Breaking Buddha: How “Breaking Bad” Relates to Buddhism

If religion is a reaction of man, and nothing more, it seems to me that it represents a human desire for wrongdoers to be punished. I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for Biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.’  ~ Vince Gillian (Creator of AMC’s “Breaking Bad”)

One of the most watched and critically acclaimed drama series on cable is called “Breaking Bad” (on AMC).  The story is simple:  high school chemistry teacher Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.  Walter decides to make the illegal drug “meth” so that he can make enough money so his family will be taken care of after he dies, and to pay for his medical expenses.  He believes that he can do this in a “small crime” way, where nobody gets hurt and he can make money.

Photo by AMC

Throughout the five seasons, Walter is transformed from a bungling high school teacher turned drug maker, to a ruthless and hard core drug kingpin (you can read a recap of all the seasons here or watch a video recap here).

But what does this have to do with Buddhism?  Like most things in life, a lot.

Breaking Livelihood

Walter believes naively enough that he’s just a chemist making the drugs and that’s it.  After all, it’s just “science”, Walter may be say, and the outcome is to help his family after he’s gone.  But all actions have consequences, and engaging in wrong livelihood is one of them.

The Buddha specifically said about right livelihood:

A lay follower should not engage in five types of business. Which five? Business in weapons, business in human beings, business in meat, business in intoxicants, and business in poison.

Walter knows it’s wrong, but he’s not part of the street level violence, so he can cloud reality (at least initially).  But as Barbara O’Brien explains:

Even if your particular job doesn’t require harmful or unethical action, perhaps you are doing business with someone who does.

As sentient beings (it doesn’t even matter if you’re a Buddhist), right livelihood is paramount in ensuring not only morality, but the safety and welfare of others.  Walter’s course of action by making illegal drugs sets the stage for violence, destruction, and death.  The unwholesome karmic actions he is creating are numerous.

Breaking Speech

Throughout the series, his wife (Skyler) becomes increasingly suspicious of Walter and his activity.  In no small measure, this is not only due to Walter’s wrong livelihood which forces him to hide things from her, but also his direct lying to her about how his medical bills were being paid.  All of this eventually leads him to reveal to her that he is a drug dealer, and they have a divorce.  And it doesn’t end there, eventually Skyler is pulled into his life of crime by laundering money and lying to the government.

The Buddhist precept of “Right Speech”, means we should not harm another through lying, duplicity, harsh speech, or idle speech.

As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explains:

Lying is particularly reprehensible because lying is a deliberate attempt to increase delusion.  Most people already are completely lost in delusion; to deliberately add to the problem is to turn away from the bodhisattva way and from the infinite compassion which inspire it.  Lying is very damaging because it ruins trust and it causes honest people to doubt their own intuitions.  The Buddha called lying one of the ten evil deeds, and he made it the subject of one of his five basic precepts.

In Walter’s case, his wrong livelihood forces him to lie (right livelihood doesn’t need lying).  And his lying directly affected what he held most dear:  his family.  His wife and family left him due to his wrong livelihood and lying, but also pulled his wife back in later on to his life of crime.

Breaking Clarity

The entire show deals with the creation of “Meth”, which is a highly destructive drug.  Not only does this drug destroy the body, but it also impacts how people think when they are on it.  Because the mind is an important part of Buddhism, taking intoxicants greatly reduces (or destroys) your ability to attain enlightenment (awakening), which is one of the goals of Buddhism.

The U.S. DEA reports that the effects of Meth on a person are:

Chronic meth abusers exhibit violent behavior, anxiety, confusion, insomnia, and psychotic features including paranoia, aggression, visual and auditory hallucinations, mood disturbances, and delusions — such as the sensation of insects creeping on or under the skin. Such paranoia can result in homicidal or suicidal thoughts. Researchers have reported that as much as 50% of the dopamine-producing cells in the brain can be damaged after prolonged exposure to relatively low levels of meth. Researchers also have found that serotonin-containing nerve cells may be damaged even more extensively.

SALADmeth

Intoxicants should only be used in moderation (such as with alcohol used in cooking or sparingly used) so that the mind is not clouded, and for drugs to be used only under the watchful and regulated care of a physician for a legitimate medical need.  The Buddha would not be against drugs being used to help a dying cancer patient who is in extreme pain even though it would impact the mind.  But using it for ‘recreational’ use when it causes destruction like this, not only impacts the persons mental state, but also morality.

Even though Walter was just a “chemist”, what he was making and it’s intended purpose were very clear:  the destruction of a human life slowly and painfully.  Not only will that drug users life be destroyed, but everyone around them from their friends and family, to the life of crime needed to support an addiction (which impacts others).

Breaking Life

With anything illegal and dangerous, there comes a violent criminal element.  The once innocent chemistry teacher had slowly but steadily turned into a modern “Scarface” where he had killed people (something he probably never imagined himself doing).  All of this came with greater ease as he stayed in this life of morally destructive activities.

In the fifth season, Walter and others are stealing chemicals from a freight train’s tanker.  It seemed like the perfect “victimless” crime until a kid on an ATV (who was innocently driving around in the desert) comes across them.  One of Walter’s associates in the crime shoots the kid, because he would be a witness.

When it comes to engaging in morally corrupt activities and livelihood, it opens the door to many other unwholesome outcomes such as the destruction of life.  If they were not engaged in stealing chemicals in order to make illegal drugs, then the child would still be alive.

Breaking Karma

The law of Karma, a fundamental Buddhist belief and teaching, also applies to Walter’s actions.  Karma is the law of “cause and effect”, and the Buddha laid out precepts and the eightfold path to help us create wholesome karma, and not the unwholesome karma Walter created (learn more about Karma by clicking here).

While Walter wanted to simply provide for his family after he died, his outcome in the series relates to all the karmic actions he is engaged in.  By breaking these universal moral precepts, he is creating the causes and conditions he could not escape.  He should have engaged in a path that would have been morally sound, and much less of an entertaining cable show to watch.

As Bodhidharma said:

Still others commit all sorts of evil deeds, claiming karma doesn’t exist. They erroneously maintain that since everything is empty, committing evil isn’t wrong. Such persons fall into a hell of endless darkness with no hope of release. Those who are wise hold no such conception.

 


 

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