In the opening of the fictional (2001) movie ‘Samsara’ (i.e. not the 2011 documentary), Tashi the monk, who ordained at the age of five, emerged from a traditional three-year three-month three-day solitary retreat. He was ceremoniously carried out while still in the midst of meditative concentration, and was soon awarded the title of ‘Khenpo’, which is equivalent to a degree for higher studies in Tibetan Buddhism.
However, he also soon encounters the village girl Pema, and experiences sexual temptation, expressed even in his sleep. It is a shattering scene, that makes us wonder how someone so seemingly spiritually qualified could be so easily moved by so basic an instinct.
Perhaps the message is that true training is in the face of outside temptation; not merely inside a cave? However, monastics would have to be qualified in theoretical learning and foundational practice first, before qualifying for the rigorous 3-3-3 retreat. And since Tashi was shown to be a diligent practitioner, he should have sufficient realisation on the empty nature of skin-deep beauty already? How could his spirituality be so literally shallow then?
The story shows Tashi renouncing his monastic vows to be with Pema, to be increasingly enmeshed in the muck and mire of worldly life, even breaking one basic lay precept after another… before regretfully returning to the fold of the monastery. In the bid to fulfil one desire, he had opened Pandora’s box, that led to the ‘need’ to fulfil even more to sustain that single one. This is the ‘treachery’ of Samsara.
As he definitely did not become significantly more liberated after his retreat, to that extent, it was a failure. Yet, no one claimed that a single long retreat would bring about enlightenment. What mattered is to ‘fail better’ the next time, and to not fail so much in the meantime! As a monastic, he desired worldly life; as a worldly person, he desired monastic life. Failing in both vocations, if only he lived best he could as a monastic, or even after, as a proper precept-holding layperson.
Perhaps the film suggests that Tashi had to learn the hard way, that he was not exactly hypocritical, but true to himself? Did he ‘need’ to have and to hold, before losing it all to find his true direction? Well, better to disrobe than to shame the robes, but better to take on the robes with sincere determination too. Being not so realistic, the film overly raised our expectations of Tashi in the beginning, thus overly bursting our bubble of hope for him to fare well! If only he did learn and practise well enough, with breakthrough, to not relive another round of Samsara…
Near the end, Pema tells Tashi that ‘if his desire for the Dharma was as strong as his desire for her, he would had attained Buddhahood.’ Also, a recurring question on a mani stone asks, ‘How does a drop of water never dry up?’ The answer behind says, ‘By letting it flow into the sea.’ Well… Tashi had forgotten his beginner’s mind, his noble aspiration to strive on the spiritual path – which led him to struggle even harder on the dusty lay path. If only he transformed his conditioned lust for Pema to unconditioned love for all beings, he would have found his peace.
There are just too many samsaric temptations in this world, along the line of the Five Desires for wealth, sex, fame, food and sleep, (with their potential pitfalls). Despite the colourful variety, these pleasures are fleeting, with the same dissatisfactory nature. May we realise this in time, to escape painful rebirth. Yet, it is not so easy to be liberated, while there is existential amnesia in the next samsaric life. Thank goodness there is Amitabha Buddha’s (Amituofo) Pure Land. There, we will recall all otherwise forgotten lessons from past lives, including these!