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!
This teaching is extracted from a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Achalo, the abbott of Anandagiri Forest Monastery in Thailand. The talk was given in one of the meditation retreats. View the full talk here.
The following is a transcript of the above video with some edits.
Many times, what we want from religion is somewhat superficial. Many people want to make offerings so that they can be rich, and many people are not so strict with upholding the precepts. There are even many people listening to Dhamma talks with the want to notice which list of Dhamma that Ajahn talked about – if it’s the 37 wings for awakening, or the 5 powers, or the 5 hindrances, and then they think that’s the lottery number. They’d take down the number and wish to win the lottery. Ajahn Chah sometimes said all these people who come, and they are making the wish: “may I be rich, may I be rich, may I be rich”, he said all they are doing is wishing for more suffering.
A lot of rich people have a lot of suffering. When you become very wealthy, and you’d get a big ego. When you have a lot of stuff, some of them please you, some of them displease you. You can be very attached to comfort, such that the slightest bit of discomfort is very irritating. Hence, being wealthy, being successful doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in happiness. It does give one a certain amount of freedom, but it gives one a lot of headaches as well. Other people want your wealth, you don’t know who you can trust, even your children would be fighting over their inheritance. It can be quite ugly sometimes.
The Buddha taught that greed is like a river. He said, “There is no river that floods like greed.1” It can be boundless if we feed it.
One of the dangers of being too wealthy is that you can feed your greed all the time.
So, the world is a dangerous place in terms of increasing delusion, in terms of increasing kilesa2. And the Buddha taught the middle way – knowing the right amount, knowing moderation, training in contentment. When we train in being contented, it’s like, “Oh! This is what it feels like to be content. It’s really nice, actually.” Actually, contentment is a bit nicer than getting what you want all the time.
When we get what we want all the time, there’s a kind of heat to that, a dizziness, and intoxication. Not very much mindfulness, and there’s a big sense of self. It’s vulnerable. When you get what you want a lot, what happens when you don’t get what you want? A lot of suffering.
There’s a growing understanding that that which knows suffering isn’t suffering. And, there’s a growing understanding that if you really maintain your mindfulness consistently that you’ll start to experience a tremendous sense of peace. And then, if you cultivate wisdom and start to understand the worldly Dhammas you’d understand that praise is just praise, blame is just blame, pleasure is just pleasure, pain is just pain. Fame is just that much. Ill repute is just that much. And you’d find that there’s much less reactivity and more wisdom, and then you realise, “Oh, this is really valuable. This is really worthwhile.”
The Buddha says peacefulness is the highest happiness3.
When the hindrances are weak, when a bad mood evaporates, when you notice impermanence, when you can be with pain with patience, when you can observe things that you used to react to that you’re not reacting to, it’s really nice. A real sense of relief, a sense of coolness, a sense of fullness. That’s why we do these contemplations. They orient us to take responsibility, to contemplate the truth, and to really have a good look inside, and to find that refuge. And when we do that, we’d find that it is very rewarding in a very cool, simple, and natural way.
1. Dhammapada verse 251 – There is no fire like lust; there is no grip like hatred; there is no net like delusion; there is no river like craving.
2. Kilesa– affliction; distress; especially that which afflicts, that which stains; an affliction, a defilement; a defiling passion, especially sexual desire, lust
3. Dhammapada verse201 There is no fire like lust and no crime like hatred. There is no ill like the aggregates (of existence) and no bliss higher than the peace (of Nibbana).
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: We all think we are the master of our surroundings and of ourselves. But on closer look, we have little control over our human experience including nature. When we see the limits we have in our thoughts, speech and action, we learn to live in harmony with the Dhamma and let go of the self.
Most religions in the world teach the letting go of the ego. If it doesn’t, it may not be a spiritual practice. A spiritual practice is an exercise of the mind, which is also referred to as consciousness. Consciousness has not been a focus of scientific research due to it being immaterial.
However, religions have tackled the mystery of consciousness, what it is and how it arises. After all, if you are not conscious you will not be aware there is a you who is experiencing happiness, sadness or pleasures, or reading this article. You will not be aware of your free will if you aren’t conscious that you can make a choice.
But, if everyone shares this awareness without differentiation, do ‘I’ as a person really exist?
The Human Experience
In contrast to other religions that seek to find the self, the Buddha taught what is not self. What did he mean by not self?
The most important of the teaching of not self is found in the Anattalakkhana Sutta. It was the second discourse the Buddha taught to his first five disciples. In this discourse, the Buddha broke down the human experience into five parts. They are – the body, feelings, perception (memory and recognition), mental formations (thoughts) and consciousness (sense consciousness). These five parts the Buddha referred to as the five aggregates or five heaps. He named them heaps because these five parts need to be heaped together to create a personal identity (ego). But as it is a heap of things, they are easily collapsible. How so?
The body is the most obvious thing we identify ourselves with. The Buddha asked his first disciples if the body is permanent or impermanent? They answered it is impermanent. He then asked if it is happiness or suffering? They answered suffering. Why did the disciples say it is suffering? The Buddha stated if we truly own this body, we can tell it not to grow old, fall sick or to die. But we can’t. The body doesn’t listen to our needs and wants and causes suffering.
