Disney’s movie Chimpanzee ~ “There is meaning in those eyes.”

Oscar and Isha

I watched the movie Chimpanzee last night with my friends Anya and her two great kids, Zia (12) and Tom Tom (10). We wanted to see it before May 3rd as Disneynature are donating some of the profits this week to the Jane Goodall Institute.

(Spoiler alert: I knew the plot before I watched the movie and it made no difference, but you could always go see the movie first and then read this.)

Oscar and Isha in the movie ChimpanzeeOscar is Isha’s child, and the early part of the movie shows his first years growing up under her doting care, learning how to smash nuts with the right tools and goofing around with his friends while she tries vainly to sleep. (Anya related to all these early scenes.) He looks so human, they all do. (Or we look like chimps.) His chest and rib cage looks like a little hairy boy’s chest and rib cage. His hands are like our hands. And his face is expressive, by turns curious, amused, playful, soulful.

When the film-makers started the movie, they didn’t know that his mother would be killed. But she is injured by the patriarch Scar and his army of chimpanzee rivals from over the Ridge in the rainforests of the Ivory Coast, in a raid on their nut grove. Isha becomes separated from her family, and is picked off by a leopard (this being Disney, the gruesome scenes are only hinted at.)

Oscar on his own in the movie Chimpanzee

Tiny Oscar looks for her everywhere. As the days go by, he becomes thinner and thinner, and covered with ticks because no one is grooming him. He tries to stick his little arm into a bees’ hive, but it isn’t long enough to reach the honey, and he just gets stung. He tugs at all the other mothers, asking for help, but they have infants of their own and growl him away. Even his friends are not playing with him like they used to. Oscar is alone.

At this point, I had read beforehand, the film-makers thought their movie was over. But then something extraordinary happens. The only person Oscar has not approached, and with good reason, is Freddy, the enormous gruff alpha male. When Oscar does finally pluck up the courage to approach, Freddy surprisingly lets him sit near him, and Oscar starts to watch and learn.

Oscar follows Freddy everywhere, and from his side Freddy develops more and more interest in Oscar, until he is giving him the choice portions of the food he finds and prepares. And then one day Freddy lets him ride on his back, something that a male chimp never does, and certainly not the Big Boss who has a reputation to maintain.

Oscar and Freddy in the movie Chimpanzee

The movie shows that over the coming days and weeks Freddy becomes devoted to Oscar. He grooms him, something usually reserved for those higher in the hierarchy, not the weakest member of the group who has nothing to offer in return; and he even lets Oscar sleep in his arms. He adopts Oscar, and Oscar is saved. The movie has a happy ending, thanks to love.

Life in that world is not easy, and there are no final happy endings in samsara. The rival gang of hungry chimps, seen off once thanks to Freddy’s teamwork, will be back. The chimps still have to hunt other monkeys for food — monkeys intelligent enough to realize they’ve been ambushed and that there is no escape from being ripped limb from limb (also hinted at, not shown.) The photography and scenery in the movie is spectacular, including scenes set in slow and fast motion, but beneath that seemingly enchanting cloud-wrapped canopy of trees lies a very traumatic world, none of whose inhabitants ever feels truly safe.

Spending over an hour in the company of chimps in this movie helps us see how similar to us they are in many ways – in terms of their wishes and fears, their maternal love, their cleverness at using tools to prepare food, the importance of teamwork to survival, their cultivated social relationships, their rivalry and violence, and their bodies. And Freddy’s unexpected reaction to Oscar, in particular, shows a remarkable, selfless love. No one could argue that this love is merely instinctive, because it does Freddy’s standing in the group no good when, preoccupied with Oscar, he is unable to cultivate his allies or patrol his borders. It works out okay for him as it happens, but he didn’t know this when he fell for the small bundle of love.

This movie is a good testimony to how animals can share with us the same emotions, feelings, ability to learn, sociability, and even self-awareness. They are in a lower realm, and they don’t have the opportunity to develop spiritually in this lifetime, but they have minds, they think and feel, and their Buddha nature is no different to ours. They are not mere bodies with instincts, devoid of sentience or thought, as many people claim in justification for treating them badly or as less than people.

“There is meaning in those eyes”

Oscar's eyes in the movie ChimpanzeeI saw an interview with some of the film-makers, who spent up to three years in the jungle with the chimps, and here are some of their remarks:

People watching this movie “can understand that the chimps’ potential and relationships are as watchable as a human drama.”

