Official Inception synopsis by Warner Bros.:
Acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan directs an international cast in an original sci-fi actioner that travels around the globe and into the intimate and infinite world of dreams. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a skilled thief, the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction, stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state, when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb’s rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved. Now Cobb is being offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible—inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse: their task is not to steal an idea but to plant one. If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime. But no amount of careful planning or expertise can prepare the team for the dangerous enemy that seems to predict their every move. An enemy that only Cobb could have seen coming. This summer, your mind is the scene of the crime.
Christopher Nolan’s Inception presents the greatest art of theft - stealing ideas from the deeply hidden layers in one’s subconscious. That is not all, “inception” is made possible by attempting the planting of a pre-destined idea into one’s mind.
Painful feeling, is what it is in the mind
Somewhere in the opening scene of the movie, someone had uttered this: “Pain is in the mind, and by judging by the décor we’re in your mind right, Arthur?” And there goes Arthur was then shot at his leg by Mal, Cobb’s ex-wife, resulting in mental painful feeling even though he does not suffer it physically in the real world. Based on this, it seems that we don’t have to suffer physically in order to feel the pain. In the Buddha’s teachings, there are bodily feelings as well as mental feelings. Hence we can see that feeling, be it pleasant or painful, it involves body and mind, both. It can thus be seen as intermediary between body and mind, with both conditioning each other. This leads to me thinking that dukkha can often be mind-made. We construct our own “pain” inside our mind, and in turn affecting our own very life here and now. Salla-sutta expounds that in addition to the painful feelings that may arise due to bodily affliction, the second dart of affliction manifests in response to the mental reaction to the bodily pain. The remedy to this is that in meditation, we see the true nature of pain and not reacting to it, but simply bears it with composure. In this way, aversion towards pain will not arise, which creates the condition for insight and the bondage to feelings falls apart.
You can plant your own seed in your mind
“The seed that we plant in this man’s mind will grow into an idea. This idea may define him.” That is how Inception works in this movie. According to one of the early Mahāyāna philosophical schools, Yogācāra, it is said that the results of our actions and behaviours are impregnated in the metaphorical form of “seeds” into the store consciousness, Ālayavijñāna. The difference here between the “seeds” concepts in this movie with the Yogacara tenet is that the seeds according to the Yogācārins do not define us as per say. It is planted into the deepest layer of our consciousness, the Ālayavijñāna, and will then generate visible phenomena when the right set of conditions arises – they have the power to condition the formation of the subsequent self. And what actually defines you as the “I”, “Mine” and “Myself” is the 7th layer of our consciousness, the manas, which is the mind of ego-attachment, taking the Ālayavijñāna as its object, misconstrues it to be the essence of self, and strongly clinging to it. This is what we need to work on in order to be freed from the samsaric cycle.
Be careful of the seeds you are planting, because it can “grow” and influence the large part of you. This is well exhibited in the movie where we see that Mal continues to come to haunt Cobb in his dreams in the form of the projection of his own guilt. Keeping his guilt of thinking that he is responsible for the death of his wife, Mal, the “seed” is planted so strong in his deepest layer of his mind. Consider it as the karmic tendencies perfumed by the seeds you’ve planted yourself, it is likewise that Cobb has no choice but to live behind the shadow of his own guilt. The only way out is to confront your own defilement. Cobb manages to find that key of his way out, judging from a scene towards the end of the movie where he finally utters these words to Mal, his projected reality: “You’re just a shade. You’re just a shade of my real wife.”
Length of time is only perceived in the different planes of reality
Time is just a relative thing. In Inception, the deeper the dream is, the time spent is exponentially longer compared to the upper layers. This has corresponding reality to the 31 planes of existence in the Buddhist cosmology. Depending on which plane of existence we are at, the time spent varies from the lifespan as a human being to 84 000 aeons at the highest realm. In fact, we don’t have to go that far, here in the very human existence itself, at times we feel that the time passes too slow in the time of suffering, while the happy times simply feel too short to satisfy the thirst for pleasurable experiences. The underlying cause for the difference in the perspective of time concept is the attachment to a particular existence, or sensual experience. Whichever state of experience we are at, if the true nature of it is seen in full awareness – impermanence and unsatisfactory, the “jail” of time does not really bother us anymore.
How the world presents to us depends on how we perceive it
In different level of realities, we perceive the same thing differently. In the movie, rain drops falling on the faces of the actors manifests as storm at the lower layer of their dream experience. Similarly, the Yogācārins teach that same physical entity will be perceived differently in different realms: the same flowing water is perceived as river in the human mind-frame, but as filthy blood in the realm of hungry ghosts. The innate nature of our mind projects the world according to the “filter” set in the deep consciousness, what is termed as “manas” by the Yogācārins. So, in the realms of samsara, we can never perceive the world as it is, unless this layer of subjective transformation is removed via the practice of meditation.
“We create and perceive our world simultaneously. And our mind does it so well that we don’t even know it’s happening”, says Cobb in the movie. As a comparison, the Yogācārins say that when the seeds are created from the manifest activities and planted into the Ālayavijñāna, in less than an instant, manifest activities produced from the seeds and perfuming of those manifest activities on the seeds already contained in the Ālayavijñāna. All of this happens simultaneously. We create our own action – we plant the seed – we perceive the world from the karmic tendencies of the seed – and we plant new seeds from the resulting action. We fail to realise that these are what is happening at the background of our manifest activities, hence often being taken granted of. This is the inseparability of cause and effect in our daily activities, so as to explain the central philosophy of Buddhist teachings.
Constructing your own “reality” to develop insights for deliverance
The other important element of this movie is the possibility of self-constructing of dreams. I think this is really possible in terms of constructing / positioning our own mind in full awareness so as to direct ourselves to the insights, insights that open the door to the realisation of impermanent nature of all things. Meditation is in fact a work of building the necessary conditions for developing insights in finding the true nature or our inner world. So, put on your gear, start to swim in the bottomless world of consciousness, there is so much to discover down there…
From Craving to Liberation: Excursion into the Thought-world of the Pāli Discourses by Anālayo
Living Yogācāra: An Introduction to Consciousness-Only Buddhism by Tagawa Shun’ei