The Himalayan Mountains in the Ladakh region; snow, mist, a river, a flock of goats, an eagle circling lazily overhead. A small group of lamas on foot and horseback is peacefully traversing nearby. Suddenly the eagle swoops down and grasps something from the shore of the river. We follow it up to the sky above the flock of goats. The eagle drops its burden; the camera is directly underneath before we see it is a sizable rock, which falls onto the head of a goat, killing it. With compassion an aged lama strokes the head of the stricken beast and blesses it. A young boy novice has to be urged away from it when the lamas continue on.
Beginning in this way, Director Nalin Pan contrasts the world of Samsara with the world of devotional practice. Samsara is daily material existence, characterised by the passing of time experienced as the cycle of birth and death and opposite to the timeless spiritual state of Nirvana aspired to by Buddhists.
The dualism between the contemplative life and the life of action has been explored many times in literature, not least by Herman Hesse in his novels Siddhartha (1922), Narziss und Goldmund (1930) and The Glass Bead Game (1943). This film explores that dualism through its depiction of a young Tibetan Buddhist lama who, at the start of the movie, has come to the end of a meditation lasting three years, three months and three days. Five monks and two young boy novices travel to bring Tashi (Shawn Ku) back from his deep state of meditation to physical awareness. Tenderly they brush the dust off his face and cut his taloned fingernails; cut his long hair and shave his head. They gently bind his eyes against the light. His body completely without muscle tone after three years of immobile sitting, he is as helpless as a baby. It is a while, even after he is carried on horseback back to his lamasery, before he can hold a bowl to his lips himself, or speak. On his way back his reawakening is softly stimulated by the wonder of the light through a green leaf. Then when he is nearly home his eyes are caught by the etched inscription on a rock: “How can you stop a drop of water from ever drying out?” His aesthetic sense and his questioning mind – his astral body – are coming to life. By the end of the film he has the answer to that question.
Similarities with Siddhartha abound. Both Siddhartha and Tashi are trained from their early years in devotional asceticism and leave that life for sensual exploration. As in Hesse’s novel the river is a powerful symbol. At different times it is a symbol of rebirth to a newly chosen life, of cleansing, of oneness, and of reconnection to one’s spiritual roots. The river’s journey to the sea is also a metaphor for the inevitable progress of the soul through the cycles of life and rebirth as well as representing the boundary between two worlds, the sensual and the spiritual.
Where the film is fresh and different to Hesse’s book is in Tashi’s individual journey. He goes much more deeply into spiritual practice and his return to the world awakens a sensual, sexual awareness of an entirely new kind for him. Participating in a ritual for villagers near the lamasery, he is literally stopped in his tracks by the sight of a woman’s breast bared to her child for suckling. At the harvest blessing he instantly falls in love with the lovely Pema (Christy Chung). There have been other signs of Tashi’s preoccupation causing consternation to his superior Apo (the serene Sherab Sangey) and his attendant lama Sonam (Jamayang Jinpa). Soon Tashi announces his decision to leave contemplative life. “Even Lord Gautama was permitted to live as an ordinary man for his first 29 years!” he exclaims to Apo, his superior.
Brought as a five-year-old by his father to the lamasery, he feels he must explore Samsara before he can make a sincere renunciation. Despite Apo’s sending him to visit a hermit Tantric master, where the hidden truth about sexual intercourse is cleverly revealed in erotic drawings, Tashi cannot be dissuaded. He sets off, coming to the river, where he bathes and changes his lama’s robes for those of an ordinary person. His faithful dog Kala, who recognized him instantly after three years away meditating, no longer knows him and runs away. Recalling the first symbolic image of the film, that of the eagle-borne rock killing the goat, his old way of following unquestioningly, of being part of the flock, is now dead. The predatory questing of the eagle has taken its place. It is Tashi’s path of individuation from which, hopefully, he can come full circle to oneness once more.
The second half of the film deals with the delirious joys, worries, consternating conflicts, losses and temptations of his life as a farmer, husband and father. He is more than once accused of being a troublemaker, since Tashi’s clarity of mind can still detect a cheat and his lack of attachment to the traditional ways means he is free to explore business in other than the timeworn methods.
The relationship he has with his wife Pema is deeply portrayed, the chemistry between the two actors tangible. There is extraordinary love shown in Pema’s devotion to Tashi and their children, for instance in the way she packs food, together with prayer beads, for him to take on his journeys to town. Pema is shown as already highly developed spiritually, and demonstrates the viewpoint of being able to pursue Buddhahood while in Samsara as well as in the isolation of the lamasery or a meditation cave. She has the ability, unlike Tashi, to let unimportant things go and to be in present time, like a stream flowing past a rock in its path. She sees through him as clearly as Apo did, knowing his thoughts and his desires, and offers him wisdom he can barely grasp. She can see when his motives are driven by shame and not pure spiritual aspiration.
At a climactic point in the movie she tells him the story of Yasodhara, abandoned wife of Gautama Buddha, whose life was also affected by Gautama’s renunciation. She points out how deficient he is in true loving kindness and how conditioned by guilt. She forces him to the brink of a choice which will either be the spiritual making of him or the unmaking of him as a man, and it is not a traditional view of that choice. She refuses to be the reason for a choice he must make for himself. “If you gave to the Dharma (your spiritual life) half the passion and love you have shown me,” she says, “you would already have achieved Buddhahood.”
Deeply thought-provoking and delightful, this movie is a feast for the eyes, the emotions and the spirit. A large part of that many-textured delight comes from the extraordinarily luminous performances of a superb cast in richly coloured settings as varied as the lamasery meditation hall, rural fields full of itinerant workers, town life and stupendous mountain scenery.
(c) Avril Carruthers 2nd December 2002
What do you think of Samsara
Share your opinions on our forum