What can an action movie from 1986 teach us about following the teachings of the Buddha? As I was watching Top Gun (for the umpteenth time), I began to see some hidden gems in what would otherwise seem to be just another popcorn style action movie.
If you’ve never seen Top Gun before (perhaps you have been hiding under a rock or meditating on a mountain top somewhere) it goes something like this:
A hot shot fighter pilot (“Maverick” / Tom Cruise) gets his dream shot to prove himself, win the girl, and get glory. But ends up losing his best friend (“Goose”/Anthony Edwards), and nearly looses himself in the process. He eventually discovers the path he needs to be on and saves the day.
While the producers and director of the movie never intended to have Buddhist ideas in the script, you can find the teachings everywhere if you look deeply enough! Here is what I learned:
“Cougar’s in trouble.” ~ Maverick
In the very first chapter of the movie, the other pilot (“Cougar”) became petrified after an intense encounter with enemy planes and couldn’t return to the aircraft carrier despite being low on fuel. When Maverick realized that this was happening he returned to help guide him in, despite being told otherwise by Goose and the air boss. Calmly he talked Cougar back to the aircraft carrier safely, which saved his life. Maverick knew this action wouldn’t win him any favors (he was subsequently ‘chewed out’ for this action), but he knew to do the right thing.
In Buddhism we practice Right Action, which Maverick was using in this instance with compassion and selflessness. He knew Cougar was suffering, and that if they didn’t make it back both him and his RIO (Radar Intercept Officer) in the back seat both might die. We can take this in our daily lives by helping someone at work who needs it (even if it takes us away from going to lunch on time), to stopping at an accident to see if everyone is ok and not hurt (even if it means we are late in where we are going).
Control Your Ego
“Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.” ~ Air Boss Johnson
On his first day, Maverick makes a simulated ‘kill’ during training even though he wasn’t supposed to. His ego still high on his achievement, he decides to celebrate with a ‘flyby’ of the tower (despite the please not to do this by Goose, and the Air Boss). He learned quickly that these types of actions have consequences. His main rival at Top Gun is “Iceman” who tells him: “You’re everyone’s problem. That’s because every time you go up in the air, you’re unsafe. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous”. Next his lead instructor, “Viper”, tells him: “Top Gun rules of engagement are written for your safety and for that of your team. They are not flexible, nor am I. Either obey them or you are history. Is that clear?”
We can all use an ‘Iceman’ and ‘Viper’ in our minds telling us that what we are doing isn’t the best thing. Practice Right Mindfulness which will enable you to observe your ego. You can achieve your inner Iceman by practicing meditation and bringing yourself to the present moment. Being mindful of your actions, and the present moment, you will be able to detach yourself from ‘reactions’ and more skillfully interact with what is happening around you.
“I’m moving in. I’ve got the shot” ~ Maverick
During the last stage of the Top Gun school, both Maverick and Iceman have the same amount of points for the trophy, so they are both aggressive. When Iceman overtakes Maverick who was going in for a kill, we see Maverick loose his patience and become agitated. He aggressively makes Iceman leave his position when he can’t make the shot himself. However, since Maverick was very aggressive he went too close and got caught in Iceman’s ‘jet wash’ when he left, resulting in Maverick’s jet losing power in both engines (which resulted in a flat spin). Goose initiated the ejection seats because the jet was lost, but this resulted in Goose breaking his neck and dying.
In Buddhism, “Patience” is not the same as just enduring something difficult and not harming someone. Instead it means to control your emotions when you are being attacked, criticized, or humiliated. Maverick probably felt all three of these things were happening to him, and became too aggressive. Despite that he was ‘cleared’ of all charges, he now felt guilt for the death of Goose.
Practicing patience can be a difficult undertaking, however it can be achieved. Consistent meditation helps you to center yourself and calm your mind, two qualities needed for patience. The end result is that you can more clearly and correctly respond to a situation and not act upon emotion and ego which can hurt you and others.
