“Whatever It is, We All Carry It”: Taṇhā and AMC’s The Walking Dead

Through their insatiable thirsts and cravings, the “walkers” and survivors in the series symbolically manifest the Buddhist notion of taṇhā.

The Walking Dead, AMC Networks’ original television series and comic book adaptation, is a fairly typical apocalyptic zombie thriller that offers an interesting platform for inquiry and analysis. This is certainly not to imply, of course, that zombies have yet to receive critical or academic attention, as the breadth of scholarly work on the topic attests to such previous and ongoing treatment. ((For example, see various essays throughout Stephanie Boluk and Wylie Lenz, eds., Generation Zombie: Essays on the Living Dead in Modern Culture (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011); Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad, eds., Zombies, Vampires, and Philosophy: New Life for the Undead (Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 2010); Christopher M. Moreman and Cory James Rushton, eds., Zombies Are Us: Essays on the Humanity of the Walking Dead (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2011); for a particular treatment of George A. Romero’s work, see Kim Paffenroth, Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth (Texas: Baylor University Press, 2006); and for a recent collection pertaining to The Walking Dead comic book and television series, see Wayne Yuen, ed., The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Zombie Apocalypse Now (Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 2012).)) Yet, while the majority of these works are dedicated to perceived allegorical messages of over-consumption and underlying socio-political tones, the present analysis concentrates on an area that has not received such popular attention: the religious dimensions of these narratives. Indeed, Christopher M. Moreman indicates this relevance in his analysis of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead: “A confluence of increasing interest in popular culture as a source for religious inspiration and the growing interest, both popular and scholarly, in zombie-fiction bring together several possibilities for scholarship in the context of religious studies.” ((Christopher M. Moreman, “A Modern Meditation on Death: Identifying Buddhist Teachings in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead,” Contemporary Buddhism 9.2 (2008): 151.)) My particular focus is on the implicit elements of religiosity discernable in the behavior of the “walkers” on the television show, and the dynamic between them and the living. ((While the comic book series might also complement an examination of the television adaptation, the present analysis specifically concerns that of AMC Networks’ series, as I feel the particular medium is much more pervasive throughout contemporary culture, and thus far more inviting of a thoughtful critique.)) More specifically, I am interested in how the behavior of the “walkers” and the survivors symbolizes the Buddhist notion of taṇhā (thirst, craving), and how this reading uniquely engages zombie symbolism by depicting one of the many ways popular cultural forms embody religious elements that are otherwise relegated to mainstream mediums.

Taṇhā, a technical term in Buddhism, is oftentimes more broadly translated from Pāli to English as “desire,” which fails to adequately specify its more focused connotation: unwholesome desires that lead to attachment. Indeed, it and its corollary are the cause of dukkha (suffering) in the world, which is the Second Noble Truth of the Buddha’s teachings. ((It should be noted, however, and as Walpola Rahula explains, that although dukkha is usually translated in this way, it “has a deeper philosophical meaning and connotes enormously wider senses” such as “imperfection,” “impermanence,” “emptiness,” and “insubstantiality.” See Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, revised ed. (New York: Grove Press, 1974), 17.)) More specifically, the Buddha instructed that an ignorant thirst for sense pleasure (kāma), existence and delightful states (bhava), and the extermination of negative states (vibhava) – which can have an extreme manifestation as self-annihilation – is responsible for dukkha. The craving associated with taṇhā is insatiable, and in the Ādittapariyāya Sutta (also known as “The Fire Sermon”), the Buddha refers to our existence as being filled with a type of “burning,” metaphorically linking craving to fire, spreading from one object to the next on an insatiable destructive path.

