Friday, January 14, 2011

Tiger's Dhammic Movie Review III: The Aging and Death of “Benjamin Button”

“At Sāvathi, King Pasenadi of Kosala said to the Blessed One: ‘Venerable sir, is anyone who is born free from aging and death?’ The Blessed One replied: ‘Great king, no one is born free from aging and death. Even those affluent khattiyas – rich, with great wealth and property, with abundant gold and silver, abundant treasures and commodities, abundant wealth and grain – because they have been born, are not free from aging and death. Even those affluent Brahmins… affluent householders – rich… with abundant wealth and grain – because they have been born, are not free from aging and death. Even those monks who are arahants, whose taints are destroyed, who have lived the holy life, done what had to be done, laid down the burden, reached their own goal, utterly destroyed the fetters of existence, and are completely liberated through final knowledge: even for them this body is subject to breaking up, subject to being laid down.
   The beautiful chariots of kings wear out,
   This body too undergoes decay.
   But the Dhamma of the good does not decay:
   So the good proclaim along with the good.’”

(excerpt from Sayutta Nikāya 3:3, translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi)

No one can escape aging and cheat death. Even with the advancement of the medical sciences today, you may only delay them, but not “skipping” them. Aging begins from the very moment we are born, and the more often we celebrate our birthdays, the closer we are to the day of death. Haha, I’m sure no one will ever like to hear this in his or her birthday celebrations!

The excerpt from the Saṃyutta Nikāya as illustrated above serves as the prolouge to a man called Benjamin Button. Who is Benjamin Button anyway? He is the main character in a very special film called “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, the winner of three 81st Academy Awards. In this movie, he is born with an extremely weird disease: he comes to the world with a body of an old man in his 80’s. But over the years he becomes younger physically even as he ages mentally, which is in the reverse of everyone else. Struggling with his extraordinary condition, he finds that it is becoming impossible for him to live together with his loved ones: his beloved woman, Daisy and their daughter, Caroline. He “enjoys” his youthful days towards the last few chapters of his life, and eventually dies as a baby in his beloved woman’s arms.

Benjamin Button is not a hero, he is not enlightened either. He is merely a normal person like any of us, gaining wisdom and insights throughout the years of various life experiences. Just like any of us, he is unable to stop the time. Reflect on what is illustrated in the excerpt of the sutta above: “no can ever escape aging and death”. But what does “aging and death” mean to Benjamin Button? He does not experience the usual aging process in the same of what we all have to go through. But for him, aging nevertheless is still happening “inside” him. In the film, Benjamin made a remark to Daisy stating that he looks young only in the outside. Youthfulness is only a statement of mind, given the maturity gained over the years, one would become more and more seasoned with life. Impermanence is one of the main characteristics of the world we live in, nothing in our fathom-long carcass can escape that.

It also seems that Benjamin is very much “immune” to the process of dying and deaths. Well, perhaps this is because he spent most part of his “childhood” life in a nursing home filled only with old folks who were at the doorstep of the end of their life. Nothing indeed was common than the news of death of those residents there. In the beginning, Benjamin thought that he was just one of them, but over the course of time, he felt that there’s something he did not have in common with those folks. He was later convinced that he was not heading towards the destined direction (aging and death), instead he gained more “will” and “energy” to live each day. The tragic death of Captain Mike in a battle with German U-boat and the unusual appearance of Hummingbird in the middle of ocean had somehow changed his understanding towards death. Surrounded by deaths at every corner of his life, he was not very much saddened by the demise of his long-lost biological father, and his beloved foster-mother, Queenie. But I guess we don’t really need a “shower of death” for us to understand life and the inescapability of death, certainly contemplating death meditation as taught by the Buddha does serve as a good tool to achieve that.

The unusual circumstance of Benjamin being aging backwards leaves a significant impact on the people around him. Quoting from a phrase in the movie trailer, “Life can only be understood backward, it must be lived forward”, surely that mirrors the fact that every single experience in our life becomes our real “teacher”. Daisy did earnestly hope to lead a normal life with Benjamin till the end, but eventually realised that she was too old for Benjamin who came back to meet her in a much younger appearance. Similarly in our daily life, we should learn how to let the bygones be bygones. If Daisy chose to cling on to her “good-old-days” with Benjamin, both would suffer. Grasping to the past does not help us to grow, it will only retard us from gaining wisdom in understanding life.

We tend to grasp at a lot of things in our life, from the food we eat to various social achievements in the society. Once, Captain Mike told Benjamin this: “You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.” In the Mahādukkhakkhandha Sutta (MN 13), the Buddha rightfully testifies how attachment to sensual pleasures, form and feelings could lead to the downfall of many, and hence the removal or abandonment of desire and lust towards them would therefore lead to the escape of it. Likewise, a person whose beauty we once admire the most, being consumed by age and time, would then appear crooked, wrinkled, and at the end remains just a foul corpse lying lifelessness. But even in the case of Benjamin who is at the reverse, the conditionality of the whole thing works the same: he could not stop himself from growing younger, no one is able to live a normal life with him till the end. Reaching the stage of a pre-teen just hitting puberty, Benjamin could not even escape dementia which has robbed him of his memories, both long and short. No one can ever escape the reality of conditionality, be it the forward or “reverse” direction of aging! 

Somewhere in the movie, Benjamin remarked to Daisy, “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.” To which she replies, “Some things last.” As exclaimed in the opening sutta, nothing in this world, as long as they are conditioned, can escape change and decay. But something lasts, something which stands the course of time. It is the everlasting Buddha Dhamma that resonate the timeless message of “All conditioned things are subject to decay…” 

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