Eastern religion" - also alluded to in this paper as "Eastern Mysticism" and "mysticism" - and the occult, along with magic and its many off-shoots have had a considerable influence on American Pop Culture over the past few decades. Movies, books, music - all have been touched and enhanced by mysticism and its cousins. So, when referring to "Eastern religion," this paper is generally alluding to the ancient religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and other spiritual genres.
It is also important to be clear on what "occult" truly means; it is a word that comes from the Latin occultus, meaning, literally, "hidden" or "concealed" (Merriam-Webster defines occult as "to shut off from view or exposure"). "Occult" has been equated with Satan, witchcraft, vampires, and other unseemly topics related to death and blood-letting. For this paper's purpose, the occult will be aligned with magic and mystery, not death and demented views of the unknown. According to Eternal Ministries, Inc. (www.eternalministries.org),the occult refers to the "untapped powers within mankind that will allow one to discover that which is hidden in the material world," which fits the tone and intention of this paper quite well.
As to "mysticism," Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines mysticism as "the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience (as intuition or insight)." It is important to remember that the normal experience of mysticism is not intellectual, but rather, that experience focuses on a kind of cosmic enlightenment, where deep thoughts about the reality of the world give way to mind-clearing moments in search of a higher consciousness, in pursuit of a loftier, less mental state where the possibility of magic and telepathy come into clearer perspective.
And when lining religion and theology up side-by-side with mysticism, in a very real way, "all theology is mystical, inasmuch as it shows forth the divine mystery: the date of revelation" (Lossky, 2004). But there is a flip side, according to Lossky, writing in the Orthodox Christian Information Center (www.orthodoxinfo.com)."On the other hand, mysticism is frequently opposed to theology as a realm inaccessible to understanding, as an unutterable mystery, a hidden depth, to be lived rather than known." But moreover, Lossky continues, "There is...no Christian mysticism without theology; but above all, there is no theology with mysticism." And, he asserts, "Far from being mutually opposed, theology and mysticism support and complete each other. One is impossible without the other."
The Beatles and Transcendental Meditation: Rock Superstars Dipping into an Ancient Mysticism to find Peace in a World Drenched in Chaos and Materialism
For many people who came of age and got into rock music in the 1960s and 1970s, and perhaps smoked some marijuana and even experimented with LSD, their interest in eastern religion and mysticism began with the Beatles' fascination with - and association with - the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It was John Lennon and George Harrison, in particular, who embraced the Maharishi in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the town of Rishikesh, deep in the Himalayan foothills of northern India. The media clamored for photos of the Beatles hanging out and drinking in the good vibes of this holy man in white robes who preached peace through self-awareness and higher consciousness through meditation. But in addition to the media, tens of thousands of Beatles' followers arrived in northern India, swept up not only in curiosity about transcendental meditation and the Maharishi, but in fact, "most of them really made the trip to pay tribute to the Beatles" (Lacayo, 2001).
On any given day you found them trying to reconnect to the current that had passed through their lives in the days before the band broke up," Lacayo wrote, in Time magazine. "[The many fans] were the ones you saw crouching in the grass, reaching down to touch the concrete landing pad where the Beatles' helicopter had once lifted the magic boys into the sky.
All things Must Pass," George Harrison wrote, "with the resolute detachment he had learned from Eastern religion."
Martin Scorsese and Eastern Mysticism
The main idea of Eastern Mysticism is that all mankind is divine and possesses unlimited potential," according to Eternal Ministries, Inc. For high-profile film director Martin Scorsese, his Eastern-Mysticism-influenced film, Kundun, which portrays the early years of the life of the Dalai Lama, clearly shows the unlimited potential of a brilliant and creative mind. Kundun was seen by some as a radical departure from his other films, like The Exorcist, The Omen, Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver; it was also seen as incongruous for Scorsese, a Roman Catholic Italian-American.
But a thoughtful article in Film Netribution Network (Enright, 2001) points out that although Scorsese's films, "on the surface," have seemed to be fully "Christian" - as references to the Bible, the Virgin Mary, and images the Crucifix are plentiful - "his characters and worldviews and his own philosophical orientation often seem to owe more to Hindu and Buddhist mysticism."
Hence, this seems to be another example of Eastern Mysticism influencing modern pop culture in America. As to the question, "Is there religion behind the scenes in film?" - the answer would appear to be yes, no question about it.
Enright writes that in Christian rituals, "objects are only made holy through a process of consecration," albeit, "to a Hindu or a Buddhist" who was raised in the "Pantheistic tradition of religious texts like the Upanishads...all things are innately spiritual." ["Upanishad" means "the inner or mystic teaching" (www.hindunet.org)].
Hindus and Buddhists, Enright continues, judge the world through the text of Upanishads 126.96.36.199: "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."
With that as background, Enright briefly speaks to the fact that in Zen Buddhism, a yogi (one established in "self-realization") "sees everything as being the same: whether it be pebbles, stones, or gold" (Upanishads 6.8).
In Mean Streets, Enright explains, there could well be an Eastern Mystical theme playing throughout, as "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."
He says it is an important key to realize that a Christian might think this imagery is sacrilegious while a Buddhist of Tantric beliefs - who believes that spirituality is affirmed through concupiscence [e.g., sexual desire] - this scene could be considered an "affirmation" of those Buddhist beliefs.
And another scene in Mean Streets - when a tiger suddenly shows up who is called "a little William Blake" by its owner but is considered a threatening and vicious beast by Keital and Robert De Niro - illustrates Enright's point about this movie having Eastern Mysticism as a subtle theme running throughout. "Blake's poetry also has a strong pantheistic element ["pantheistic" means "a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe" according to Merriam-Webster] particularly in the poem about a clod of earth that is imbued with human feelings."
The pantheistic component in the movies of Martin Scorsese "reaches its apotheosis" in the film Kundrun, Enright argues, but it is also quite obvious in Raging Bull: "long, lingering close-ups...seem to imbue mundane objects with sentience ["sentience" means "feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception and thought," according to Merriam-Webster]."
Harry Potter's Magic as a Mystical Force in Pop Culture
The latest Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was ranked #3 in summer box office receipts through August 9, 2004, with $244.6 million (Bowles, 2004), according to USA Today. That placed the latest Potter movie behind only Shrek 2 ($433.5 million) and Spider-Man 2 ($349.1 million). And to gain an idea of just how much was expected of the third Potter film - based on the phenomenal success of the first two movies and of the books - USA Today on June 15th featured this headline: "Azkaban' audiences do a vanishing act." Vanishing? A movie that took in $93.7 million its first weekend but dropped to $34.9 million (a 63% fall-off) the following weekend is "vanishing"? "The third time around, the idea of Harry Potter is not as fresh or original," said Gitesh Pandya of Boxofficeguru.com.
Fresh or not, the newest Potter film, on top of the sensational reviews and acceptance of first two movies, has become what an article in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion & Public Life calls "the Harry Potter Phenomenon" (Jacobs, 2000). These are, Jacobs writes, "the most talked-about children's books in decades, perhaps ever." How an out-of-work teacher - and single mother - named Joanne Rowling could write hugely popular books that…