“Why did Freddy adopt Oscar? It was pure altruism. It was selfless looking after the young orphan where he hasn’t got an agenda.”

“When those eyes look out at you from a massive screen, there is meaning in those eyes, and we as human beings connect to them.”

“The chimps are very endangered, the rain forest is being cut down, they are part of the bush meat trade, living in fragmented patches of forest, threatened with extinction.”

“[The audience are] going to see that we are not the only beings with personalities and minds capable of thought.” ~ Jane Goodall.

By the way, for the parents amongst you, I can report that Tom Tom turned to us in the middle and whispered loudly, “I LOVE this movie!” Both kids pretended to be chimps after the auditorium emptied, running and jumping through the aisles, and even their own mother said she could not see that much difference between them and Oscar… ; – )

In Buddhism, person, being, self, and I are synonyms. Human beings are just one type of person. That has always made sense to me.

And my question to anyone who watches this and sees Oscar’s eyes is:

Who can believe that he is not a person? 

Here are some interesting links to other chimpanzee and primate stories:

chimps taste freedom for the first time in 30 yearsIf only they could all be freed. Chimpanzees see sunlight for the first time in 30 years.

Are animals smarter than people?

Do monkeys wonder? BBC do monkeys wonder


Unstoppable ~ 8 ways in which our thoughts are like a run-away train

runaway train 2

delusions, runaway trainThe movie Unstoppable is based on the true 2001 story of a runaway train. The “real life” CSX 8888 train in Ohio was holding some toxic materials, whereas the movie train 777 in Pennsylvania was full of highly combustible molten phenol that could have blown up a huge area. It had to be stopped before it reached Stanton.

To begin with, the train company thought it was a “coaster” – not ideal to have it loose on the main line, but far better than it running on its own power. It was still manageable at a speed of between 10 and 20 miles per hour, giving someone time to hop on board and take control.

Then they discovered that due to “human error” and “bad luck”, the throttle had in fact jumped from idle to full power. The train was speeding away at over 70 miles per hour. It quickly burnt through its independent brakes.

Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, BuddhismMovie spoiler: As you might expect, after lots of drama, corporate pride and greed, and false moves, our heroes in the aspect of Denzel Washington and Chris Pine risked their lives for others and saved the day. They rode the train into town almost unscathed, to be greeted by relieved, happy hugs and kisses all around.

Well, this movie got me thinking about our thoughts and how out of control they can be. In the old days, Buddha Shakyamuni often likened the uncontrolled mind to a powerful, wild elephant that could trample an entire grass village and everyone in it. We don’t have too many elephants around where I live, and our houses are made of wood and concrete, so I have been finding the run-away train full of explosives analogy to be a good updated substitute. Buddha Shakyamuni said our mind is like a crazy elephant

(The stages of the path (Lamrim) teachings encourage us to deepen our meditative insights with the use of our own and others’ experience, stories, and analogies. I bet Buddha Shakyamuni, Shantideva, and others would have used cars and trains and planes etc as analogies too if they’d been invented at the time, seeing how much time we all spend in them…)

These are the main ways I’ve been applying the analogy of the train to help me understand how our own uncontrolled thoughts arise, and how we can get back into the driver’s seat.delusions are like a runaway train

  1. Human error – the hapless “driver” who switched the wrong lever and then left the cab was being ignorant, careless, and lazy. Like us most days. We switch on anger instead of patience, for example, either because we are ignorant of our options, or because we are being careless with our options as we reckon it doesn’t matter too much, or because we can’t be bothered to apply the right option if it seems like hard work.
  2. Like the train, while our negative thoughts are coasting along slowly they are easier to control and divert than when they have built up powerful momentum and a life of their own due to inappropriate attention.
  3. Like the train crisis arising from many causes and conditions, including bad luck, so our thoughts arise from many different causes and conditions, including bad karma or bad luck. We have also developed karmic tendencies for negative thoughts by thinking them repeatedly in the past.
  4. Like the train with no driver in control, at the moment our thoughts are driving us. We need to drive them. Also, this driverlessness reminds me that although our thoughts are pre-programmed to wreak havoc due to beginningless conditioning to our delusions, they are still ownerless or empty of inherent existence. Therefore they are unfixed, such that all habitual momentum can be reversed.
  5. Like the train, our thoughts are carrying toxic explosive substances – potentially dangerous and fatal to ourselves and others.
  6. Like the train, our negative thoughts need to be stopped as soon as possible – and we’ll need all the courage and ingenuity at our disposal to stop them. Pride, greed, fatalism, and over-caution won’t stop them. Only skill, energy, compassion, and wisdom will.
  7. Like the train, when our thoughts are under control we can ride them safely and peacefully and go wherever we want to go.Phew, no more delusions
  8. Like the train arriving home, everyone is very relieved and happy when we finally manage to get our minds under control. 

