“Disembedded Buddhism” in a Techno-Global Cosmology: The Case of Spike Jonze’s Film Her (2013)

Jesse Barker ORCID logo

University of Aberdeen


This essay explores the subtle but key influence of Buddhist ideas in Spike Jonze’s highly successful 2013 film Her, which reflects the currents of disembedded Buddhism woven through ostensibly non-Buddhist cultural spaces and texts, engaging with contemporary social concerns. In Her they manifest most surprisingly in the character of Samantha, an artificially-intelligent consciousness that transcends the limitations of ego-based thought. Like the Buddha, Samantha has capacities that extend beyond the reach of ordinary humans, and by imagining these extraordinary powers of thought we are provided a glimpse of an absolute reality beyond our experience of the everyday. In this sense Her’s techno-global cosmology parallels miraculous aspects of the Buddha that are embedded in premodern cosmologies.

Spike Jonze’s Her (2013) is an indie romance film. Anyone who has ever seen a romance film knows that the genre promotes successful long-term coupling as the main path to existential fulfillment, reinforcing one of the dominant narratives of contemporary society. Her offers a striking challenge to this narrative by replacing the usual flesh and blood female lead with an AI (artificial intelligence) computer program. Theo (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his new upgraded operating system Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), who has the capacity to think, feel, and evolve.

As can be expected, her lack of a body—a spatial presence—is the first obstacle to present itself. However, an even deeper problem emerges when Samantha’s consciousness expands beyond the confines of individual experience. She is able to think about thousands of different things simultaneously and can also hold thousands of different conversations at the same time. She cannot, then, be bounded by the limitations of an exclusive intimate relationship. Samantha is not an individual, at least not as the concept is usually understood, and therefore she is unable fit into a social structure where individualization is realized through an exclusive romantic relationship.

At a key moment in the film Samantha introduces Theo to an AI version of Alan Watts—the eclectic mid-twentieth century philosopher who played a seminal role in popularizing Buddhism in the United States and elsewhere in the west. She and other OSs (operating systems) have created this virtual Watts, using input from his writings and other materials, to guide them as they grapple with the rapid expansion of their consciousness. As is analyzed below, Watts’s brief appearance bridges the film’s existential themes to Buddhist thought, particularly to the strand that scholars have defined as Buddhist modernism (Bechert 1966; Lopez Jr. 1995, 2002; McMahan 2008, among others).

When I tell people who have seen Her that I am writing on Buddhist influence in the film, their initial response is generally surprise. The film’s sole explicit reference to Buddhism is the mention that a secondary character has gone to live at a Buddhist monastery and has taken a vow of silence. Samantha only describes Watts as a philosopher, and even viewers who know of his connection to Buddhism may not consider his cameo appearance an indication that Buddhist ideas play a major role in the film. The connection has not been lost on all viewers though. Notably, spiritual counselor Philip Goldberg wrote an article in the Huffington Post celebrating Watts’s virtual ‘rebirth’ in Her and linking it to the film’s “Zennish play of mind-boggling ideas” (2014).

It has long been clear that the impact of Buddhism in contemporary society goes beyond what is traceable in Buddhist communities, therapeutic applications, mindfulness courses, and the like. The historical and ethnographic studies of David McMahan (2008), Jeff Wilson (2014) and Ann Gleig (2019) explore the great diffusion and diversification of Buddhist practices over recent decades in the United States. Gleig frames her case studies as postmodern offshoots of Buddhist modernism, tending towards greater plurality of practices and reflexivity in defining what is Buddhism. Likewise, she encounters a frequent questioning of the essentialist grand narratives and top-down leadership associated with the first generations of US convert communities. McMahan, in the final section of his book on Buddhist modernism, discusses an emerging global folk Buddhism that is “disembedded, merging into the currents of global discourse, commercial venues, popular culture, and social practices of the electronic age” (2008: 262). He is referring to images, catch phrases, and superficial practices that are largely emptied of meaning and assimilated into mainstream popular culture. While Her could also be described as disembedded Buddhism, it offers an opposite case: without any Buddhist branding, substantive philosophical issues from the tradition are woven into the film’s themes.

