‘The OA,’ Buddhism, and Existentialist Television


The universe and The OA.

The universe and The OA. Via Netflix

You don’t have to be Buddhist to appreciate the finale of The OA, but it doesn’t hurt.

I’ll explain that in a minute or two. But first, a few words about existentialist television.

In the 1960s, Americans were vastly and rapidly expanding their idea of what it meant to be a human, and the media was wrapping it’s feeble mind around heretofore radical notions about reality and consciousness. As the visible culture was adapting to new ideas about exterior and interior technologies and sexual, political, and artistic liberty, mainstream television wrestled with how to handle this explosion in the science of consciousness. How can a very unswingin’ medium adapt to the era of Timothy Leary and the Maharishi?

American television responded by putting on shows (largely, but not completely sitcoms) that responded to questions about identity and consciousness in absurd, surrealistic ways. These included My Mother The Car, Mister Ed, and The Flying Nun; Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Land of the Giants, and It’s About Time, each of which presented “normal” families that could transcend the laws of physics, time, and space; and The Munsters, who were the absolute archetypal reaction to the spread of unconventional hairstyles, lifestyles, and “freaks” by bringing America a “normal” family truly made up of freakish monsters.

Unable to realistically cope with a rapidly changing cultural environment, television chose to lampoon the collapse of normalcy around them.

Likewise, in the new millennium (and especially in the last ten years), a vast, rapid and revolutionary expansion of technology and the ubiquity of social media created an even more radical crisis of consciousness. With social media now becoming a fundamental part of the way we live our lives, explain ourselves, and interact with others, we have, essentially, created “selves” outside of our physical bodies, non-physical presences that transcend both material space and reality; in other words, social media allows even the most well-intentioned of us to create avatars that exist outside of ourselves, and act for us as if they were ourselves (who would claim that their Facebook page or Twitter account actually “is” them? Yet for all intents and purposes, we act as if they are). These spiraling changes in the idea of self have led directly to a (very) recent spate of shows of great depth and quality that explore identity, consciousness, reality, and memory, and the often temporal and relative relationship between these things. Westworld, The OA, and Mr. Robot all emphasize that both reality and the idea of human consciousness is in the mind of the beholder.

Buddhism, with it’s message that all life and change is impossible without impermanence and that understanding and embracing impermanence permits us to be compassionate with the groaning, seismic shifts that shade, shadow, spotlight and startle our lives, gives us one way to cope with and understand this constantly redefining new world. It also provides us with a way to interpret the finale of The OA, which many people found frustrating and indeterminate.

Let’s try this robe on for size:

There’s a teaching in Buddhism based around something called the Fourteen Unanswered Questions. These were fourteen questions that the Buddha refused to answer (or, other times, the Buddha would answer each by saying “No”). Now, read these and re-think The OA:

Does the universe have a beginning? Or not? Or both? Or neither?

Does the universe have a beginning? Or not? Or both? Or neither?
Does the universe have an end? Or not? Or both? Or neither?
Does the Buddha exist after death? Or not? Or both? Or neither?
Is the self identical with the body? Or is the self different from the body?

Which is all to say this: the powerful and powerfully unresolved ending of The OA might be as straightforward as The Wizard of Oz’s “Oh but it was just a dream!” bullshit (i.e., Prairie could have been in a mental institution all along); or it could be an affirmation of the potential miracle of trans-dimensional travel and how the post-Einstein universe has opened the door to this marvel of physics; or it could be as gorgeously and provocatively deep as The Fourteen Unanswered Questions (the viewer is seeing a beautiful and moving flip-book of opposing yet compatible levels of reality and transcendence); or it could be something in between.

But what if we approach episode 8 of The OA by taking absolute joy in (what a Buddhist would call) the lack of duality of these potentialities? In other words, what if we celebrate the idea that the end of episode 8 pins us down to absolutely nothing except it makes us consider the possibility that all of these solutions/resolutions exist! What if we take a cue from The Fourteen Unanswered Questions, and just roll with the idea that these separate “answers” (or non-answers) are not incompatible, and each and every one of them (it was all just a dream/Prairie has found a portal to another dimension/Prairie has created a language that can stop time or alter events/Prairie is a con woman) are all true!

So maybe we were not supposed to be satisfied. Maybe we were not supposed to feel resolved, answered, tucked into bed, brought milk and cookies. Maybe we are supposed to think that all of it is possible, every possible explanation is correct, and that the whole megalith of identity and consciousness and life and death are such mysterious and permanently unresolved concepts that as soon as you put your finger down on any ‘solution’ and go, “Ah, that’s it!” you are making a huge error.

So whatever you think about the end of The OA, and whether you love it or hated it, you are right. And you are wrong. And you are both. And you are neither.

Let me also note here that there is a giant hint that I may be right in presuming a connection between The OA and Buddhist theory. Prairie chose – in fact, insisted – on disclosing her truths and discoveries about suffering, impermanence, life, death, and the world between these two states to five disciples. 2500 (or so) years ago, when the searcher and aesthete Siddhartha Gautama emerged from forty nine days of meditation in the Deer Park enlightened as the Buddha of his times, he also revealed what he had learned to five people.

Let’s give Tibetan Buddhist author and teacher Geshe Sonam Rinchen the final word here:

“Just a suspicion that what great masters like Nagarjuna have said could be true—namely that all things are empty of intrinsic existence yet function in a completely satisfactory way—tears the first rent in the fabric of cyclic existence. Why does it have such a dramatic effect? By having that suspicion, even if we are not certain, we have briefly paid attention to reality, which begins the process of uprooting the cause of our suffering and may give us the incentive to probe more deeply and discover more about the fundamental nature of things.”

‘The OA,’ Buddhism, and Existentialist Television