Sunday, December 30, 2007

Samsara by Pan Nalin

Samsara is a 2001 film by the Indian director Pan Nalin. This review will contain spoilers.

The plot is sweeping but minimalist. A Buddhist monk is awakened from his deep trance after years of meditative solitude. After coming back to his monastery, stirrings of lust and desire begin to make him restless. He sets eyes upon a woman, whose family he and his fellow monks visit for a ritual, and ends up giving up his monkhood and marrying her. They have a son together, the husband gets immersed in the agricultural life and the trading decisions. There are fights, disasters and he has an adulterous interlude with one of the migrant workers. Unable to come to terms with his present state, one night he leaves his sleeping family to again become a monk. Just as he is reaching his old monastery, he is confronted by his wife and asked some hard questions.

I want to address a few complex issues explored in this film.

The first theme is that of renunciation as an involuntary path, especially for a child. I completely agree with the writer/director that it is foolish to make a child a renunciate, only to have him struggle with his instincts and his code of monkhood in his later life. The simple living of a renunciate must be a conscious choice born of experience and maturity.

The second theme is that of making choices in life to follow one's desires.

The monk decides to spend three years in solitary meditation, then he decides to give up his robes altogether for the life of a householder, and then, troubled by the increasing complexity and uncontrollable urges of worldly life, he decides to turn back and again become a monk. Certainly, that is what freedom is.

But due to a complete lack of self-awareness and understanding of oneself, the monk lives his life like a leaf in the wind, blown here and there by the passing storms of his desires. He has no foresight as to the consequences of his actions. For a monk who has spent a dozen years studying scriptures, living in the company of other monks who have spent a lifetime doing the same, who has spent many years in deep solitary meditation over impermanence, egolessness and suffering (the three insights of Buddhist meditations), he seems peculiarly unevolved and immature. He doesn't understand sexual desire and social conventions even to the extent of a normal human being. He picks up fights, gets seduced almost too easily by another woman, is impetuous and vengeful, graceless (observe the way he sheds snow from his clothes after coming in from the storm, versus the grace of his wife) and ill at ease with letting others see the instinctual side of him.

His choices are not born of an understanding of the limitations of a certain set of circumstances. Rather, he escapes just as the circumstances are becoming forceful enough to make him ponder over the nature of desire and conflict. He is escaping conflict, both inwardly as well as outwardly, and his crying and wishing to come back with his wife towards the end brings home the pathetic truth that he is unable to face a crisis head on. All seekers go through wavering, doubt and scepticism, but not in such an ignorant and unaware a manner.

Hermann Hesse's works (also those by Nikos Kazantzakis) engage with this theme in far deeper manner, as befitting a written work. Three novels by Hesse: Siddhartha, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Steppenwolf, singularly address the dichotomy between hedonism and asceticism. In Steppenwolf, there is a divided mind. In Siddartha, the life is divided into asceticism, hedonism and understanding. In Narcissus and Goldmund, two monks lead divergent paths, one towards solitude and the other towards a wild, gushing engagement with life. In Kazantzakis' flagship work, The Last Temptation of Christ (adapted into a film by the American director Martin Scorsese), a figure as revered as Christ suffers the temptation of a householder's life when nailed to the cross.

The film is remarkable for its cinematography, its music and its depiction of the life of a monastery and in the hills of the Ladakh-Zanskar region. The director has chosen a complex theme for his film, and a more self-aware protagonist would probably have been able to do justice to it.

There are a few conundrums in the film which are left open to interpretation. One is the aphorism by the old monk, "Which is better? To satisfy one thousand desires or to conquer just one?" According to me, the one desire (for religions affirming transmigration and reincarnation, i.e. Samsara, the cycle of birth and death) is the sexual instinct, the desire which leads to further and further entanglements. Sex is the primary instinct, the central act in the propagation of life.