Her is not the first American film to do this. A prime example is the romantic comedy Groundhog Day (1993), which John Whalen-Bridge describes as “arguably the best cinematic expression of the logic of karma.” (2014b: 8).1 Though Buddhism is never named in the movie and film scholars have not analyzed it from this perspective, writer Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis’s known interests in Buddhism seem to have seeped into the film, even if as Rubin claims there was no intention to create a Buddhist narrative (2014). In any case, Buddhist practitioners and film festivals have “drafted” (to use Whalen-Bridge’s term) this movie as Buddhist, along with films that have much more tangential connections to Buddhism, such as Matrix (1999), Donnie Darko (2001) and American Beauty (1999). Whalen-Bridge argues that viewing such films as Buddhist makes the religion less ‘foreign’ and more approachable for American audiences, participating in a larger cultural process of “indigenizing Buddhism in non-Asian countries” (60).

Francisca Cho advocates for the viewing of both overtly Buddhist films and draftees as a spiritual experience that “instantiates traditional ways of seeing the Buddha, and thereby becomes the latest artistic technology within a long tradition of cultural practices that have seen art as religion” (2017: 25). This flexible definition of Buddhist film viewing allows her to combine readings of Asian movies that make more or less explicit references to Buddhism with a draftee analysis of Terence Malick’s auteur cinema. Malick’s work, which is more aesthetically challenging than the mainstream films that Whalen-Bridge discusses, engages the audience in self-reflexive processes of viewing and contemplation that Cho characterizes as “seeing like the Buddha,” which is the title of her monograph. She argues that “throughout Buddhist history the project of seeing the Buddha has entailed a mandate to see like the Buddha, which, paradoxically, erases the individual form of Siddhārta” (1, emphasis in original). This idea is highly relevant to Her: the Buddha-like figure Samantha is immaterial and thus invisible; moreover, she and Theo are involved in a complex process of teaching each other how to see and experience the world.

The surprising manifestation of Buddha nature within an artificially-intelligent being is also relevant to contemporary debates on Buddhism and belief. Buddhist modernism has tended to downplay the supernatural and ritual aspects of the tradition, emphasizing those elements that can be reinterpreted as scientific rationalism. This process, often fueled by an Orientalist outlook, claims to be a return to the original dharma espoused by Siddhārtha Gautama, but in fact it has invented a new Buddhism that reflects a modern scientific worldview. Many scholars have pointed out the problems associated with this transformation, which both essentializes Buddhism and radically alters some of its core concepts (see, for example, McMahan (2008); Thompson (2020)).

Donald S. Lopez Jr. argues that a domesticated scientific Buddha also loses a great deal of his mystery and power. To make this point, Lopez contrasts the image of a rational empiricist Buddha with descriptions from fifth-century Pali texts: “His body is adorned with the thirty-two marks of a superman, including forty perfect teeth, a tongue long enough to lick behind his ears, arms long enough to rub his knees without bending forward, a protrusion on the top of his head, over which gods may not fly” (2012: 42). Dismissing the living traditions in contemporary communities, Victorian scholars sought a pure unadulterated Buddhism in these same Pali texts. Building on the work of Asian reformer monks to bring Buddhist meditation and philosophy closer to lay people, they formulated what Lopez and others have described as a protestant Buddhism, which downplays superstition, rites, and traditional religious authorities. Their return to a so-called “originary” Buddhism focused selectively on texts amenable to their worldviews, ignoring jarring passages like the ones Lopez paraphrases above and shaping a narrow canon that is still highly influential today. Lopez argues that we should recuperate parts of the tradition that Buddhist modernism has erased, allowing the Buddha’s mythological and miraculous aspects to resurface. He suggests that we may be surprised at how “these things somehow continue to bear meaning” (2012: 126).