Your turn: in the comments, please share any modern analogies or stories that you have found helpful for increasing your insights.

Who deserves credit for Kung Fu Panda 2 and the rest of our life?!

Po and five

Po’s father

I went to Kung Fu Panda 2 3D yesterday with my father. (He insisted!! Or perhaps that was me?!) Either way, it was even better than I thought it would be – both entertaining and inspirational. I will write an article on it soonish but, before I do, I want to start at the end. Which is also the beginning…

Remembering the kindness of others

At the end of the movie, the closing credits rolled for many minutes; page after page of people who were responsible for writing, directing, producing, filming, editing, designing, composing, visual effects, animating, modeling, supervising, engineering, and all round awesomeness!!

Thousands of people were kind enough to bring this one and a half hour movie into creation for our enjoyment. We may even notice and acknowledge a few of them, e.g. Jack Black and Angelina Jolie :-) But though I decided this time to stay to the very end, everyone else in the auditorium had left long before the credits finished rolling.

Thousands of people are also involved in bringing an hour and a half of our regular life into creation too – in fact we are dependent upon the kindness of thousands of people at any given moment. We may even notice a few of them, at least every now and then, and if they are obvious enough!

People left the cinema the moment the action stopped most likely because where the action actually came from didn’t seem sufficiently relevant to them, and besides they had things to do and their own lives to get on with. In a similar way, in our busy lives, in our personal worlds, with our own individual priorities and conceptual thoughts, it is rare to acknowledge everyone who has been involved one way or another in giving us literally everything we need to live moment by moment. Our self-grasping ignorance is in fact telling us that we are independent and don’t depend that much on others, that we are somehow self-made, that our world revolves around us as the main protagonist with everyone else being a bit player.

Take this moment. Perhaps you feel that you are moreorless alone in it, reading this – you’re not bothering anyone and likewise no one is bothering you. We’re all somehow separate. But if we look carefully we see that we are never alone and that every breath, every thought, every cell comes entirely from others.

You are looking at this on a screen on some magical electronic gadget, which in itself is the result of the imagination and work of many thousands of people; and the infrastructure that supported them involved many more people. You are able to read this because people taught you to read and because you have eyes that depend on your parents and on all the food and medicines you’ve taken throughout your life to keep you alive. I’ll assume you’re wearing clothes, which if you check the labels you will see come from people all over the world and the families who support them. And so on, ad infinitum.

Even our ability to contribute depends on the kindness of many others. For example, our education, our money, our skills, our job, our audience, our supporters and our responsibilities only exist due to the kindness, generosity and willingness of others. When we find ourself in a responsible or exalted position, it is easy to develop a pride thinking that we are rather special and higher up because others depend upon us, not the other way round. But the fact is that the more we are in a position to contribute, the more we depend upon them, even as the objects of our contribution, and therefore the more cause for humility we have. If they were to withdraw their support, our infrastructure would crumble and we would be nothing. So we might as well get off the fragile pedestal constructed by our pride and join everyone else on level ground. (It’s more fun down here anyway ;)

It is rare to be grateful for more than a fraction of the kindness we have received from others. The kindness of others is not new information – it becomes obvious as soon as we take anything more than a superficial egotistical glance at the apparently solid uncaused infrastructure of our lives! There is a meditation in Buddhism called remembering the kindness of others. We only need to remember something if we’ve forgotten it in the first place. You can learn this meditation in Modern Buddhism, now available completely free, no strings attached, as an e-Book due to the kindness of the author and, one way or another, the actions of thousands of other people past and present:

We are able to make use of many things with very little effort on our own part. If we consider facilities such as roads, cars, trains, airplanes, ships, houses, restaurants, hotels, libraries, hospitals, shops, money and so on, it is clear that many people worked very hard to provide these things. Even though we make little or no  contribution towards the provision of these facilities, they are all available for us to use. This shows the great kindness of others. Both our general education and our spiritual training are provided by others. (p 67 ff)

If we had a closing credit for each moment of our lives, it’d be at least as impossible to keep up with reading all the names as it was in Kung Fu Panda.

