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: Comparing the lives of an old monk and his young apprentice, this film reflects on simplicity, love, and a life’s journey
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring is a beautiful Korean movie that reflects on our life’s journey, the choices we make, and subsequent consequences. The movie is set in a temple floating upon a tranquil lake in the middle of an untouched forest. It revolves around two main characters: an old monk and his young apprentice. They sustain themselves by gathering herbs from nature, engaging in simple chores, and recitation of suttas or Buddhist scriptures.
Watching the young apprentice living his youth in such peaceful surroundings in comparison to our bustling days, I thought surely, he would be much happier than us?
After all, we are constantly seeking that “peaceful” place, somewhere where we can be one with ourselves, and achieve the happiness that can be so elusive.
The Four Seasons
Through this movie, director Kim Ki-duk leads us through a comparison between the lives of the old monk and his young apprentice. As the season changes into years, both individuals are transformed. The young apprentice experienced various emotions as he grew from a child to a man. As Kim Ki-duk says, “I think that a human being’s life is very similar to the four seasons. The four seasons all have very different characters”.
What we see in this film is that in each phase of our lives, or as our mind changes, we also begin to form certain views, emotions, and actions. An example is a young apprentice who began to develop a physical attraction to a young girl. As he drew away from monkhood and entered the lay life in pursuit of his “love” subject which he believes would bring him happiness, his desires eventually drove him to commit a crime. With the police hot on his heels and his heart like burning coal, he decided to return to the temple of his youth.
The World Of Men
Here, we are shown a comparison of the old monk who has lived in simplicity all those years, unperturbed by external distractions. Despite physical struggles with his ageing body and a solitary life with nothing more than a cat as a company since the young apprentice left, the old monk remains calm throughout the film. He also dispenses short teachings of wisdom, to cool his apprentice’s feverish heart.
“Didn’t you know beforehand how the world of men is? Sometimes we have to let go of the things we like. What you like, others will also like.”
Letting go of desires is a key teaching in Buddhism. And though this film mainly depicts two monks, I doubt the director is sending us a message to leave all our loved ones behind, shave our heads and live in a secluded temple.
Instead, my understanding of the movie and its simple similes through the scenes is that peace and happiness are not found outside, but are simply a state of mind.
Stone In Your Heart
If we let our lust and anger dictate our minds, we may make regrettable choices. These choices do not just affect those around us, but they can become a heavy burden in our hearts.
“You will carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life”. This was one of the old monk’s first wise teachings at the beginning of the film. As the story nears its closing, we see that the young apprentice who is now in his middle age has begun to understand an important thing; although he may not be able to undo the wrong he has committed in the past, forgiveness and patience are the key factors to finding peace in his heart again. This was shown as he hauled a heavy rock up a hill, and when it finally came to a rest, his face was both clear and serene.
With this film, do not expect much drama. In fact, there are barely any lengthy dialogues. There are no special effects or tear-jerking moments.
I expected to be bored, but as the film progressed, I found to my surprise a spiritual depth to the movie reminding me to let go, forgive and be patient as I find happiness through the four seasons of my life.
Liked what our author experienced? Book your tickets right now!
Ghost Month Series: This series explores different angles of the 7th Lunar Month, also known as the Ghost Month. Festivals, Cultures, and Religions often mix together in one place, offering space for different interpretations. We, like you, are keen to explore more. Discern what is helpful to your practice and discard whatever is not.
TLDR: The memories from our past are scarier than the ghosts, they live within and the haunting never seems to cease.
It happens again. It likes to sneak up on you when you are most vulnerable, terrorizes you when you are unaware. Dark at night, when I’m about to fall asleep, when I’m alone staring at the ceiling or listening to an old song when I’m on the bus. I can’t pretend I don’t see them. It’s always right there in my mind even when I close my eyes. What am I talking about? I’m talking about the painful memories of my past.
If you are quiet, you can hear them, loud and clear — the shadows of who we once were, the lives we’ve lived and people we’ve loved. We’re left with mournful and never-ending remembrance. The haunting never seems to cease. Our memories are scarier than ghost sightings.