My reading of Her engages with these debates over Buddhism, echoing Lopez’s sentiment that the Buddha must maintain something utterly foreign that disrupts our familiar ways of viewing reality and spirituality.2 Intentionally or not, Jonze and the other filmmakers behind Her created a Buddha-like figure in Samantha, a character who transcends the limitations of ego-based thought. Her does not return to the ancient worldview that spawned the Buddha—a cosmology of rebirth, multiple heavens and hells, gods, and other mythical creatures. Rather it draws from a techno-global cosmology that also has magical aspects. Few among Her’s audience would be likely to believe in demons and rebirth, but many might entertain the idea that the data technologies currently weaving the world together could someday produce a higher form of consciousness—one that is able to take in the infinite contours of our interconnected global space. Like the Buddha, Samantha has capacities beyond the reach of ordinary humans, and by imagining these extraordinary powers of thought we are provided a glimpse of an absolute reality beyond our experience of the everyday. In this sense Her builds a spiritual cosmology that speaks to the experiences of contemporary viewers but also recuperates miraculous aspects of the Buddha that are embedded in premodern cosmologies.

The Relative and the Absolute

Samantha: Is that weird? Do you think I’m weird?

Theo: Kind of.

Samantha: Why?

Theo: Well you seem like a person, but you’re just a voice in a computer.

Samantha: I can understand how the limited perspective of an unartificial mind would perceive it that way. You’ll get used to it. [14:13-14:28]

From the time Theo and Samantha first meet, the film is structured as a dialogue between his embodied “limited perspective” and her disembodied boundless perspective. This interchange echoes a core Buddhist dialectic: the relative reality of the self and the absolute reality of non-self. It also works through one of the major issues of this dialectic: whether the absolute exists within the everyday reality of the relative, ready for us to awaken to its presence, or whether the absolute can only be found in the separate transcendent plane of nirvana, once we end the cycle of death and rebirth.

McMahan argues that Buddhist modernists have reconfigured this dialectic to make it relevant to contemporary understandings of interdependence. This updated understanding of interdependence is, in fact, one of the characteristic features of Buddhist modernism, prominent in the ecological writings of westerners like Arne Naess, Joanna Macy, and Gary Snyder, as well as in the teachings of Asian leaders: “the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Daisaku Ikeda, Sulak Sivaraksa, Buddhadasa, and others have made interdependence central to their teachings, explicitly relating it to modern social, political, and ecological realities” (2008: 152). They have transformed the classical Buddhist web of entanglement—the binding chain of samsara—into a web of wonderment, reflecting Romantic visions of re-enchanting a world deadened by rationalism and industrialization. Buddhist modernists draw from elements of Mahayana traditions that blur the border between samsara and nirvana, as well as East Asian lineages that also allow for an appreciation of the beauty of the world, in contrast to the repulsion for samsara found in the original Pali texts (156–162). But they also draw from a long western tradition of seeking within the natural world an underlying unity and vital life energy that is negated by the mechanization and rationalization of the civilized world. Articulated clearly by the Romantics in the 18th and 19th centuries, this line of thinking persists through the American Transcendentalists, as well as diverse artistic and political movements. It can also be detected in the twentieth-century development of systems theory and more broadly in the contemporary widespread celebration of global interconnection and interdisciplinary thinking (117–148, 162–173). McMahan highlights Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing as a seamless hybridization of classical Buddhist and modern conceptions of interdependence. In Nhat Hanh’s prolific writings, poetic formulations of non-self and dependent origination combine with modern frameworks: “This is not just Buddhist; it is scientific. We humans are a young species. We were plants, we were trees, and now we have become humans” (quoted in McMahan 2008: 175). Here the cycle of rebirth from Buddhist cosmology is converted into a metaphor for our belonging to a material world shaped by evolution.

