August 28, 2017
A few quick disclaimers. I am not a Buddhist scholar. I had taken a few classes on Asian Philosophy in college and I read a few articles in putting this together. So this is simply my dilettante interpretation of some of the concepts. I’d be interested to hear from people who know more. Also [Spoiler Alert]. I use plot points up to the end of season 3 as examples.
The Netflix series BoJack Horseman is a rare thing indeed. It’s an animated comedy that manages to take an unflinching look at depression. It has been called “one of the most accurate portrayals of depression on television.” And it’s definitely up there. The most brutal bits revolve around the recognition that something is wrong with you. That your way of seeing things is hazed over and that your actions resulting from this often negatively impact others around you. What hits hardest is the very real moments of falling back into these habits. It’s a cycle that’s Herculean to break, and the show nails this home with intense accuracy.
But, whether or not they intended to do so the show has also become a great depiction of numerous Buddhist principles. Particularly the first three of the Four Noble Truths.
All life is suffering.
Suffering is caused by desire.
Eliminate desire and you eliminate suffering.
The notion of desire is a constant theme from the outset. Three of the show’s central characters: BoJack, Diane, and Princess Carolyn are all searching for things that will make them happy. However this keeps causing them more pain. They are of the mindset that “once I do this, I will be happy, once I get that I will be happy.” And as long as they have that mindset they never will be. Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter, however, are examples of how one can be happy is one is willing to let go.
BoJack starts off the series wanting to release a memoir “so people will love me again.” So right off the bat he is displaying one of the three types of desire (taṇhā). This is an example of bvhana taṇhā. Which can be translated “as a craving for being.” This type of desire can be related to a number of ambitions. BoJack believes that once this book comes out, he will be loved, and he will be remembered. In his book An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices Peter Harvey states that bvhana taṇhā is ego related. And much of BoJack’s arc is related to ego. We see this again in season two as he is filming Secretariat. “This movie will come out, and people will love me again.” And again in season three, “If I win this Oscar I will be loved” and “people will remember me.” “Once this book comes out, I will be happy.” “Once this movie comes out, I will be happy.” “Once I have an Oscar, I will be happy.” He is constantly of the mindset, “Once this happens, I will be happy.” In the later episodes of season 2 we see BoJack display another type of desire. After breaking under the pressure of the film he runs off to New Mexico, and considers never going back to L.A. and just living a simple life in New Mexico. This can be seen as vibhava-taṇhā, a craving for not-being. Harvey describes this as a desire to rid one self of unpleasant things (people, or situations) in one’s current and future life. This can take the form of suicide, self-destruction, or in this example: shucking off one’s responsibilities and fleeing. It can also be seen as a desire to not desire, which itself is a form of desire. BoJack also, arguably, makes several attempts at suicide in season three. Backing his car into the pool, or stepping on the gas and letting go of the wheel towards the end of episode 12. Both of these can also be considered a form of vibhava-taṇhā. As these desires fail him BoJack also constantly displays kama-taṇhā. Which is the desire for sensual pleasure. BoJack’s kama-taṇhā seems to stem from his other desires. He seeks to fill the void with booze, sex, drugs, and food. The throw away line “I ordered a few feel-better-pizzas to feel better. It did not work.” actually speaks volumes. These are desires he know can can achieve, but are ultimately self-destructive or damaging to those around him, even resulting in the death of his friend and former co-star Sarah-Lynn. All of BoJack’s desires, however, are invariably connected. His bvhana-taṇhā and disillusionment stemming from it leads him to both vibhava-taṇhā and kama-taṇhā. Because as stated by Venerable Pannyavaro in his article “Three Kinds of Desire” these “are merely convenient ways of contemplating desire. They are not totally separate forms of desire but different aspects of it.” BoJack’s kama-taṇhā can be a form of his vibhava-taṇhā. This theme is solidified when Diane expresses concern for BoJack upon his (mistaken) Oscar nomination announcement. “I know how this kind of thing can sometimes send you spinning. ‘Oh, God, why doesn’t this make me happy? Will anything ever make me happy? I’m an empty husk!’” Diane touches on the fallacy of things making us happy. But she’s still not immune herself.
