Buddhist Film Reviews is a partnership series between HOL & THIS Buddhist Film Festival 2021 (25 Sept – 8 Oct’21). Themed “Open your mind”, THISBFF 2021 features 15 thought-provoking documentaries and feature films from 12 countries.
TLDR: The journeys of two young men searching for answers converge at Plum Village. It offers light in a world where we see escape as the only means to happiness.
It often feels that a day barely passes without the media talking about mental well-being or climate change as a subject that demands our attention. However, it is rare for a film to stir your attention and make you sit up to notice these issues.
Director Wouter Verhoeven’s heavy use of first-hand footage, interviews with protagonists and others brings into focus, the plight of Mother Nature and burnout in life.
Wouter masterfully uses mindful pauses in the film (shots of nature and the characters doing mundane activities) to create moments for reflection.
His main message is clear throughout the entire film: The way out of these crises starts when we look inwards.
The film, with momentary commentary by the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, further enhances the impact of the film’s message.
The founder of Plum Village teaches, “The way out is in. The way out of climate change is inside each of us.” His invitation is to pause: to stop running and observe what is really going on.
The Way Out is Reflection
Wouter’s documentary focuses on two protagonists: Eddie, an environmental activist struggling to prevent fracking in Yorkshire, England; the other, a London banker facing an existential crisis. The banker, upon deeply examining his life, discovers its monotony and emptiness.
The film lays bare their attempts to remedy that despair in both their searches. Eddie searches for environmental protection while the banker searches for meaning.
As I watched the film, I was moved by the protagonists’ raw, unfiltered examination of their lives. The courage to confront their insecurities and uncertainty struck a chord within me. In a world where social validation of positivity is lauded, this film was a breath of fresh air.
For example, the banker realises that so many peers are depressed, in spite of their material success. He reflects that everyone is living in a fishbowl: one can look outside of the bowl but is incapable of experiencing the ocean outside (real world).
“There is a place for peace to reign, to settle, and you should go there. You know how to do it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“There is a place for peace to reign, to settle, and you should go there. You know how to do it.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
The Way Out is Harmony
What makes this film worth sitting up and paying attention to? For me, it was the Director’s elegant weaving of the two stories into one storyline. As I watched the film, I was trying hard to understand how the two protagonists’ stories would meet. Hint: Plum Village is the centre stage.
Within the film, harmony is achieved by the director’s thoughtful mix of tense scenes of confrontations with still nature shots and interviews with a Plum Village monastic.
The monk speaks to Eddie about his confrontations with the fracking industry and how Eddie feels about it.
“Don’t make a front, make a circle, there is no one to fight. We suffer because we don’t know better,” the Buddhist monk counsels Eddie as he faces burnout over his cause.
Nuggets of wisdom like this sprinkled throughout the film makes it a compelling watch. The film is not alarmist but rather, awakening.
The Way Out is Change
The most beautiful part of the film is watching how these two protagonists transform their mental states, especially after they come into contact with Plum Village, a Zen monastery in France. Seeing their calm faces while meditating, and their serene smiles while doing temple chores brought a smile to my face.
Eddie’s calm focus while making bread for fellow practitioners and the banker’s gaze while being in the monastery garden were my favourite scenes of inner change for these two characters.
Seeing Eddie and the banker find the strength to feel comfortable in their own skin and at peace was a relief. It was akin to witnessing a fish finding its way out of the fishbowl into the greater ocean. Change can be painful but necessary.
Change enables to let go of superficial & lesser happiness for the greater & deeper happiness in life.
Who do I Recommend the Film for?
Friends who find themselves stuck in the grind of the 9-to-5 or those feeling burnout from championing causes close to their hearts.
This film speaks directly to you and is unafraid to show you the costs of your ideals. It is a great introduction for those new to Buddhism as the film gives a taste of how Dhamma can be applied in real-world situations. How do we approach people who are in direct conflict with our values? How do we face an existential crisis? The film is a perfect illustration of Buddhism in action without requiring deep Buddhist knowledge.
You will be challenged to stop running and to take a pause. To find a mindful and peaceful way out.
A positive post-note to the film: In 2019, the UK government halted fracking in England. This effectively bans fracking in the UK, a watershed moment for activists and the environment. Scientific studies warned it was not possible to rule out unacceptable consequences for those living near fracking sites.
Liked what our author experienced? Book your tickets right now!
TLDR: Deep down, we want happiness. Happiness is something that can be cultivated systematically – it starts inwards. Although it is not easy, it is very worth it.
I realized from a young age that what I wanted in life was to be happy and that all my pursuits in life arch towards either instant or delayed gratification. With time, I noticed that this was a common human condition – we all want happiness, and fear pain! And perhaps the only reason why we pursue different things in life is because our definition of what brings happiness differs.
Being the scientific and engineering nerd that I was, I started my search in secondary school to find the ultimate life “hack” to happiness. I read widely and listened to talks by people who were smarter and wiser than me.
Over time, I found certain common underlying principles (or equations) that described what I experienced in life well.
1) The Happiness Equation
Observing the various ways people seek happiness, I noticed they converge upon 2 main methods (refer to equation 1.1):
· Method A: Having more things (increasing the numerator); or
· Method B: Wanting fewer things (decreasing the denominator)
This is apparent in how different people who have similar things (i.e common numerator) can have vastly different levels of happiness. For example, $100 is a fortune to a beggar, but small change to a millionaire. Both Methods A and B described above are valid routes to happiness, but require very different kinds of effort.
Method A (having more things) entails relentless external work to ensure the constant accumulation of possessions. Meanwhile, Method B (wanting fewer things) requires a deep commitment to inner work to cultivate the subtle craft of gratitude and contentment.