The “walkers” can be viewed as manifestations of this thirst and insatiable craving, which, in the context of Buddhism, functions as a symbolic indicator of unenlightened existence. According to Moreman, zombies “have but one purpose and that is to consume the living. Their craving is incessant and single-minded. Quite simply, they desire only the living, to consume life.” ((Moreman, 160.)) “Walkers” crave living flesh, and as viewers graphically notice during “Days Gone Bye” (S1:E1), non-human animals are equally worthy candidates for an afternoon snack: a horde of “walkers” in downtown Atlanta overpower and eat Rick’s borrowed horse alive. ((These types of instances appear off and on throughout the series as well: in “Guts” (S1:E2) Glenn and Morales are startled by a “walker” eating a sewer rat; in “Tell It to the Frogs” (S1:E3), the group discovers a “walker” feasting on a deer that Daryl had been hunting; Rick and Daryl discover the entrails of a woodchuck in the stomach of a “walker” in “Bloodletting” (S2:E2); Patricia feeds the “walkers” in the barn a few incapacitated chickens in “Secrets” (S2:E6); and Dale is overcome by a “walker” after stumbling upon a partially eaten cow on the outskirts of Hershel’s farm in “Judge, Jury, Executioner” (S2:E11).)) While some zombie narratives extend the “zombification” process to non-human animals, I find it important – and crucial to this analysis – that only humans can become “walkers” (at least as of the end of the second season), as it helps keep viewers focused on their human qualities. ((Unlike, for example, in Brian Keene’s Dead Sea, where the zombie outbreak is a direct result of humans coming into contact with undead sewer rats (a correlation to the plague in medieval Europe is, of course, obvious).)) Viewers still have no idea what caused the initial outbreak, requiring their attention to remain solely on the “walkers” themselves, without consciously blaming the party responsible for the hordes of the undead (if there even exists such a party to blame). In other words, the focus simply remains on the symbolic behavior and condition of the “walkers.” ((See Dave Beisecker, “A Stagger-on Role to Die For,” in The Walking Dead and Philosophy: Zombie Apocalypse Now, ed. Wayne Yuen, 67-80 (Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 2012). He provides an interesting discussion regarding this element of blame, and uses the Resident Evil franchise as an example: the focus is less on the zombies themselves and more on the deplorable actions of the Umbrella Corporation (see pages 70-71, specifically). The fact that the zombies in The Walking Dead are never actually called “zombies” is also worth noting; calling them “walkers,” perhaps, helps to distance the narrative from others that do use the term, which keeps the narrative much more self-contained (they are called “geeks,” “lame-brains,” and “roamers” throughout the series as well).))

The “walkers” possess a literal thirst for flesh and blood – an extreme sensual craving – that can be witnessed in almost every episode that has aired. One of the more memorable instances was when Rick’s wife, Lori, lost control of her car in “Nebraska” (S2:E8) and flipped over. Lori then came back to viewers in “Triggerfinger” (S2:E9) as she regained consciousness after the crash, but only to find a “walker” trying desperately to break into the car to get her, pushing its face through a shattered hole in the windshield, literally cutting and peeling back the skin on its undead face to try to get to the warmth of her body. This sort of mindless pursuit of the “walkers” has a two-fold result that parallels Moreman’s interpretation of what takes place in Night of the Living Dead: “a lack of satisfaction on the part of the zombie, and also the reproduction of a new craving undead corpse,” which for Moreman symbolizes the longing for permanency of the self and the impossibility of satisfying one’s “thirsts,” as it “ends only in the creation of further unsatisfied craving.” ((Moreman, 163.)) As enticing as Lori’s body may have been, it was surely not what that “walker” really wanted: the quenching of such an insatiable thirst.

Doctor Edwin Jenner helps elucidate this “walker” behavior for viewers in “TS-19” (S1:E6) by explaining that only the brainstem is reactivated after death – the body having undergone a similar process of infection as meningitis. Thus, as Jenner states, the body is now “just a shell, driven by mindless instinct.” ((Viewers more familiar with how various parts of the human body are related to the brainstem’s functionality will notice that simply having an active brainstem hardly suffices for the ability of “walkers” to be able to see and process perceptions with their undead eyes, hear and translate the sounds ringing in their undead ears, and maintain balance as they walk, much less perform seemingly cognizant tasks (such as attempting to open a doorknob in the pilot episode). However, the veracity of Jenner’s explanation does not really matter for the purpose of this analysis.)) But what is incredibly important for this analysis, as it further grounds the symbolic presence of taṇhā, is what Jenner whispers into Rick’s ear, regarding the human-“walker” transformation. As the group flees the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) moments before its destruction, Jenner confesses to Rick: “We’re all infected…Whatever it is, we all carry it.” ((Viewers do not discover this until the end of “Beside the Dying Fire” (S2:E13), though many probably already suspected something of this sort, as various clues seemed to subtly indicate it throughout the second season.)) That is, everyone is more or less a “walker” already, as they each possess that craving quality; some manifest this more than others, with the undead serving as the most extreme, and most vivid. Indeed, and as will be explored below, even the survivors do not appear to be completely free of the taṇhā that the “walkers” symbolize.

