"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" & Enlightenment?

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, June 23, 2005

Dharma Inspired Movie Review:  www.hitchhikersmovie.com

Singapore -- Don't panic!  "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (H2G2) is a zany yet thought-provoking movie on a most mysterious and troubling matter for many human beings - the elusive "meaning of life". But no worries, this movie is "mostly harmless" - you'll know what I mean when you watch it. H2G2 is a movie based on the bestselling "Hitchhiker Trilogy".

Yes, H2G2 is a real book - the title of the first in a series of 5 books written by the late Earthling Douglas Adams. In these books, he occasionally mentions the fictitious H2G2, which is the bestselling book in the universe. Confused? Never mind, it's okay - really - this universe can be pretty confounding anyway. Here is a brief "guide to the Guide" and how it can relate to the Buddhist spiritual life.

First things first, a synopsis of the H2G2 movie... With the help of Ford (played by Mos Def), Arthur (played by Martin Freeman) manages to hitch an intergalactic ride seconds before Earth was demolished - to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Only then did he know that Ford was an alien, a research writer for H2G2. Ford introduces H2G2 to him as they have cosmic comic misadventures together.

Straight into the heart of the film, according to H2G2, the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is "42". Yes, the meaning of life is supposedly "42". The second greatest computer ever built (Deep Thought) took 7.5 million years to calculate the meaning of life to be so. Expectedly, the answer stumped everyone. Deep Thought explained that the problem was that nobody really understood what the question was in the first place.

Thus, another even larger computer was built to find out what the actual question was.Why "42"? Countless have mused over the possibilities. Eg. see Wikipedia for "The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything" at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Answer_to_Life,_the_Universe,_and_Everything. But really, this was much ado about nothing. What is "42" really about? According to the author, "The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one." Playing along with the joke, if you ask the Google search engine for "answer to life, the universe and everything", the Google calculator will return the answer "42" - click http://www.google.com/search?=answer+to+life+the+universe+and+everything+= tosee this. Nope, even the immensely popular and powerful Goggle cannot search and find the real answer - unless it points to an appropriate Dharma website!

The greatest computer ever built to compute the ultimate question is planet Earth itself, which was destroyed before accomplishing its mission. This is very interesting because it proposes that Earth, or our world as we know it, is a live experiment evolving over millions of years with sentient beings and all, solely to discover the ultimate question. Here you are right here right now - the result of your "computation" so far. Well, how spiritually evolved are you after all this time? Every individual mind, including yours and mine plays participant in this massive collective "program" - Project Earth! It means the purpose of our lives is to seek the ultimate question. At the end of the movie, a new Earth was "reborn", reconstructed.

Likewise, we will need to be reborn as many times as needed before we realise the ultimate question and seek its answer.

The second Earth was shown constructed from scratch with the efforts of many people in a colossal factory style. It reminds us of the teaching of collective karma, of how we interdependently create and re-create this world we live in with our (in)actions. This is the opposite of the "Watchmaker Theory", of a single "watchmaker" creating an entire complex "watch", with parts and all. Exactly because the world is so intricate, it is not possible for a single being to create it. It takes the world to create the world - a whole natural world of causes and conditions with sentient participation. The state of the Earth is always of our own making. For instance, when we disrupt environmental balance, the environment naturally and karmically disrupts our lives in return. Everyone plays a part in keeping the Earth green. We are watchmakers who watch and maintain the parts of this watch!

Back to the "question of the ultimate question"... It is incredibly intriguing that humans throughout history have pondered at length on "What is the meaning of life?" It is actually a bizarrely phrased and foggy question. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama taught that, "The very purpose of our life is happiness, the very motion of our lives is toward happiness."

Likewise, if you are to reflect carefully, you will realise that the ultimate question that is relevant will always be "How do I be truly happy?" The answer is "To practise and perfect the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), which leads to perfect wisdom, the realisation of the true nature of everything, which necessarily culminates in the liberation of Enlightenment."

Then again, not forgetting compassion and our interdependence, there is an even "more ultimate" version of the question - "How can ALL be truly happy?" To reiterate the proper thought process, the ultimate question is "What is the ultimate question?" You need to ask that before you can get the ultimate answer. Incidentally, the ultimate answer cannot be conceived of by mere thought, no matter how deeply one thinks. Truth is realised not by thinking about reality but by reflection on reality. How then can any computer, including Deep Thought, compute this most primordial existential question and answer? It takes sentient beings to solve sentient problems!

When forced with come up with the ultimate question as a survivor of the late great supercomputer known as Earth, Arthur blurted out "...my head is filled with questions and I can assure you no answer to any one of them has ever brought me one iota of happiness. Except for one. The one. The only question I've ever wanted an answer to - 'Is she (Trillian, his love interest) the one?' The answer bloody well isn't '42', it's 'Yes'. Undoubtedly, unequivocally, unabashedly 'Yes'. And for one week, one week in my sad little blip of an existence, it made me happy." I rest my case - indeed do we all just want to be happy - truly so and ever after. We just happen to look for True Happiness in many wrong places - through possessing material things and even attachment to emotional highs and even people. An attribute of True Happiness is freedom, which is attained by non-attachment. Yet this does not mean passive cold-heartedness to the world and our loved ones. Only without attachment can we truly love. Possible? Yes - remember the Buddha - the best embodiment of one who loved the world unconditionally, one who treasured all, one with attachment to none.

