Zen and the Art of Teaching: Buddhist Reflections on "Searching for Bobby Fischer"

Taigen Dan Leighton
From a proposed book of essays, Buddhism at the Movies, 2005, now not to be published except on this website.

The 1993 film "Searching for Bobby Fischer" is based on a true story about a young New York chess prodigy, Josh Waitzkin, playing chess in the dark shadow of the extraordinarily gifted and enigmatic former world champion Bobby Fischer. Josh and his young chess peers are forced to live up to the dream, image, and hype of perhaps being the next "young Fischer," just as a generation of songwriters has tried to live up to the hype of being the "next Dylan." Brief selections of documentary footage about Bobby Fischer and his achievements, narrated by Josh, are smattered throughout the film. They gradually reveal the seemingly disturbed personality underlying Fischer's unquestionable genius, echoing the movie's theme of the limitations of intellect, a fundamental Buddhist principle.

Despite the chess milieu, this is not a film about chess, but rather about parenting, and from the perspective of Buddhism, a brilliant film about teachers and students, and the necessity of balancing insight with compassion. Only the most rudimentary knowledge of chess moves or pieces might be useful in understanding the chess scenes. But this film has many lessons for aspiring students seeking Buddhist teachers, and even more for their teachers. Wit and wisdom are shown as useless without the realization of true kindness.

Josh, only seven years old when the film begins (and played wonderfully by young actor Max Pomeranc), suddenly reveals his innate genius at the language and art of chess when he watches hustlers playing speed chess in Washington Square Park, and talks his mother into letting him play a game with one of them. A chess hustler named Vinnie, played with delightful flair and charm by Laurence Fishburne, quickly recognizes and proclaims Josh's talent, writing his name down by the date on a newspaper so that Vinnie can prove he knew Josh back when. Vinnie tells Josh's startled mother, "Your boy used pieces in combination to attack, lady." Vinnie is to become one of Josh's two main teachers.

The youthful brilliance Josh exhibits exemplifies the Buddhist teaching about true wisdom as inherent and intuitive rather than a mechanical product of extended study. Thus the Buddhist bodhisattva Manjushri, archetypal emblem of wisdom, is usually depicted as boyish, like Josh. Josh's mother Bonnie, in an excellent performance by actress Joan Allen, is in many ways the true hero of this story. She realizes the fullness of Josh's gift, his kindness as well as his insight, and must use her mother's love and wisdom to protect and nurture it, just as Buddhist protector figures guard the Dharma.

A primary Mahayana Buddhist teaching is that all beings are inherently and fully endowed with buddha nature, the potentiality to awaken and express the wisdom and virtues of the awakened ones, or buddhas. Only because of our conditioning and habitual patterns of greed, anger, and confusion, we cannot realize and express it. So Buddhist practice is not a matter of acquiring or understanding something new, or reaching some new exalted state of mind or being. Rather, this practice requires seeing through and overcoming our habitual ways of seeing the world or ourselves that obstruct our natural capacities. Although each person has his or her own special gift, developing and opening this ability and fulfilling its expression and beneficial potentialities is an endless struggle and art. This is the work of awakening practice. And this is the challenge that Josh and all those around him face in developing his extraordinary chess talent.

Josh's father Fred, played by the fine actor Joseph Mantegna, is a sports writer, well-versed in the arts of competition and gamesmanship. In one scene with his father and other sportswriters at a game at Yankee Stadium, Josh says that when he grows up he wants to play second base for the Yankees. Despite his unusual ability, Josh is in many ways an ordinary American boy.

After watching Josh with the hustlers in Washington Square Park, his mother Bonnie (Joan Allen) tells Fred that Josh knows how to play chess. Disbelieving, Fred challenges Josh to a game, and the seven year old seems apprehensive as he loses quickly to his father. But Bonnie tells Fred, "You don't get it. He doesn't want to beat his father." When Fred then tells Josh not to "throw the game," and that it's okay to beat him, Josh handles his father's moves with casual and embarrassing ease, trouncing him at the game.