The “walkers,” then, understood as a symbolic manifestation of taṇhā, and more specifically, kāma, represent the cravings and thirsts we all experience and harbor as human beings. Moreman indicates that zombies provide viewers with an experience similar to traditional Buddhist meditations on death and corpses. ((Moreman, 157.)) These exercises are meant to help individuals understand that everything is impermanent (especially our physicality) and in constant flux, or anicca, which, along with dukkha and anattā (no-self/soul), grounds the condition of reality in Buddhist teachings. ((This grouping is usually referred to in Buddhist literature as “The Three Marks of Suffering,” “The Three Basic Facts of Existence,” or “The Three Dharma Seals”; see verses 277-279 in the Dhammapada.)) The anxiety that can easily accompany such impermanence, and attachment to permanence, is certainly not irrelevant in the context of The Walking Dead: one moment you could be jovially and innocently talking around a campfire, and the next, find yourself in a moonlit skirmish with frenzied flesh-eaters. ((“Vatos” (S1:E4).)) This is hardly a pleasant way to live, no? And just about every episode’s plot reminds viewers of how awful such a global post-cataclysmic world might be. The world created in The Walking Dead is hardly the type of “cosy catastrophe” that some narratives envision, wherein the survivors are able to live rather comfortably, and with little threat to their existence, after the downfall of society. ((For the coining of the term, see Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (United Kingdom: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973).)) The “walkers” are a very real threat to the survivors’ existence – not just physically, but, as I am suggesting, symbolically as well. Some individuals, such as Jon R. Stone, even postulate that the real threat and fear that comes through in many apocalyptic narratives is that people are more afraid of living in an uncivilized society than dying, which introduces an interesting variable to the “walker” equation: are the survivors more terrified of becoming “walkers” – being enslaved by their thirsts and cravings – or are they more terrified by the outcome such transformations have had on society at large, and thus, want to distance themselves from this new way of life as much as possible? ((See Jon R. Stone, “A Fire in the Sky: ‘Apocalyptic’ Themes on the Silver Screen,” in God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, 2nd ed., eds. Eric Michael Mazur and Kate McCarthy, 62-79 (New York: Routledge, 2010).)) The desire to exist, viewers notice, results in the likelihood that the survivors will end up doing horrible things to each other to stay alive; the longer the survivors remain, the more content they become with committing such otherwise despicable acts.

The characters’ engagement of this symbolism throughout the series offers some interesting insight into the processes associated with taṇhā. The constant struggle to avoid being overtaken by the “walkers” suggests one’s inner battle against instinctual, animalistic desires, but it also illustrates elements of bhava and vibhava. Shane shooting Otis, in an effort to save Carl’s life, conveys the understanding that particular lives are more valuable than others, which was clearly more of a selfish presumption in that context than it might be in others (how could Carl’s life be of more practical value to Shane and the others than Otis’?): “One of us wasn’t gonna make it out,” Shane later confessed to Rick, “It had to be him. One shot to the leg, Carl lives.” ((“18 Miles Out” (S2:E10).)) Earlier in the series, and in a very graphic and extreme depiction of his desire to live, Merle cuts off his own hand to escape the handcuffs holding him to the roof of a downtown Atlanta building, and subsequently cauterizes the wound. The amount of kāma displayed by Shane’s efforts to protect and have Lori is also noteworthy: the full extent of this occurs at the end of “Better Angels” (S2:E12) when he almost murders Rick to secure what he believes is rightfully his; of course, Rick successfully reciprocates the act only moments after Shane’s attempt, illustrating the fluidity between particular aspects of taṇhā, i.e., kāma and bhava. The fiasco surrounding the abandonment (and debated execution) of Randall during the latter part of the second season was driven by the survivors’ goal to remain alive and away from other potential survivors. ((The group worried that Randall might lead his people to Hershel’s farm and pose a major threat to their livelihood.)) Thus, in a world that symbolically exaggerates these very real desires to the level of walking, animated corpses, the depiction of such events is yet another way in which the interplay between survival and confrontation proceeds.

