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Where Christianity places the accountability for suffering elsewhere, Buddhism endeavors to make the individual completely accountable for his or her actions in the absence of any external scapegoats

Eastern and Western Conceptions of Justice and Suffering as Conveyed through Robocop and Ghost in the Shell

by Timothy Cairo

Suffering, as a physical and an emotional state plays a central philosophical role within the conceptions of justice that exist in both Buddhism and Christianity. But even though suffering is intimately tied to the notion of justice in both, the role that suffering plays in regards to each respective religion's notion of justice is extremely distinct from one another. Within the context of Christianity, suffering is often interpreted as stemming from some outside source of conflict. Hence, the Christian conception of the Devil, the incarnation of evil that is the malefactor of all our sinful behavior. As a result of conceptualizing the source of suffering as extending from an outside source in this manner, Christianity attempts to curb this improper behavior with the threat of eternal damnation for those who are seduced by the Devil's temptations. Buddhism on the other hand, conceives of suffering in a very different fashion. For the Buddhist, any suffering that is encountered in his or her life is a direct result of some improper action in which that person has him or herself partaken in. Hence, the Buddhist belief in Karma, the concept that every voluntary act will give rise to some result or reaction. Positive action begets positive results and negative action begets negative results (1). Thus, unlike Christianity, suffering is not brought about by some external force but is instead a direct effect of something that you have yourself done in the past. Essentially, where Christianity places the accountability for suffering elsewhere, Buddhism endeavors to make the individual completely accountable for his or her actions in the absence of any external scapegoats. The effect of these differing models of suffering amounts to fundamentally different approaches to the goals and administration of justice within each of these varying belief systems. More specifically, where Christianity takes a more punitive approach to the mitigation of suffering, Buddhism proceeds with a much more holistic and compassionate agenda. These differing approaches to justice are made more apparent by undertaking an examination of the analogous cultural artifacts that exist in Eastern and Western culture. In this instance, the relationship between suffering and justice in Buddhism and Christian can be illuminated through a comparison of Ghost in the Shell and Robocop, two films that inhabit a similar cultural space within their respective cultures.

Robocop and Ghost in the Shell are most obviously analogous to one another by the fact that they are both situated in the same, very specific genre; that being the sci-fi cop film. The protagonists of both films are cybernetic law enforcement officers that find themselves in a state of suffering as a result of trying to come to terms with their respective status as partially fabricated human beings. In the exploration of such existential questions each film introduces themes of religion to help address these broad queries. Not surprisingly, the American film, Robocop introduces Christian motifs while the Japanese Ghost in the Shell opts for more abstract philosophies invoking Buddhism. The differing religious undertones of the films are illustrated via each films' treatment of the sources of the protagonists' partially mechanical cybernetic bodies. In Robocop much time is dedicated to establishing the corporation known as OCP as the origin of Robocop's mechanical body. In fact, almost half the film is allotted to determining Robocop's origin and conveying the fact that the creation of Robocop was the result of a malevolent insurgence gaining momentum within the boardroom of OCP. While providing this exposition to the audience the film presents the office tower of OCP, as what could easily be interpreted, as a metaphor for heaven. The OCP headquarters exists as a pristine white walled oasis, the tranquility of which towers and rules over the crime infested dregs of Old-Detroit. The President of OCP is a benevolent and good hearted old man, a God-like figure who struggles to do everything in his power to try and save Old-Detroit from its own criminality. In attempt to accomplish this goal the "Old Man", as he is referred to in the film, creates Robocop, thus imposing the Old Man's role as the giver of life. Robocop's quest to rid Old-Detroit of its malice eventually leads him to the boardroom of OCP where the heart of this evil is found to exist in the form of Vice President Dick Jones. The deviant Jones intends to usurp power from the benevolent President of OCP, making a direct allusion to Lucifer's attempted coup of heaven in the Old Testament. Thus, Robocop directly grounds the source of the film's conflict firmly within the ambit of Christian religious scripture.

