, a sun-splashed Eden with thick lawns hemmed by shrubbery, a steep dirt hillside, and a homemade pool with waterfall. He’s wearing shorts, T-shirt, and sandals now, tall and handsome in ways you don’t get from his photographs, where his angular, even features seem more generic. Russell is hospitable, playful, scandalous, earthy, garrulous, and eager to “out” himself as a Buddhist.

“My first exposure was reading J. D. Salinger as a kid,” he tells me, once I assure him I really want to know. “I was always a little in the closet about spiritual stuff because I grew up in a typical home that was aggressively agnostic, dogmatically so... Then at Amherst I had this teacher, Robert Thurman, and took three or four courses with him.” Russell remembers the current professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia as “one of the most unpretentious teachers I’d ever met. Bob could talk to anybody about these mind-blowing ideas, in ways that didn’t mystify them.” Russell later went on to study and practice for four years at the New York Zendo with Eido Roshi, and took numerous short and longer retreats upstate. “It’s still a pretty big part of my life. We sit here [in L.A.] with a bunch of friends, but there’s not a place I go to now. Charlotte Joko Beck seems real interesting to me, but she’s in San Diego, so that’s a bit of a schlep... One of my heroes is Nyogen Senzaki, this Zen roshi who took the teachings at their word where they say you don’t need to have a temple—he came to L.A. and lived anonymously as a waiter downtown and taught a few people in his apartment. He has this skinny little book, Buddhism and Zen, which I just love.”

Russell has maintained his East Coast contacts, including Clark Strand, former Buddhist monk, author, and Tricycle contributing editor, and Bob Thurman, with whom he began a personal friendship ten years ago. “A lot of Bob’s ideas, and Clark’s ideas, fueled Huckabees, and Bob and I plan to write a screenplay together based on an idea of his about consciousness traveling through the time-space continuum. It’s a little sci-fi-ish.”

I ask this fundamentally comedic filmmaker if he’s seen the highest-grossing religious film of all time, The Passion of the Christ: $609 million internationally, and the meter’s still running. Russell’s animated face turns sour.

“I was turned off by where [Mel Gibson] went with that. I mean, Mark Wahlberg is a devout Catholic, and I respect that there is some spiritual experience in the middle of that movie for some people. But beating up on the Jews”—he shudders. “I feel if you’re telling the Christ story, you should do something to explode that prejudice... I want to shatter preconceptions. I don’t walk around saying, 'I’m a Buddhist, here’s what I think.’ I just want to talk to people about what I think and experience, and if we’re going to share it, well, we’ll share it—and if not, okay.”

I can’t help being reminded of when I was first getting involved in Buddhism. “A friend of mine once said,” I tell Russell, “that the cool thing about Buddhism is that it’s the only religion that teaches you how to laugh.”

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