Life as Cinema
Just suppose that we have been born in a cinema hall.
We don't know that what is going on in front of us is just a projection. We don't
know that it is just a film, just a movie, and that the events in the movie aren't
real, that they have no true existence. Everything we see on that screen-love,
hate, violence, suspense, thrills-is in fact just the effect of light projected
through celluloid. But no one has ever told us this, so we just sit there watching,
fixated on the film. If somebody tries to attract our attention, we say, "Shut
up!" Even if we have something important to do, we don't want to do it. We
are completely engrossed and blind to the fact that this projection is completely
Now suppose that there is someone in the seat next to us who says:
"Look, this is just a film. It's not real. This is not really happening.
It's really just a projection." There's a chance we too might understand
that what we are seeing is in fact a movie, that it is unreal and essenceless.
This doesn't automatically mean we get up and leave the cinema. We don't have
to do that. We can just relax and simply watch the love affair, the crime thriller
or whatever. We can experience its intensity. And if we have a certain confidence
that this is just a projection, then we can rewind, fast forward or play the film
again as we like. And we have the choice to leave whenever we like, and to come
back at another time to watch again. Once we are certain that we can leave any
time we like, we may not feel compelled to do so. We can choose to sit comfortably
Sometimes a sequence in the movie can overwhelm our emotions. A
tragic moment might hit our soft spot and we are carried away. But now, something
in our heart is telling us that we know it's not real, that it's not a big deal.
This is what the dharma practitioner needs to understand-that the whole of
samsara, or nirvana, is as essenceless or untrue as that film. Until we see this,
it will be very difficult for dharma to sink into our minds. We will always be
carried away, seduced by the glory and beauty of this world, by all the apparent
success and failure. However, once we see, even just for a second, that these
appearances are not real, we will gain a certain confidence. This doesn't mean
that we have to rush off to Nepal or India and become a monk or nun. We can still
keep our jobs, wear a suit and tie and go with our briefcase to the office every
day. We can still fall in love, offer our loved one flowers, exchange rings. But
somewhere inside there is something telling us that all this is essenceless.
is very important to have such a glimpse. If we have even one glimpse in the whole
of our life, we can be happy for the rest of the time with just the memory of
Now, it could happen that when someone whispers to us, "Hey!
This is just a film," we don't hear them because we are distracted. Perhaps
just at that moment there is a big car crash in the movie, or loud music, so we
just don't hear the message. Or else maybe we do hear the message, but our ego
misinterprets this information, so we remain confused and believe that there is
something true and real in the movie after all. Why does that happen? It happens
because we lack merit. Merit is incredibly important. Of course, intelligence,
or prajna, is important. Compassion, or karuna, is important. But merit is paramount.
Without merit, we are like an ignorant, illiterate beggar who wins a multi-million-dollar
lottery but does not know what to do with the money and loses it straight away.
But suppose we do have a little merit and we actually get the message from
the person whispering to us. Then, as Buddhists, we have different options. From
the point of view of Theravada Buddhism, we get up and leave the movie hall, or
we close our eyes, so we are not carried away by the movie. We put an end to suffering
in that way. On the Mahayana level, we reduce our suffering through understanding
that the movie is unreal, that it is all a projection and empty. We don't stop
watching the movie, but we see that it has no inherent existence. Moreover, we
are concerned about the others in the cinema. Finally, in the Vajrayana, we know
that it is just a movie, we are not fooled, and we just enjoy the show. The more
emotion the movie evokes in us, the more we appreciate the brilliance of the production.
We share our insights with our fellow viewers, who, we trust, are also able to
appreciate what we see.
But to implement this in real life, we need merit.
In Theravada Buddhism one accumulates merit through renunciation. We see that
the movie is making us suffer and we have the sense to stop watching it. In the
Mahayana we accumulate merit with compassion. We have a big and open mind that
is more concerned with others' suffering.
On the other hand, this transformation-from
being caught up in the movie, to seeing the emptiness of the events in the film,
to caring solely for the welfare of others-might take a very, very long time.
This is why in the Vajrayana we move into the fast lane and accumulate merit through
devotion. We trust the person who is whispering to us, and who has an understanding
that has set him free. Not only do we assimilate the information he is giving
us, but we also appreciate his freedom of mind and the depth of his being. We
know we have the potential for such liberation too, and this makes us appreciate
him even more. A single moment of such devotion, just a split second, just a little
bit of such devotion, has immense merit. If we are in tune with the person whispering
to us, he might help us discover the true inner movie-lover. He might make us
see how the rest of the audience is caught up, and how unnecessary it all is.
So without our having to rely on our own confused struggle to understand the path,
this person brings us to an understanding of what it is we are seeing. We then
become someone who can sit back and enjoy the show. And maybe we might whisper
to some others as well.
as Cinema," by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. Shambhala Sun, November 2003.