Upon seeing Josh's talent, and after consulting the chess columnist at his paper, the proud father Fred takes Josh to see a recommended chess teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, played by the eminent Ben Kingsley (ever remembered for his role as Gandhi). Bruce is at first very reluctant, attempting to dissuade Fred by taking him to a tournament of older, gifted, chess-obsessed players playing for paltry remuneration. Bruce says that while they are merely skillful, Bobby Fischer had made chess a high art, and the whole chess world now searches for another Bobby Fischer. But then Bruce (Ben Kingsley) proclaims to Fred, despite having seen Josh play only briefly, that Josh is Fischer's true successor, with the capacity to create art out of chess. Finally Fred persuades Bruce to begin coming to the Waitzkin house to give Josh lessons.

Fred becomes a chess father, traveling with Josh to high-pressure tournaments, and psychologically sparring with the other chess parents as they anxiously wait for the results. Fred relishes Josh's regular victories, and applies his own competitive perspective to helping Josh most fully apply his talent, and excel. But at the same time that Fred appreciates Josh's excellence, we also see that Fred has gone beyond support for Josh's gift to become invested himself in the need for Josh to win.

The acting in this film is excellent, with minor characters played by now well-known actors and even stars. These include Tony Shalhoub as a chess club regular, and William H. Macy as another chess father vying with Fred (Joseph Mantegna). Laura Linney plays Josh's first grade teacher, who makes the mistake on a parents' night of expressing her concern to Fred that Josh is overly involved with "this chess thing." Fred is outraged at her lack of appreciation for Josh's gift, launching into a loud tirade about how she, and he himself, will never be as good at Anything in their whole lives as Josh is at chess, and how dare she call it "this chess thing." Fred removes Josh to a private school that has a chess club. Thus Fred demonstrates a false protector role based on the karmic worldly goals of fame and gain, contrasting to Josh's mother representing the Buddhist ideal of directing his abilities to beneficial, non-harming activity.

The balancing of wisdom, or insight into the essential, with compassion, the application of such wisdom to caring in the world, is a basic dynamic tension in Buddhist practice. In many ways, Zen meditation and practice is about reclaiming inner balance, which is why upright posture is emphasized. Wisdom is about clearly seeing reality, the fundamental impermanence and interconnectedness of all conditioned things, and the underlying possibility of clear, calm awareness. But this can become abstract and intellectual, with no practical relevance, when not combined with caring conduct for beings in the world. This dynamic is clear in Bonnie's efforts to sustain Josh's decency and kindness along with his chess brilliance, also the underlying cause for the concern of the Laura Linney schoolteacher character, but which she expresses with insensitivity and lack of skill.

Chess expertise is of course not the equivalent of Buddhist wisdom, with its insight into emptiness, and the continuous presence of the wholeness of this ephemeral reality. However, the kind of brilliance at chess exhibited by Bobby Fischer and Josh Waitzkin does partake of an intuitive seeing into the essence of a particular, abstract situation. Zen meditation supports and complements many creative arts, whether aesthetic, athletic, or even intellectual as in chess. The insight and sensitivity developed in Zen has long fostered creative expression. In Japan, for example, along with the martial arts, all the arts associated with the Way of Tea such as pottery, calligraphy, flower arrangement, ink-brush painting, garden design, and architecture were directly fostered historically by Zen insight. The sense of open space and the awareness of the emptiness at the core of each thing were essential to the aesthetics informing all these expressions.

Some Zen people, going back to China, also engaged in a board game called "go" in Japanese. Different in many ways from chess, go involves two players placing black or white stones on a board to mark off and capture territory, including sometimes surrounding and removing the other's stones. But the sense of space, strategy, and seeing ahead in go reflects a meditative awareness equally relevant to chess.

In his instructor Bruce's first lesson with Josh, they play other games, and don't even talk about chess. But then Bruce challenges Josh with chess game situations. Josh struggles with an exercise that requires him to see many moves ahead, saying that he can't see it. Bruce says, "Here, I'll make it easier for you" and abruptly sweeps all the chess pieces off the board and onto the floor. This is like a radical Zen move of sweeping away attachment to words and letters and all thoughts to see the vast emptiness of Just This, the present moment right now. As Josh looks at the now empty board, still recalling the positions of the pieces in the exercise, he can see more clearly the underlying patterns of upcoming moves without being distracted by the pieces themselves. After gazing mindfully at the empty board, Josh fairly quickly tells Bruce the one appropriate and necessary move

Bruce uses a variety of skillful means to encourage Josh and develop his abilities. When Josh solves a chess problem Bruce gives him "ten master-class points" and shows him a master chess certificate that he explains is very rare, and which can be attained only with a lot of master-class points. A key principle of Mahayana Buddhist teaching is skillful means, to realize which teaching approach will be helpful and pertinent to the needs of particular suffering beings, or students. The great Chinese Zen master Mazu once said that his telling his students that "This very mind is Buddha" was like giving candy or gold stars to crying children. The seven-year old Josh takes the bait, eagerly studying and hoping to prove his chess ingenuity to Bruce.