Find Your Path
“You don’t even have a ticket, do you?” ~ Charlie
After his partner Goose died, Maverick decided to quit because his overwhelming guilt and attachment rendered him helpless. At the airport, call-sign “Charlie” (his love interest and an instructor), confronts him about quitting by saying “you’ve got that maneuver down real well”. This forces Maverick to think about what he is doing, and eventually goes to see his head instructor, Viper, who empowers him to decide his own path.
The Buddha had many experiences and moments that led to his eventually enlightenment, however another word for this can be “awakening”. Just like how Maverick had several life experiences and teachers help with his awakening, the Buddha did as well. Famously, the Buddha learned that extremes were not the right way to go (after he almost died from eating too little and almost go washed away in a river). Maverick also learned this by realizing that running away is the wrong action, and won’t help anyone else if he quit. While Maverick’s awakening was not enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, he learned from his lessons and we can too. Finding our path in life can be aided by our understanding and faith in Buddhism which gives us the eightfold path (among other teachings) to guide us.
Don’t Leave Your Wingman
“I am not leaving my wingman” ~ Maverick
Earlier in the movie, Maverick was intent on winning the trophy and would do anything to get more ‘points’ for simulated kills during training exercises. In one of these instances, he left the pilot he was a wingman for to go after another enemy plane. Within minutes he learned it was all a rouse by the instructors to break up the team and they picked off each one easily. The instructor “Jester” told him “That was some of the best flying I’ve seen yet. Until you got killed. You never, never leave your wingman.”. Later in the movie, Maverick follows through with this and never leaves others to fend for themselves for his own ego and glory.
Who is the ‘wingman’ in your life? Many, actually. In Buddhism, we don’t just think of ‘self’, but of ‘everything’. It’s easy, and alluring, to go after the job with the most money (and keep it all), forget friends and family, pass by the homeless person on the street, etc. However this only makes the world a more difficult place to live because that homeless person you help could one day become your best employee, the job you went after for all that money became your most depressing, and the friends and family you neglected were the ones who were there for you when you were sick. While it is important to focus on yourself, don’t forget about your wingman. Your wingman is everyone, don’t let them down.
The 14th Dalai Lama recommends reciting the following verses, and reflecting upon their meaning:
With a wish to free all beings
I shall always go for refuge
to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha
until I reach full enlightenment.
Enthused by wisdom and compassion,
today in the Buddha’s presence
I generate the Mind for Full Awakening
for the benefit of all sentient beings.
As long as space endures,
as long as sentient being remain,
until then, may I too remain
and dispel the miseries of the world.
Learn to Let Go
“You gotta let him go” ~ Viper
After loosing Goose in a training accident, Maverick is visited by the top instructor, Viper. Viper, who had lost many friends in battle, lets Maverick know that he has to let Goose go because he can tell he is still too attached. This attachment, as Viper knows all too well, will consume and hold Maverick back. But it took Maverick up until the end of the movie to understand Vipers wisdom when he was the only one who could help Iceman. Iceman was in a fierce dogfight with five other enemy jets that had already shot down his wingman. After the dogfight, Maverick is seen at the fantail (rear) of the ship holding the dog tags of Goose (which he kept since he died), smiles softly, and throws them in the water. He knew that moving on is not the same as forgetting, and his attachment with Goose (and his death) can be released peacefully.
Letting go is hard for humans, we love to keep things. These things are physical things like property, to experiences like love, to people like our friends and family. But all of these things are transitory and will all be gone way day in some way or another. The sooner we realize this and are able to let go of this attachment, we can enjoy them in the here and now and live our lives as it is meant to be lived. And with that, we can bring back that loving feeling (you’ll have to watch the movie to get that part).
It’s Only Permanent in a Movie
I’ve always enjoyed watching this movie because I loved seeing the F-14 Tomcats, ships, people, and locations. But even that can give me some reflection The aircraft carrier shown is now ‘inactive’ (but scheduled to be recommissioned) , the F-14 Tomcats are all no longer being flown by the Navy, the ‘Top Gun’ school has long since moved to another location, and some of the Navy buildings used in the movie have been closed down.
Nothing is permanent, even with something as big and long lasting as a large military, so don’t get so attached.