The Kadampa Temple for World Peace, Sarasota, Florida

The other day I attended the Florida New Kadampa Tradition temple opening. For nine years I was very much involved at that center, during which time the temple project was started and much money was raised. The Je Tsongkhapa statues were imported, painted and filled, and the five lineages of Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden created from scratch by talented artists at Manjushri KMC, and dedicated from the start to KMC Florida. I and many others prayed every day for a long time for this temple to arise.

Young Jin No (foreground)

However I have been living elsewhere for the past three years, during which time the temple was constructed under the expert building direction of Young Jin No, an old student who had previously built another center in Florida. She showed me around, no detail too small to rejoice in.

offerings of light

The temple is magnificent. There is no doubt that the modern day Kadampa master Geshe Kelsang has given the Sunshine State the most outrageously wonderful gift. And thousands of man and woman hours have also gone into it. It depends entirely upon millions of causes created both in this life and no doubt in previous lives – take any one of those causes away and this particular temple would not exist. Apart from making prayers and rejoicing, I myself have been out of it for the past three years, during which time new people have become involved who don’t know me from Adam. This is true of a number of people who were previously entirely instrumental in the temple even in this life, not to mention previous lives! But although only a few people may now recognize our contribution, I realized during the opening ceremony that not one of the causes we created was lost. And that even if there had been a closing credit of us and everyone else who has ever helped bring this temple into existence, no one would have been much interested anyway – for how interested are we really in the people who built our house, made our roads, taught us at school, and so on?! Isn’t that ancient history?! Are we not mainly just interested in how we can personally use these things now, in the present?!

From my own side, it has always seemed a bit pointless seeking praise or reputation, or being upset and demoralized when I am ignored, misunderstood or criticized. I have found it far more constructive and rewarding to concern myself with developing positive states of mind and good karmic intentions. Being attached to praise and reputation are so-called “worldly concerns” that do nothing to help us overcome our pride and self-cherishing, which is why the great Kadampa mind-training master Atisha famously declared in his Advice:

“Words of praise and fame serve only to beguile us, therefore blow them away as you would blow your nose.”

(BTW, have you ever noticed how Geshe Kelsang blows his nose during the long-life prayer done for him at festivals?!)

On the other hand, remembering and acknowledging what others have done and do for us right down to the cellular level is a supremely powerful method for breaking us out of our own little worlds by seeing how dependent on others we actually are. Other people are, in fact, not bit players but the main protagonists in our life, deserving at least equal billing! This wisdom understanding interdependence gives us humility, gratitude and loving-kindness, and the wish to repay their kindness. It makes us happy and peaceful.

So me and dad stayed right to the end of Kung Fu Panda 2 and I mentally thanked everyone whose names were appearing on the screen — right down to the technical resource tester and post-production office supervisor — for the enjoyment they had given us! Moreover, though there was no visible screen of rolling credits at KMC Florida, I felt grateful the whole weekend I was there; and as a result I had a blast!

There is nothing to stop me or you from remembering the kindness of others every day, every moment, of our lives. Your comments, including how you do this meditation, are very welcome. And please share this article if you like it.

Kung Fu Panda and the Secret Ingredient

Po 4

Buddha teaches that everything is projected by our mind; and of course this is clear when it comes to movies! But we like to be drawn into them as we like a good story, just as we usually allow ourselves to be sucked up by the drama of our own lives even if we know it is not real.

For me movies can be a time-wasting distraction or they can be helpful. It depends on whether I’m watching them out of some delusion/unpeaceful mind such as attachment or laziness, or out of some positive motivation such as the wish to expand my horizons to empathize with others.

Nothing is completely untransformable if we have the wish, capacity and methods to do it – even violent movies could be seen as a battle against delusions. Of course, it is risky to watch movies that may engender unpeaceful, uncontrolled reactions such as hatred or anger in us, so it is worth being honest to ourselves about our level of mindfulness and our ability to transform appearances to stay peaceful. It is worth protecting ourselves by not straying over certain boundaries (as in the practice of moral discipline).

