Pop! Goes The Dharma: Everything, Everywhere, All At Once

:: Post Submitted by Jūken Zach Fehst ::

Everything Everywhere All at Once is, as far as I know, the first winner of the Best Picture Oscar to feature a scene where not one, but two men seem to gain superpowers by sticking—but I won’t give away the delightful outrageousness of the scene for those who haven’t watched it. That such a scene shares space in a film culminating in a breathtaking sequence of genuine and poignant emotion only highlights the brilliance of this singular film. Although there is much that could be written about it (its wry look at immigration and the American Dream, its probing concern with roads not taken, its analysis of intergenerational family trauma), the theme that emerged most clearly for me as I eyed it with a Buddhist lens was healing: what it looks like, how to do it, and why we must. [Spoilers, obviously.]

Chinese immigrants Evelyn and Waymond Wang operate a struggling laundromat. One day an alternate version of Waymond appears to Evelyn, informing her that the entire multiverse (that is, everything) is threatened by a nihilistic maniac who also happens to be an alternate version of the Wangs’ daughter, Joy. Much inventive, often hilarious fighting ensues. 

In the climax of the film, Evelyn prepares to encounter a room full of violent opponents as she struggles to keep her alt-daughter (who turns out not to actually be genocidal, but rather suicidally depressed) from throwing herself into what amounts to a black hole. But by this point in the film, Evelyn has had a revelation. Inspired by the example of her husband’s love—the calm, patient, ever-hopeful devotion that she has belatedly recognized as his true inner strength—she decides not to fight her enemies. Instead, drawing from the knowledge she’s gained by venturing instantaneously among a kaleidoscopic array of universes, she decides to discover each of her opponents’ unmet needs, and meet them.  

She sees clearly that it is the samsaric search for something to fill what is internally lacking that has led the henchmen down the path of fear, anger, and violence. What follows is a scene of wonderfully choreographed bodhisattva activities in real time, as Evelyn intuits and gives each henchman what they need. It could be affirmation, or an ice cream, or a spray of perfume. It could be an introduction. In one case, it’s a spanking. In each instance, the bemused antagonist is made immediately at peace. Watching, I thought: this is what it actually looks like to free all beings. It’s not some single blanket solution, and it’s not having a savior complex. It’s simply (!) caring enough to discover what someone needs, and then, if it’s within your power, giving it to them. It’s free and dynamic, improvisational, joyful. And maybe, when we’re really in tune with things, automatic.

Necessary, too. Because the other thing Evelyn comes to know through her verse-jumping is that when there’s a rupture between people, there is a rupture throughout all space and time. And when there’s a healing, it heals all space and time.

The way to spread healing is presented in EEAAO as two-fold: we must learn to drop our false stories of self enough to discover what someone else really needs, and we must then do what is in our own (limited, conditioned) power to begin to offer it to them. 

The early Chan text Xin Xin Ming counsels people to, “Accord with your nature, abide with the way, wander at ease without vexation.” Yes, life presents us with a dizzying array of tantalizing possibilities (all those ever-forking multiverse paths of lives that might still be), and yes, some other shiny thing or experience (or person) is always potentially out there for the having. But wisdom is learning to accord with our own true nature, which means first discovering what it is, and then to abide with that way. Only then are we able to be at ease in our own lives – and to be boundless, dimension-hopping bodhisattvas to others. 

Jūken Zach Fehst, a Minnesota native, is a graduate of the film school at the University of Southern California and holds a Master of Theological Studies from Boston University. His novel, American Magic, was a Library Journal “Summer Best” pick. He is on the path toward ordination as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest.

Jūken is also an undisciplined piano and guitar player, a world traveler who has explored dozens of countries, a fluent Spanish speaker (gracias a la previsión de sus padres), an English teacher, and the former host of the Discovery Channel’s Emmy-nominated show, “The Ultimate Guide to the Awesome.” He has been married to author Heather Demetrios Fehst for at least a few lifetimes.

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