From Nanobugs to Nibbana: Exploring rebirth, enlightenment, Dhamma in the Sci-Fi Realm

Written by @missrachelreads
6 mins read
Published on Feb 2, 2024

TLDR: Rachel explores Buddhist wisdom and mindfulness glimpsed from the movie Kammalink. The film takes you on a thought-provoking exploration of past lives, the path to enlightenment, and the pervasive issue of digital addiction.

Introduction

My first time watching Buddhist sci-fi was an amazing experience.

Let me tell you all about it.

So I won a pair of tickets to watch Karmalink as part of the Buddhist Film Festival held in Singapore biennially when my favourite Buddhist podcast I follow, Handful of Leaves, held a contest on Instagram.

Screen title, Credit: Karmalink

My friend and I had dinner at the food court in the basement before we headed upstairs to see the show.

I was very excited for it was my first time watching Buddhist sci-fi and before winning these tickets I never even knew this was a genre that existed.

The movie was set in Cambodia at a time when humans could be augmented with a nanobug in order to access an invisible digital realm. I thought it was admirable that the director, Jake Wachtel, who is an American, chose to put the focus on Cambodia front and centre, and am charmed by the fact that Khmer (with English subtitles) was the main language showcased in the entire film.

Movie Scene, Credit: Karmalink

I read a couple of reviews that were top hits on the Internet, and perhaps they were not Buddhist practitioners, but they didn’t quite deal thoroughly with the themes of rebirth, the path to enlightenment and the evils of digital addiction that intrigued me throughout the movie.

So I thought I’d pen my swirling thoughts about it, a couple hours after the conclusion of the movie.

First up, rebirth.

On rebirth

So I thought it was interesting that it was a given among Cambodians that past lives were a thing.

I guess I was less surprised after recalling in the recently released Pew Research survey that 96% of people in Cambodia identify as Buddhist.

It surprised me because even after half a decade of studying Buddhism, I still can’t quite wrap my mind around how rebirth works, even though I’ve sort of accepted that it does.

Growing up as a freethinker and later evangelical Christian, the concept of having past lives has never crossed my mind.

But it is slowly and surely seeping in, even though I still wonder how it works. 

(Do check out the works of Dr Brian Weiss ‘Many Lives, Many Masters’ or Dr Ian Stevenson’s ‘Children who remember their past lives’ to get a scientific view of the topic)

Next, the juicy bit on enlightenment, or how one gets there.

On the path to enlightenment

I thought it was fascinating that the nano bug was placed right in the centre of one’s forehead, where the “third eye” is supposed to be.

Third-eye Scene, Credit: Karmalink

It almost seems as if the movie was trying to signal that psychedelics were a shortcut to some of the effects enlightenment could produce but not the actual experience itself (more on that in the next section).

In the last third of the movie, there was a scene of the main character, 13-year-old Leng Heng, seated with eyes closed, cross-legged in a meditative posture beside neuroscientist Dr. Vattanak Sovann, in front of a bunch of Buddhist statues framed in pulsating neon lights.

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Movie Scene, Credit: Karmalink

I thought it interesting that they were attempting to reach a state of “enlightenment” backwards, through the use of remembering one’s past lives through the use of the Connectome, a machine created to extract Dr. Vattanak’s past lives through a “pure mind” aka the boy Leng Heng.

Eventually, Leng Heng asks the machine to get rid of his falsely imprinted memories of Dr. Vattanak’s past lives in his brain (if you are confused now, please go watch the movie), and as the computer did, Dr. Vattanak attempted to stop it, causing the entire device to short-circuit, stopping both man and boy’s heart.

I thought it was interesting that the machine was sentient and attempted to continue to extract the memories out of the boy, who miraculously survived, and quoted how a tree must be pulled up by its roots (perhaps referencing the Alagaddupama Sutta?)

Past lives Scene, Credit: Karmalink

In any case, that was a long-winded way of me saying that I realised enlightenment cannot be obtained through machines, or through “false” means or “indirect” means.