Arthur was suffering from near misses of "attaining" the "love of his life". According to the Encyclopedia Galactica, "love" is far too complicated to define. H2G2 defines "love" as "mostly painful." Amusing, yet somewhat true. How would the Buddha define "True Love"? It would be the Four Sublime States of mind (the Four Immeasurables). "True Love" is a composite of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.

In the film is an ultimate spaceship called "The Heart of Gold", which allows you to, as quoted from the movie's website, "travel everywhere in the galaxy at once, and then decide where to get off. Sound impossible? It's not - just improbable. So improbable, that the ship is powered by an Infinite Improbability Drive - a wonderful new method of crossing vast interstellar distances in a mere 'nothingth' of a second, without all that tedious mucking about in hyperspace. Due to a sensational new breakthrough in Improbability Physics, as soon as a spaceship using this new propulsion technology reaches infinite improbability, it passes through every point in the Universe. Then you just choose which of these particular points you want to arrive at, and there you are. It's almost too easy."

Sounds ridiculous? Well, it was meant to be far-fetched, yet probable! Truth is, this drive is already in existence - it is your mind. There is a saying in Buddhism, "The ten dharma realms (six unenlightened realms plus four enlightened realms) are not beyond a single thought." The mind is the fastest phenomenon in the universe. The speed of thought is much faster than the speed of light. A well-trained mind can traverse vast distances in an instant.

One can even be reborn in another realm in a flash by matching one's mindstate to the realm. Even in everyday life, we are mentally reborn in various unenlightened realms with changes of defiled mindstates from moment to moment. For example, flare up in rage in the instant and it is likened to burning in a hell of fiery hatred. It's almost too easy, yes. The Buddha thus advises, "Master your mind, or be mastered by mind."
A hilarious entry in H2G2 on "Towels" goes... "Mostly useful - a towel is about the most
massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly, it has great practical value, but more importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (non-hitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has a towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with." If you reflect deeper, you will realise that this "most massively useful thing" is actually arbitrary - it could have been anything else. It all depends on your perception and creativity. Perception, as a mental aggregate, like any other of the five physical and mental aggregates, is thus empty of any fixed substantiality.

Below is a favourite scene from H2G2 for many fans. As an unpredictable side-effect of the Infinite Improbability Drive, a sperm whale materialised from nowhere in mid air, as it begins its plunge of no return towards ground zero. From H2G2 (pg.102), "...since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale, before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more. This is a complete record of its thought from the moment it began its life till the moment it ended it...

'Ah...! What's happening? it thought. Er, excuse me, who am I? Hello? Why am I here? What's my purpose in life?... Never mind, hey, this is really exciting, so much to find out about, so much to look forward to, I'm quite dizzy with anticipation... And wow! Hey! What's this thing suddenly coming towards me very fast? Very very fast. So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like...ow...ound...round...ground! That's it! That's a good name - ground! I wonder if it will be friends with me?' And the rest, after a sudden wet thud, was silence."

In the less than a minute comic and poignant monologue, we have the probable summary of the story of our lives, the plight of mortal existence, of how we wake up to our existential crisis, of how we try to make sense of it, often not in time, as we get distracted time and again, missing the point of asking and answering the crucial questions, before old age, sickness and sudden death catches up on us.

H2G2 comments tongue-in-cheekily that, "The creation of the universe made a lot of people very angry and was widely regarded as a bad move." If you consider carefully, life is a dissatisfactory problem only because we have not found the ultimate answer to the ultimate question. Even if we have found the answer, we are probably not "living" the answer well enough - ie. not practising the Dharma diligently enough. Our existential angst is actually unsubstantial, but we choose to "substantiate" it by choice. The Buddha taught that the universe is created, sustains and destroyed naturally in countless cosmic cycles. What is this life in the universe for? Welcome to the open-ended universe - do whatever you want. But always remember - all you really want is to be truly happy, and the Dharma proposes a well-travelled time-tested path.

The quirky humour of H2G2 aside, if there is a single strong message from the film, it would be that "Life is precious, vulnerable and transient". Who knows? We might wake up like Arthur one morning, only to discover the Earth about to be destroyed. Even if not, we are always living in the end of days, in the final stretches of our individual lives. Time is always running out, never on our side. In H2G2, the author quipped that, "Time is an illusion, lunch time doubly so." Funny but true - the good times always seem so short. Even the devas (gods), who experience extended bliss in the heavens, feel they fall too soon - when their merits exhaust. Let's strive on with diligence then, and practise the Dharma well. Let's "run" out of Samsara best we can, before time runs out. Let's use "The Hitchhiker's Guide to...

Life, the Universe and Everything" to transcend all dissatisfactions of mind and matter. Yes, this golden Guide is none other than the perfect Dharma! Grab and use the Guide today!

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