MOVIES- The LA Times... April 29, 2003

Monks Get the Joke Too

By Lisa Rosen, Special to The Times

So serene and gentle, they're the objects of humor in three new movies. But fittingly, their real counterparts are not offended.

In Hollywood, it may be easier to mock the search for inner peace than to try to achieve it. Witness the new movies "Anger Management," "Bulletproof Monk" and the upcoming "The In-Laws," which serve up Eastern monks as caricatures. They sit in the lotus position, swathed in robes, chanting for hours and offering placid platitudes about existence — when they're not defying gravity and eluding speeding bullets.

Monks of one sort or another have long been subject of humor (Monty Python, Mel Brooks) and awe (dozens of martial arts movies), and these days attention seems to be focused on the Eastern variety:

• In "Anger Management," John C. Reilly plays Arnie Shankman, a schoolyard-bully-turned-Buddhist-monk who sits in meditation in the middle of an idyllic garden. He serenely faces down a confrontation with Dave Buznik (Adam Sandler), until an enraged Dave lies about molesting the monk's crazy little sister. The monk snaps and goes at him. Dave uses the monk's flowing orange robes to trip him up, ending the brawl with a wedgie.

• The nameless monk in "Bulletproof Monk," played by Chow Yun-Fat, is a cartoon figure. Based on a comic book, the film features a lot of whacked-out flying-monk action, with acrobatics and bullet-dodging along the lines of "Crouching Cliché, Hidden Matrix." The monk also imparts a few obtuse tests about hot dogs and buns to young grasshopper Kar (Seann William Scott).

• Po-Po, the monk (played by Drew Lee) in "The In-Laws" (opening May 23), makes the "Bulletproof" fellow look deep. He serves as spiritual advisor to the mother of the groom (Candice Bergen) while remaining oblivious to the chaos around him. He's a walking punch line, used simply to underline the point that Bergen's character is a New Age ditz.

This is supposed to be good fun for the 14-year-old boys in the audience. But how amusing is it to the real monks?

Pravrajika Saradeshaprana, a Hindu monk from the Vedanta Society of Southern California, said she believes that filmmakers are using Eastern monk characters this way because they can get away with it: There are no Hindu or Buddhist lobbies threatening corporate boycotts.

She hasn't seen the films in question, preferring movies more along the lines of "The Golden Child" (the Eddie Murphy comedy about the search for a child who will bring goodness to the world), but the idea of making fun of monks didn't bother her, as long there was respect for the underlying principles of the lifestyle.

"Monasticism takes the normal values of ambition and materialism and turns them upside down," she said. "We're not perfect at it, we're all at different stages in our practice, but it's a goal. I can understand how that's funny to people who aren't involved in it."

Swami Atmarupananda, director of the Vivekananda retreat in upstate New York (part of the Ramakrishna tradition of Hinduism), said that although they weren't Oscar material, he enjoyed "Anger Management" and considered "Bulletproof Monk" mildly fun. None of it offended him, though he add that he and most Hindu and Buddhist monks were pretty hard to offend, and further made it clear that he was only speaking for himself.

He believes that Dave's taunts in "Anger Management," which included the notion that monks are monks because they aren't real men, were forgivable in the context of the scene. As for O'Reilly's monk losing his cool, "that can happen in a monastery with a novice monk: You push him to a point and he's going to react," he said. "So that seemed natural enough."

The comic book theme of "Bulletproof Monk," in which a secret scroll endows a monk with superhuman powers, obviously doesn't represent Tibetan Buddhism, but that didn't upset Atmarupananda.

Nor did the philosophical musings, even though they were Buddhist Lite, giving a mild flavor of Buddhism without any real substance. The story was "very lightweight and silly," Atmarupananda said, "but the Tibetan Buddhists I know wouldn't mind."

The Rev. Kusala, a Los Angeles-based Buddhist monk ordained in the Vietnamese Zen tradition, went so far as to say that the comical or martial arts stereotypes in recent movies are actually positive signs. "They show that people are becoming more comfortable with the concepts that Buddhism has brought to America," he said. "Monks are becoming established as viable parts of the community, instead of being looked on as otherworldly and untouchable."

Besides, he said, the characteristics being mocked are really quite admirable: Monks are considered full of wisdom and compassion even in the midst of the world's turmoil. "The humor that comes out of a monk head-butting [Sandler's character] in the movie is the fact that a person who's wise and compassionate probably wouldn't do that," he said. "It's a paradox."

If people are laughing at that, he reasoned, then Buddhism is in a good place. The same goes for the image of a monk flying all over the screen. Kusala said that "Bulletproof's" monk is part of a long tradition of martial arts and Buddhism, and that many people in the West embrace Buddhism after studying martial arts. After disciplining their bodies, they seek further discipline of mind.

Some people take the ideas a little too much to heart, though. "When I was a volunteer at juvenile hall, one of the kids asked me if I could float in the air like he had seen in the movies," Kusala said, laughing. "I told him I can only float in swimming pools. He was very disappointed."

In "Bulletproof," Chow's most realistic words are: "Nobody is born a monk." If one may stoop to generalization, perhaps the one thing monks do better than most other religious or philosophical groups (or individuals for that matter) is take stereotyping and teasing with grace. Then again, maybe that' because they're getting the last laugh. "Monastics have a sense of humor too," said Saradeshaprana. "We see people in the world working so hard for ephemeral things, and that's funny to us. Humor can go both ways."