Wouldn’t you think our lives are already filled with ghosts? The loved ones that left us stay as memories, like a ghost that lives inside you, and like this you keep them alive.
The sweetest memories can sometimes turn into a moment of tears clouding my eyes. Sometimes, I can’t seem to get out of it. It can be a dreadful burden. The older we are, the more haunted we are. The regrets, guilts, and the attachment we hold on to the happy times we can’t go back again. The memories are like the seaweed that is hard to get untangled.
Should we banish them entirely, all those ghosts of who we are and who we loved? Should we exorcise them completely? Or should we find a way to lay them at last to rest?
Untangle The Past
Although memories reflect what actually happened in the past, they are not the reality. We don’t have to let our memories control our emotions and bind us like a dog chain. If we handle our memories mindfully, we can unburden ourselves of them; we are able to view them with an open heart, looking in from the window outside the house, that brings calm to the mind and in turn heals any gloomy emotion that arises.
When our memories resurface, learn to switch our thoughts to an observation frequency. Not to overload ourselves with heavy emotions by allowing memories to interpose into our thoughts making it a hyperreality.
Letting Go Of The Past
Sometimes I wonder why these memories keep resurfacing, and I realized it’s because I can’t let go. The past can’t be changed and yet we keep playing it in our head a million times.
It keeps reliving and by doing that. I’ve sacrificed the present and the future that could create happier memories.
Buddha once talked about letting go, “Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit. Whatever arises in dependence on intellect-contact, experienced either as pleasure, as pain, or as neither-pleasure-nor-pain, that too is not yours: let go of it. Your letting go of it will be for your long-term happiness & benefit.”.
For any long-term sustainable happiness, we have to learn how to let go, not holding on or creating a blockage. Happiness and sadness can’t happen at the same time and they are never yours, to begin with.
Sending Loving Kindness To Ourselves
There is no doubt our past decisions make us who we are today, but it doesn’t make sense to let the past define who we are. If we treat our memories sensitively, with loving kindness, we can cultivate intuition and discernment for our future selves, rather than judging and blaming the ghosts from our past.
Memories Of My Father
Once when I was having breakfast, my father asked, “Why did I skip the bread skin and go straight to the softer piece of the bread?”
“The top layer is always dry and hard.” I answered.
“Who is going to eat that, if you don’t eat it?” My father replied
I lost my father a few years ago and that memory of him always brings me to tears. Instead of weeping, I now see it as a way to inspire me to be more selfless.
Some of us may feel like weeping when confronted with our ghastly memories, but there is no need to run away from it or continue feeling sad about it. Instead, we can rise above the conditions and conditioning of our past. When we hold our memories carefully, we are no longer haunted by what has happened to us; we view our past and present experiences from a different perspective.
Lay The Ghosts To Rest
I’m still human. I walk with my ghosts from time to time, and sometimes I can confront them and sometimes, I’m overwhelmed by them. But, at least I feel like I’m slowly reaching a state of mind where I can see them truly as the past and putting it to rest.
It’s a matter of acknowledging the good memory, feeling it and then reminding myself of the good that is happening in my life now. Reach inside for gratitude for what was and what is and try to find a place of acceptance.
We can take the mournful and never-ending remembrance and turn it instead into memories that we can appreciate as a valuable part of our beautiful lives. We can learn, over time and with practice, how to be grateful for the changes, and we can stop mourning them. We can even celebrate all the aspects of who we were and are now and all of the people we’ve loved along the way.
Instead of fearing the ghost of my memories, I now see them as my companion I can live comfortably with.
Turn our memories into valuable parts of our beautiful lives that are worth appreciating regardless of the good or the bad.
Rise above the conditioning of our past by viewing our past and present experiences from a different perspective.
Acknowledging the good or bad memory, feeling it and then reminding yourself of the good that is in your life right now.
TLDR: It is okay not to be okay. Being on the constant drive to be perfect can wear you down. Ching Wi recommends taking an incremental approach to generating kind thoughts to yourself and to see the little sparks in the darkest of caves.