If we’re going to watch a movie, some movies are probably easier for us to transform and derive meaning from than others, and I personally count Kung Fu Panda as an example. I watched it on the airplane and found a lot of uplifting Buddhist teachings in it. So I thought I’d share a few seeing as Kung Fu Panda 2 is coming out on May 26 and no doubt some of you will be watching it, especially if you have the excuse of kids!

Masters and students

My favorite theme is the transformative relationships between the Masters and their students. The Panda Po says to Master Shifu, “You are not my master!”, but that changes when he believes he can learn to be a great Kung Fu warrior and that Master Shifu can teach him. Similarly, we only need a Spiritual Guide if we decide we want to follow in his footsteps along a spiritual path.

Shifu maintains great devotion to his own Master Oogway, even when he seems to be behaving erratically and appointing a very odd choice for the Dragon Warrior. He questions his Master but listens carefully to his replies and is inspired by them. “Obeying the master is not a weakness” says Shifu to the snow leopard Tai Lung. Tai Lung shows the treacherous contrast of what happens if we let our pride and self-cherishing run out of control, and how feeling superior to our own teacher inevitably ends up sooner or later in hubristic disaster.

What can we control?

Master Oogway says we have to accept that we cannot control everything. Shifu replies that we can control some things and shows this by hitting the Sacred Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom to get the peaches to fall and planting a peach seed from which a tree will grow. Master Oogway points out that we can only get a peach tree not an apple tree from that seed, teaching the definite relationship between cause and effect (karma). But then he shows the manner of passing away into the Dharmakaya Truth Body by dissolving into emptiness, showing that for whom emptiness is possible, anything is possible, as the famous Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna said.

Just believe

Po is lumbering and clumsy, at least for as long as he identifies with “me”, a limited self, in his case a big fat lazy Panda. But he doesn’t want to be “me” any more, he wants to change. And Master Oogway gives both Master Shifu and Po the confidence to believe in Po’s ability to do it, and believing is what we need to do if we are to let go of our ego, fulfill our potential and make spiritual progress. (However, unlike in the movie, we are all “chosen”). And Master Shifu also realizes there can be no cookie cutter approach to teaching one’s students, especially these days. The teacher and student sometimes need to think out of the box and find other ways, even if these are unconventional (and involve dumplings).

Humility

Po’s humility is what enables him to succeed. He has an ingenuousness and zest for life that is very refreshing for the five great and good warriors who have gotten slightly institutionalized and by the book in the Jade Palace. Po is down to earth and unobsequious but at the same time entirely and humbly in awe of Kung Fu and its masters. For me he was an example of staying fresh on our spiritual path, devoted to the teachings, teachers and living beings but not rigidly going through the motions, becoming sycophantic and/or developing a superiority complex in an ivory tower. We need discipline, but we also need lightness of touch and the ability to respect each others’ differences.

Even at the end when Po has defeated Tai Lung and the whole valley are prostrating to him and chanting “Master”, he doesn’t develop a trace of pride or identify with that praise. That word simply reminds him of his own master, so he turns around and rushes back up the steps to see him.

What is the secret ingredient?

And the other thing is that Po realizes something very important when he enters the mystery of the dragon scroll – he does not need to add anything at all from the outside to fulfill his potential. As his father, the goose Mr. Ping, finally confides about his Secret Ingredient Soup, the secret ingredient is …. that there is no secret ingredient! We don’t need a secret ingredient. We don’t need to be someone “special”. We all have the potential already to be great. This is our Buddha nature.

Movies and us

Okay, I know, I have read far too much into this movie! And a cartoon to boot! But I guess that’s the point; we can and do see anything anywhere because nothing is really out there, it is all projection of our own minds. I cannot find a world outside of my experience of the world, and when I change my mind, my world itself automatically changes. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, my own Master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso says:

Milarepa said that he regarded everything that appeared to his mind as a Dharma book. All things confirmed the truth of Buddha’s teachings and increased his spiritual experience.

So, if we are going to watch movies, we might as well make them into spiritual teachings!

Have you got a favorite example?

By the way, if you want a free Buddhist meditation book from a world-renowned Buddhist master and author, you are in luck! Click here: www.eModernBuddhism.com

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