Diane Nguyen isn’t quite the mess that BoJack is, but she displays both bvhana-taṇhā and vibhava-taṇhā through the series. Particularly in seasons two and three. Diane’s story arc also revolves heavily and a kind of bvhana-taṇhā. Diane is a highly idealistic individual and she is extremely principled. As a result she is extremely hard on herself. Unlike BoJack her bvhana-taṇhā is not concerned with being loved, but rather living up to an overly-idealized version of herself. Her pursuits are largely noble. Particularly in season 2 when she takes on Hank Hippopopalous, a popular figure in Hollywood who has seemingly been given a free pass on the numerous allegations of sexual assault and misconduct leveled against him. Obviously, most prominent in people’s minds is the Bill Cosby scandal, but this is a frequent issue in Hollywood. Diane’s desire is not a destructive one, it is incredibly noble. But she is constantly being told to “let it go.” BoJack tells her this because he knows it is a losing battle, her own husband Mr. Peanutbutter works for the same TV network as Hippopopalous and his own career could be damaged in Hippopopalous were to fall from grace. Diane’s story displays that even noble desires lead to difficult and painful situations. She also shows that desire is not bad, in and of itself. She desires the world to be better, she desires justice for the victims of a powerful man. However, this is difficult, it is a struggle and she suffers in the sense that she even receives threats from Hippopopalous’s fans. Ultimately she fails in her attempts, encouraging her to travel to the war torn country of Cordovia to cover a billionaire store owner/philanthropist named Sebastian St. Cloud and his aide efforts. Again, she is driven by a desire to help, a desire for purpose, and again this can be seen as bvhana-taṇhā. But after witnessing extreme suffering such as sick and dying children, bombs killing innocent people, and realizing that St. Cloud is making his philanthropic efforts all about him, rather than the people he claims to help she realizes she cannot handle it, and she quits. She has come to realize that someone she admired is not the person she thought they were and, more importantly, she is not the person she thought she was. It is a rough moment when we realize we are not as strong as we think we are. And her disillusionment with herself leads her to pursue vibhava-taṇhā. She comes home, hides out at BoJack’s house, and doesn’t change out of her pajamas. She sleeps all day and watches TV, lies to her husband about her whereabouts, and even suggests an idea for a phone app that “can undo long amounts of time. Three months. A year. A life.” This “app idea” is vibhava-taṇhā in a proverbial nutshell.
Like Diane, Princess Carolyn displays bvhana-taṇhā and vibhava-taṇhā, albeit in different ways than Diane or BoJack. Princess Carolyn has always wanted a family. Something she has constantly put on hold for the sake of her career as a Hollywood agent. She feels that “Once she has a family, she she will be happy.” This is her bvhana-taṇhā. When BoJack breaks her heart, yet again, she gives herself a pep talk:
You gotta get your shit together. So yesterday you let yourself fall in love a little bit and you got your heart broken. Serves you right for having feelings. Starting now you are a hard, heartless, career gal. Go to work, be awesome at it, and don’t waste time on foolish flights of fancy. From now on, you are a robot. Beep bop boop blerp bleep.
One could argue that Princess Carolyn shutting herself off emotionally and escaping into her work is a form of vibhava-taṇhāI. She does not want to experience unpleasant things, and desires an escape through her work. Because these desires are not separate from one another, and it’s not that desires are one type or another. This same intermingling can be seen in her desire to take care of others because, by her own admission, she is unable to take care of herself.
All three of these characters are very intelligent, but are deeply unhappy. They all desire some kind of control. Whether it’s over others’ opinion of them, like BoJack; trying to make the world better, like Diane; over even over their own emotions, like Princess Carolyn; these desires are the driving forces behind the drama in their lives. BoJack cannot make other people like him, Diane cannot make other people better, and Princess Carolyn cannot make her own problems go away by projecting. These three display the suffering as described in the first two Noble Truths.
The two characters that contrast this are Todd Chavez and Mr. Peanutbutter. While both depicted as considerably more simple-minded than the three other central characters, they also are both shown as being considerably happier. This is because both characters are able to let go in ways that BoJack, Diane, and P.C. are not. Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter display examples of the Third Noble Truth. One example of Todd embracing this can be seen in the episode “Downer Ending” (S01E11). Todd had realized BoJack sabotaged Todd’s rock opera, derailing his life’s dream. Todd tells BoJack:
As you know, I was hurt. But, then I realized that’s just how you are. Maybe I should just stop expecting you to be a good person, so that way I won’t get hurt when you’re not.
