Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Bodhisattvic Struggle

May I be a guard for all those who are protector-less,
A guide for those who journey on the road,
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

For all those ailing in the world,
Until their every sickness has been healed,
May I myself become for them
The doctor, nurse, the medicine itself.

~ An Excerpt from Shantideva's Bodhisattva Vows
Photo: Rolf Konow/Lions Gate Films

I'm going to do something a bit different with today's post. The card I pulled from the wooden bowl was 'Colorado,' a state I've been excited to make both virtual treks and in-person visits to. I hesitate to say that dharma history is more rich in one place over another, but the facts are that this Rocky Mountain state is a host to numerous dharma centers of multiple lineages and practices. The 70's saw a vital rooting of Tibetan Buddhist practices in this state and my guess is that Colorado is a rather important node in the historical spectrum of the Vajrayana's transmission through North America.

But instead of focusing on any one particular dharma center today, my mind immediately went to the film Dogville when I saw Colorado on that card.

I first saw Dogville at a cinema in downtown Tromsø several years ago. As interesting as it was to spend a few months in this Northern Norwegian hub, I was alone, far from family and was occasionally feeling some of the affects of solitude induced melancholy. The film struck a chord not only in it's minimalistic portrayal of a mountainous, frontier town and the urge to romanticize life there to some degree, but also in that it struck me immediately as a bit of a bodhisattvic tale. I'm not sure bodhisattvic is an actual word, but I like it, as indicative of the bodhisattva.

Some may balk at the linking of the bodhisattva to any of the characters in this film. The notion of 'struggle' fitting with the idea of the bodhisattva may also be unappreciated by some.

A bodhisattva is a being who, simply put, seeks enlightenment for all creatures as well as a cessation of suffering. There is a notion of sacrifice and "delaying" enlightenment on this path, in order to contribute to efforts of ceasing suffering for all creatures. Such a decision is propelled, ultimately, by compassion. The Bodhisattva's Vow is a central point in Mahayana and Vajrayana practice.

My own mundane interpretation of the Bodhisattva ideal is that it is a tremendous path in that one is essentially committing to remain in samsara (the cycle of birth and death), and regularly be confronted with all the joys, pains and experiences that such a cycle entails.

Dogville's plot tracks the journey of a young woman, Grace, who seeks to take literal refuge in a small mountain town in Colorado. The plot also follows the alert and concerned philosophical meanderings of a young male resident of the town, Tom, who essentially serves as her benefactor. He campaigns on her behalf to the other town residents to let her hide out in their town. She is clearly in some kind of trouble.

Questions arise from the town's residents, many in the vein of 'Why should we be so generous' and 'What do we risk in permitting her to stay.' Tom is intent on convincing the town's residents that Grace should be permitted to stay, that it is the town's moral duty, that it is the right thing to do.

Alas, the consensus is to permit Grace to stay, hinging on her ability to prove herself as a "good person" over the course of a couple of weeks. In those couple of weeks, Grace struggles to find some purpose and place in daily living in the community. Like a tiny seed struggling to take root in an occasionally hostile environment, Grace pushes and persists with the will to simply survive. She is initially met with stubborn and questionable resistance in all corners of the community when she offers to lend a helping hand.

Grace, as can be intuited, is from another type of life- a bigger city or a bigger town. She arrived beat down, desperate, more than willing to do what the townsfolk said in order to have a safe haven. As the town warmed to her and began showing it's own friendly and compassionate nature, we can see Grace falling into a sort of reverie of perceiving this place and it's inhabitants as living a 'good and simple life,' as being 'good and simple people.' And herein lies her dangerous assumption that later leads to the film's volatile and sad ending. Grace truly begins to believe that these folks are somehow clearer in spirit, in heart, perhaps because their remote location and simple seeming lives lack the complexities of bigger town life. She overlooks their very human potential to cause harm or suffering. She gives them carte blanche to dictate the days of her life because at some point she begins to trust in what she believes is their essentially good nature.

This Lars von Trier film is over two hours long and it really wasn't until the last half and hour that I started to become impatient. Partly because about midway through the film, the real discomfort begins. The township has realized what a 'gold mine' they have in Grace. She will do whatever they ask, with nary a complaint. A few unfortunate events are all it takes for members of the town to slowly turn towards suspicion and outright resent of Grace, for a myriad of reasons. What ensues is a basically a bondage scenario (at one point quite literally) in which Grace has become a voiceless slave to the community and their increasingly unreasonable and vicious demands.

Grace, as her name implies, suffers through it all quietly and with, well a melancholic grace. She does not fight back. She does not condemn them. The realization of human's capacity to be utterly fickle in the expression of compassion and goodwill catapults Grace into a very dark place. As a viewer, you can see that she has done nothing to warrant this. To the contrary, every interaction with the town's residents has increasingly brought forth compassionate expression from Grace, a deep and selfless desire to make their lives better, in any way she can. And often subtly at that.

I was exhausted by the time the end credits came on. I was also fairly rocked to the core by what I perceived as a sort of puzzle inherent in the decision to continuously interact out of compassion and will to transform suffering into something informative, transformative and enlightening. I refer to this as the bodhisattvic struggle. The path of the bodhisattva is a path that sees others sufferings and enlightenment to be as critical as your own. Along this path I perceive roadblocks that are part of the dialogue of psychology and communication itself.

The end of Dogville is perhaps satisfying for many viewers as they grew tired of seeing her be abused. But the manifestation of her wrathful response is perhaps but a stark lesson of skillful means in living and acting in compassion, so that resent and disillusionment do not destroy the means or disrupt the path.

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