8 Oct 2007

On Human Nature: some ideas about Heights (2004)

Recently, I saw Heights, a film directed by Chris Terrio in 2004. This is a film that probes into the fragile human nature of modern man. Setting in New York, what we see in this film is those modern looking characters, who try their best live as they have hoped in this big international city. Everyone has his/her past, and no one would dare to admit its existence. Their way of surviving in this city is by all means to cover their past history and pretend that their current life is as enjoyable as a Disney show. They would rather live in such a false verisimilitude, which is so close to reality, than unfold their past and be what they really are.

Indeed, this is what we human beings are. We always choose to look at the pretty side and ignore the dark side that actually constructs our life. Therefore, we seal whatever that is considered as inappropriate and wrong, and we pursue a fantasy that is so perfect in which nothing wrong would be shown and everything would be fine and beautiful. However, such a fantasy is only a lie, and lies can never survive the challenge of time. When such incidents happen, it is a time that we shall all face our true self, and it is also the time that we see how fragile human nature is. The story of Heights is a good representation of this weak human nature, and its aim to bring up such issue is to remind us that we shall be true to ourselves. Fantasy will never last long, and the consequence of it always brings us the unbearable failure.

Everyone is the victim, and everyone is the wrongdoer as well. We become victims because we never really face our past. Due to our lack of courage to face the past, we suffer from our actions of trying to build up a fantasy that is untrue. However, this action also makes the victim a wrongdoer. This victim/wrongdoer relationship produces tragic heroes, and Jonathan, a closeted gay man who pursues a fake but wonderful straight life, is the tragic hero in this film. We are not sure if he is truly in love with Isabel, but he does show his affection to her. They really share a perfect life, which is what they have expected. He has such a good intention to build up a family with Isabel. However, he ignores what is truly buried inside his heart, his true self. Jonathan is in fact a homosexual who is still having an affair with his neighbour, Alec, a young actor who has been suffering from Jonathan’s indecisiveness. Jonathan is cheating on his fiancé over another man, and this cheating is what makes his real life a false fantasy. Because of our social norms that consider homosexuality as impure and sinful, he seems to consider his true self as inappropriate and ugly. Living in this homophobic world, Jonathan is a victim who suffers. He tries his best to hide himself so as to keep his real life as perfect and beautiful. For this reason, when his affair with another man is finally revealed, he said to his fiancé that what happened is a shame. But this is his true self. Denying his true self for the false fantasy meaning denying his true existence in the reality. All his words and actions would naturally become meaningless because he is living in this fantasy that is just untrue. His actions and words make him the wrongdoer, who is responsible for the tragic incident. In order to protect his position as a victim and to ensure his social status in the society, he chose to lie to his fiancé, and this action has led him to the unbearable failure, to be the wrongdoer.

Can we blame Jonathan for being such a liar to his fiancé? Can we blame him for doing what he has to do to survive in the straight world? He can easily choose another life, which is a happy gay life with Alec. If he did, he could have shown the world his true identity. However, after having a good job in such a competitive society that normally rejects homosexuality in general, can he really give up what he has already built up and being what he truly is? When this question comes up, I believe most people would choose to maintain what they have had as Jonathan did. This is not about right or wrong; it is always about if you have met the right timing. With the right timing, the false fantasy could be maintained, and the secret private life will not be brought to light. If you are unlucky, like Jonathan, this only leads to one result, that is, you have to choose sides. In fact, when such a circumstance happened, you cannot freely choose where to go. You always have to just accept the result and wait for the verdict from the other victims who suffered from your actions. In this film, Jonathan is lucky to have Alec who is still willing to take him back. But will we all be so lucky like Jonathan?

This kind of problem that would have such a great impact on our personal life usually leads us to the state of being indecisive. It is this being indecisive that truly reveals our fragile human nature. Human nature is fragile because we are used to lies and false fantasies. We consider fantasies the power that encourages us to achieve all kinds of material satisfactions. But we must not forget that the satisfaction of material reality is not the true reality we live in. As mentioned, lies make everything meaningless. A life that is based on false fantasies would be a life that is completely meaningless, and therefore, all material achievements in this life are only vague ones that are alienated to us. So it would not be difficult for us to understand why Isabel determined to stop the relationship and why Jonathan chose to go back to Alec. Their crisis is in fact the best chance for them to examine their false fantasy and to finally see what they are and what they truly want to do. Though human nature is fragile, it can be amazingly strong when we finally identify with our true self.

By projecting Jonathan as an indecisive character, Heights shows us how ignorant we are trying to live in lies and false fantasies. Even we try so hard to protect this fragile bubble it still bursts. Only when we live a life that is true to ourselves could we be free from any forms of suffering. This is not a film that tells us what to do and how to do; it is a film that uses real life as a reflection to remind us that our past and our true identity must not be ignored.

Glenn Close is superb. She is such a great actress whose gestures, even just a glance or a single posture, are already full of energy that is totally theatrical. She plays Diana, Isabel’s mother, and her role in the film is just perfect for her. Playing as an actress, a master for performance, and a director, this role highlights Glenn’s ability as a professional performer. In the meantime, it is such a great pleasure to see Isabella Rossellini in this film. Though I am never impressed with her acting, especially comparing it to her mother, Ingrid Bergman, it is always good to see this beautiful actress on the screen.