The second is the question and the answer written on the rock by the roadside. The question is: "How does one prevent a drop of water from drying up?" And the answer, on the back of the rock, is: "By throwing it into the sea." One possible interpretation of the analogy is: The drop of water is the individual soul. Its "drying up" is its death as a separate entity. The "sea" is the worldly life, in which it finds sustenance and mixes up with other selves.

Since this Q&A is the last frame of the film, it is hard to ignore the stance of the director that the step taken by Tashi, the monk, to enter the life of a householder was a disaster. Despite the misgivings expressed earlier in the film about renunciation only being valid after ownership, and despite the feminist polemic at the end of the film by Tashi's wife about how Gautama the Buddha, and men like him, care only about their own enlightenment without bothering about the consequences of their desertion, the director seems to have a slight bias towards the monastic life (evidenced in the compassion of the old monk, the graceful smile of the child head lama, the playfulness of the young lama, the angry snort of Tashi's dog when Tashi changes into the clothes of a householder, the unrepentant way in which Tashi's wife gives up her engagement to her suitor, the noise and corruption and the superficial entertainments of the city life, and so on).

According to me, the prime mistake Tashi makes is of his passing through life unmindfully, which is surprising given that mindfulness is a central theme in Buddhism. He doesn't seem to examine anything. He doesn't reflect upon how his actions and thoughts are shaping. The faculty of self-reflection in completely absent in him. And without reflection and self-enquiry, actions, choices, consequences, suffering, pleasures, anything, will not lead to evolution.

So for me, the aphoristic Q&A has another interpretation: The outer shape that one's life takes is mostly accidental. In the flow of life, one can struggle against circumstances, or one can flow with them and evolve inwardly, by an insightful examination of all that is happening within and around oneself. The drying up of a drop, the shriveling up of the self, is therefore a consequence of the desire to escape the flow of life and to become an isolated and walled self. The process being a psychopathic defense mechanism blocking a revelation of one's own darker aspects. If one flows without needless restlessness, life provides enough opportunities to grow, and to reach the natural destination, the understanding of one's existence as a self-aware drop in the infinite material ocean that is this universe.

In life, one must make choices, but the choices should be out of understanding and maturity. Even if that means a rejection of outdated or silly rituals or social conventions, even if that means rejecting the prevailing goals of human endeavor around oneself. Choices based upon uncontrollable urges to satisfy oneself heedless of the results will only result in guilt, regret and resentment. Urges are not extinguished by indulgence. Once temporarily satisfied, they demand higher, novel stimulations to sustain themselves.

They are extinguished by understanding and attentive enquiry, each moment, into one's state of mind.


srid said...

The 'drop of water' analogy is often interpreted (on contrary to the Buddha's teaching) by the Zen Buddhists to be Oneness -- where the illusion of seperation [of desires and desire-free; of happiness and unhappiness; of bond and freedom] is dispelled; and one continues to be as miserable as ever.

Good analysis!

N Sriram said...

Good read. Educative. Where are the 'spoilers' that you cautioned about in the beginning? If they were there, I missed them.

harmanjit said...

Well, I disclose all the elements of the story, which might diminish the element of surprise in the narrative.

pravs said...

I saw this movie last night. I interpreted the water drop analogy to the following:

a) ocean is the big mind, the whole. Recognizing that the one drop is part of the bigger whole itself prevents it from drying up.
To stretch it, the water drop is anyway part of the bigger ocean, has always been.

b) if the drop represents the single desire, simply dropping it (surrendering it) into the whole and seeing it as simply a small, little part of everything makes one conquer it/ overcome it.

c) the drop and the ocean are the same. recognizing that and seeing the non-duality saves the drop.

I didn't necessarily see the ocean as all material existence.

I found the Korean movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring to be a much tighter movie dealing with similar questions.,_Summer,_Autumn,_Winter..._and_Spring

Ankush said...

Hi Harman ,

Very well written!

As others I do have query regarding water drop analogy.

can I take this way: Water drop is individual soul, when it follows spiritual path, finally it reaches to the Ocean - which is nothing but state where no desires and attachments..only supreme bliss.

