Soon after Samsara begins, we find ourselves on a roof of Thikse Monastery in Ladakh, between the Kunlun and the Great Himalayan mountain ranges in northern India. In the distance is a spectacular mountain landscape, while directly in front of us two young monks in maroon robes and arched yellow hats blow conch shells, the deep thrum echoing in the valley below. An old woman fingers her prayer beads, quietly chanting. Fledgling monks turn a massive prayer wheel and dance in a walled courtyard. The footage is wondrous and charming, but I’m afraid that image overuse in the spiritual marketplace has made many of us a little wary. When the monks scurry up stone steps to an inner shrine room where a colorful sand mandala is under construction, I begin to feel a little uneasy, fearing that the movie will begin sinking in cliché. But as it turns out, it does the opposite, leaping into unexplored territory.
Samsara the film uses known forms quite well when it wants to, and the rest of the time it takes us into worlds, visually and philosophically, that we’ve never seen on the screen before. The movie is astonishing to look at and persuasive exegetically. It succeeds in revealing the meaning of the mysterious Indian concept of samsara, which in our culture is almost a secret.
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Before seeing the film I had no idea how it had been reviewed, but afterwards I was so impressed with it that I wanted to extend the experience. As soon as I got home I checked online to enjoy what I naively expected to be a lavishing of praise and helpful commentary. So I was surprised to find that a fair number of critics were irritated by the film; they felt visually preached to. Others were impressed by it, but also a bit perplexed. Was it beautiful or horrifying? If it was both, then what did that mean? In an attempt to be helpful, some pulled out dictionaries and translated samsara for their readers, typically describing it as the “Wheel of Life.” Although no one compared it to the “Circle of Life” from The Lion King, it was clear that in most reviewers’ minds there wasn’t much difference. And why should there be—wheel/circle, what’s the big diff? So with this definition the film’s message became something like: “Terrible things may happen, but for a purpose—so life is good. And anyway there sure are a lot of nice landscapes!”
However, based on this rendering, the film fails. The reading leads to confusion over too many aspects of the story, especially, if I may paraphrase: “Why the mix of timeless beauty and relentless Malthusian horror? …I thought this was s’posed to be a blissful head-trip. And why are all these people staring at us, like they’re trying to make us feel guilty?…It’s disturbing, doesn’t make sense.”
But the film-makers—Director Ron Fricke and Producer Mark Magidson—are making sense, lots of it. The meaning of samsara is more challenging than hakuna matata. Getting at it favors truth-seeking over entertainment-seeking, and the resulting understanding is not so much comforting as it is devastating. For many people, “getting” samsara amounts to something like a conversion in worldview: One leaves the Judeo-Christian realm of Heaven and Earth and the modern/scientistic realm of Materialism for a new one—which the film illuminates with uncanny precision.
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The sacred, timeless world in which the film begins does not last long, and we quickly enter dark territories in our world. But first we are given a special kind of vision. Time-lapse photography records quotidian landscapes—a massive stone face in Turkey, Petra in Jordan, Anasazi ruins in the Southwest—while night flashes by within seconds. We feel ourselves outside of time and able to peer into time’s effects. Having quickly established this god-like perspective, the movie presents its data.
Most obviously—and at certain points, unnervingly—beauty is everywhere. The film takes us from the top of the Burj Khalifa Tower in Dubai to the bottom of the Kawah Ijen sulfur mine in Indonesia; we fly over Los Angeles at night and visit vast shanty towns and city-sized dumps. But in all of it, the harmony of the images suggests similarity more than difference. Lock-stepping Chinese soldiers become a single elegant organism, no less appealing than Chinese girls impersonating an enlightened goddess. Later in the film I felt persuaded that even bullets have their own beauty.
In fact the camera reveals the world to be profoundly self-similar, appearing like itself at all scales of size and time. In one dazzling example, an incalculable number of Muslim worshippers in Mecca become one body spiraling around the preternaturally black Ka’bah in the Great Mosque, evoking, at one end of the spectrum, a river of tiny particles of sand; and at the other, the swirling Milky Way galaxy from a previous time-lapse montage—which itself spirals around a great black hole at its center.
Moreover, the time-play reveals the world to be inextricably interconnected. In one exceptionally effective sequence, after we have witnessed the stupefying precision of pork-packing plants in China, automated chicken harvesting in Denmark (via macabre rolling wheels spiked with rubber chicken catchers), and shopping carts filled to overflowing in a Costco warehouse, the camera settles on an obese trio of Americans eating at a fast-food restaurant while the film speed quickens past quadruple time. Percussive music crescendos in the background, somehow managing to punctuate each speed-bite of a burger or flash-gnosh of a French fry. In another movie, this would be cultural critique. But in this one, it’s simply one small piece of data regarding a cosmic automated organization that has time itself as the Chief Operating Officer. The mechanisms that we consciously produce—whether they are factories, driving ranges, slaughterhouses, or prisons—appear as minor sub-themes of a Grand Theme already overwhelmingly in play.
