Movie Review: A Buddhist Take on Inception.

Via Ari Setsudo Pliskin
on Jul 26, 2010
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It’s All About Letting Go of Attachment.

It may just be the movie of the year. And it’s all about letting go of attachment to perfect, but fake unrealities…and rejoining that precious, fragile, fleeting state of mind known as the present moment—real life.

While he is messing around in other people’s psyches, Cobb, the main character, is dealing with his own attachment to the past.

His wife Mal is a samskara—an imprint in the mind created from past experience that keeps us from fully experiencing the present.  She haunts Cobb wherever he goes, but she is really just an illusion.  It isn’t really his wife that is haunting him, but his memory of her.  Haven’t you ever unproductively reacted to a situation based on your conditioning from the past, as opposed to what’s in front of you?  Haven’t you overreacted to something a partner has done based not on that particular person, but a previous partner?

(or grosser still, one of your parents?)

So Cobb travels deeper and deeper into his psyche, and he gets by with a little help from his friend—Ariadna.  The metaphor of an elevator as deepening levels of subconscious is very powerful.  In a workshop with Buddhist teacher Fleet Maull, he guided us through a meditation in which we imagined an elevator in our chest and we felt our reaction to something, shedding layers of defense and denial, until we steadily breathed our way into the raw bottom floor in our gut of experiencing suffering from a vulnerable, unresourced state.

We sat with it, then slowly returned to our fully resourced, empowered state of mind.

At the deepest level, Ariadna discovers Cobb’s deeply rooted samskara that he doesn’t want to let go of.  And letting go isn’t easy.  As you get deeper into someone’s psyche, manifestations of their subconscious attack to maintain the status quo—in Inception they do so with guns and violence. While the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree on the eve of his enlightenment, the demon Mara attacks him with all sorts of arrows and tempations.

Getting beyond external defenses can indeed feel like a war.

If going down an elevator and fighting people with guns is an adequate comparison to deepening personal spiritual practice, what does it mean to plant an idea in someone else’s mind, as the story’s protagonists are so intent on doing?  We plant ideas in each other’s minds all the time.  Any time I listen to someone’s suggestion or become impacted by their passionate, ignorant, aggressive or, occasionally, enlightened actions, you might say they are implanting ideas in my mind.

And while defenses are lowered, ideas can be planted very potently.  This is what makes a guru so powerful.  In Inception, the idea is not implanted for the good of its recipient, but for other motives (namely, Cobb’s desire to return home and Saito’s desire to crumble his opponent’s business). That is often the case in everyday life as well.

As with the old school of Buddhist idealism, you ultimately don’t know what is reality and what is merely in the mind.  Or rather, you don’t know if there is any reality independent of the mind.  So, Inception joins the Matrix, Dark City and other movies that create an intriguing sci-fi representation of an age-old philosophical question.

The main flaw of the movie, for me, was its exposition.  If I didn’t have an iPhone on which to look up the rapidly introduced characters, plot structure and sci-fi convetions, I might have been lost.  For me, the movie recovered with a clever concept making an analogy for dealing with human emotions that resonatied with my heart a couple times.

I enjoyed the ride.


About Ari Setsudo Pliskin

Ari Setsudo Pliskin is Zen Yogi who works to actualize the interconnectedness of life online and on the streets. While once addicted to school, Ari has balanced his geekiness with spiritual practice and time spent on society’s margins. As a staff member of the Zen Peacemakers, Ari assisted Zen Master Bernie Glassman in his teaching around the world. Ari studies Zen at the Green River Zen Center in Greenfield, MA and is an Iyengar-style yoga teacher. Ari loves comic books as well. Ari currently serves as the Executive Director of the Stone Soup Café . Connect with Ari on Facebook or Twitter: @AriPliskin.


9 Responses to “Movie Review: A Buddhist Take on Inception.”

  1. […] here: Movie Review: A Buddhist Take on Inception. | elephant journal By admin, on July 27, 2010 at 6:49 pm, under 2010, Articles, Blog, Videos. Tags:year. No Comments […]

  2. Melony says:

    Great article, Ari. You expressed many thoughts I also had during the movie. You were able to capture the ideas with more specificity than I was able to. I especially was intrigued by your comment regarding the planting of thoughts by our guru.

  3. Tanushri says:

    Funny, when I came out of Inception, the first thought in my head was, "This is the exact opposite of Buddhism!"
    Two things in particular: The inherent existence of things/people/experiences in dreams–the spinning top that never stops spinning, the children that never age–as opposed to their interdependence seemed to be a great way to depict a world without emptiness. Also, I'm sure Buddha would argue there is no way for someone to plant an idea in your head whose seeds weren't there to begin with. In that, Eames seemed like the voice of reason/Buddha.

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  5. […] may seem like kind of a stretch…but I could see the connections in Ari Pliskin’s post, A Buddhist Take on Inception and while the concepts also apply yogically, I am inspired to describe aspects of the movie from my […]

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  7. […] think about elephants. What are you thinking about? A Buddhist Take on Inception. The Yoga of Inception. The ‘Inception’ of Illusion or Reality? Inception, Magic Realism and […]

  8. Awesome Review and also nice movie, i incredibly enjoyed it because it is so interesting. Thanks for sharing the great post with us. Looking forward for another post from you like this. After the long day hard work, human mind needs a change for some refreshment.

  9. John Smith says:

    Buddhism is not a religion in the strict sense and has nothing to say whatsoever about healthcare choices, fertility issues or any of the rest of the fantasy crap that fundamentalist X-ians seem to fixate on. You're Gay? – you're good to go; want to use birth control, again good to go; abortion – not necessarily a kind thing to do, but again, your personal choice.
    Buddhism is about living and being present in the moment and personal growth. In Buddhism, there is no god.
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