The symbolic inner struggle with taṇhā can be seen in a number of episodes throughout the series. In season one, viewers witness Merle shooting “walkers” on the ground from the roof of a building for no apparent reason. ((“Guts” (S1:E2).)) The other members of the group even reprove him for needlessly wasting ammunition and making noise. Given the current framework, Merle’s actions can easily come to symbolize the effort to destroy taṇhā. But this sort of hostility runs counter to Buddhist thought: dukkha and its samudaya (arising) should be mindfully approached, and their conditions understood, before they can be transformed (not destroyed). In contrast, the group seeking answers from Jenner about the nature of the “walker” affliction symbolizes a much less hostile engagement, and one more in accordance with traditional Buddhist thought: they seek to understand it, to learn about it, and hope to find a cure for it.

A much more confrontational and violent engagement is illustrated when the survivors attempt to deal with the “walkers” in “Pretty Much Dead Already” (S2:E7). The main group recently discovered that Hershel has been housing “walkers” in his barn, waiting for the day when they could be supposedly healed and restored to their former selves, though in denial of the fact that it is too late. Near the end of the episode, Shane, out of a growing frustration, runs to the barn, unlocks the doors, and lets the “walkers” cross the threshold to their doom: the group picks them off one-by-one as they escape the barn. Hershel’s decision to keep the “walkers” trapped in the barn instead of killing them has much to do with his less than subtle Christian sentiments (not to commit “murder,” as he is deluded into thinking they are actually still alive), but it also succeeds in symbolically indicating something else. Confining the “walkers” to the barn symbolizes the attachment Hershel still has to his former life (two of the “walkers” are his wife and stepson). Moreover, this can also be viewed as a repression of taṇhā – keeping one’s thirsts and cravings imprisoned, rather than resolved, by their avoidance. ((A correlation might also be made with the “walkers” enclosed in the room at the hospital in “Days Gone Bye” (S1:E1), with the disclaimer “Don’t Open, Dead Inside” painted on the locked doors.)) Shane allows the group to finally put an end to the “walkers” being held in the barn. Hershel’s attachment ceases as he realizes that his former way of life (and theirs) is finally over; he later confesses to having finally realized this when only headshots halted the barn’s captives as they escaped – including his wife. Along with this realization, however, comes a symbolic (and realistic, in the context of the episode) sort of catharsis: the group is able to confront taṇhā head-on, and thus, overcome it; the depiction of bhava in this instance hardly goes unnoticed too, however. The mid-season twist occurs when the final “walker” slowly exits the barn and Rick puts it down: Carol’s daughter Sophia, the one who inadvertently led them to their current home on Hershel’s farm, has been a “walker” this whole time. The group is forced to put her behind them and move forward, and her mother quite effortlessly abandons her previous attachment as well by exclaiming, “That’s not my little girl, it’s some other thing,” echoing Jenner’s words from the previous season: “Everything you ever were or ever will be…gone.” ((Letting go of one’s attachments, however, is not as easy for other characters throughout the series: Morgan cannot bring himself to put an end to his undead wife and leave the suburbs; Andrea struggles with the loss of her sister for quite some time after her death (though unlike Morgan, Andrea is able to put her down); and Dale’s attachment to Andrea, and Shane’s attachment to Carl and Lori (and by extension, the unborn baby), are both omnipresent throughout the entire second season.))