Bruce becomes concerned about Josh's playing speed chess with the hustlers in the park. He regularly warns Josh of the dangers of bringing out and exposing his queen too soon in the game, counter to Josh's impulses and the aggressive style of Vinnie (the Laurence Fishburne character) and the other chess hustlers. Bruce finally tells Fred and Bonnie that they should not allow Josh to play in the park, that it will make his own job as a teacher much harder. But Bonnie knows how much the byplay of Vinnie and the others in the park delights Josh, and she says simply to Bruce, "Well then, your job is harder." Bonnie sees the vitality and joy that her son finds in engaging his chess mind with the wild players in the park. Similarly, the intended point of Zen encounters is ultimately not abstract, dry philosophical discourse, but to vitally engage the practical needs of ordinary people.

From the viewpoint of Zen, one can readily see chess in this movie as a metaphor of the Dharma combat engaged in by Zen teachers and students. This Dharma combat is cherished in the Zen literature of koans, paradigmatic teaching stories usually based on encounter dialogues between teachers and students. The classic koans, many featuring the ninth or tenth century Chinese famed masters, are often framed with a language of combative put-down and irony. But the koans are not puzzles or riddles used merely to exhibit wit or intellectual insight. Rather, these stories are aimed at exposing the inner qualities and dynamics of awakening. Ideally these stories are studied not as mere historical artifacts, but in their relevance to the spiritual concerns of contemporary students. Otherwise they would not have survived until today as meditation objects. The koans are pointers to an awareness that can help awaken beings from their suffering. The purpose of Zen training is not mere insight or intellectual understanding, but the ability to be helpful and kind in the world.

Along with that of his mother Bonnie, we see Josh's own innate kindness and consideration when he asks her early on in the film whether Vinnie sleeps in the park. He suggests that perhaps Vinnie could share Josh's room and they could play chess together. Bonnie tells Josh this would not be workable, but that Josh has a good heart, "and that's the most important thing in the world."

Later Bruce attempts to instill in Josh a competitive "killer-instinct." Bruce insists to Josh that he must hold his opponents in utter contempt and hate them; he must feel that his opponents are unworthy to be in the same room with him. But Josh avows that he does not hate them. Bruce tells Josh, "Bobby Fischer held the world in contempt." Josh replies, "I'm not him." Through the few vignettes of the career of Bobby Fischer, who like Josh began playing at age seven, we do see that Fischer's undeniable genius at the inner language of chess seemingly was developed at the expense of a decent consideration for others less brilliant in the ordinary world. Fischer's erratic behavior included withdrawal from the chess world and abandonment of his world championship. After briefly reemerging to regain his title years later, Fisher again vanished, apparently succumbing to a variety of emotional demons. However, Josh cannot deny his own basic kindness, and Bonnie, the heroic mother protecting compassion, will not allow it to be damaged.

Bruce takes away "master-class points" from Josh for arguing with him. Josh finally becomes impatient with Bruce's methodical lessons, and wants to know how he can get more "master-class points," even refusing to make any move without receiving more points. When Bruce reveals that the Master certificates mean nothing, and cruelly, disdainfully shows him many photocopies of the supposedly precious document, Josh's mother overhears and promptly tells Bruce, "Get out of my house!" Fred, still concerned only with worldly competition, then argues that Bruce is right to try to equip Josh to win in tournaments. But Bonnie proclaims that Josh is not weak but decent, and insists that this is more important than chess. She fiercely tells Fred that if he or Bruce tries to beat that out of Josh, she will take him and leave.

Josh rebels and loses a match he should easily win, much to the dismay and angry disappointment of his competitive father. Josh is afraid to win, and as Bonnie points out to Fred, afraid to lose his father's love. Josh enters a "slump" in which he does not want to play chess at all. The movie is based on a book about the real Josh by Fred Waitzkin, so apparently the father eventually learned the lesson about the full balance of Josh's gift. And Josh finally realizes that he wants to win, not for his father, but for himself. When his repentant father tells Josh that he doesn't have to play chess anymore, "It's just a game," Josh strongly expresses his own pride in his art, stating, "No it isn't." Josh must claim his right to his own gift to express his ultimate caring and compassion, just as Zen students must eventually experience the truth of the teachings for themselves, rather than merely parroting memorized sayings.