4 Oct 2007

Where are the monks and protesters? Human Rights is only a joke there

I guess this bloodshed Saffron Revolution is officially ended, and nothing has changed at all. Only Burmese suffered again both mentally and physically. Burma is still a country led by the cruel military regime. Democracy is still only a dream for all Burmese.

The UN special envoy, Ibrahim Gambari, has returned to New York to report the situation in Burma. I really don't know if his meeting with the regime leaders could change anything at all. From what we have heard on the news lately, the junta determined to clamp down this protest, and they really did. Almost all monks in Burma are mysteriously gone. Hurting and killing monks is obviously a sign to tell the world that the junta doesn't care about their Burmese Buddhist tradition. They would do whatever it takes to clamp down this protest so as to maintain their legitimate power over Burma. Indeed, we saw it, and worse than that, we saw a Japanese reporter being shot within a short distance. Of course, Japan has declared their outrage, but for this shameful junta they simply responded with such a lie, "It was an accident, and he shouldn't be there". This is just ridiculous! They kill people just like killing ants, without a blink at all. What is human rights? Sorry, it doesn't exist at all in Burma!

Today I read a report by a journalist who went to cover the story. His report said when he was there, most people he met told him that they actually expected military force from the western world or the UN to stop this junta. Nobody wants war, but when somebody clearly expresses this intention, then the situation these people are in must be really difficult. This is why they rather suffer from war than live under this junta. This is a message that requires our attention, and this message shows how Burmese yearn for freedom and democracy. All sanctions and condemnations conducted by the world will not change the current situation in Burma, and these sanctions would only make people's life there more difficult. We don't know what this UN special envoy would report to the members of the UN. However, we are quite sure that everything he saw in Burma was deliberately arranged by the junta. Again, this diplomatic action is not successful because it doesn't carry any true voice from the people in Burma.

However, it is such an encouraging news that the UN envoy had met Aung San Suu Kyi. In a sense, this could be interpreted as a friendly response from the military junta. But we should remember that she is still detained and watched by the junta. What can she really say when she is not able to freely express her concerns on Burma?

So, as the journalist concluded in his report, "the protest is officially ended". Burma hasn't changed at all. Those monks and protesters are still mysteriously missing. Human rights is still only a joke there.

3 Oct 2007

Study of The Vajra Sutra, a true wisdom

Part of The Vajra Sutra, Tang Dysnaty, AD 868, found in Dunhuang (敦煌) in 1900, now in the British Museum

The complete name of The Vajra Sutra is The Vajra Prajna Paramita Sutra , 【金剛般若波羅密經】. It is also named The Diamond Sutra. This sutra is extremely important in Buddhist studies because through its dialogue form it introduces us the true Buddhist wisdom. This wisdom is nothing about worshiping gods; it is a teaching that guides us to look into our very own self and build up strong will so that we can perceive this subjective world with a true objective mind. This wisdom, though Buddhist, is beyond Buddhism; it is a philosophy that applies to everyone, regardless of ethnic, cultural, and religious background, who lives in this material world. Reciting and contemplating on it would help us look at whatever happened with objectivity which means we will not again use our subjective eyes to interpret any physical existence.

Indeed, when we stop interpreting things subjectively, we start to see new possibilities that are blocked by our subjective mind before. Subjectivity is nothing that we can truly abandon. We are human beings with the ability to think, and therefore we can never be truly objective. A subjective mind is always about what we desire. When desire stays in our mind, all we want is to fulfill this desire and the experience of it is loss and unhappiness. Because of the unhappiness caused by loss, we crave more and we are further away from the true wisdom. Lord Buddha stated that clearly in this sutra, and therefore he constantly told his disciple to give up this habit of trying to use our senses to perceive the meaning of dharma. Dharma is such a great wisdom that only when we try our best to be objective could we have the chance to be enlightened by it. This is why Lord Buddha taught us to give up our subjectivity, to learn to be objective. In his opinion, dharma is not a thing that we can crave and get; it is hidden inside all of us. It is a wisdom which we can develop through our contemplation on who we are and what we are.

Being a Buddhist believing in the teaching of Lord Buddha, I have the habit of reciting sutras and mantras. I don't see myself a very clever person who can easily pick up the meaning of these words, but I try my best to learn and understand them. It took me two years to study The Vajra Sutra. I recite it every day and contemplate on the meaning of the verses while I recite them. It truly helps me get rid of my old habit of being extremely subjective. It calms me down and now I seem to be more peaceful than before. I don't get angry easily, and I don't really crave for material satisfaction now. If you put it in a kind of superstitious way of speaking, my studies on Buddhism truly transforms me to be a better person, and it does make my life more easier. However, I firmly believe it is my understanding of these words and verses that leads me to look at myself and the world with different perspectives.

I found these two four-line verses in The Vajra Sutra very interesting and highly inspiring:

One who looks for me [the Buddha or Dharma] in forms,
Or seeks me in sounds,
[Would be] Practices a deviant path
And will never see the Thus Come One [be enlightened by dharma]

All conditioned dharmas
Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble or a shadow,
Like dew or like a lightning flash.
Contemplate them thus

I am still on my way to be more objective. This is a long journey for personal development. I have started it, and my studies on Buddhism has given me a good belief on it.