on 1 January 2016
The ancient Pali word samsara means the wheel of continuous suffering. It’s also the Buddhist perception of the human condition. All is dukkha (suffering) as the wheel of samsara goes on spinning like a planet circling a star.
Attempts have been made to overcome this predicament: renunciation, self-abnegation, transcendence, often through seclusion and isolation from the world (hence the creation of monasteries). Attachment to this world and worldly things is thought to be the root cause of suffering, the creation of ego and what ego feeds on — demands, acquisition, possession, ownership, power. And, worse, enough is never enough. The manic demands of ego are endless, resulting in anxiety, frustration, dissatisfaction, depression.
A beautiful visual image of samsara is found in Disney’s Fantasia (of all places), with music by the French composer Paul Dukas. Goethe’s famed sorcerer’s apprentice is Mickey Mouse. Fed up with fetching water by buckets to fill a cauldron (at his master’s request), Mickey magically commands a broomstick to do the work for him while the master is absent. At first all goes well and Mickey takes it easy, falling asleep. In the meantime the broomstick works frenetically, splashing water all over the floor and flooding the room. Mickey can’t remember the spell to make the broomstick stop, so instead takes an axe to it, splintering it in pieces. For a moment the solution works, but then the splintered fragments come to life. Hideously, an army of mindless, pail-carrying broomsticks carries on the work remorselessly and Mickey is swept down a whirlpool. He nearly drowns, only to be saved when the master returns to break the spell.
So that is the problem: how to break the spell, stop the wheel, get off, be free from suffering. How to splinter the broom and keep it splintered.
A noble ideal, and in this beautiful film we see how it is enacted. It takes place in Ladakh, a Buddhist sanctuary in northern India in the high desert altitudes of the Western Himalayas. The film opens to a vast landscape before us. The sky is pure azure, the air pristine, the earth dry, the monks purple in their Tibetan robes as they travel on foot through the high mountain passes. They are headed with their donkeys to a remote monastery built into a rock face in the mountains. There a young monk named Tashi has sat alone in meditative silence for three years, his heartbeat and metabolism reduced, the needs of the body transcended. Or partially. His hair and beard and fingernails have continued to grow.
The party of monks reaches its destination. They enter the monastery. The hermit sits there, crosslegged in his solitary cell, alone in the formlessness of no-mind, a mind detached from thought and desire. In such emptiness, oceanic in its vastness, transcendence was possible and attained. Such realms are the states bodhisattvas inhabit, a buddha-hood the young monk now knows too experientially.
Yet nothing is permanent, including this state. He is roused from it by the others and brought back to the world — to this world of samsara.
He is blindfolded and carried from the sanctuary, his eyes protected from the blazing sun, his legs too weak to stand and walk on. He is emaciated, practically skin and bones. He rides a donkey, almost Christ-like in his purity. He is fed, given new robes, led to a rushing river. There he is bathed by the others, his beard shaved, his long hair sheared. The long, curling fingernails are also cut, giving him back the use of his hands.
He is silent. Words and the thoughts they express once came easily to him. Not now. He is able to think, but the necessity of it feels less urgent than before. He seems childlike again in his simple dependence on others.
They journey on through high snow-capped mountains and down through vast arid plains to civilisation. Ladakh looks like an oasis in the desert, perched as it is in the Tibetan way on high rock outcrops. This is their destination, the place of livelihood, of temples and markets, prayer flags and banners, of festivals and music and ritual dance, and of beautiful young women with their dark braided hair and high Mongolian cheekbones. The hermit re-enters this vivid world. He sees it with detachment, but, yes, he sees it. It is no mirage, no dream.
But speaking of this — of dreams — over time he starts to have fitful ones. Days ago there was a festive ritual in the main courtyard. Musicians played. Monks danced in bright ceremonial masks. Tashi was among the dancers. But he could not concentrate. He noticed a young mother in the crowd of spectators watching the dancers. She held a baby in her arms and fed it milk from her bare breasts. He focused on these and lost his rhythm, unable to continue the dance. On some mornings he has awoken to find his member stiff between his legs. On others he discovers he has wet himself with semen. This disturbs and confuses him. Another young monk (named Soman) notices this too and is profoundly saddened by it.
Tashi is sent away on the advice of his venerable master Apo, the thought being that fresh air in a nearby village will do him good. He goes with others, including Apo, to visit a local farmhouse. But desire will not abandon him. There he sees Pema, the daughter of the farmer, perhaps aged 20. She is beautiful — long black hair, large round eyes, full lips. She wears a gold necklace and bangles on her arms. She notices him too. They look at each other, startled and transfixed.
She comes to him in a dream that night. Her beauty touches him. So does her body. His robes in the morning are soiled and wet again. He is mortified, confused, ashamed.
