Who Are You Behind That Mask? (‘Hema Hema’s Dharma Drama On Karma)

What if there is a secret camp of sorts, amidst the mountains, where for a fortnight, all don masks to hide their true identities, and are free to do whatever they wish? There, almost anything goes, though there are some basic rules to ensure there is communal safety, such as not to kill, steal, or have sexual misconduct. These ‘laws’ happen to fall under the first three of the Five Precepts. Under the cloak of anonymity, some do break these rules anyway, to fulfil their dark fantasies for sensual pleasures and violence.

The idea of the camp is to let individuals discover their true ‘selves’. As we know, ‘Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.’ This means how much integrity one truly has is measured by how one conducts oneself in private, anonymously. As the director shared during a post-screening interview, he was intrigued by how people online, in chat rooms, (i.e. ‘anti-social media’ and such), can take on very different personas… which we know is often for the worse. Back to ‘normal’ offline, are they not also wearing ‘masks’ then, to conceal their earlier ill conduct?

Despite wearing masks of malevolent demons and benevolent deities, who are we really beneath? Even if no one seems to be watching, according to the Buddhist teachings, many are doing so as we speak. (Even our thoughts can be read and ‘monitored’.) First is the universal and impartial law of karma ‘watching’, that continues to operate relentlessly. Next, there are unseen ghosts, gods, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. And there is always oneself, bearing witness to all thoughts, words and deeds, who will experience exacting karmic punishment or reward accordingly, with regret or rejoice.

Without strict rules, the camp would swiftly morph into a nightmarish ‘grown-up’ version of ‘Lord of the Flies’. Thus, there are constant reminders on the consequences of actions, also with masked guards patrolling the perimeter, reminiscent of Dharma Protectors. Looking closer, this is a two-in-one camp. Its main ‘selling point’ is that you can do (almost) whatever you want, while it is also a Dharma camp, with not too subtle cautionary ‘karma dramas’ on life, death and the intermediate (bardo) state in between. The camp thus functioned as an arena, where tensions between being more saṃsāric versus being more ‘dharmic’ battled one another.

When the campers are to gather to watch these ‘impromptu’ yet edifying skits, the wayward sneak off to break the precepts then, reflecting their choice of embracing evil, over learning how to transform their inner demons. The protagonist wore an expressionless mask, which represents neutrality, potential for greater good or evil. It also personified a typical anonymous bardo being, whose destination of rebirth will be determined by a mix of past and present karma created.

Anonymity was said to be a power, but a dangerous one for those intoxicated by the Three Poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. Behind masks, evil speech and deeds tend to go unchecked. For instance, with fake online identities, when the Fourth Precept against false, divisive, harsh and frivolous speech is not observed, there will be fake news that divide communities hatefully, that can lead to actual harm. Slanderous cyberbullying can trigger murderous revenge and victims’ suicides from prolonged depression too. Thus, even virtual tongues can be deadly swords.

Just as the bardo plays commence suddenly in the camp, death might come without warning in real life. If not paying attention to the Dharma in time, starting with essential teachings on the workings of karma, the next life is destined for disaster. A skit’s line warns the bardo being, ‘Confess or be judged as a liar.’ As the law of karma runs on mercilessly, if there is no ready repentance with remedial action, bitter suffering by falling into the three lower realms of hell-beings, hungry ghosts and animals will surely follow. So, no… Neither true freedom nor True Happiness arises from mere anonymity; but from the peace and bliss of purging the Three Poisons.

– Zhaojian

Please Be Mindful Of Your Speech, Namo Amituofo!

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