Bill Murray may be a bodhisattva
His passion project film, "The Razor's Edge," is about a man's search for enlightenment
He photo-bombs and pranks along his way to shake the masses from their torpor
Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
It’s your basic Cinderella story. William James Murray was an unknown out of Wilmette, Illinois, just outside Chicago. He is the middle-est of nine children, and his parents, Lucille and Ed, were a mailroom clerk and salesman, respectively and respectably. Yet young Bill’s destiny or innate gifts would take him far from his working-class roots.
The highest spiritual leaders of Tibetan Buddhism, called lamas, are reincarnated and often born to ordinary families. The lamas are refound through a formal, if mystical, divination process in which their destiny is revealed. The current Dalai Lama is actually the 14th in his line. His Holiness is a middle child among seven, and his parents were potato and buckwheat farmers in rural Tibet. He came out of nowhere to lead a pack of millions of Buddhists.
“If you were reincarnated and had to be reborn into mortality, the Dalai Lama would probably be the most desired embodiment to be reborn in,” said improv coach and legend Del Close. “I’d imagine that coming back as Bill Murray would be second.”
Murray has millions of devotees as well, and their love of the actor runs deeper than most celebrity crushes. His films are not the most profitable, “Ghostbusters” aside, and he’s not the brightest star in the Hollywood galaxy. Yet Murray has reached a rarified level of fame often and accurately described as iconic.
An icon is a symbol of greater meaning, usually religious. So what does Murray represent in our collective consciousness? I’ll argue it’s a lot deeper than just the veneer of talented comedic actor. It’s more like a fine cocktail of wisdom and world-weariness, with heavy notes of Zen, served straight-up funny.
Bill Murray, bodhisattva
Murray and the Dalai Lama are also connected cinematically, as fans know. In his first major film, “Caddyshack,” the golf-playing actor improvised a scene in which his character, Carl Spackler, recounts caddying a round in the Himalayan mountains. The golfer is the Dalai Lama, himself.
“So we finish the 18th, and he’s gonna stiff me,” Spackler shares, “And I say, ‘Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know?’ And he says, ‘Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.’ So I got that goin’ for me. Which is nice.”
I think Murray does have that goin’ for him. I’ve long suspected that he’s something of a bodhisattva: someone who has reached total consciousness but, instead of punching his ticket to Nirvana, sticks around this messy corporeal world to help others reach the other side, a sort of Buddhist mensch.
The proof to this theory is wrapped up in some key film choices, most notably “Groundhog Day,” a Buddhist allegory for escaping the karmic loop of unenlightened suffering, and “The Razor’s Edge,” his adaptation of the epic W. Somerset Maugham novel about a man’s search for the meaning of life.
The hypothesis is bolstered by the famously present, engaged way he seems to live his life, photo-bombing and pranking his way among the masses in order to shake them out of their torpor. “If I see someone who’s out cold on their feet,” he said of his behavior, “I’m going to try to wake that person up.”
Note: The title of “Buddha” means “one who is awake” in ancient Sanskrit.
Murray is a like a “Buddhist trickster figure, a reincarnated peripatetic monk who uses humor to awaken and enlighten,” according to “Saturday Night Live” writer Tom Schiller, as paraphrased in “The Big Bad Book of Bill Murray” by Robert Schnakenberg. “These kinds of masters come around only once every thousand years.”
’The wise say the path to Salvation is hard’
“The Razor’s Edge” isn’t one of my favorite Bill Murray films. It’s one of my favorite films of all time. The 1984 production is the second adaptation of Maugham’s deep but soap opera-ish novel following the fate of four friends between World War I and the Great Depression.
The most intriguing of the four is Larry Darrell, who returns from a stint as an ambulance driver in the war with deep reservations about his prearranged life. He puts off an engagement and a stock market job to travel like a dharma bum searching for the point of it all, ending up in the Himalayas by way of reading philosophy in Paris and discovering the Upanishads from a fellow coal miner. Clad in Tibetan monk robes, Darrell meditates on a mountaintop until reaching his peak experience.
The movie was willed into existence by Murray, who cowrote it. Hollywood studios were wary of bankrolling a passion project about man’s search for meaning, but Murray, who waived his acting fee, got it financed by making it a condition of starring in another film the studios were more excited about, “Ghostbusters.” Columbia Pictures made both, but only one was among the biggest hits of the decade.
That “Razor’s” was a box office flop doesn’t speak well of the general public. It’s well-written, superbly acted, beautifully shot and movingly scored, and the only criticism that anyone can lob is that people unfairly wanted Murray to be funny in a drama. His later career would set the record straight on the actor’s range, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Judge it for yourself.
The title of Maugham’s story comes from the Katha-Upanishad. “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” The passage is reminiscent of the plot of other great Murray films: “Groundhog Day,” “What About Bob?” and “Scrooged.”