The venerable Apo understands his trials. He knows how violent the clash is between the world of oceanic no-mind and the physical one of vivid sensuality. He gives a map to Tashi and sends him away again. He goes on horseback to another remote monastery built into a mountain rock face. There a solitary old monk lives, and on that first night over the fire the monk gives him a piece of parchment. On it he sees the drawing of a copulating couple. The woman has mounted the man. They look healthy in their pleasure. But as Tashi holds the parchment closer to the fire he sees they are no longer living. They are skeletons making love. The truth of the parchment is clear: two worlds exist, one chaste and venerable, the other sensual and corrupting.
Tashi was sent by Apo to choose. This is the decision he now faces. He rides back quickly to Ladakh. He meets Apo and speaks before a large golden statue of the Buddha:
“Even he [Siddhartha] was allowed a worldly existence until the age of 29.”
Tashi is 25. His entire life has been dedicated to The Way, the only way he has ever known and experienced. He then asks Apo:
“How do we know his Enlightenment was not a direct result of his worldly existence? He said there are things we must unlearn in order to learn them.”
Furthermore he says to Apo, quoting the Buddha:
“There are things we must own in order to renounce them.”
With this Tashi renounces his vow of celibacy and the strict monastic life. He enters a world outside The Way in order to find his way back to it or not.
Then, setting him free with compassion and love, Apo says to him:
“Tashi, your dream back in the village was not a dream.”
His eyes wet with tears, Tashi picks up his bundle and leaves the monastery at dawn next morning. He’s on horseback and his faithful dog Kala follows. At the river he removes his monk’s robes and walks into the water naked, another act of cleansing. Kala barks at him, confused by Tashi’s new clothes. He deserts his master, unable to adjust, running back to the world he knows in Ladakh.
Now a nomad, Tashi returns to the farmhouse where he met Pema. He asks for work there and obtains it, helping in the fields with the harvest. Pema is overjoyed but troubled. Has he renounced his former life for her? Why must she be the cause of it, if she is?
Pema confesses to him that what Apo said was true: it was not a dream of Tashi’s that night in the farmhouse. She had come to him during the night and touched his skin. She said she did it to comfort him, and then Tashi asks if such comfort was only temporary in her mind. If so, Tashi says he will be gone tomorrow before sunrise.
Later that day she comes to him. He is resting in the fields after a hard day of labour. She lies next to him just as she had the night he stayed in the farmhouse. She touches his shoulder and for the first time in life he touches a woman in return, running his fingers over her bare feet. Their hands meet and they kiss them. Then their cheeks and lips. Finally, outdoors under a tree, they explore their naked bodies.
She comes home late. It’s after dark and her clothes are rumpled and dirty. Her mother is waiting for her. She blackens her daughter’s face with grease and tells her that from now on she must wear this face outside. Her family is disgraced and Tashi is beaten up with clubs, set upon by the vengeful father and a jealous farmhand (Jamayang) who loves Pema. But later the father feels remorse when he realises Tashi had been a lama.
Jamayang cannot accept the situation, saying that his family had already given permission for his engagement to her and that he has nothing in life without her. Pema is torn and says she will surrender her fate to the decision of an astrologer. The old astrologer visits the next day, goes through elaborate rituals, decides that Jamayang is to be the betrothed. But, on seeing Pema’s disappointed reaction to the decision, Jamayang bows out and allows her the freedom to marry Tashi.
They marry and are happy. They eat special ceremonial rice. All the people around them are happy too, dressed in their ceremonial clothes. Drums are beaten and trumpets sound. Laughter, smiles, dancing, drinking.
Months pass. Pema is pregnant and gives birth. They have a son. Years pass. The boy grows. Tashi’s hair also grows. It was long during his great meditation, gone, shaved off during his monk-hood, and now is long again as a farmer.
Another harvest season comes. A beautiful Indian girl named Sujata is part of the harvest. She comes every year with her nomadic family. She’s 24, unmarried, gorgeous in her sari. Tashi notices her, lusts after her. Sujata notices him too, aware of the power of her beauty. The time will come when she’ll allow him to be seduced by her. This time arrives and we watch their passionate lovemaking.
A rider on horseback from Ladakh arrives. It’s the monk Soman, carrying a letter for Tashi from Apo, who is dying. Apo asks:
“What is more important, satisfying a thousand desires or conquering just one?”
A twig put in a river will flow to the sea. It may get snagged for a time, but it will not sink and drown. When it is free again it will continue on its journey.
Tashi looks out the window and sees Pema and Sujata embracing. Sujata says she will not return again with the next harvest or any thereafter. Pema says she will miss Sujata. Tashi witnesses the scene with self-loathing and remorse.
He looks at his wife and son for the last time. They are sound asleep together on the floor. He touches the boy’s face tenderly. He leaves on foot without touching his wife.
He returns to the river, disrobes there, walks into the water naked. By the time he reaches the outskirts of Ladakh his head is shaved again and he wears his monk’s robes. Outside the town he meets Pema and her horse on the road. It isn’t her in truth: it’s her in his imagination and she tells him through tears what he is leaving behind — his home, her love, their son, their life. She tells him that Siddhartha did the same, that only a man could do such a thing, never a woman. In the name of seeking to overcome suffering he left behind a wife and son whose suffering he caused.
The escape from samsara is temporary.