So, if one who doesn't want to get dried up should practice and get one with Ocean.

Jabahar said...

I knew the theme of the movie and the message it gives (What is more important....). But i was only able to watch the 1st part of the movie till the marriage. After 3yrs when i got to see it again, with a curious desire to see how renunciation comes to Tashi, i watched it till end, but got nothing except 1 more question...

How can one prevent a drop of water from ever drying up ?
--By throwing it into the ocean.

At 1st i interpreted that, the drop of ocean is no doubt the human soul which actually does dry up here. The only way we can prevent it from drying up is if we throw it into the Ocean which is nothing but innumerable drops summed up. So, i thought the ocean to be the Supreme soul, our Lord.
i.e a soul can be prevented from drying up only by surrendering to the supreme soul.

But, after reading the analysis here, i found it to be more accurate for the following reasons:

1. While Pema is talking to Tashi in the end, at a point she says to Tashi, " You could have attained the Dharma here in this very life(social life), if you would have shown the passion and love for it as u showed for me."
--> Here emphasis is not given on attaining Dharma by renouncing the world(social life), but by staying within the world with a devotion and passion for it.
So at the end, the water drop analogy best supports the dialogue by Pema, if we interpret it in the way that, a soul will dry up alone, but it finds a purpose (if the soul tries to) and begins to live in the world which is nothing but an ocean of souls.

2. Well, my interpretation of the ocean to be the supreme soul feels a bit odd for the word "throwing into" . Well, if ocean had been used to refer the Supreme Soul, then a word such as "putting into" could have been used. i.e. How can one..... drying up ? --By putting it into the ocean.

Well, that's only what i thought. Still this life is a mystery to be solved (at least for me).

~Hare Krushna

itsme said...

While going through 'Aphormisms on intellect' I was going to suggest this movie to you but then i found this reviw on your blog. The very reason that i thought this movie links to the discussion happening out there is actually summed up by you in this review itself.

"In the flow of life, one can struggle against circumstances, or one can flow with them and evolve inwardly, by an insightful examination of all that is happening within and around oneself."

"If one flows without needless restlessness, life provides enough opportunities to grow, and to reach the natural destination, the understanding of one's existence as a self-aware drop in the infinite material ocean that is this universe."

While you have talked ( a couple of years earlier) about evolution by the insightful examination and the natural destination of underatnding of one's existense as a self-aware drop, why such negativity now and so much about suffering?

Deepti Chaudhari said...


Have you watched Valley of Flowers by the same filmmaker? Its a 2006 film starring Milind Soman, Naseeruddin Shah and a French-Chinese actress who married Soman that same year. I'd be interested to know what other people think about that movie.

Metteyya said...

I do not know why it is so easy for others to accept the "drop of water" as a "soul" when the film is about "Buddhist" philosophy which posits a no-soul (anatta) as central to this philosophy.

The better interpretation it seems is to link the letter at end of the film to the words etched on the rock. Such linking makes "drop of water" a "single desire" and the "sea" to be "thousands of desires".

This is more consistent with the Buddha's "crossing over" (desires) discourses in which "staying pat" on the near shore is disfavored to experiencing the temporal nature of the satisfaction received from gratifying desires by being totally immersed in them.

Tashi seemed to at last realize this fact after being lectured by his wife at the temple's outer wall, that as a monk he was simply insulating himself from desire, whereas a husband he fully engaged desire and found it not to be permanently satisfying.

So "satisfying a thousand desires" leads to the same place as "conquering one desire", as the true nature of desire and its temporal satisfaction is realized.

Sean Kerr said...