Unlike Robocop, Ghost in the Shell does not find some external source to be the generator of the suffering in the film, but instead internalizes this conflict within the existential angst of the film's protagonist, Major Kusunagi. This emphasis on internal causality over Robocop's external conflict parallels Ghost in the Shell closely with Buddhist philosophy:

They (Christianity and Brahmanism) all try to find out the first cause and establish a law in which God's power controls everything. But Buddhism advocates that man himself is the real person who is in charge of his own fate, not someone else. (2)

In Ghost in the Shell, Major Kusunagi suffers as a result of her on-going obsession with the nature of her own being and whether her, almost entirely, cybernetic body exempts her from being human. By foregrounding Kusunagi's mental and emotional suffering as the film's main conflict Ghost in the Shell roots itself directly within the context of Buddhist philosophy which maintains that,

This kind of disharmony between the mind and the self is much harder to overcome than the disharmony of the body. When the body becomes sick, we can cure it with all kinds of medicines. But when the mind is sick, it is not so easily cured… Our mind is our worst enemy. Because we fight with our mind all the time , therefore we suffer.(3)

Buddhist philosophy directly distinguishes itself from Christianity by identifying suffering as an internal emotional state rather than an external conflict. In this way Ghost in the Shell mirrors the distinction made by Buddhism by internalizing the external conflict found in Robocop, and most other Hollywood movies, and identifying suffering as an individual and internal emotional state.

By establishing an external threat to be the source of suffering in Robocop, the film necessitates this source to be physically removed in order for justice to be done. In Robocop the source of suffering is established to be the corrupt element that exists within the OCP Corporation, which causes a great amount of societal suffering as well as the direct suffering imposed on the film's protagonist. In regards to Robocop, the Corporation has done him an injustice by stripping him of his memory and transforming him into to an inhuman instrument of law enforcement. Within the logic of the film, in order for justice to be done and for Robocop to regain some semblance of his humanity he must first dispose of the source of his suffering by ousting Dick Jones from his position as Vice President of OCP. In the Christian conception of justice those whom act unjustly are dealt with punitively by being sent to hell. Likewise, in Robocop justice can only be done once Dick Jones is punished for his crimes and banished from the white halls of OCP.

In Robocop the protagonist's quest for justice is directly linked to his role as the vindicator of the humanity stolen from him by the malevolent factions of OCP. This is illustrated by the way that the film intricately links Robocop's re-discovery of his humanity with the furtherance of his quest to punitively bring the guilty parties to justice. As such, the closer Robocop gets to punishing Dick Jones the more he finds out about his former self. For instance, the first memories that return to Robocop from his life as Officer Murphy are of him being killed by OCP's minions. Thus, from the start, Robocop's quest to alleviate his suffering and re-gain his humanity are linked to a recollection of the crimes committed against him and a desire to vindicate these actions. The next major step for Robocop towards re-acquiring his humanity occurs when he is caught in a hail of bullets fired at him by his former colleagues on the police department. By formally breaking ties with OCP Robocop marches closer to bringing those responsible for his fate to justice, and in turn marks the first time the audience is shown Officer Murphy's face since he became Robocop. Murphy's face acts as a symbol, not only, of Robocop's break with the establishment and the furtherance of his quest for justice, but also as a symbol of the re-propriety of his humanity as well; once again conveying the idea that punitive justice is required to alleviate Robocop's suffering and obtain justice. It is only after Robocop severs his ties to OCP that he endeavors to inquire into who he was before he became Robocop. However, in this scene Robocop still refers to officer Murphy in the third person, not yet associating himself with Murphy and illustrating that it is not until he punishes Dick Jones that he will be able fully regain his humanity and cease his suffering. In the final scene of the film Robocop finally succeeds in punishing Jones by physically banishing him from the heavenly OCP office tower to the abyss below. It is only at this point, once Jones has been punished, that when asked his name Robocop replies "Murphy", conveying to the audience that the transformation is complete and through the punishment of Dick Jones justice has been done, suffering has been alleviated, and the protagonist has regained his humanity as a result. Thus, inline with the Christian notion of justice, suffering cannot be alleviated in the film until the individual responsible has been directly punished. It is not until Dick Jones, the Lucifer figure in this Old Testament narrative, is banished to hell that justice is in fact done.

