Samsara (2001) – Response
Pan Nalin’s Samsara follows Tashi, a Ladakhi man torn between monkhood and lay life, in his confused quest for a modern Middle Path that integrates his devoted spiritual practice and his desires for sexual, familial, and material fulfillment. Tashi tells his teacher, Apo, that “there are things we must own in order to renounce them.” Unfortunately, the women of the film fulfill these ancillary roles in Tashi’s life. Pema, Tashi’s wife, and Sujata, his laborer and brief love affair, have little purpose in the film aside from providing Tashi with the worldly experiences that he believes are integral to spiritual seeking and renunciation. Almost apologetically, Nalin ends the film with strong invective from Pema. She compares herself to Yashodhara and reframes the question that Tashi so often raises with respect to the interconnectedness of nirvana and samsara, “Who can say if he [Gotama Buddha] owed his Enlightenment to her [Yashodhara]?”
Still, Nalin only briefly allows Pema to find her voice. Her diatribe does not nearly repair the film’s prior neglect. Conveniently, albeit poetically, Pema dissolves into dust: she speaks out, then disappears. We watch Tashi writhe in the dirt, feeling samsara’s full agony. But why must Pema vanish before Tashi’s climactic despair? Are women really nothing more than dust in the round of Samsara? Are we not allowed to feel Pema’s and Sujata’s samsaric existences? Nalin, via Pema, points out the gendered power dynamics of Gotama Buddha’s life story and inverts the Buddha’s life story to offer a fresh perspective to tradition. Nevertheless, he resorts to the very same gender codes that Pema denounces; the film furthers the same injustice. Perhaps the director intends simply to remain true to the concept of samsara as suffering: there are no simple solutions; the only escape is full realization; the price, often, is painful renunciation. Still there is no reason to suggest that one cannot make a film representing samara while maintaining an egalitarian view of gender. This, Pan Nalin fails to do.
We can, however, appreciate his effort to represent a version of Tibet that does not often appear in the romanticized view of the popular cultural landscape. Common conversations about Tibet often assume a peaceful, asexual Buddhist culture, a utopia to cure modernity’s evils. In Samsara, however, the Tibetans of Ladakh negotiate civil, familial, and personal strife in a thoroughly modern context. When Tashi and Pema first make love, Pema’s father and husband-to-be beat Tashi in the cover of night, and the viewer sees how the threat of violence looms over Tashi’s personal conduct. Dawa torches Tashi and Pema’s fields, and we witness the ostensibly modern problems of capitalist corruption and monopoly ruin a Ladakhi community’s livelihood. Child monks beg to leave the monastery and return to their families, and Tashi suffers persistent wet dreams: monastic robes and pious faces do not cure a society’s woes. To maneuver the increasing presence of “foreigners,” the film’s Tibetan Ladakhis must conduct their daily business partly in Hindi. Enjoying Samsara’s breathtaking natural scenery, one might ignore the unresolved complexities that linger after the film ends, but Nalin does not allow this to happen. Despite his relative inattention to Buddhism’s gender politics, he at least puts forward a problematized vision of modern Tibetan culture that is not easy to forget.
Inside and Outside the Frame: Confronting the Self
Questions gushed out when I watched Samsara. What does the inscription in the stone mean? What is the significance of the solitary meditation? What are the Buddhist beads for that Tashi and Pema put on their lunch box? …… Every unfamiliar scene triggers my curiosity. Aesthetically enthralled and intellectually challenged, as the story develops I feel as if I am being led by a strong rope groping towards something brighter and closer to truth. In the end, all the trivial questions fall off like lint until only remains the one of paramount importance: what makes a real Buddhist?
While we cannot articulate the exact frame that marks the boundary between a devout Buddhist and a mundane soul trapped in the monk robe, it is commonly believed that celibacy is a rule that a Buddhist shall abide. However, Samsara issues a bold challenge to this belief. When Tashi realizes his sensual desires, he goes to his master Apo asking to leave the monastery. “There are things we must unlearn in order to learn; and there are things we must own in order to renounce.” Tashi’s words might be viewed by others as a pretext for falling victim to his desires, but I see it as the beginning of his real practice of Buddhism, in which he awakens to the complexity of humanity and searches inward to explore and confront his true self. His sexual behavior does break the rule of celibacy, but is celibacy the whole point of Buddhism? In my eyes, celibacy is only the frame set up to help practitioners insulate themselves from the unnecessary distractions so that they are able to concentrate on their inner voices to make peace with the restless self. It is a tool that assists one to pursue the essence of Buddhism, but is absolutely not the destination of such pursuit. One can choose to use the tool or not. What really matters is where he lands--- whether or not he achieves harmony with the self and the rest of the world. In this light I wonder if satisfying a thousand desires and conquering one desire are essentially the same: both succeed in coming to terms with the struggling self and the only difference is their approach --- one from outside of the frame and one from the inside.
However, I don’t think Tashi has attained such peace with himself. He loses hold of his original motive in experiencing the secular life after he becomes a layman. He lets desires take control of his heart rather than make them subject to his own will. Therefore he cannot help surrendering to the seduction of the Indian girl even though he knows his true love is Pema. On contrary, Pema, a farm girl who has never practiced Buddhism, seems to be closer to the truth of Buddhism. She is beautiful, able, audacious, determined and decisive. Throughout the movie we see how Pema takes an active role in her life. She makes her own choice of marriage, integrates the traditional wisdom in the education of their child and remains composed in face of the adversity of life. When I see Tashi lying in her bosom, angry, devastated like a dead man after the fire on their field, I lament the contrast between this so-called Buddhist and the strong Pema. Who is the real Buddhist in this movie? Who has more wisdom of life? Pema says at the end of the movie that if Tashi loves Dharma as much as he loves her, he would become Budda in this very life in his very body. Yet Tashi wouldn’t be able to achieve so. In the massive world so lost is Tashi that he cannot find the right place to settle his restless mind. The wisdom of Buddhism that he cannot fathom is revealed in the ending,
“"How does one prevent a drop of water from drying up?"
"By throwing it into the sea."
What Tashi really should return to is his own heart.
StartSelection:0000000199 EndSelection:0000003598 Great resources for planning your interviews!
The University of KY’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History (http://nunncenter.org/ <http://nunncenter.org/> ) is testing a new software program that would easily increases access to oral histories (http://nunncenter.org/ohms-enhancing-oral-history-online/ <http://nunncenter.org/ohms-enhancing-oral-history-online/> ).
On the website for the Nunn Center, you will also find simple guidelines for conducting an interview (http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/forms/OralHist_tips.pdf <http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/forms/OralHist_tips.pdf> ), an interview information form (http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/forms/interview_info.pdf <http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/forms/interview_info.pdf> ) that could be used to summarize the interview for the website, and a release form (http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/forms/oralhistory_rls.pdf <http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/forms/oralhistory_rls.pdf> ). These forms and other resources can be found at http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/forms/oralhistory_rls.pdf <http://www.uky.edu/Libraries/forms/oralhistory_rls.pdf> .
Also, please check out the principles and best practices of the Oral History Association:
The second is an oral history project called the Bracero Archive:
Last but not least, look at “From Combat to Kentucky: Interviews with Student Veterans” (http://www.nunncenter.org/c2ky/ <http://www.nunncenter.org/c2ky/> ). It might be a good model for the class.