If you’re like many from my post-Gen X/pre-Millennial generation, you’ve watched the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day so many times that it can seem like you’ve been trapped in a time loop yourself. You know its plot just as well as Phil Connors knows Punxsutawney. But did you ever realize that this ’90s classic is in fact a cleverly disguised dissertation on the benefits of Zen Buddhism?
While he was raised Jewish, over the course of his life Groundhog Day director and screenwriter Harold Ramis became self-described “Buddhish.” Ramis has explicitly said that he didn’t intend the film to be about Buddhism, but has admitted in interviews that more than a little of his semi-zen beliefs filtered in of their own accord.
Let’s take a look at how Buddhism is woven into Groundhog Day.
The Cycle of Rebirth
Buddhism is most clearly exemplified in the central plot device of the movie, i.e. the main character’s repetition of lives. Connors is trapped in an endless cycle of birth and rebirth, doomed to experience the same minor and major sufferings again and again.
In Buddhism, this cycle of rebirth and the suffering therein is referred to as samsara. According to Buddhists, the only way to escape this process is by purifying one’s karma thereby escaping into the bliss of nirvana.
The Purification of Karma
Karma has two related definitions. The first involves the widely understood concept of cause and effect, while the Sanskrit word itself can be directly translated to mean “action” or “deed.” Buddhists believe that through good actions (cause) one achieves more desirable rebirths (effect). The opposite is also true—bad deeds result in undesirable rebirths.
The plot of the movie is more or less set into motion because Connors is a crappy person, and therefore his bad karma draws him into a downward spiral of increasingly dark rebirths. Only through the gradual purification of his karma through a series of good deeds is he able to escape this cycle.
This purification is what the second half of the movie is all about. Phil learns to think of others rather than himself, improves his understanding of art and music, and generally spends his final repeated day racing around doing good deeds. As a result, the cycle is broken.
According to Buddhism, nirvana is attained when one extinguishes what are called “the three fires” of passion, aversion, and ignorance. We can see Phil’s struggles with these fires—and his eventual triumph over them—clearly.
Initially his attraction to Rita is characterized by lust, but as he learns more about her this gives way to love. His aversion (or hatred of) the townspeople and most specifically, Ned the insurance guy, eventually evolves into acceptance and even friendship. And while he opens the movie completely disinterested in anything outside his existing experience, this ignorance is overcome through his careful study of subjects like French poetry, piano, and life-skills in general.
By surmounting these three flaws, Connors finally escapes the cycle and enters into the presumed nirvana of Rita’s love.
If we want to dig really deep, it might be worth mentioning that the name Rita means “child of light.” The experience of nirvana is often described as being bathed in light.
Only through the gradual purification of his karma through a series of good deeds is he able to escape this cycle
Of course, I could be overanalyzing. The names of the central character, Phil Connors, mean “lover of horses” and “lover of wolves” respectively, which don’t seem to offer much thematically speaking. Perhaps he needs to escape his baser animal instincts before he can be elevated to Rita’s nirvana? Perhaps I’m looking for meaning that isn’t there?
In any case, while on the surface it’s a fun comedy about the importance of being a good person, Groundhog Day has a surprising amount of depth hidden between the jokes.
“I’ve killed myself so many times I don’t even exist anymore,” Connors muses at some point. It is common among Buddhist teachers to insist that their students “kill themselves” from this reality in order to escape the illusion of existence.
Whether Buddhist or not, the final message of Groundhog Day is clear: if you’re feeling trapped in a cycle of meaninglessness, the solution is to embrace love and friendship, and maybe learn a new skill or two. The Gautama knew it some 2,500 years ago, and the Bill Murray recommends it now.
And if there’s any genuine Buddha walking the Earth today, it’s Bill Murray.