Does This ‘Incantation’ Bless Or Curse?

After watching ‘Incantation’ (咒), a friend asked, ‘Is the “Great Black Buddha Mother” (大黑佛母) Black Tārā?’ Before you take the movie too seriously, the director clarified that the featured ‘deity’, ‘mantra’, ‘mudra’, ‘symbols‘ and ‘rituals’ are all fictitious. Thus, the answer is ‘No.’ Yet, with slightly similar names, in Tibetan Buddhism, there is indeed Black Tārā (黑度母), who personifies compassion and power, and Great Black Deva (Mahākāla: 大黑天), who is a wrathful Dharma Protector (Dharmapāla: 护法). Both are aspects of Contemplator Of The World’s Sounds (Avalokiteśvara) Bodhisattva’s (观世音菩萨) many manifestations. (Without actual malevolence, wrathful manifestations are skilful means for subduing those already wrathful.)

Also to be noted is that in Buddhist culture, the historical Śākyamuni Buddha’s (释迦牟尼佛) physical (and literal) mother is Queen Māyā (摩耶夫人), while all Buddhas’ spiritual (and figurative) mother is ‘Perfection Of Wisdom’ (Prajñāpāramitā: 般若波罗蜜) as they are ‘born’, in terms of arising as Buddhas, due to perfecting of their wisdom. It is understandable that the ‘Great Black Buddha Mother’ was created in name and form to sound and look vaguely similar to Buddhist enlightened beings, perhaps to stir up some sense of familiarity and thus believability. Yet, there is also the potential danger of accidentally demonising actually benevolent noble ones. What if the causal moviegoer thus frets more esoteric Buddhist personages after?

Still, the story is a good cautionary tale, on the very real risks of not knowing who one ‘takes refuge’ in, and what one commits to via bizarre rites, that are expected to be blindly followed. Is the ‘great’ one really a god or ghost, deity or demon? Is the wrath merely manifested or with real malice? The big reveal at the end is that this ‘great’ one is really ‘great’ in evil, and ‘her’ statue’s face unveiled is a gruesome black hole. Indeed, evil can be faceless, yet manifest many forms. That greatly evil is the horrifying depths and darkness of delusion, from which springs greed and hatred, together forming the three poisons that cause all suffering. Chanting her ‘mantra’ turns out to be for sharing a curse, not creating any blessings. Immediately, the Buddhist tradition of active enquiry to doubt the doubtful makes much sense.

Made in Taiwan, which is known for its ‘extra colourful’ religious variations, to become its highest grossing horror movie, the film however serves to warn all, to not simply ‘respectfully follow’ what seems ‘holy’. In the Buddhist perspective, Buddhists only take refuge in fully enlightened Buddhas and Great Bodhisattvas, who are on par with the completely pure Buddhas. In contrast, while ghosts and gods are respected, they are still caught in the alternating of good and evil. If we are mindful of a Buddha (e.g. Amitā[bha] Buddha: Āmítuófó: 阿弥陀佛) directly, we will align to our Buddha-nature with his blessings, and be born in his Pure Land for expediting our path to Buddhahood. If we ‘dance’ with ghosts and gods instead, will we not, at most, become like them, still trapped in the cycle of birth and death? What if there is possession, as depicted, to do the tragic? My friend was practising active enquiry. Indeed, better to ask and learn, than to assume and accept. His query also made me pay attention to the movie, to share this.

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