Cultural Arts Review: Buddhism in The Simpsons

Posted on October 26, 2012 by


When considering my cultural arts review, I wanted to find a popular television show character that was either a Hindu or Buddhist and see how well this character’s portrayal compared to my knowledge of said religion from our World Religions class. Through researching, I was surprised to find out that Lisa Simpson, from the popular and long-lived television show The Simpsons, is in fact a Buddhist. I grew up watching this show, but never as a young child knew what Buddhism was, so I never really realized that Lisa was a Buddhist. Because I was unaware of her religious affiliation, I decided to watch the episode “She of Little Faith”, which is the episode in which Lisa turns away from the Christian church and finds Buddhism. Through this episode, I’ve concluded that The Simpsons writers and producers depicted Buddhism in a way that was very true to the religion as we know it, and it definitely seemed to be an attempt at being respectful towards Buddhism.


In this episode, Lisa becomes dissatisfied with her Christian church when they become a place of advertisement and selling goods, all for monetary gain. Lisa expresses her outrage at the use of the church for selling these material items, and declares she needs a new faith. This already suggests that Buddhism might appear in the future in this episode since in Buddhism, Siddhārtha Gautama famously renounced the material world to become holy and search for enlightenment. Even before she had found her new faith, Lisa was already exhibiting traits of how a Buddhist would feel about this specific situation.


While on the search for a new religion, Lisa first discovers Buddhism when she finds a Buddhist temple in her town and sees a Buddha statue inside and people meditating. Richard Gere, a famous Buddhist actor, is one of those meditating, and he speaks to Lisa about Buddhism. Lisa expresses that she’s looking for a new faith that isn’t so materialistic, to which Richard replies, “Well you’ve come to the right place. Buddhism teaches that suffering is caused by desire.” Both of these statements are a reflection of what we’ve learned in class and through readings about Buddhism. Lisa wanting to find a not materialistic religion reflects on of the main ideas of Buddhism, while Gere’s statement especially relates to the Four Noble Truths, which include that there is in fact suffering and suffering does stem from desire. Gere also makes a statement, “All things are impermanent and empty of inherent existence,” which is indeed a Buddhist philosophy. Through the interaction between Lisa and Richard Gere in this part of the episode, it seems clear that the writers of The Simpsons were making a conscious effort to portray Buddhism in an accurate light. The writers used actual Buddhist thought and philosophy, and tried to make it understandable to the simplest of viewers.


We then enter a part of the episode where Lisa is practicing Buddhism in her home life. First, the writers include a couple more facts about Buddhist teachings while Lisa is reading a Buddhism pamphlet. One of these teachings is that of karma, as Lisa reads aloud, “Positive actions lead to happiness and negative actions lead to unhappiness.” While this is a part of the concept of karma we learned in class, it doesn’t go into the idea of samsara and how karma affects that process of death and rebirth. Still, this portrayal of Buddhist karma is technically accurate; it’s just a simplified explanation to the viewers.


When Lisa’s actual practice of Buddhism begins, the viewer sees her outside planting a tree and she tells her mother, “I’m planting my own Bodhi tree. If I meditate under it, perhaps I can find inner peace.” First of all, the concept of the search for inner peace is a reoccurring one throughout this entire episode. This does match what we learned is a main goal of Buddhism. Also, from the knowledge of Siddhārtha Gautama, we know that he notably sat and meditated underneath a Bodhi tree, saying he wouldn’t get up until he reached enlightenment. This “inner peace” Lisa is searching for can be considered the equivalent to the enlightenment that Siddhārtha Gautama sought out. Once again, the writers of The Simpsons have referenced a concept in Buddhism that is indeed true, and they appear to be doing it in a way that informs the viewer of Buddhist practices without pushing too much detailed information on them.


In one of the final portrayals of Lisa’s newfound Buddhism, Lisa then recites what sounds like a prayer under the tree. After finding the transcript of the episode, I found that this prayer said “Om mani padme hum” three times. Upon research, I discovered that The Simpsons writers actually used a real Buddhist phrase. “Om mani padme hum” is a mantra recited by Tibetan Buddhists, which is said to contain all of the teachings of the Buddha, thus this mantra can’t be translated into a single phrase. In truth, the writers probably could have made Lisa say any combination of random sounds, and the viewer still would have believed that she was saying a Buddhist mantra. The fact that the writers made sure to use an accurate mantra, though, shows that they were trying to be as culturally sensitive while portraying Buddhists in this episode as possible.


Although The Simpsons episode “She of Little Faith” sometimes simplified the ideas of Buddhism, these ideas were still portrayed in an accurate way. The viewers were informed about many of the important teachings of Buddhism, and they were informed in a way that didn’t make up false facts about Buddhism or give a negative connotation to the religion. All in all, I think that this portrayal of Buddhism was a successful one by the writers and producers of The Simpsons, and everything stated in this episode fell in line with what we have learned in World Religions or what I myself have learned through further research.


-Elise Mesenbring





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