Buddhist Dance in Ong-Bak 3
So, I am an absolute fan of martial arts movies. I loved Jackie Chan when I was younger. I think I probably watched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon until I had even the Chinese audio version memorized. And as my husband is a 3rd degree black belt in TaeKwonDo, our whole family is interested in martial arts. The world created in the Ong-Bak movies, featuring Tony Jaa, introduced me to Muay Thai as a martial art form and I was hooked on the skills of Tony Jaa from the first time I saw him on film… but it also involved me in a bit of research about the enchanting Buddhist dance form performed in the movie called Khon.
This is not a post on the Christian Bible in fiction: this is a post on the use of Buddhist traditions in fiction. I’m nothing if not open-minded, and I love any fiction that gives me the chance to explore other cultures and spirituality through stories and characters I love.
In Ong-Bak 3 (which – fair warning – is one explosive, punch-em-to-pieces martial arts film with a hefty amount of blood) Tony Jaa’s character Tien goes through a brutal crippling scene that leaves him with little use of his arms and legs. Once a martial arts master, now beaten and broken, he sinks into depression and must face some of his own bad Karma before he can move on with his life. This reminds me of reconciliation and communion, though in the form of demons from his current and past lives haunting his soul. He eventually achieves this through strength of mind and the practice of a Buddhist dance he learned as a child known as Khon.
Khon dance typically is done as a dramatic performance, wordless, and telling stories of both good and bad angels. In Ong-Bak 3, the dance is what heals Tien spiritually and physically, while he explores a (pretty darn platonic) relationship with his childhood friend Pim.
The dance is interesting to me because coming from a dance background myself, and now married to a martial artist, I love the mesh of motion for the purpose of entertainment and for the purpose of combat. In Ong-Bak 3, the two purposes are mingled with a third: healing, spirituality, coming to closure with the past and Karmas, and fighting for a common good (in this case, nasty leaders and totally creepy curses).
So Tien revisits his childhood dance with his childhood friend and heals his body, enabling him to carry on and fight against seemingly-insurmountable odds by using his movement styles together. (He has the help of a friendly elephant, too, which leads to a fantastic visual representation of the one-tusked Ganesha and even deeper Buddhist meanings.)
In what other situations do we see movement done for multiple purposes, including spiritual? Prayer rituals often involve bowing and motions of the hands and arms, such as kneeling in Catholic church or crossing oneself to represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Catholic church, we also crossed our foreheads, lips, and hearts, reminding us to always carry the word of God in our minds, mouths, and hearts – a reminder to keep our whole beings pure.
I’d love to hear other movies or experiences where you find physical movement combined with staying in touch with the spiritual being. Yoga is often done this way. Martial arts are as much a mental discipline as a physical, and Tony Jaa’s masterful mesh of Khon dance with Muay Thai combat is inspiring, enlightening, and educational.