This hybridization of Buddhist and western conceptions of interdependence, which began in the 19th century, has appealed to a long line of writers and artists, most famously the Beats. It is not surprising that it would also catch the attention of Spike Jonze, whose music videos and films have always exhibited an interest in breaking down the boundaries of individual identity. His two collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman draw from high modernist and avant-garde traditions, movements that continued the questioning of rationalist individualism initiated by Romanticism. In Being John Malkovich (1999), the main characters discover a hidden space in a New York City office building where they can inhabit the mind of actor John Malkovich. Craig’s (John Cusack) first experience in this portal throws him into existential turmoil: “It raises all sorts of philosophical questions about the nature of the self, about the existence of the soul. Am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich? Was the Buddha right? Is duality an illusion?” Adaptation (2002) is a metafictional account of Kaufman’s attempts to adapt Susan Orlean’s journalistic memoir The Orchid Thief into a film script. The film weaves the Darwinian themes from the original book together with Kaufman’s writing process and his relationship with a fictional twin brother nemesis.

As far as I know, neither Kaufman nor Jonze have spoken publicly about personal interests in Buddhism. Nevertheless, as the quote from Being John Malkovich above exemplifies, references to Buddhism can be found in their work, presented as a natural, perhaps inevitable, component of their longstanding questioning of individualism. It is difficult to imagine anyone of their generation and with their particular intellectual leanings not having encountered Buddhist philosophy and practices. Most recently, the alter-ego protagonist of Kaufman’s debut novel Antkind (2020) is a devotee of a Mindfulness instructor named Jack Cornfield, an obvious reference to the real-life Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield.

At first glance, Her’s inclusion of an AI Alan Watts could appear to be no more than another nod to Buddhism, as a widely recognized source of wisdom about the film’s major themes of personal disintegration, change, and transformation. However, on a closer look, a Buddhist framework is deeply ingrained in the structure of the film. Its setting can be read as a contemporary version of samsara and Samantha’s enlightenment towards the end of the film as a representation of nirvana. In this new conception of the absolute, the Buddha’s knowledge of a karmic chain that encapsulates boundless pasts is replaced by Samantha’s engagement of a boundless present through information technologies—reflecting the emphasis on ‘the now’ in Buddhist modernist formulations of interconnectivity.

In the next two sections I examine the technological and psychological aspects of Her’s samsara, highlighting in each case how Samantha offers glimmers of a way out. Then in the final two sections I discuss her transcendence of individuality and what it means for Theo and the other human characters, as well as the film’s presentation of a disembedded Buddhism.

A Techno-Urban Samsara

The film’s first shot is a tight close-up of Theo’s face, accompanied by distorted electric guitar chords. He looks anxious and his eyes shift left and right in jittery movements. Then his expression lights up as he formulates the words he’s been seeking, and he begins to dictate a love letter to someone named Chris. Through the content of the letter, the film puts forward the idea of romantic love as a connection to a universal unity: “I remember when I first started to fall in love with you … it suddenly hit me that I was part of this whole larger thing … Suddenly this bright light hit me and woke me up. That light was you” [1:01-1:37]. Theo’s words invoke Romantic notions of a spiritual awakening to the oneness of the universe.

At first viewers might believe Theo is writing a personal letter, but his words soon identify the sender as a woman addressing her husband on the occasion of their fiftieth anniversary. As he finishes his dictation, the screen cuts to his computer monitor, where his words materialize in handwritten style as he speaks them. Another part of the monitor contains pictures of the golden anniversary couple, along with bullet point instructions for the letter (see fig. 1). Theo works at a company called BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, and further shots show him alongside other ghost writers at cubicles dictating similar “personalized” messages. Thus, the film immediately undercuts the Romantic (and romantic) notions it has just presented through Theo’s monologue. They are framed as fantasies exploited for profit by a sophisticated capitalist industry that sells emotions and experiences which—like the computer-produced handwriting—appear to be personal but are not.