When we see disturbing images of the mechanized breeding and slaughter of pigs and chickens, or the assembly-line milking of forlorn, dirty cows, the images are less disturbing for the minor gore than for the similarity with other forms of automation, which we perform most of all upon ourselves. The robotic aspect of human life, literally and figuratively, is brought to the fore by mutually reflecting images of humanoid robots, Thai prisoners in synchronized dance, Japanese sex dolls with and without their heads, and Chinese iron-makers hard at work. But there is, at bottom, no criticism here—this is the relentless automation of life as it is.
In other words, these interconnected processes are so unfathomably vast that they appear beyond our control. It’s as if time has its own creative power—and from beginning to end, the movie demonstrates the inexorable and overwhelming force of this power. Time speeds up and a day passes in 5 seconds, or it slows down to catch the expression on the face of a Chinese chicken cutter; it doesn’t matter, least of all to time itself—the whole circus is moving forward. But who or what is the Chief Executive Officer? What’s behind it all?
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The film presents a clue in the order it finds everywhere. Not reason, but order. Effects follow causes, and moreover, effects multiply. The wish for meat creates a slaughterhouse; the wish for wealth creates a vast, hyper-efficient slaughterhouse. The wish for a single bullet has diverse results that include a bullet factory, pink rifles, and the extension of gun-related death into every obscure corner of the globe. But one cannot find the first, original cause: doesn’t a slaughterhouse also create the wish for meat, and gun-related death, the wish for a bullet? The film connects the dots, both forwards and backwards. Since the film is unconstrained by time, we can see both sides.
In one memorable sequence we start with a surreal result. We are in Ghana, surveying caskets in bizarre forms—a fish, a coke bottle, an airplane, a car—and the camera stops at a dead man in a pistol-shaped casket, his family gathered around. We walk to the graveyard and lower the casket, and then trace the cause backward, watching handguns and bullets being built, the guarded faces that admire and use them, and much further, into mechanized and ritualized war-making throughout the world. But then, are we going forwards or backwards? Effects branch forward into the future; causes branch backward into the past, but what is the difference?
Who can say what the cumulative results of our vast networks of intention will be? (Who would have guessed a gun-shaped casket?) We can’t say what the results will be—that’s time’s job, out of our hands—but they will come, inexorably. So again, what is behind it? The film doesn’t speak so it can’t give a word, but let’s try this one: karma—cause and effect. Negative results flow ineluctably from negative causes; positive results flow from positive causes. Samsara is the result of karma, and karma is a wheel: cause and effect chasing each other endlessly. This is a deeper understanding of the Wheel of Life, and I’d suggest that the film-makers are demonstrating it to us in images. Some reviewers accuse the film of preaching. I would agree, but the question is, can I hear an Amen? Are they right, or what? The preaching is certainly not that fast-food eaters or bullet makers or even industrial polluters are guilty (which seems to be the understanding of The Wall Street Journal movie reviewer). This world has some dependence on our intentions and actions—that’s a fact. But this is not grounds for moralizing; we all find ourselves already overwhelmingly embedded as bit players in time’s organizations. We are faultless, at fault, both, and neither.
Rather than presenting mere cultural critique or religious message, the film-makers allow their images to reveal a story that they could not make up: An alluringly beautiful, self-similar, vastly interconnected and inescapable rolling juggernaut of a world in which actions multiply in precise yet unpredictable ways: this is samsara, this world. Because our actions tend to be robotic—and whenever so, uncaring—thus samsara is a heavy place. One could say it does not have to be so (“if only we all had better intentions”), and this is true enough…but it is what it is. And as good as it ever gets, it always ends in death—whether you believe in rebirth or not. It is not a redemptive “Circle of Life” (cut to the lion cub held above the cheering throng), not according to Indian philosophy. Buddhist scripture describes samsara as “a trench of fire, a thicket of razors, a cesspool from top to bottom.” One is advised to work to free oneself from it, as if one’s hair is on fire.
The idea of freedom from it is the idea of nirvana. Samsara the concept is part of the dyad samsara/nirvana; the idea of samsara always includes its complement, otherwise it becomes some sort of dark, nihilistic vision of life. But whenever the idea of nirvana is introduced (no less than samsara), there is great possibility for misunderstanding. One can’t get out of this world, for example, by slowing down and escaping to an African hut, or even by devoting one’s life to meditation in Thikse Monastery in Ladakh. In a real sense, one cannot leave samsara, not ultimately. Nirvana is not a place (though the temple complex in Myanmar at the beginning of the film sure looks like it, by my lights). In fact, even samsara is not a place, but that’s a whole other story.
