koan – [noun] a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism. A nonsensical or paradoxical story, dialogue, question, or statement presented by a teacher to a student; the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking, yet it may be accessible by intuition or meditation. See Koan on wikipedia for more info.
Growing up, I was a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Each week, during its seven season run, also the greater part of my adolescence, Buffy’s creator, Joss Whedon, brought to life an exciting world that not only entertained, but challenged me to dig deeper into many of the moral questions teenage and young-adult life present. Buffy battled monsters as metaphor for the problems of everyday life. Although Buffy was “created by an avowed atheist” the show attempted to honestly and respectfully portray various religions’ and spiritual practices’ approach to said problems. So much so, that author, Jana Riess, wrote a book entitled, What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide. In her book, Riess “argues that [Buffy] abounds in Buddhist parallels”. She says that “Buffy and Angel are like “bodhisattvas”” and that Buddhism:
[D]rives the show’s central themes: consequences (or karma), redemption through one’s own effort, the pervasive nature of suffering, the need for self-sacrifice. It’s even a pastiche of different kinds of Buddhisms. Inwardly, the show is intensely Zen in its determination to privilege experience over teaching (dharma)-on Buffy, personal experience is the best dharma to be found anywhere. But outwardly, the show more closely resembles Tibetan Buddhism, with its elaborate, exotic rituals and pantheon of supernatural beings. The figure of the Slayer herself has echoes in Tibetan Buddhist tradition: the Slayer is a kind of lama, one individual chosen in her generation to lead others. (Riess 97 – 102)
When I read Riess’ book, it soon became clear to me that Riess was most interested in Buffy‘s Tibetan Buddhist influence. But for me, Buffy‘s Zen Buddhist traits arise more fascinating, specifically in an episode from the middle of season four, entitled Hush.
Hush, an Emmy nominated episode, received the highest ratings of the fourth season and a great deal of critical acclaim. It is still remembered by fans as one of the highlights of the Buffyverse: the seven seasons of the Buffy series and the five seasons of Angel, a Buffy spin-off series. This was due in large part to the episode’s provocative concept in which a group of fairy tale monsters, the Gentlemen, steal the voices of everyone in Buffy’s hometown of Sunnydale. Naturally, without their voices, the townspeople are unable to speak, leading to mass confusion and panic. The concept is made even more interesting by the fact that Buffy was known, particularly, for its dialogue. In fact, many critics viewed Whedon and Company’s dialogue as the shows only good quality. So Whedon challenged himself to write an episode in which very little dialogue was used. In the process, he discovered “what the show was about” (Buffy).
In his DVD commentary, Joss Whedon states that “the idea [for the episode was] that when people stop talking, they start communicating” (Buffy). An enigmatic statement in itself, here, Whedon points toward the Zen notion that language is problematic. Or as he puts it, “Language can be annoying”. Designed to point to this very fact—the construction of language—Zen Koans employ the use of negation, surprise, contradiction, and silence. Therefore, its only natural that when conveying a similar idea, Whedon utilizes some of the same strategies, often adapting them to imagistic and filmic technique. Hush unfolds much like a visual Koan.
Hush begins by clearly drawing attention to the difference between communication and language. The show opens with a dream sequence in which Dr. Maggie Walsh, professor and mentor, says:
So this is what it is . . . talking about communication. Talking about language . . . not the same thing. It’s about inspiration . . . Not the idea, but the moment before the idea when its total. When it blossoms in your mind and connects to everything. It’s about the thoughts and experiences that we don’t have a word for. (Buffy)
Through the mouth of the Teacher, Whedon utilizes negation in order to point to something hard to describe: “that we don’t have a word for”, that’s “not the idea”, and “not the same thing [as language]”. He uses language to point around the idea, much like describing the field and everything else surrounding a pole rather than the pole itself. Once the teacher feels she has done her best to point her students in the appropriate direction and language can no longer assist, she calls for “a demonstration” (Buffy). Dr. Walsh asks Buffy, her Student, to lay down on the desk in front of the lecture hall full of other students. Buffy obliges, as her love interest and T.A., Riley, stands over her. They kiss. Though awkward and indecorous (remember this happens in a dream), Dr. Walsh is calling for action. “When it blossoms in your mind and connects to everything” language doesn’t always suffice, and you must act. In Zen, an enlightened person acts appropriately, meaning Right, in the moment. The same idea bounces off the celluloid here, presenting a powerful scene that sets the stage for the fairy tale/koan that follows.