The conclusion of Robocop is a very typical heroic ending, recognizable to anyone familiar with Hollywood conventions. Ghost in the Shell, on the other hand, ends in a manner that is both unconventional and somewhat un-heroic from a conventional Hollywood perspective. Aristotle distinguishes our Western notions of courage and heroism to be antithetical to the emotion of compassion (4), a distinction which appears to be accurate when assessing why the conclusion of Ghost in the Shell might initially seem un-heroic for a Western viewer. Unlike Robocop where justice is attained by Robocop physically punishing the ones responsible, the ending of Ghost in the Shell is absent of any such confrontations. By internalizing the conflict within the protagonist, the film makes it impossible for Kusunagi to alleviate this suffering by engaging in any sort of heroic confrontation. Rather than having a showdown with the Puppet Master (the main source of physical antagonism in the film) Kusunagi instead shows compassion for his situation, relating it to her own, ultimately causing her to join forces with her former enemy. From Aristotle's Western perspective this compassionate conclusion might be interpreted as cowardly, however this is not the case when it is put into the context of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhist philosophy maintains that "The root of suffering is the "self"-self- attachment, self love and self view" (5). This is true also of Kusunagi in Ghost in the Shell. Her internal suffering is completely the product of her obsession with herself, and continual questioning of who she is and whether or not she is human. By rooting the Major's suffering internally around her notions of her self the film directly aligns itself with Buddhist philosophy and makes it impossible for justice to be achieved via some physical confrontation as in Robocop. Instead of punishing someone else as in Robocop, Kusunagi sacrifices her own identity and merges with her former adversary in order to alleviate her suffering and achieve justice. This notion of sacrifice is also reciprocated by Buddhist philosophy:

A real Buddhist does not make unreasonable demands from the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. Instead, he should follow the way of the Buddhist and Bodhisattvas, and be willing to sacrifice himself for all beings.(6)

Indeed, this is reflected by the ending of Ghost in the Shell. Rather than punishing the Puppet-Master for what he has done, Kusunagi listens to his woes, feels compassion for his plight, and understanding for his cause. As a result, Kusunagi decides to sacrifice her own identity in order to merge with the Puppet-Master to form a new entity. Unlike the punitive approach to justice evidenced in Christianity through Robocop, Ghost in the Shell employs compassion to arrive at a conclusion that is centered around the notion of selflessness. In linking compassion with selflessness Ghost in the Shell again parallels Buddhist philosophy in that "selflessness in Buddhism has the meaning of… great compassion"(7) . Thus, like Robocop, at the end of Ghost in the Shell the protagonist's suffering is alleviated and justice is done, however, unlike Robocop, the film arrives at its ultimate goal through a doctrine of compassion and self-sacrifice rather than through the direct punitive action taken by Murphy.

Certainly, these films merely act as one example of how suffering plays a role in different religions' conceptions of justice. With that said, these films appear to be quite accurate manifestations of the way that the predominate religions of the films' respective nations of origin tie together notions of suffering and justice. Both films employ almost direct quotations of their respective religious texts and in doing so steep their conceptions of justice and suffering directly in the religious milieu of their distinctive cultures. As such we can directly relate the notions of justice and suffering that arise within the films to be somehow representative of the connections that exist between suffering and justice extant in each religion. In the case of Buddhism and Ghost in the Shell the connection is rooted in compassion and selflessness, where Christianity and Robocop, instead, tie suffering and justice together with notions of vindication and direct punitive action.

(1) Venerable Master Hsing Yun, Two Talks on Buddhism, (Hsing Yun: Fo Kuang Publishers, 1987) at pg. 4
(2) Yun, supra at pg. 45
(3) Yun, supra p. 38
(4) Aristotle trans. W. Robert Rhys, Rhetoric Book II, online: pg. 3
(5) Yun, supra at pg. 43
(6) Yun, supra at pg. 42
(7) Yun, supra at pg. 43

Posted November 30, 2004

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