Todd has acknowledged he had a desire, not just for the rock opera but for BoJack to be a good person, he acknowledges that it caused him pain. He has more or less forgiven his friend and decided to accept that his friend will not always live up to his expectations. He elects to accept BoJack as he is, and knows that he should not desire BoJack be something that he isn’t. Todd realizes his hurt comes from his disappointment in having placed expectations and desires on someone else. BoJack treated Todd poorly. However, in this moment Todd recognizes that he is not in control of BoJack’s actions, BoJack is. As Venerable Pannyavaro puts it “We can allow desire to be the way it is and so begin to let go of it. Desire has power over us and deludes us only as long as we grasp it, believe in it and react to it.” Todd allows things to be as they are (or let BoJack be as he is) and chooses to control his reactions. In a different article, this one on “The Third Noble Truth”, Venerable Pannyavaro directly states that “the whole aim of Buddhist teaching is to develop the reflective mind and let go of delusions.” And Todd has done exactly this. He reflected on his reaction (hurt), and let go of his delusion (that BoJack is a good person). In a far more lighthearted moment Todd gets quite the windfall in the form of eight-million dollars when he and Mr. Peanutbutter sell their ride-share company (S03E12). Todd, being Todd, almost immediately loses the money when he accidentally tips the waitress at a diner eight-million dollars. He immediately shrugs and says, “Well, looks like I’m broke again!” and laughs it off. His ability to so easily let go of this money, added to the fact his only possessions seem to be his clothes and a blanket, suggests that Todd is unattached to material things. It’s funny, and played as a joke, but it’s fun to think that Todd, of all people, is the only who actually has it all figured out.
Mr. Peanutbutter also has moments showing his ability to “let go”, particularly in “Higher Love” (S02E06). He finds himself bankrupt and his agent dies, which puts him in a difficult position. His strategy is to “wander downtown L.A. with an open mind and an empty stomach. I’m just going to go with the flow and leave everything up to destiny. Que sera, quesadilla.” Mr. Peanutbutter is not fazed by his dire financial situation and he seems to be unknowingly exhibiting elements of Dhamma, the teachings of Buddha. Mr. Peanutbutter does not hate himself for his situation, nor does he panic. He approaches the situation calmly, whether or not this is just because he’s an idiot is not the point. Because of his relaxed mind, he walks down the street, lands a job at a women’s shoe store and because of his theatric salesmanship he gets a gig hosting a highly successful game show. In this case his gains are material, which isn’t always the case, but his attitude of “going with the flow” and “what will be will be” certainly seems to be the key to his happiness.
At one point in the series the character Cuddlywhiskers, BoJack’s former writing partner/producer on a failed show, directly tells BoJack and Diane the key to happiness, saying:
I’m happy, for the first time in my life. And I’m not going to feel bad about it. It takes a long time to realize how miserable you truly are, and even longer to see that it doesn’t have to be that way. Only after you give up everything, can you begin to find a way to be happy.
Cuddlywhiskers advice stands not only as a foil to Diane and BoJack’s lives, but also succinctly summarizes the first Three Noble Truths. He talks about realizing that you are miserable (existence is suffering), realizing that it doesn’t have to be that way (recognizing the cause of suffering, desire), and that giving up everything is actually how you become happy (eliminate desire and you eliminate suffering). BoJack and Diane, confronted with this, are clearly made uncomfortable. They seem to recognize that Cuddlywhiskers is right, but are not ready to accept it.
So not only can BoJack Horseman be seen as an accurate portrayal of depression, it depicts the damaging nature of desire, and the joy in letting go. The characters in the show that are the least happy, the ones that seem to be suffering the most are the ones with a variety of desires. BoJack, Diane, and Princess Carolyn’s issues are prime examples of the Second Noble Truth. The characters that are willing to let go of expectations are happier, and much more easy going. What’s interesting about this is that the characters who are the least happy are also the ones considered most intelligent, and the happier characters are seen, largely, as doofuses. The “intelligent” characters are constantly analyzing themselves and others, and are concerned with not being seen as foolish. Whereas the “doofus” characters just accept themselves and others who they are, and accept their situations. They are unconcerned and all the better for it. Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter just live in the moment. Because that’s all they know they have.
There is a moment in season 3 where BoJack finally realizes certain truths. When he recognizes his desires, and reflects on their impact. Although it is quickly followed by tragedy. But it’s a good note to end on. While looking at a presentation in a planetarium the narrator states that “our lives are but the briefest of flashes in a universe that is billions of years old.” To which BoJack turns to his friend:
See? We're not doomed. In the great grand scheme of things, we're just tiny specks that will one day be forgotten. So it doesn't matter what we did in the past or how we'll be remembered, the only thing that matters is right now, this moment. This one spectacular moment we are sharing together.