Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.
~ Fight Club
Fight Club is a spiritual story; it is a story of a man trapped in terrible delusion and suffering who walks a spiritual path and makes some serious breakthroughs.
This might seem hard to believe since violence is such a fundamental part of the film, but ultimately it is revealed that violence doesn’t really help.
In the beginning, the unnamed narrator who I will just refer to as Edward Norton, is just going through the motions of life. He’s got a good job and money, but he can’t sleep because he knows something is missing from his life. He tries to fill that void with materialism. He spends a lot of time buying things and this doesn’t end up making him any happier.
He tries two methods for dealing with his suffering and they are both ultimately found to be unhelpful.
We know from the story of the Buddha that his journey took a similar route.
The Buddha studied with two different hermit yoga teachers. They both taught him meditation practices that helped him a lot with his concentration and with finding temporary bliss states, but they weren’t really what he was looking for. They didn’t really impact the suffering of life in a meaningful way. Suffering is a really important concept in Buddhism.
It is one of the three marks of existence, the three characteristics that all sentient beings share.
First Edward deals with it by going to support groups for people that are dying. When he sees their suffering it helps him to mindfully understand his own. He gains a fundamental understanding of the first noble truth, that all of life is suffering and then he is able to sleep. But, ultimately he does find this practice isn’t what he’s looking for.
He also explains the Buddhist concept of impermanence, another of the three marks of existence, when he says: “On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
So, he ends up creating a Fight Club. Men get together and punch each other to feel better about the suffering in life. There are a lot of men like Edward, who go through the motions of life, but don’t really live it. They join and the fight club grows and grows. But, ultimately, it doesn’t help him.
The Buddha tried ascetic practices after he studied with those two yoga teachers. He stopped taking care of his body to see if that would bring enlightenment. He put himself through more suffering to see if that would help and it didn’t. In the same way, Edward puts himself through a lot of suffering by getting into all of these fights.
Spoiler alert: There’s a big surprise in the movie. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Edward creates an alter ego. An imaginary person named Tyler Durden who he imagines as a lot cooler and better than himself. Tyler represents his ego, everything dangerous about himself. Tyler is the figure that stands between Edward and enlightenment, much like Mara, the evil being that appears when the Buddha is trying to attain enlightenment. Mara, like Tyler, is an extension of the Buddha’s ego.
Although, it should be noted, in a way, Tyler is helpful. Tyler helps challenge Edward’s preconceptions. He tells Edward that consumerism, modern materialistic, is useless.
“The things you own, they end up owning you,” he says.
He also says, “Reject the basic assumptions of civilization, especially the importance of material possessions.”
Like the Buddha leaving home and giving up everything, Edward leaves his possessions behind. He blows up his home, destroying everything. This is the beginning of his real spiritual journey. Like the Buddha, he goes and lives something like an ascetic life, moving into a dilapidated old house.
Ultimately, the Fight Club evolves into a terrorist organization called Project Mayhem, designed to change the world.
The first recruit to Project Mayhem shows up at their door in an incident that is incredibly similar to Bodhidharma‘s encounter with Huike.
This young man shows up at their door and Tyler and Edward tell him to leave. He doesn’t leave. He just stands there waiting outside. They spend time alternating between abusing and ignoring him, but still he doesn’t leave. Eventually, they let him join.
When the monk Huike wanted to become a student of Zen Master Bodhidharma, a similar thing happened. Huike went to the cave that Bodhidharma lived in and asked to be his student. When Bodhidharma refused, he just stood outside the cave and waited.
After a lot of time passed, he couldn’t wait any longer. Huike cut off his own arm to demonstrate to Bodhidharma that he was truly devoted, because Zen stories are more hardcore than Brad Pitt movies, and Bodhidharma accepted him as a student. This scene is what really inspired me to write this article.
In the training for Project Mayhem, Tyler tells the trainees his anti-materialist message. He tells them that being attached to material things is very harmful. He also seems to explain the principle of Non-self, that we are part of a whole, not separate entities. He says: “You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else.”
This is an important concept in Buddhism. Non-self is another one of the three marks of existence.
Ultimately, Tyler is a delusion, the last delusion that Edward needs to get rid of. The Buddha likened the spiritual journey to riding a raft across a river to the other shore. The raft represents Buddhism and the other shore represents Enlightenment. We are supposed to not carry the raft around anymore after we reach the other shore.
Tyler was a delusion. A fantasy character created by Edward to help him live the life he wanted to live. Edward came to a point in which he didn’t need this delusion anymore, so he had to get rid of it.
We need to remember the same thing, I suppose. I’ve heard that Buddhist practice itself can become a form of attachment.
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Ed: Sara Crolick