Have a Murray Christmas
After the success of “Ghostbusters” and the disappointment of “The Razor’s Edge,” Murray retreated to Paris for six months and studied philosophy and history at The Sorbonne. He called it “the best thing I ever did.”
He also started reading the mystic and philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. The Buddhist notion that humans live in a state of perpetual sleep and are not taking control of their own lives is also ascribed to Gurdjieff, who detailed exercises to “wake up.”
Murray was slow to return to moviemaking. In the four years after “Razor’s” and “Ghostbusters,” he took only a small role in “Little Shop of Horrors” before starring in “Scrooged.”
The modernized adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” is faithful to the plot in that both are about redeeming one’s life by overcoming ego and vice the hard way.
“You can always change tomorrow if you want to,” Murray’s love interest says in “Scrooged.” The line, and the movie’s theme, segues nicely to his next iconic role.
’I’m a god. I’m not the God’
Director Harold Ramis (Murray’s co-star in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters”) knew that his old friend was the perfect casting for “Groundhog Day,” about a man who repeats the same day over and over in a “Buddish” allegory for escaping the cycle of suffering though self-betterment.
No actor could have better played a character who transforms from a self-centered jerk to generous Samaritan. It’s not just that Murray is known for being both irascible and princely in disposition. The role is also perfectly billmurrayian because it combines spiritual depth with high-grade, premium humor. “Groundhog Day” would not be nearly as effective at its subversive karmic lesson if it weren’t so genuinely hilarious.
Amid wit, physical comedy and romantic fumblings are references to angels, karma, the Serenity Prayer, spiritual renewal and the meaning of life. By repeating the same day over and over, Murray’s character defies death and even approaches omniscience. “I’m a god,” he says. “I’m not the God. I don’t think.”
At the very least, “he is a god to comedians,” said one of them, Nick Kroll. “He’s like what a cow is in India.”
India’s peaks seem close again in “Groundhog Day.” “I wish we could all live in the mountains at high altitude,” Murray says in a line that I suspect is ad-libbed. “That’s where I see myself in five years.”
It reminded me of something the head monk says in “The Razor’s Edge” after Darrell has his religious experience: “It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.” It’s harder if you’re a TV executive (“Scrooged”), local weatherman (“Groundhog Day”) or famous actor and comedian.
Dialogue about mountains, itself a metaphor of religious experience, pops up elsewhere in the Murray canon. “I’ve always, always loved the mountains,” Murray said in an interview with Rolling Stone soon after he filmed “Razor’s” in the Himalayan foothills west of Tibet. “I didn’t see my first one until I was 18, and then I wanted to see them all.”
’Wake me the hell up’
Murray isn’t just a holy man down from the mountain. He’s the bodhisattva among us, pointing the way. Or the Shakespearean wise fool who teaches inoffensively. Or the trickster god who shakes up the status quo.
He’s also present.
“Bill’s whole life is in the moment. He doesn’t care about what just happened. He doesn’t think about what’s going to happen,” said Ted Melfi, director of “St. Vincent,” which starred Murray in the title role. “He doesn’t even book round-trip tickets. Bill buys one-ways and then decides when he wants to go home.” It’s not unlike the hero of his youth, Larry Darrell.
“I don’t think of the past,” wrote “Razor’s” author, Maugham. “The only thing that matters is the everlasting present.”
Viral videos are evidence of his love of crashing parties – and lives – without waiting for an invitation. “It keeps you constantly alive to possibility,” Ramis said of Murray’s behavior. “Anything can happen here. It’s great. It kind of frees your imagination.”
There’s more than just frivolity behind these antics, according to Murray. We are “unconscious most of the time,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “Not out cold, but you’re unconscious. Lights on, nobody home.
“I’m only connected for seconds, minutes a day, sometimes. And suddenly, you go, ‘Holy cow, I’ve been asleep for two days. I’ve been doing things, but I’m just out,’ ” he further expounded to Rolling Stone magazine. “If I see someone who’s out cold on their feet, I’m going to try to wake that person up. It’s what I’d want someone to do for me. Wake me the hell up and come back to the planet.”
Or as author James Michener is believed to have put it, “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play. … He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both.”
Bill Murray is an icon who, like Ganesha, holds multiple gifts in multiple arms. Wake up to what’s going on around you! Change your ways before it’s too late! Find clarity in the mountains and bring it back to the village. Help others follow your example.
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“This is your life, not a rehearsal,” Murray said to TimeOut magazine a few years ago. “Somewhere, there’s a score being kept, so you have an obligation to live life as well as you can, be as engaged as you can. The human condition means that we can zone out and forget what the hell we’re doing. So the secret is to have a sense of yourself, your real self, your unique self. And not just once in a while or once a day but all through the day, the week and life. You know what they say: ‘Ain’t no try; ain’t nothing to it but to do it.’ “
Thank you, Bill Murray, for these gifts. And for making us laugh. As Marcel Proust reminds us, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”