I think the touch of resentment in how she gave him the blessings-for-a-safe-journey satchel was due to the readiness with which he renounced his intention. He had just said, "Alright, I'll come back with you where I belong," and it was then that her attitude hardened, as if to say, "I came here to give you my blessings, and here you are giving up your decision so easily?" Like an insult. "So lightly you abandoned me?" And she leaves then, somewhat disgusted, saying, "Alright. You figure out what you want. You can come or go." Then, realizing that she was stronger than he, that she had in fact come ready to accept his callous abandonment of them and even then give him her support and blessings, he really wept, realizing the depth of his weakness and indecisiveness. Pema's lesson was "What will happen to the stick if nothing catches it or holds it back? - It will reach the sea." The only thing holding Tashi back was his own indecision about what he wanted. "If your thoughts toward the dharma were of the same intensity as the passion and love you have shown me, you would have become a Buddha in this very body, in this very life." It's simply a matter of determination, of decision. 
So "throw the drop in the sea" becomes "just let the drop reach the sea" ie stop holding it up, preventing it with your prevarication...
But I think that there's also a suggestion that samsāra is such, the human predicament is such, that we vacillate, we waver, we're pulled this way and that by our conflicting desires, and this is the essence of our turning round and round in misery, never reaching the real consummation of any desire... 
There's the tragedy of it.

I suppose that seeing the tragedy of it is also the potential to learn (from saṃsāra) by observing it. Which relates to her "How do we know he didn't owe his enlightenment to her?" as well as the Chinese scroll phrase "Every place is the path" ie every situation can teach us. It's understanding of the predicament that leads to liberation from it... Pema is his samsāra, and his teacher, right to the end.

to be more precise, from his *confused* point of view she represents samsāra, and the monastery represents nirvāṇa, but really saṃsāra is the never-ending back and forth vacillation between these two imagined poles. She shows him this, points out that the problem is not her or his passion even, but the vicious circle of indecision that he is stuck in. "Can you come out of THAT?" 

Sean Kerr said...


It's at that point, while contemplating the two apparently opposite paths - the one leading on to the mountain monastery and a life of intentional deprivation, "the conquering of one desire", and the other leading back to the valley home and a life of unrestrained indulgence, "the satisfying of a thousand desires" - that he discovers a third alternative. Both paths are seen as they are: part and parcel of the same samsāra with its endless back and forth. And now something amazing happens - panning steeply upward, the camera veers from a horizontal to a vertical axis, putting everything in new perspective. Here is the middle path and the way out of this suffering: recognizing one's own delusion that is its cause and coming out of it - through understanding.
So this reframing of the key axis of tension from the diverging paths of the final scene (the valley home, the householder's life, desire and sex, and Tashi's wife Pema - all aligned with samsāra - on the one hand, and the monastery, monkhood, celibacy, and the teacher-monk, all aligned with nirvāṇa, on the other) to a more fruitful dichotomy between vacillation, indecision, and inner torment - the real saṃsāra - and freedom and relief from all that - a genuine liberation - seems to capture the film's key transformation.

BabuDC said...

Agreed with Sean.... That is the message of the movie...

Lola said...

Personally I've really appreciated the feminist speech of Tashi's woman, which for me means the old saying: "Behind every great man, there's a great woman".
I agree with your ideas on this movie. Thanks for sharing them.

Manas said...

@ Harmanjit: I understood many of your superb analyses - especially your thought about unmindful Tashi, and the idea to freely make choices with maturity and clear understanding. However, your view on the director's bias towards monastic life appears a bit confusing and paradoxical. Because, If he could suggest one droplet (a life) to merge into the the ocean of drops (a collection of lives), how can he be bias favouring asceticism ? To me the happy playful child lama displays the property of innocence which is frequently emphasised throughout the first part of the movie with a view to portray the intensity of the free choice of will. Even the depiction of the superficial entertainment of city life doesn't indicate a bias against social life. May be, all he tries to say is about a principled social life (middle path) by incorporating parts from both the extremes of samsara and nirvana. Hence, to me, Sian Kerr's view seems more appropriate.

Anonymous said...

the drop in the ocean is individuals living ascetic lifes, the drop is ketp from drying only by re integrating to normal social life with other human beings, nirvana and social life can be together tashi doesnt need to be a monk to be enlightened he can do it if he understands this.