Foggy spectacles from wearing masks. Forest fires. Social strife. Long socially-distanced queues for bubble tea. How can we keep calm & happy in a distressed world? A smiley social worker might have an answer.
Ching Wi has been a social worker for years. She helps elderlies people in her day-to-day job. With her joyful ‘hello’ given when we met, it is hard to grasp that she has suffered from depression. For six years.
Her journey into the darkest cave
Perfection. Competition. Ching Wi’s life was previously characterised by these two things. This led to a life of anxiety and self-doubt. She found herself responding to everything with anger.
Everything that she and others did previously needed to be up to her standard. She mentioned, her characteristic is like the boss that you don’t want to work with. It is fierce and scary.
These loads of negative emotions eventually piled up inside her heart. The three factors of depression: biological, physical and social aspects are mixed up. Anxiety and depression hit hard.
In a blink of an eye, she realised that everything becomes heavier, the negative thoughts towards herself and the world trapped her inside a dark cave.
In such darkness, it felt impossible to see any light.
Seeing the flicker of light
Upon seeing the sparks, Ching Wi placed great effort in developing mindfulness, taking refuge in the Triple Gem, trying to change for the better from her old version. Buddha’s teaching mentioned that hatred can’t be overcome by anger. Hatred can only be overcome by love. This is an eternal rule.
She recalled, ‘It is a very difficult process of healing. Changing from the 1.0 version to 2.0 is not easy. There are processes of 1.1, 1.2, 1.3,… etc. It is and will be a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.’ However, having trusted friends, families and the courage to believe in the power of truth in the triple gem is really helpful for the recovery process.
It can be very scary to experience depression and she found courage from “hiding” in the power Triple Gem’s truth. When she could not trust herself, she knew she could trust the Triple Gem, especially in stopping her suicidal thoughts. At moments when the suffering got really unbearable, she would imagine taking out all the negative emotions and believe in the Triple Gem, the teaching about the truth of life.
In times where she lacked confidence, she sought comfort in the Buddha’s compassion and practiced the Buddha’s teaching of loving-kindness. Even if she could not generate loving-kindness for herself yet, she kept trying. She found it easier to wish others well and at peace so she kept doing it. Slowly, the spark of positivity helps to calm her mind and she begins to feel kindness for herself too.
‘Take time to slow down every process. Be mindful of everything and start wishing others and yourself to have a blissful mind.‘ The advice she has taken to heart whenever she senses the darkness creeping in. Seeing how Ching Wi struggled and going through the hardest moment, was there any advice she had for others facing dark times?
She smiled, ‘learn to be kind to yourself, you too can see light’.
Helping others see light
“Learning to be kind and accept yourself, and being honest with yourself is very important to get out of suffering. Remind yourself that you too deserve a happier mental state, and depression is not a personal failure.” She advised.
Also, it is always better than letting the negative thoughts repeat over and over again. As it could be destructive to your mind.” She continued.
“But….what if you can’t do that?” I asked.
“Keep trying different ways to solve problems’. Ching Wi reckoned that it is very hard to move through hard times if our mind is not open, stuck in cycles of suffering.
Ask yourself: ‘Why am I so resistant to making myself peaceful and free from destructive thoughts?”
She suggested being open with your trusted people around you. It can be friends or family, or someone that you are comfortable to talk with. ‘Sometimes, they see our blind spot and help us to find confidence in ourselves. And could also bring up a new perspective that offers courage too.’
Even though it is not an easy journey to embark on with, it will be rewarding in the end.’ She grinned.
Lighting a candle in the darkest cave
“Lighting a candle in the darkest cave is not an easy task to do. However, it offers warmth to the cave. You may not still see the whole cave, but as the flame lights up, you will feel comforted and help to jumpstart your process of recovering.” She explained.
“As the candle continues to glow, the surroundings (mind space) will affect how bright will the candle be. If we could slow down and calm our thoughts, the warmth will brighten up the cave. A cave with even walls will enhance and reflect more light. Conversely, if the surroundings are jagged and wavey (full of worries), the glow will be shaky and unfocused. So pay attention too to the environment for the flame to continue shining.’ She cautioned.
