Growing up Buddhist: Reflections on ‘The Midnight Gospel’

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As a former (and current?) practicing Jodo Shinshu Buddhist, watching “The Midnight Gospel” (2020) put me in the shoes of my younger self, meditating on the Dharma through sermons about Star Trek and charming renditions of Japanese temple songs scored to electric bass (thank you, Reverend Bridge — though I’m not sure you want to be tied to this article).

(Photo: Netflix)

I grew up attending temple with, at most, a dozen other children in a population of mainly senior citizens in the Central Valley. Growing up, temple was a cultural space, the only space I could interact with Japanese-American members of my community; it was a place where I would spin signs to sell teriyaki chicken and watch other Asian kids play basketball. Something that stuck with me, if nothing else, is the experience of developing faith through oral storytelling, listening to both ancient tales passed down through generations and stories of the most mundane events in our lives. I’ve thought a lot about the self-reflective practice I found in these anecdote-driven, down-to-earth Dharma talks, or musings on Buddhist practice in our lives, from science fiction I had never seen, bad Beatles songs, and stories about family issues, cats and clingy vermin. While absolutely an invention of the contemporary Western world, I reflected on the classic dad-joke-infused Buddhism of books like “Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?” which features a story about “losing” enlightenment because Ajahn Brahm, a world-renowned monk, cursed out another monk cutting the buffet line. The experience of listening to these sermons was something like being approached by a grandparent and talked through profound truths and lessons they’ve learned over their years and filtering for the ones you actually want to hear. 

This, as I was zoning in and out of “The Midnight Gospel,” was running through my head. 

Where this series shines is not in the narrative of “protagonist” Clancy, voiced by stand-up comic Duncan Trussell, the multidimensional argonaut seeking to start anew, nor is it in the simulation machine that plays the simultaneous roles of wormhole machine, pseudo-conscience and parental figure. The strength of the show lies in the incredibly powerful moments of individual, seemingly unrelated narratives we get to experience through Clancy’s spacecast interviews. It is, after all, via these strung-together “sermons” that we as viewers accompany Clancy through both his and our own reflections on everyday existence. The audio we hear is a raw, unfiltered Duncan Trussell interviewing folks for The Duncan Trussell Family Hour, a podcast that explores “the outer reaches of the multiverse.” Take the best excerpts from the podcast, slap on some 80s electronic tunes, and animate the experience with a touch of Lisa Frank (but mostly Lisa Frank animals), and there you have it: the aesthetic of “The Midnight Gospel.” 

As a casual viewer, I was amazed by the ambition of the show’s form: balancing auto-fiction (the melding of autobiography and fiction to create an approximation of truth) with psychedelic, surrealist animation, while trying to give a crash course on Eastern philosophy and religion. I found myself laughing at the small easter eggs (never thought I’d find comedy specifically catered to Buddhists) and thoroughly enjoying the multi-day viewing experience. Much like going through a Disneyland ride and craning your head to find “Hidden Mickeys,” I can only imagine all that I missed in my first viewing — and might save for the next time I’m feeling particularly existential and want to revisit the show.

Clancy face-to-face with his manifestation of Death (Photo: Netflix)

Granted, a lot is strange in this adult cartoon from the creator of “Adventure Time” in the good-weird existential kind of way we would expect from a series released for streaming by Netflix on the beloved holiday that is 4/20. We, as Clancy, get a glimpse of some of the most ridiculous imagined realities (the ones not eradicated from life by an operator error, that is). With the real-time, almost uncensored feeling of the space-cast setting, I feel like I am interrupting intimate conversations, dealing with topics that are both secret and personal, yet far-ranging and fundamental pieces of these characters’ experiences. Clancy’s space-cast touches explicitly on the ingredients of life: love, belief, indulgence, forgiveness, suffering and joy, as we see the ways he dives into this imagined world to escape the real one he is leaving behind (with a surprisingly deep-cutting family drama arc). 

The first episode plants the space-caster in the Oval Office with the president of the United States in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. As the duo navigate the violent hell-scape, guns blazing, they reflect on drug-induced reflective states that have influenced them throughout their lives — and have allowed them to cope, adapt and survive. In stark contrast, the fifth episode showcases a forced therapy session with Clancy, manifested as an octopus; David, a meditation guru with comfortable pants; and a monkey messing around with a synthesizer. Clancy, awe-struck, claims he has reached enlightenment and “gets it” — only to immediately break the cycle in the next episode as he is trapped with Death, manifested as a red wagon with a hippo body and stringy eye, by his earthly possessions and the mirror likenesses of his most shameful selves. These glimpses into Life’s Truths™ have their gems of profundity couched in a whole bunch of stream-of-consciousness shit-post, confusion, laughter and batty visual animation. While entertaining at their core, the visual manifestations of these universes (which mimic the mind palaces of the interviewees), straddle the line between intentionally placed parallels and accidental links between audio and visual and pull attention away from the writing and any attempt to string together narrative.

An animated scene of the moment of judgment, as two godly figures hold a heart imprisoned by evil and determine whether the being will be sent back to eternal suffering (in the form of a soul prison) (Photo: Netflix)

At its core, “Midnight Gospel” reminds us that we are imperfect beings: We have seen shit, we continue to run away from shit and we hopefully come to terms with shit, as do the guests who are interviewed: reality TV stars, alcoholics, self-help figures and a convicted murderer, though we can save the optics of that one for another time. This comes as an almost uncanny takeaway in the uncertainty and terror of the current global moment. The show reminds us that the skeletons in the closet that haunt our past and present do not have to be the ones that determine the people we are moving forward, nor do they offer a straight-forward panacea for absolution. The visuals, as fantastical as they are, mimic some of the most fundamental and complex teachings I grew up learning: embracing the self and letting go of suffering, understanding and working with, not against, the temptations that root us to this world, and following the multi-generational journey to enlightenment and the ways we need to reflect and meditate on the present if we ever want to get there. Thank you, “Midnight Gospel,” for giving audiences a glimpse into this headspace, even if you were created by a bunch of white dudes on a lot of drugs.

(If you’re finding yourself zoning out in the first few episodes, stick it through for episode 5 through the end of the season.)

Contact Julie Fukunaga at juliefa ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Julie Fukunaga is a staff writer for A&L and a senior majoring in Sociology. In her free time, she enjoys talking about the Central Valley, making dishes with cabbage, and occasionally writing nonsense about video games. Contact her at juliefa 'at' stanford.edu