SPOILER ALERT! This discussion of the film Hogfather reveals much (but not all) of the plot and the ending. If you want to experience the full joy and surprise of the film, along with all the puns and sci-fi and fantasy references, then rent the DVD (or watch on instant Netflix as I did) and then come back to read this.
Hogfather is a wonderful film with a mythic Mahayana Zen quality. I have no idea about the back-story of the apparently 37 or so comedic fantasy novels written by Terry Pratchett, one of which the film is based upon, nor do I know anything about Terry Pratchett, the person, other than that he has been knighted under the British system and called “Sir Pratchett” by those who care about such titles. Fortunately, as an American who believes that we revolted from the British monarchy in large part against the system of nobility and such, not one bone or pour feels compelled to call him “Sir.”
The film, though, is centered on a deeply profound issue of human nature, which as it happens, is also the fundamental question in Buddhism that led to the development and rise of Mahayana Buddhism, namely, what is the role of imagination in the world if our delusions, false beliefs, and such are taken away?
The story takes place on Discworld, a flat earth that is held up on the backs of four giant elephants who are standing on the shell of a giant turtle that is flying through space. The “auditors of reality” want to do away with all beliefs so that they don’t have to put up with myths, fairytales, and such things causing reality to be uncertain and messy. They hatch a plan to have the Hogfather (the Discworld equivalent to Santa Claus) killed on Hogswatch night while he is delivering his gifts to children. The idea being that if they can get the Hogfather killed then all other myths and beliefs can be eliminated in turn and reality will be made neat and tidy and run like clockwork thus making their jobs as auditors of reality easier.
The Auditors go to the Guild of Assassins and commission the hit on the Hogfather. Mr. Teatime (prounanced “Tee-ah-ta-me” as he tells everyone) is an assassin-in-training and chosen for the job because he is the only one crazy enough to think it can be done. He has even studied whether it is possible to kill death himself, but “merely as a hobby” of course, since if there were no death then there would be no Assassins Guild. Mr. Teatime comes up with the brilliant plan of going to the tooth fairy’s castle and using the collected teeth of all the children in the world to undo the belief in the Hogfather, thus assassinating him because if the children don’t believe in him then he won’t exist anymore.
Death and his granddaughter Susan are the central heroes of the tale. Death discovers the Auditors’ plan to kill the Hogfather and enlists the aid of his estranged granddaughter Susan to help him because the Tooth Fairy’s Castle is one place Death can not enter.
Susan discovers that the Hogfather himself has mythic roots and, before he became the Hogfather that he is today, he was an ancient demi-urge to whom sacrifices were made each year in the dead of winter to bring back the sun, and now if the Hogfather is assassinated, then the sun won’t rise again.
There are also Wizards of the Unseen University involved and gnomes and pixies and such.
The Mahayana Zen connection comes in with the understanding of polarities and the role of beliefs and rules in human society. The role reversal of having Death as the hero is the first indication of something really profound going on in the story. The question at the heart of the film is “what is reality” which of course is a quintessential Zen question. The Auditors of Reality want to take away all the imagination and belief out of reality so the world will run smoothly without unnecessary complications.
In the history of Buddhism, the desire to put an end to suffering by taking the imagination out of life became associated with the Early Schools of Buddhism whose exegesis of Buddhist scripture became perceived as anti-imagination, because all imagination and belief became defined as delusion and “wrong view” per se. Whether or not the criticism was precisely deserved, Mahayana developed, at least in part, as a way to understand imagination without completely denying it or repressing it. Of course this maneuver itself may be criticized, as the Mahayana has been and still is, as being too undisciplined in allowing the imagination to carry itself away and believe what it produces. However, between denying imagination and getting carried away by imagination lies the Middle Way, which is one variation of the Middle Way that the Mahayana and Zen, is at home with.
In traditional terms, it is the question of dealing with the characteristics of reality. The criticism of what was known as the Early Schools of Buddhism was that to realize the Buddhist aim of ending suffering they advocated turning away from characteristics into a nirvana of extinction of all characteristics. The goal of “right view” became the view that denatured reality and the characteristics of reality. This became perceived as a one-sided or dualistic view that actually bound people to suffering rather than providing freedom from suffering. From the Mahayana and Zen views true freedom from suffering meant above all else freedom from dualistic views upon which all suffering is based and conditioned.
As stated in The Platform Sutra, Zen Master Huineng says, “Outwardly, to be free from characteristics is immediately zen. Inwardly, to not be perturbed is immediately samadhi.” That is, zen is not a program to do away with the world of characteristics, including the characteristics of the imagination, but a path to be free and unperturbed by characteristics even while engaged with characteristics.
Using a different style of voice, in Hogfather, Death is the voice of this same wisdom. His “granddaughter” Susan has a certain magical side to her which she is trying to keep out of sight as she tries to live in the human world as a human. After they have rescued the Hogfather Susan asks her grandfather Death:
Susan: “Now tell me. . . “
Death: “What would have happened if you hadn’t saved him?”
D: “The sun would not have risen.”
S: “Then what would have happened?”
D: “A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.”
S: “Alright, I’m not stupid. You’re saying that humans need fantasies to make life bearable.”
D: “No. Humans need fantasy to be human, to be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
S: “With Tooth Fairies, Hogfathers.”
D: “Yes, as practice; you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.”
S: “So we can believe the big ones.”
D: “Yes, justice, mercy, duty, that sort of thing
S: “They’re not the same at all.”
D: “You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy, and yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world as if there is some, some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.”
S: “But people have got to believe that or what’s the point?”
D: “You need to believe in things that aren’t true; how else can they become?”
Death here is presenting basic Buddhism when he says that by breaking things down into their constituent parts we can’t find any such substantial things as justice, mercy, etc. and they too are shown to be “false views” in the sense of being actual things. To see reality as it really is, we must see that there is no objective ideal order by which the universe may be judged. This is the elementary Buddhism and is called “conditional origination.”
But Mahayana Buddhism, like Death in the dialogue above, adds the important point that though the search for an objective order like the ideal “justice” is only a false view projected onto the world by our belief, still humans believe in such things, not because they are true, but precisely because they are false in order to make them become manifested in reality. In Zen Buddhism this is called “nature origination”, that is, all things arise from our true nature.
The inherent “falseness” or “untruth” of such things like “justice” is what is meant when Buddhism says things are empty. And the very much alive paradox is that it is because things are empty that they can become manifested. In Zen, the way to perceive this paradox as a direct experience, and not just as a thought-formation or another belief system, is called: “Don’t think good, don’t think evil. Right now, what is your original face?” This admonition to not think “good” or “evil” is the Buddhist version of seeing that “good and evil” are just like the Tooth Fairy and the Hogfather and should not be thought of as literal things. And to see one’s original face is to see directly and personally how things that are not true can become.
At the end of the film, Susan and Death have a final exchange.
Susan: “Granddad. Why? I mean, why did you do all this?”
Death: “Human beings make life so interesting. Do you know that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom. Quite astonishing.”
D: “Well then. Happy Hogswatch.”
Or as Zen master Yunmen said echoing the comprehension of living in a universe so full of wonders, “Every Day is a good day.”