By John Pendall
If life is like a movie, Buddhism is the practice of seeing behind the scenes.
It’s also a practice for those in need. Buddhism is appealing to the existentially destitute for the same reasons that socialism and anarchy are appealing to the impoverished—hope.
It’s for those who feel that they’ve finally suffered enough and need to find a way to end their suffering.
Buddhism is for people who smile when they hear, “Everything is like a mirage, a dream, an illusion. Like a dewdrop or a lightning flash.” It is the long road walked by those who have grown tired of walking; the arduous search undertaken by those who’ve grown tired of searching; the precious peace for those who have realized that there is no peace for them in this wibbly-wobbly world.
Disenchanted with just watching the movie, they yearn to see behind the scenes. To meet the actors, get a sneak peek of the special effects crews in action, and hear the methodology and logic behind the script.
The same way that insight into a movie de-mystifies it, Dhamma practice does so with life.
Once you see the tricks of the trade and get the inside scoop on the hows and whys that go into making the film, that insight is always present when you see the movie from then on. You’re no longer absorbed by it in the same way; no longer so caught up in the storyline, enthused by the explosions, or moved to tears by the tragedies.
That’s one of the reasons why I don’t usually go looking for behind the scenes info. I like to enjoy the fantasy and mystery when watching a movie. However, when watching a movie, I’m aware that I’m watching a movie. When it comes to life, it’s as if I’m a character actor who is so involved in his role that he’s forgotten he’s an actor; this is why I suffer.
Yet when we get an inside scoop on a film, we can also enjoy it in ways that we couldn’t before. Sometimes de-mystifying something paradoxically makes even more mystical. Sometimes special effects become even more amazing when they’re explained. Take the monstrosity in John Carpenter’s The Thing for instance.
Sure, it’s naturally grotesque and horrifying. Yet the special effects mostly consisted of rubber, latex, creamed corn, mayonnaise, shadows and KY jelly. During the famous chest-chomp scene, the guy lying on the table wasn’t even a guy—it was a dummy made by the special effects crew.
To me, the fact that most of the special effects in that movie consisted of things you can find around the house actually cranks up my amazement level. Some cynics (there are always a few nearby, usually drunk and miserable) might say, “These effects aren’t that good. You can clearly tell it’s rubber and latex! And why are that dude’s ligaments green? Who has green ligaments?” To which I’d politely respond, “Wow! I didn’t know we had an expert on shape-shifting extraterrestrials in our midst! You must have some interesting stories! Please, tell me more about your encounters with E.T., xenomorphs and the manically depressed robot from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy!”
Ironically, people who tend to criticize analog special effects in movies are usually more tangled up in the film than anyone else. “That’s not realistic!” Well, you know this is a movie, right? The same goes for we who are existentially depressed.
Misery is a byproduct of being lost in the story.
When we’re miserable, we find faults everywhere and criticize everything. This isn’t because we’re more aware of the nature things. To be miserable and focus on the “faults” in life means one is completely absorbed in the fantasy. The fantasy of, “It should be like this, not like that. I should be like this, not like that.” This way of thinking is no different than a grouchy film critic who’s forgotten an important fact: it’s just a movie.
Buddhism doesn’t encourage us to be grumpy critics. Nor does it compel us to get caught up in the action like a general movie goer; Buddhism urges us to be like cinephiles, knowing everything about a movie and loving it all the more because of the insights.
Buddhists like scientists who marvel at molecules or psychologists delightfully perplexed by perception. In Buddhadhamma practice, we’re given backstage passes to our lives. It’s like being a lucky kid given a Golden Ticket that grants a tour of Wonka’s chocolate factory.
This Golden Ticket is the Noble Eightfold Path, and the chocolate factory is Śūnyatā in Sanskrit or Suññatā in Pāli (I usually use the Pāli terms). It’s often given the drab English name emptiness, but movies are anything but empty behind the scenes. In fact, there’s usually more going on off the screen than on.
Life is the same way.
It’s by cultivating tranquility and insight into Suññatā that Buddhists finally find that peace they’ve been thirsting for. Like finally finding a cool pool of clear water in a barren desert. Smiling, they see that life is like a movie.
No matter what happens they have that knowledge, and life can become infinitely more tolerable, wonderful, and astonishing.
Editor: Dana Gornall