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On the one hand, as the Russian mystic Gurdjieff taught, “Man is a machine.” See this movie, and you see what Gurdjieff was talking about. But on the other—at least as it is taught by Buddhism, the main purveyor of the samsara/nirvana dyad in our culture—man or woman is also Buddha. Not like a Buddha, not even a Buddha—Buddha. Selfish machine-like man is simultaneously Buddha and the world is simultaneously samsara/nirvana. These concepts are tough nuts to crack, and it’s immensely ambitious to attempt to address them in film. It’s easy to get them wrong: for example, it isn’t that man/Buddha and samsara/nirvana are mixed. It’s not that humans are both demonic and angelic, and that the world is both terrible and beautiful. Movies which tell these stories might be interesting and even great, but that is not the Indian philosophical teaching about humanity or the world.
The simultaneity of this unified vision boggles the mind: it doesn’t make sense. To get to the bottom of it one has to do more than see an inspired movie or even be a lama in Ladakh, for that matter. The innate perfection of samsara is a paradox that one might spend one’s life as a Buddhist resolving. But the path starts with understanding the particular way that this world, as it is, is a deadly trap. This is why a highly detailed symbolic portrait of samsara is painted on the front door of Tibetan monasteries. Many Tibetans are illiterate, yet they need the understanding, because it’s the key to the door. The film-makers present a timely addition to the genre, but I’m not surprised if people don’t recognize the key. The only way one can truly accept the message of samsara is to intuit nirvana, already. Otherwise the vision is too heavy, and wrong. Better not to entertain it in that case.
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Perhaps the most startling thing about the movie is that its vision of the sacred seems almost subtle enough to address the topic of nirvana. I don’t think it quite succeeds, but I don’t know if a movie could. And anyway its topic is samsara, and that’s quite enough. Near the end, the film returns to the sacred world in which it began. First we are at Thikse Monastery, and predictably, the head lama crosses out the sand mandala. I knew we’d come to this scene at the beginning of the film, and at that time, I dreaded it: a pat tying up of the strings. But having been through the experience of the film, I was struck when, moments before, the lamas stood together looking down at their work with genuine caring. Then they cautiously, almost lovingly, moved the sand to the center and with cupped hands, transferred it to a bowl (which, as I understand the ritual, would later be brought down the mountain and tossed in a river). I felt a burst of joy at having encountered Buddhism and its revelatory metaphors and pointers towards the way out of samsara. One could see such a pointer in the lamas’ faces.
Next, in the second to the last scene of the film, we return to the Chinese Thousand-Hand Guan Yin dancers. Guan Yin is a Buddha, the embodiment of compassion. At the beginning of the picture, after they had captured the creation of the sand mandala at the Monastery, the film-makers cut to the beautiful face of a lone Guan Yin dancer, a line of young women hidden behind her. When she closed her eyes, the film moved on. Now the camera is on her hands, and we watch them open, revealing eyes in the center of her palms. (In Buddhist symbolism, these are wisdom eyes; she uses them to guide her compassionate actions.) Next her arms and those behind her begin to move in fantastic patterns—symbolizing the activity of a Buddha. The delicate golden costume, her ethereal beauty, and the precision of the movements all evoke a more subtle order of existence, a kind of purity. According to Buddhism, there is an inner purity within every being in every moment, even if we don’t realize it. Samsara as a monolithic juggernaut of suffering occurs when this depth of being is unknown. When it is fully known—that’s nirvana. This a-logical purity is intimated here and elsewhere in the movie, sometimes by the very images that demonstrate tragedy.
To enable the final scene to occur, Guan Yin closes her eyes again, and we find ourselves in the desert (the movie is called Samsara after all). This is also a place we’ve seen before, the same place we’d arrived at the beginning of the film, just after our first encounter with Guan Yin. It’s a lifeless looking place, lonely. As we fly over the dunes, sand is carried up into the sky by the wind. Samsara is a desert and we can’t escape it. But simultaneously, we’ve never actually been bound by it.
All of this is a lot to say in a movie, that’s for sure. It probably couldn’t have been done if there were words. But I sensed in some reviewers that the story I’ve suggested here was coming through. Roger Ebert spent four paragraphs trying and failing to explain why he was so moved by the plight of the chickens at the chicken processing plant. That is a better homage than this entire review. “I fear I haven’t communicated what an uplifting experience the film is,” he writes, and finally concludes: “It is a rather noble film.” Yes, it is.