From Silverscreen Samsara to Offscreen Nirvana

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, March 28, 2005

A look back at Schindler's List

Singapore -- Sitting upright in silence in the dark, I close my eyes and empty my mind of thoughts of the past and future, as I centre myself in the present moment. May my mind be free of preconceived ideas and expectations. May I be mindful and learn by non-judgemental observation. Soak in the tranquility and watch the mind...

Suddenly, I hear a familiar sound, the signal to end meditation, to open my eyes, to begin experiencing what unfolds to the senses of sight and sound. About to enter a new realm previously unexplored, I gently brace myself, reminding myself to pay close attention, as more images and sounds form before me...

If you havn't got the drift yet, that was a pre-movie meditation! Some Buddhists have the idea that going to the movies is the radical opposite of going to the mediation centre. Yes, of course there are differences, but there are less than we think. The cinema might seem a place to stir up the "dusts" of the mind while the meditation centre the place to settle it, yet the cinema is also a testing ground for how well your mind can stay unruffled, just as the meditation centre lets you know how stirred-up your mind is, as streams of stray thoughts course through you.

To the regular movie-goer, the challenge is to step in a peaceful meditation centre, away from the thrills and stimulation of films. To the regular meditator, the challenge is to step in a cinema with the latest surround sound system and digital screen, away from the serenity of the centre. The Dharma is afterall for practice and discovery at all times and places; not just once a week for a couple of hours on a cushion.

I enjoy meaningful movies because they offer brief immersions into meticulously designed alternate universes. They give me opportunities to put myself in various "What would you do if you were him/her?" positions, to understand myself and others better. A good movie is never an escapade; it allows me to live through multiple lives, while leaving me spiritually reborn as a kinder and wiser person, through absorbing the lessons it preaches. It is entertaining yet enlightening. The Dharma is for living, and it is life itself. Likewise, movies are always about life - case studies of Samsara, of characters unconciously yearning for True Happiness, as they go through trials and tribulations. So life-like are movies that there is seldom nothing one can learn - even from a C grade movie!

One of the most moving spiritual moments I ever experienced was in the cinema. The movie was the multiple-award winning "Schindler's List". Based on a true story, it tells how Oskar Schindler, a vain and greedy businessman, became an unlikely humanitarian during the horrific Nazi reign. He secretly transformed his factory into a refuge for Jews when he witnessed how they were barbarically treated. His factory was commissioned to manufacture shells, but having become anti-war, he ensured it never made a single working shell! Previously profiting from exploiting cheap Jewish labour, he spent his fortune buying over a list of some 1100 Jews - from the otherwise certain death by being gassed.

In the scene where the Jews bid him a grateful teary farewell, as he prepares to flee for his "war-crimes", he realises he still had a car, that he was still wearing a gold Nazi pin, both of which could had been exchanged as valuables for more lives. He sobs uncontrollably, self-lamenting, "I didn't do enough!... I could have gotten one more person... and I didn't!" But his friend comforts him, "There will be (future) generations because of what you did... You did so much." While watching, tears flowed down my cheeks uncontrollably too.

A powerful truth resonated with me - I suddenly saw the essence of the Bodhisattva path articulated - to always listen to your heart which has perfect compassion for all, to help as many as you can in the moment to be free of suffering, yet not being attached to having helped or not helped a single one. This is how the self-liberated liberates others.

It reaffirmed my aspiration to be a true Bodhisattva. At the same time, it gladdened me that there have always been living examples of Bodhisattvas throughout history. Will you not be one too? Schindler's List was screened back in 1994. What lessons have you gleaned from the movies lately? From silverscreen Samsara, may we derive some offscreen "Nirvana"!