In a world characterized by tragedy and an incessant drive to remain alive, elements of suicide, or vibhava, hardly seem surprising. Jenner and Jacqui both succeed in actually killing themselves: they decide to remain in the CDC when its preventative self-destruction takes place at the end of “TS-19” (S1:E6); Jenner perhaps even thirsts for this self-destruction, as he furtively keeps the group unaware of the reality of their stay. Hershel’s daughter Beth becomes suicidal and attempts to end her own life with a piece of broken mirror in “18 Miles Out” (S2:E10). Dale is constantly concerned that Andrea will end her own life at some point, after her attempt to accompany Jenner and Jacqui at the CDC. ((Andrea’s situation is particularly unique: her desire for death, due to the horrid nature of reality and the loss of her sister, is only finally alleviated when she becomes militant – finding purpose as an able killer of “walkers.” Her thirst for life returns by focusing on the fight against death. Thus, the abstract desire to live is rooted in a physical urge to survive and fight.)) The first major search party for Sophia during “What Lies Ahead” (S2:E1) stumbles upon a man who shot himself in the head in his tent – or as Daryl so poetically puts it, “some guy…did what Jenner said…opted out…ain’t that what he called it?” Another example is the body of a “walker” hanging from a noose in the middle of the woods that Daryl and Andrea discover during a late-night search for Sophia in “Save the Last One” (S2:E3). ((A nearby suicide note reads: “Got bit, fever hit, world gone to shit, might as well quit.”)) Resorting to this measure does not appear to be all that surprising, given the state of the world. Yet, the desire to not die (bhava) characterizes much of the actions among the group of survivors – after all, is that not the apparent plot of the television series anyway? When considered in light of suicide, and how those not so inclined to end their own lives react and respond to such behavior, the desire to exist becomes a major preoccupation through their goal to save the lives of others and allow them to exist; at times, this becomes noticeably controversial, as when Shane shoots Otis in order to secure Carl’s existence, and by extension, his own; viewers see this same theme portrayed in Shane’s own murder by Rick near the end of the second season. ((An interesting interplay between bhava and vibhava is also, and especially, noteworthy throughout the dialogue exchanged between Lori and Rick in “Secrets” (S2:E6) regarding the potential abortion of their unborn child.))

Just short of perhaps reading an entire allegorical message into AMC’s adaptation of this popular narrative, my goal has been to draw out noticeable symbolic elements among the characters in the series that illustrate the Buddhist concept of taṇhā. I would be remiss, however, to neglect to mention the fact that other concepts could be easily explored as well, but their engagement is beyond the current scope; Rick’s embodiment of mettā (loving-kindness, compassion) would be more than obvious to point out, but it would be far too laborious to survey all of the relevant examples in this particular analysis. Taṇhā characterizes the human condition (dukkha) in Buddhist thought, and even when it has been seemingly kept at bay, it is still there lurking within the shadows of the psyche until it has been fully extinguished and nibbāna (extinction) attained. The closing scene of “18 Miles Out” (S2:E10) captures this sentiment poetically: after Rick tells Shane, “That is my wife. That is my son. That is my [unborn] child…it’s time for you to come back,” they get into the car to drive back to Hershel’s farm, with viewers under the impression that Shane will heed Rick’s commands and relinquish his desire for Lori. The camera then pans from Shane gazing out the car window into the nothingness that surrounds them, to a lone “walker,” stumbling aimlessly through a nearby field, driven by its thirst to satiate that which can never be satiated. The foreshadowing in this scene is powerful, indeed.


In a manner that is incredibly vivid and sensually stimulating, the “walkers” on AMC’s The Walking Dead, and their entanglements with the survivors, illustrate one of the most paramount concepts in Buddhist thought: taṇhā. Such accessible and pervasive symbolism demonstrates yet another way in which traditional religious artifacts can be explored in nontraditional mediums. Zombie narratives continue to keep scholars and critics preoccupied when it comes to discerning what it is that attracts viewers’ attention so strongly, and even though various aspects of such narratives seem to operate on many different symbolic levels, perhaps the appeal of The Walking Dead is not so complicated when viewed through the lens that has been employed above. Following Moreman, “the viewer is directed to realize the similarities between the dead and the living, and in so realizing to move beyond the ignorance of attachment to an illusionary sense of self-permanence. The rotting corpse in its abjection brings home the fact that the body is impermanent and imperfect.” ((Moreman, 163.)) That is, we symbolically see ourselves and our inner struggles depicted throughout the series, and the real-life, though utterly grotesque, qualities it highlights that must be transformed. The Walking Dead has a unique place among zombie narratives, as the extent of the character development and ongoing evolution that takes place throughout the series further distinguishes it among its peers, and thus enables it to better function as a symbolic conveyor of the elements noted above than most others. With this in mind, perhaps viewers and academics will begin to appreciate the series much more seriously – as a cultural artifact that is both terrifying and illuminating at the same time.

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