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a quality film full of symbolism
26 October 1999
The thing about Why has Bodhidharma Left for the East that struck me the most was the life of the little boy, Haejin. In particular, there are two connected scenes that were superbly done, and the strongest impression I got from Why... is the symbolism to be found within them. In the first of the two scenes, relatively early in the film Haejin picks up a rock off of the ground and, for no apparent reason, takes aim at a bird and hurls the rock at it. After he strikes the bird in the head and the bird falls to the ground, Haejin runs over to it and examines it. At this point, Haejin clearly is stricken with guilt and is remorseful for what he has done. Rushing back to the monastery, he avoids his Master and covertly hides the bird, seeking to nurse the bird back to health.

Later in the film, Haejin is swimming with some boys in a pool of water when the boys take to dunking Haejin under the water. As the scene progresses, Haejin is seen emerging from the water repeatedly, struggling, gasping for air and trying to free himself as best he can. Ostensibly, the boys around him do not see that they are harming Haejin; they dunk him underwater for fun, and the possibility that he could drown does not even occur to them. Although, after a few minutes of the dunking, some boys on the outskirts of the pool look on with worried faces, nobody expects that the action could seriously hurt Haejin, and accordingly nobody acts to help him.

The most fascinating thing about these two scenes is the parallelism: not particularly thinking of the possible consequences, young boys behave dangerously, and someone or something ends up getting hurt. Haejin thoughtlessly hurls the rock at the bird and damages it physically, whereas the boys at the pool gang up on Haejin and dunk him underwater, terrifying him emotionally. I think this is an issue of karma: Haejin does not think about the consequences of hurting the bird, which is mirrored by the boys' thoughtless torment of Haejin.

And yet, another really interesting thing about the situation was the difference in behavior that took place after the thoughtless violence. Immediately, Haejin realized that he had done something wrong, that he had wounded the bird terribly, so he rushed to take care of it and help it. Presumably, the boys who were harassing Haejin did no such thing, for in and after that scene we see neither guilt nor any attempts to mend fences on their part. The immediate question is then why: why does Haejin see the mistake he made and try to rectify his wrong whereas there is no such action by the boys? I think that the answer lies in the fact that the viewer is supposed to note that Haejin is a Buddhist, whereas the boys are from the "world," and it can safely be assumed that they do not follow the path of those in the monastery. The viewer is supposed to identify the distinct difference between those of the monastery and those from the world. The concept of the how the world is can be found in Haejin's master Hyegok's explanation to Haejin that the world outside the monastery is full of pain and thoughtlessness. (The scene at the pool is the point where the director of the film gives the viewer the opportunity to see Haejin in a situation that verifies what the Master said. Kibong had the same opportunity when he went home to see his mother). Although there is not much of an observable difference in the behavior of the boys during the violent behavior - for all are only little boys prone to stupidity - the emphasis is the Buddhist response to the situation as opposed to the non-Buddhist response.

Although I do not think that I understood everything in the film - when Master Hyegok was talking about really deep and spiritual things, he spoke quite fast and I did not really catch everything that he said - I think that I understood at least some of the movie. Overall, I enjoyed the film, particularly the scenery and the painstaking attention to detail. Most of all, I enjoyed leaving the film room thinking about it and trying to understand its symbolism and messages.
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Mandala (1981)
an interesting portrayal of the how one becomes a buddha
26 October 1999
I found this to be a very interesting movie; however, it is extremely frustrating in that watching it not once but twice still was not enough for me to feel that I really have a good grasp of what was happening in the movie and what everything was supposed to symbolize.

First of all, it was unbelievably clear that this movie was trying indirectly to give a portrait of the life of Wonhyo. (Perhaps if I were not taking a course on Korean Buddhism then this may not have been so obvious, but as it stands now the comparison to Wonhyo was easy to see.) Looking up the word 'mandala' in my Korean-English dictionary, it read "Buddha's picture," and this movie seemed to me to be a question of what being a Buddha really was. In other words, given the contradictory images of Wonhyo that we know, is the image of Wonhyo as a (pardon the cliché) 'mad monk' - i.e. the image of a Buddha as a diamond in the rough - correct, or was he actually just a monk with a particularly poor ability to follow the vinaya?

It was interesting, although not unexpected (given the place of Uisang in history, and given the cliché nature of the situation) to see the juxtaposition of Jisan and Pobun as monks. The duality of the two was thoroughly evident - one disgraced then exiled by the sangha, one a member of the sangha; one epitome of what the vinaya instructs against, one attempting to follow the vinaya as best he possibly can; one fully certain of the dharma, one struggling to accept it and to use it to view the world. However, the part of film regarding this duality that I could really appreciate was that, unlike the texts we have read so far, this film made it a point of emphasis that these two "opposites" were not really the extremes that it is so easy to categorize them as.

As could be seen from the constant questioning going on in Pobun's mind, he was not so sure of the precepts as he made himself out to be. In fact, it almost seemed that if he were in a power struggle with his will, and that the main reason that he did not stray from the vinaya was for fear that if his will wavered in one problem, it would bend and fall at the mercy of others. So, he was in effect just trying to keep himself away from attachments for fear that he would indulge in them. (However, in doing so he created a great degree of attachments - e.g. to the vinaya - and aversions - to anything that the vinaya taught against.)

With respect to Jisan, he was not such the fool he was not such the cliché mad monk he was made out to be. From the very start, Pobun vouches that Jisan is a monk, asserting that no fake monk could chant sutras as well as Jisan did. When it comes to blessing the new Buddhist temple in the mountains, Jisan knows that one has to be of rank in the sangha to do that, and he admits that he is not. These and a few other examples lead me to believe that, in fact, Jisan could follow the vinaya to the letter, but he chooses not to. My guess is that he does this believing that the Buddha is not found in the vinaya, but that the vinaya is found in the Buddha. In other words, if you are on the right path, strict attachments to the vinaya are just like any other attachments, and what makes one a Buddha is what is change inside of him, not change through external regimens.

So, dismissing the concept of an extremist view of Jisan and Pobun (and Wonhyo) as members of some polar opposites club, I would say that the intention of the film is twofold. On one hand, these ideas are intended to dispel the notion of Wonhyo as some mad monk who has some frenetic method to his madness. More likely, he may have done some crazy stuff, but it was not with regularity that practiced it; he did it some of the time, just like everybody else. On the other hand, I think that this is an intended message about all of Buddhism, that your method - whether it be going left or right, being celibate or promiscuous, being sober or drunken, being a solemn introvert or an easygoing extrovert - is not the important thing. The important thing is not the vehicle in which you drive but the destination at which you arrive.
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