It is tempting to take the higher/nobler stance and claim that “wanting less is the way to go!” However, for the majority of us who are not renunciants (monks/nuns), it would be quite presumptuous to claim that we are not attached to at least some desires/possessions. While it is normal for laypeople to pursue some amounts of pleasure and fun, it is also important to be aware of the relationship between “having” and “wanting”.
I found that no matter how much I acquired, I was never satisfied – simply because the more I had, the more I wanted!
This phenomenon of hedonistic adaptation is well-studied by psychologists, and it describes how humans tend to adapt to pleasures/simulation in life. We require more intense simulation the next time round to get the same amount of happiness (similar to drug addicts, really). A common example is how lottery winners often return to their default state of happiness (or unhappiness) after the initial novelty of their prize wears off.
Considering the above, I decided a few years back that while I may never become a full-fledged renunciant, I would strive towards reducing my “wants” and cultivate contentment as my game-plan for happiness.
2) The Theory of Change
Making this choice to reduce my “wants” was the easy bit. Quickly, I realized that my “wants” were not leaving without a fight.
I also realized that this inner battle was not fought on a single front, but was instead spread across many skirmishes throughout various aspects of my life!
I realized that reducing my “wants” meant choosing a healthier Kway Teow Soup instead of the sinful Fried Kway Yeow for lunch; it meant not sending a paggro (passive-aggressive) text when I had to cover work for my teammate, and it was about being disciplined enough to Work-From-Home at 3 pm after lunch instead of Sleep-At-Home.
It was about being patient when irritated, and being calm when excited. More than anything, this inner work called for complete honesty about my flaws and imperfections – and committing to work on them for the rest of my life.
I found that reducing my “wants” was a big ambition indeed! But I also reflected that perhaps most of us may never really achieve a singular “big” change in life.
Rather, the biggest change comes from a compilation of small efforts – and the smallest things are everything (refer to equation 2.1).
3) The Happiness Graph
To direct all our efforts towards reducing “wants” instead of increasing “haves” is certainly the tougher path that is less travelled – but are other pursuits worth a similar heroic effort? To answer this, I plotted the long-term “happiness forecast” arising from adopting both Methods A and B (refer to equation 1.1).
Taking a closer look at my everyday experiences, I noticed that the pleasures that can be derived from our senses, while no doubt enticing, are still ultimately limited and transient.
Coupled with the rule of hedonistic adaptation, I found that the greatest joys – and tragedies – when mapped onto the greater scheme of life, often account for little more than minor blips on our happiness scale (refer to graph 3.1).
For all my efforts and strivings through decades in life, I realized that if they were not directed in the right direction, I will likely find the 80-year-old me not all that happier than my 8-year-old self. That was a really sobering thought!
Method B takes on a far more positive outlook. By observing the examples of well-practised spiritual teachers committed to the cultivation of contentment and gratitude (amongst other spiritual qualities), I saw that with the right effort and method, it is possible for one’shappiness to steadily increase with time (refer to graph 3.2). I experience this within myself as well.
As I continue to invest in my inner work and spiritual cultivation, I notice that I have a brighter mind-state, a more resilient spirit, and a more caring and compassionate stance towards others compared to 8 years ago (2013) when I begun my spiritual practice. Of course, there are days when the lights get dimmed – but as a whole, I am happy, which is all I ever wanted!
Equations can only get us so far. What we encounter in our everyday lives is the practical lab where the spiritual rubber meets the road.
As we journey on through life, instead of always wishing for a smooth problem-free ride, perhaps a more worthwhile aspiration to have is to grow the requisite mindfulness and wisdom to view each living moment as an opportunity for spiritual growth.
It is a life (or countless lives) time work – but what could be more worth it?
Take ownership of our happiness – don’t blame external circumstances
TLDR: When we are at the height of our career success and plummet into failure overnight, what do we do? Gather our courage to see things from a different perspective.
The Highs Could Only Go Higher Right?
2019 was an amazing year for my career. I achieved the coveted promotion by securing large revenues for my company, the bosses had only praise for my hard work, and I earned nearly 1-year worth of bonus.
Times were good, and when January of 2020 approached, I had only big plans for the year. This was going to be the zenith, I knew that I would achieve my second promotion, earn even more money and shine ever bigger.
In a natural turn of events, I knew nothing.
The moment COVID began impacting Malaysia, my career nosedived in a single day. All the deals I had lined up were halted, and the tumultuous journey began.
Long were the days of tough talk with the bosses; it felt almost like a consistent interrogation revolving around my presence in the company despite my lack of revenue. It was apparent how the company now saw me as a burden.
The Crash Of Change
I was entangled in a mass and mess of emotions; my mind alike to the sea that I so love, unpredictable. Fury, jealousy, melancholy, had a wonderful time consuming my waking thoughts.
Thoughts of “Why can’t they understand my difficult situation?” and “Why are they making things difficult for me?” only oiled further anger within.
To soothe this heat, I began plotting to create reputation damage to the company. Sharing this with a good friend, he merely asked “What is the point of harming others and oneself?”
Building Courage Again
That phrase gave my mind a sudden epiphany. For years I have heard the phrase ‘embrace change’, but now I am behaving like a temperamental child robbed of desires.
It is odd how I welcome change with a big hug only if it is in my favour yet loathe the tide’s natural turn when my desires are unmet. What I needed, was quite simply courage.
Courage to admit that success and failure are betrothed, there is nothing shameful about failing. Courage to refrain from blaming an external party for the source of my negative emotions, and instead to realise that I am still a lot of work in progress. Courage to embrace change, both positive and negative with grace.
I found the Dhamma quote on being unshakeable when the winds of life blow inspiring: