People poke through the weeds and explore the dark, all in an attempt to see their true nature.
Right now, honored one, where is your true nature?

—Doushuai’s Three Barriers

Before going to see Greta Gerwig’s latest film, I asked my wife and daughter about it. “It’s about feminism. There’s no Zen in it,” they agreed. Jokingly, I asked, “Well, how was the popcorn?” And they both laughed.

What attracted me about the subject—the life of an iconic children’s doll—was its common-ness, its culture of the colloquial. Early Chan masters often used popular songs or poems to illustrate their teaching. In one koan, Wuzu asks an official if he had heard the song, “She calls to her maid, ‘Little Jade!’ not because she wants something, but just so her lover will hear her voice.” He adds, “That is very close to Zen.”

Though Barbie was getting good reviews, I expected it to be kitschy in the extreme. I braced for disappointment. Instead, I was surprised how touched I was by the storyline and acting. By the time the final credits rolled, I had tears in my eyes, for criminy’s sake!

Yes, the movie has a feminist message. Sometimes that message felt uncomfortably familiar as my “patriarchal” genes vibrated a bit. But the full message, for me, was greater than a discussion of male and female roles in society: it was about a person seeking freedom to realize their own being. Barbie was searching through her weeds and darkness for her own true nature. And, in his own blockhead way, Ken was doing that, too.

In Zen, of course, we need not wait around for others to get out of the way so we can find our true nature. We find our true self in the midst of our current lives, even if self or other seem encumbered. But Barbie’s impulse for seeking true nature is similar to our own—her search is very close to Zen.

After the movie, I bought a small bag of popcorn (no extra butter) and a Sprite, and went outside, finding a park bench in the shade. The first time Barbie went out into the real world, she sat on a similar bench outside, taking in the ordinary beauty of an old woman next to her, the light in the trees, the children playing. I sat on my bench, enjoying the summer sunlight and warm afternoon, the people moving about—a Barbie moment in the real world.