Ching Wi calmly mentioned that even if you can’t see the full cave with your candle. Generate gratitude for that little flame, as it has at least helped you kickstart your process of recovery. To gain strength to face the world. To offer an opportunity to be happy again.
May you be inspired by this writing to light your own candle in tough times and offer strength to others.
Gratitude goes a long way. To both ourselves and others, it is a great daily practice!
Seeking help never hurts! From professionals to friends to family, finding that support helps guides you through the storms of life.
Need help? It is one call away
SOS 24-hour Hotline: 1800-221-4444
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
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?
TLDR: Burying our friends and ourselves with positive quotes when we are down can hurt. Active listening is one way to avoid toxic positivity
Heard Or Said Something Similar?
“Everything will be fine.”
“This too shall pass.”
“Good vibes only. Stay strong, jia you*!”
Social media rewards us for positively curated stories. This has created new challenges in how we manage the emotions of others and ourselves.
Toxic positivity: The forced blanket positive response to all difficult situations. The firm belief that keeping positive is the sole way you and others should live your life.
Though being positive is important. It is also important to let yourself experience difficult feelings. Here’s why toxic positivity is an issue and how we can be part of the solution.
Positivity Is Great.. So How Does Toxic Positivity Harm Us?
Positivity is important to keep us going in life. No doubt. ‘Focusing on what is good, will bring good’ we are taught. But like all things, e.g. Pandan Cake 🍰 , too much of something is not desirable.
Positivity becomes toxic when one rejects anything that triggers negative emotions and replaces it with positive motivational quotesor ‘vibes’. This habitual response to negativity has been found to create anxiety, depression or physical illness.
Ever tried to tell a panicking person to ‘stay calm’? I hope you didn’t!
Toxic positivity is not just an issue for your mind and body. It is an issue for others. Pushing it on others also makes you seem tone death.
The receiver of your ‘positive vibes’ comments may even start to feel bad about feeling bad. The last thing they need.
When we deny unpleasant emotions, we tend to make them bigger. Avoiding all negativity also reinforces the idea that we need not pay attention to it. This leaves it unprocessed in our psyche.
We slowly forget that emotions are not inherently good or bad but rather a guide in how we should make sense of things.
Signs of Toxic Positivity
These are some common experiences of toxic positivity to help recognise them in yourself and others.
Trying to ‘snap back to reality’ by saying (e.g., “it could be worse”) instead of validating their/ your emotional experience
Telling someone off for expressing frustration or anything non-positive
Hiding your true feelings and wanting it to be ‘over asap’
Attempting to “just get on with it” by dismissing strong emotions
Feeling guilty/ angry for feeling down.
Responding to people’s experiences with “feel good” quotes or statements about positivity
Detoxing The Toxic Within Us
“To stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening.” Pema Chodron
It is easy to accept the pleasant people and situations of life. However, being able to accept the difficult people and situations is the path of spiritual growth. We find a place for deep healing and peace within ourselves.
Here’s what we can do for ourselves.
Give yourself permission to feel negative and positive emotions.
Journal about the emotion or sit with the emotion (if you can!).
Slowly uncover the cause and see what can you do to support yourself better in the future.
Talk to friends about it unreservedly.
Take a walk in nature to breathe in the fresh air
Detoxing the Toxic Towards Others
Being a lover of excel tables, this is a cheat sheet to help improve the ways we talk to others having a bad time. Being an “ex-serial toxic positivity promoter”, this table saved me dozens of time!
No one can be a bursting ray of sunshine every day and every hour. Accepting that it is only human will help you acknowledge the setbacks faced by yourself and others. Paying attention and processing negativity will help you better understand yourself and those around you.
*A popular Singapore term for encouraging others in difficulty
Memorise the chart of toxic positivity and avoid the traps you might fall into
Do not be afraid to acknowledge the negative emotions within you!