[This article assumes the reader is familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock film “Vertigo.”] The 35th vow from the Larger Sutra has been problematic for Jodo Shinshu but the inaccuracy of the existing English translations has led to a lot of misunderstanding about the Pure Land teachings. One example of this is found in Rita M. Gross’ book Buddhism After Patriarchy where she relied on information from the scholar Diana Y. Paul. Dr. Paul strikes me as one of those Japanese Americans such as Rich Dad author Robert Kiyosaki who seem disconnected from their cultural heritage, especially from the energetic Buddhism of the common people (as opposed to the austere Zen of the samurai). Back in the 1990s, if Dr. Gross had done an internet search instead of researching academic papers, she might have come across my article (which I recommend to those who aren’t familiar with the 35th vow).
I saw the movie “Vertigo” a long time ago and I remember it left me with a sour feeling about the story. I thought it showed the Kim Novak character as an evil woman who deserved to be punished. When our temple’s movie club group announced they would be showing “Vertigo,” I looked up some feminist analysis of the movie to prepare myself for watching it again.
What I found is that the story can be seen as the depiction of the James Stewart character’s devolving view of women. Then it hit me – the three women in the story could be correlated to the three terms in the 35th vow: nyo-nin, nyo-shin and nyo-zo, which are all rendered as “women” in the English translations.
In an early scene of “Vertigo,” the James Stewart character Scottie is with his good friend and former fiancée Midge. She is nyo-nin, the female person – a whole personality who relates as an equal to Scottie and maybe a bit maternally. Then Scottie becomes obsessed with Madeleine – not as a person but for the perfection of her surface beauty. She is nyo-shin, the female body, for him to look at and possess. After he believes he’s lost Madeleine, he finds Judy and despite her protests, he proceeds to mold her into a copy of Madeleine. Judy to him is only a nyo-zo, a female image, a reproduction of what he once possessed.
In the 35th vow, it is nyo-nin, the female person, who hears Namu Amida Butsu and awakens bodhi-citta, the heart/mind aspiring for awakening. Those female-persons then “renounce the state of being” nyo-shin, female bodies for males to gaze at and possess. They also refuse to be reborn – reconfigured by men – as nyo-zo, female images.
In the film “Vertigo,” Judy has a chance to assert her personhood and confess to Scottie her involvement in the scheme with Madeleine’s husband, but she throws it away in order to win his love by becoming his reproduction of Madeleine. To me, this is her real sin – to throw away her own life to satisfy her selfish craving for “acceptance” by someone who claims to be her superior. It speaks to the dilemma of women from Buddha’s time, from Shinran’s time and even our mothers’ time – we put ourselves one lifetime away from awakening by handing over our lives to those we believe are necessary for our validation.
Jodo Shinshu is not a teaching that says women are inferior because they must be reborn as men to gain Buddhahood. Instead, the 35th vow in the Larger Sutra is a warning to women that they lose their chance for Buddhahood in their lifetime if they succumb to the dominant male view of women to be only nyo-shin (bodies) or nyo-zo (images). All persons can be reborn in the Pure Land – but historically women didn’t get to see themselves as persons during their lifetimes and had to wait for that after-life liberation from gender.
Now I can appreciate the film “Vertigo” as a feminist teaching lesson. As much as society pressures us to be the perfect embodiment of physical beauty, we will only end up with the misery Judy suffers if we dedicate our lives to pleasing the male gaze. Just as the Jodo Shinshu teachings freed the working classes from feeling subservient to the ruling class, the teachings also are for waking up women to their own personhood, to not let ourselves be ruled by the devolving view that some men will have of us as their objects to possess and control.