The same goes for feelings. If we truly own our feelings, we can tell it to always be happy. But instead we seek pleasures to keep up with good feelings. But the effort to find pleasures or pursuits one after another is tiring. Instead of being owners of our feelings, we are actually serving them.
The same applies to our perception.
Can you decide not to dislike a person you recognise to be irritating? Can you drop the memory of having had a bad experience in a restaurant? Both the recognition of an irritating person and memory of a bad experience causes unpleasant feelings.
Unfortunately most of us can’t help being identified with our perceptions and therefore we are also not owners of our perception.
When it comes to thoughts, it is obvious that most of us cannot control our thoughts. It thinks mean things and good things as it wants to based on our perception and feelings.
What about our sense consciousness? Our everyday consciousness is associated with our senses such as the eye, ears, nose, tongue, touch and thinking mind. Imagine yourself having a peaceful time reading in your room. From outside your window, you hear a woman shouting. Will you be unaffected by the shouting and refrain from looking out of the window to see what is happening? Are you able to tear yourself from seeking to be occupied with your senses when there is nothing to do? Don’t we seek sense contact all the time with food, Netflix to podcasts? The mind is a sense contact in Buddhism because it comes into contact with the world of ideas.
The five aggregates are all linked and our human experiences and are constantly changing. With the advent of technology, it seems we are finding it harder to maintain a sense of rest with these five aggregates. Why? Because we are continuously bombarded with sense stimuli without our mastery over them.
If we are able to master our perception, it would change our feelings and thoughts. Changing our feelings and thoughts from unfriendly to friendly ones reduce stress in the body. When the body suffers, the mind also suffers less if we are able to change how we experience the aggregates.
Are You Beyond The Dhamma?
The Dhamma means many things in Buddhism. It includes the entire teaching of the Buddha-from impermanence to nibbana. Generally, the Dhamma refers to the law of nature and of the mind.
We all know the laws of nature from gravity to special relativity. But when it comes to the law of the mind and actions, we are completely lost.
But why should we be bothered with the law of the mind and our actions? Why bother with spiritual exercises such as meditation and mindfulness for the mind?
In our everyday experience, we go about our lives feeling like we are different and apart from nature (flora and fauna). However, the laws that govern nature apply to us too. Like our environment and the animals on this planet, we have no lasting bodies. Although we humans think we are masters of our nature, we are not because we cannot overcome change or decay. It seems the more we try to conquer nature, the more nature reacts with unpleasant changes such as drought, heatwave and famine.
Also, if we truly are our own master and self, we would not experience the limits of our thoughts and actions. For example, we cannot think about a beloved person non-stop. We are also unable to keep eating our favourite food or watch the same film numerous times. It makes us feel mentally sick when we become obsessive or indulge in something. When we refrain from acting at all it also makes us feel restless.
Speaking and acting in untruthful ways also hurt our being. Some people are unable to sleep well after committing a crime. Some feel a burden in the heart after telling a lie. There is that guilt that weighs in the body, when it performs untruthful speech and action. For some who bury this guilt, they may find that pain develops in certain parts of the body. We all know how stress and anxiety produce symptoms from high blood pressure, pain in the shoulders to irritable bowel syndrome.
For those who notice their limits in thoughts, speech and behaviour,because it brings distress or dissatisfaction, seek to find an answer. But many people don’t notice these things because there are many ways we can get help from these maladies. We may go to doctors repeatedly or find ways to distract ourselves despite still suffering distress internally.
What To Do After Discovering Our Limits?
From the above examples, we can clearly see we are no masters at all. We are not masters of our human experience, or are we the master of nature. We are limited by the boundaries of physical and mental laws.
Does realising these limitations and seeing there is no substantial self who is a master of anything cause depression? On the contrary, no. Seeing the reality that we aren’t anyone at all brings joy because there is no more burden to maintain an ego or a self. We are free to let go, to change and choose habits that are different from the ego we thought is the self. It is the false belief of an ego that has caused much suffering in this world – from depression to numerous wars and tragedies.
Understanding that we are not beyond the Dhamma teaches us to live according to the laws of nature. Lay Buddhists follow the five precepts given by the Buddha as a way of learning to live within the Dhamma.
We usually do not like laws and restrictions. But rather than seeing it as a law, think of it as learning to live in harmony with ourselves and our surroundings.
The five precepts itself are not so much a not-to-do list. But rather, it is training the mind to be aware whenever we act unskillfully against the Dhamma to cause ourselves suffering.
Take a pause and notice if you are always seeking to fulfil your senses with sense contact such as entertaining your eyes, ears or mind. If you can’t take a pause from sense pleasures, are you serving your senses or are you a master of your senses?
Before going to bed, reflect on your day. Have you said or acted truthful or untruthfully? How does it affect your mind and heart?
Observe your feelings or sensations in your body. Are you able to master pain, discomfort or unpleasant feelings to change them into something manageable or pleasant? Are you a master or a servant to your feelings and body?