Under Bruce's influence Josh has not played in the park for a while, but he returns to play Vinnie again. Vinnie uses his directness and vigorous spirit to help Josh reclaim his joy in playing chess, and his own chess insight and pride. As they play speed chess, Vinnie tells Josh to play from his gut, and that Bruce has only been teaching him not to lose. With each move Vinnie fires rapid verbal challenges at Josh: "Playing not to lose is nothing to be proud of. You're playing not to lose. You've got to risk losing; you've got to risk everything. You've got to go to the edge of defeat." Vinnie also tells Josh, "Never play the board, play the man. Beat me, not the board."

These lessons help revive Josh's spirit and love of the play of chess, and energy or enthusiasm is one of the practices necessary for bodhisattvas. Vinnie's instructions also clearly exemplify the Buddhist perfection of skillful means, and the Zen value of personal engagement. Vinnie derides Josh's chess opening, saying, "Where did you get that, from a book?" Vinnie shows Josh that he must play not based on some abstract principle, but according to the immediate situation, directly meeting the actual person in front of him right now. Skillful means implies the crucial respect for individuality, seeing the diversity of people's needs and abilities. Despite its limitations for the far-sightedness of seeing many moves ahead as taught by Bruce, Vinnie's discipline of speed-chess develops Josh's concentration and ability to focus on the immediate situation of the person before him.

One of the main lessons for Buddhists in the film "Searching for Bobby Fischer" is simply the practical importance of multiple teachers. The Zen tradition emphasizes individual transmission of the Dharma (the teaching of Reality) directly from teacher to teacher, intimately pointing to awakening mind. And yet historically, in most generations the students before mastery were actually deeply influenced by a number of teachers, not only their transmission teacher. Many of the classic koans involve a student being sent from one teacher to another for further training. The role of multiple teachers is especially emphasized in the Gandavyuha Sutra, the Mahayana Buddhist scripture on Entry into the Realm of Reality. This text is the final section of the vast, visionary Avatamsaka Sutra, or Flower Ornament Scripture, which depicts the development of the activity, and wondrous impact, of bodhisattvas or enlightening beings. The main protagonist of the Gandavyuha is Sudhana, a young pilgrim who sets out to learn about enlightening activity. He ends up visiting and receiving instruction from fifty-two different and highly diverse teachers in sequence, his journey culminating with the great bodhisattvas of loving kindness, and of practical activity in the world (Maitreya and Samantabhadra in Sanskrit).

Many people can be agents for our realization of insight and compassion. Ultimately each event and each person we meet is a potential teacher, if we are open to accepting the lessons of the present. Josh Waitzkin's development as a chess player, and as a human being, depends on the synergy of varied teachers, Bruce and Vinnie, but also the care and guidance of his parents, Fred and Bonnie. At the film's closing tournament, both Vinnie and Bruce attend to watch and support Josh with his parents.

The climax of the film involves Jonathan, an arrogant young nemesis who appears to challenge Josh. Jonathan is another "young Fischer", a boy also highly gifted at chess, but obviously without Josh's breadth of character. Josh (and Bruce) are clearly frightened by Jonathan's chess ability. Before their final tournament match, Josh tells Bruce that he cannot win. Bruce, newly humanized, acknowledges that Josh would know he was lying if he said otherwise. But Bruce expresses his great pride in his student anyway, saying that he is honored to call himself Josh's teacher.

In the final battle with his opponent, all of Josh's teachers, Vinnie Bruce, Fred, and Bonnnie, cheer him on from another room as they watch on television remote. Bruce and Vinnie yell conflicting pleas at the television about whether to bring out his queen, which Josh does to Bruce's dismay. But Josh ultimately finds an extraordinary way not only to prove himself as a chess player, but to demonstrate his humanity and decency as well. And each of his teachers can share credit in Josh's unusual triumph.

This film is a brilliant depiction of the balance of developing insight and kindness that is relevant far beyond the realm of chess. It also expresses the challenges of teaching, and finding teachers, who can help support such development. This is an illuminating film for all Buddhist students and teachers.