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Why Buddhists Might Get a Kick Out of David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story’

At a recent New York screening, the writer-director opened up about his film's spiritual themes.

"A Ghost Story"

“A Ghost Story”

In “A Ghost Story,” Casey Affleck hides under a sheet, playing the ghost of the husband haunting the life of his young widow (Rooney Mara) and then inhabiting their old home when she moves out. It’s a quiet, meditative story about the afterlife, one that resonates on a universal level as it addresses the process of mourning and moving on in broad terms. But while the movie has no specific religious connotations, Buddhists may find some specific aspects of their faith reflected in the ghost’s quest to uncover one final mystery before he can graduate to the afterlife.

That much was evident at a unique Q&A for the movie that took place at New York’s Sunshine Cinema one day before the release. Hosted by the Tibet House, a cultural center founded by university professor Robert Thurman (also known as Uma Thurman’s father), the screening found a crowd of Tibetan practitioners pressing writer-director David Lowery to dig into the movie’s religious connotations. At first, he demurred. “I’m not specifically spiritual in any one way,” he said. “I was raised in a very Catholic household and that fell away in my teens and twenties. It stopped mattering to me. That continues to be true, and other faiths have not replaced it. I’ve sort of just become, for lack of a better term, agnostic. I’m just a spiritual person, without having any particular faith to back it up.”

But one audience member said that the quest facing Affleck’s character mirrored the Tibetan concept of the Bardo, the intermediary state in which recently deceased people experience a sense of spiritual clarity before passing on to another state of existence. “You said there’s no religious foundation for the film, but I don’t quite believe you,” the woman said.

Lowery caved — to a point. “I do subscribe to some of the tenets of Buddhism,” he said. “Reading ‘Siddhartha’ as a young man was a very unique, meaningful and spiritual awakening for me in some ways, because it was right around the time when I was realizing I needed to move beyond Catholicism. While I would never call myself a practicing Buddhist — I don’t study it, I’ve read ‘Siddhartha’ and Karen Armstrong’s book, it stops about there — I do practice meditation. There are aspects of it that absolutely fit with this movie.”

Other audience members opened up to Lowery about the spiritual reverberations of the movie on a personal level: One woman said she had recently dealt with a personal loss and related to the movie’s themes on that level; another encouraged Lowery to look up Tibetan philosophy on the club’s website, hoping he would see echoes of his movie’s themes.

He struck an open-ended note about his own worldview. “My ideas about where we belong in the universe, where we fit in as a species, and where we go after we die are evolving,” he said. “I don’t have any clear answers. I still feel like I’m searching. I have the things I don’t have faith in, but I don’t have any core tent of beliefs. Spirituality in this movie is something I have trouble defining. But I’m always searching, and that’s what this movie is about — trying to reach the next level, and not knowing what that path is.”

“A Ghost Story” is now in limited release.

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