One needs to apply right effort in moral conduct (sila), meditation/concentration (Samadhi), wisdom (Panna) as laid down by the Buddha in the eightfold path 

Which brings me to my last and final point.

Digital addiction.

On digital addiction

I thought it was fascinating how in the entire movie, people augmented with nano bugs (the rich and the homeless), “saw” an invisible realm where they were constantly absorbed and swiping left and right, ignoring the reality that was happening right in front of them.

If that sounds familiar, yes, replace the nano bugs with mobile phones, and the scene is repeated daily in Singapore, on buses, trains, at homes, in hawker centres, restaurants, and more (and I am often guilty as charged).

In an age where digital addiction is on the rise where Singaporeans are the second most Internet-addicted people in the world, and where our National Addictions Management Services lists “Internet and Gaming” as an addiction right beside “Drug Use”, “Alcohol” and “Gambling”, and where there is in-patient rehab services one can sign up for, you know we are a country that has a problem on our hands, seldom addressed.

It is most interesting how as doctors tried to harness tech for good, it ended up in the hands of those who used it to escape reality. 

I thought it was admirable how the female researcher wanted to download and recover the memories of the protagonist’s grandmother whose brain was being ravaged by dementia(?) and remarked to my friend how that stood in stark contrast to the nano bug junkies in abandoned warehouses and cafes, hooked onto this drug of choice.

The parallel with drug use is clear, and I wonder if most of us, Buddhists included, are blind to the fact that our mobile phones and screen time are taking us away from the real world.

Having talked to friends in recovery, I understand that often, one is drawn to substances in an attempt to escape from one’s painful reality.

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Dr. Gabor Mate’s groundbreaking book on addictions, titled “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”, backs this up.

The Digital Addiction Hypothesis

I’d like to offer a hypothesis.

Perhaps the reason why most of us Singaporeans who are working adults have an undeclared internet addiction problem could be because we live in a society where individuals are often unable to pursue the dreams that lay buried, deep within their hearts…

Perhaps the reason why parents find it close to impossible to tear their offspring away from their devices is that children, from infants to teenagers, are not given agency over how to direct the form and type of education they desire even as they try their darndest to conform to the strictures of societal standards imposed by their parents, and it is in video games and texting that they can exert an ounce of control over their lives…

Perhaps the reason why the elderly lose themselves in dramas and Candy Crush is due to old gathering places being torn down, and the rapid digitalisation of the country is happening way too fast for them to comprehend, so in an attempt to catch up digitally, they use the phones offered to them by their adult children.

This makes them enter the lowest common denominator of watching videos and playing digital games for everything else is way too advanced for them…

There is no simple solution to the problem of digital addiction.

All we can do as individuals is to silence our phones at mealtimes and to put our complete attention on our food, be grateful for it, and try to eat with awareness and contentment…

Take a day off to do a digital detox once a week, ideally on one’s off-day, where one can head to the beach, or the nearby park, get grounded, have a picnic, read a book, crochet, hang out with friends and instead of taking selfies, engage in deep and meaningful conversations with them…

Take time out each day to spend time meditating, even if it’s just 5 minutes on the bus, being aware of the texture of the seat underneath you, the sounds you hear with your eyes closed, or better yet, mindfully walking, noticing each footstep and the objects around you…

I think we could all slowly but surely, learn to lead a richer, more mindful and meaningful life.

Conclusion

I ramble too much sometimes.

This movie has definitely made me think and I’ll be discussing the above-mentioned concepts that jumped out to me with my friends in the coming days.

I’d give this movie a solid 5/5 for execution, cinematography, the incorporation of Buddhist concepts, putting Cambodia, its culture and its people front and centre, and the most intriguing storyline.

Good job Jake Wachtel, I look forward to watching the next Buddhist sci-fi film you create.


Wise Steps:

  1. Schedule daily tech breaks for mindful activities
  2. Connect with nature and friends during tech-free moments.
  3. Practice regular meditation for mental clarity.
@missrachelreads is a reader, writer and educator. Her hobbies include reading books of every genre (except horror), crocheting, taking long walks by the beach, and making TikTok video readings of the books she loves. Visit her blog

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