Notes on a Buddhist path

A Boy, a Tiger, and a Tale of Suffering

February 11, 2013 By | 8 Comments

Suffering is the sandpaper of our life. It does its work of shaping us. Suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise. ~ Ram Dass

“Life of Pi” shattered me.

Royal_Bengal_Tiger_-_Nehru_Zoological_ParkI was nearly half-way through reading the book when I decided to see the film this past Saturday afternoon. I mention my place in the book just so you have a reference for my state of mind as I entered the theatre. I knew where the story was headed, but not exactly where it would end. It has been a rough read, unrelenting in its force and graphic descriptions of life and death in the wilds of a small boat cast into the yawning mass of the Pacific Ocean. Yet more than the brutal tests of storms and sea, it’s the story of Pi, a young Indian man, and Richard Parker, his Bengal tiger companion, their unrelenting journey, and how they faced suffering beyond anything either of them could ever imagine.

It was no surprise that Pi lives to tell his story; we see him in the first scenes of the movie, safe in the urbane comforts of his Toronto kitchen, recounting his tale to a writer who has come in search of a seed for his next novel. What did surprise me was how wretched I felt watching Pi’s and Richard Parker’s ordeal. And knowing that magnificent tiger was computer generated didn’t forestall any emotions of fear, pain and agony that arose in witnessing the uncompromising visceral experience of these unlikely travelers.

The film is stunning in its beauty, its savage realism and its mettle to set most of a two-hour film in a boat in the middle of the ocean with just two characters, only one of them with speaking lines. When it was over I left the theatre still haunted by the feelings that were welling up inside of me. Pi tells us that after hearing the story we will believe in God. Walking out into the chill of the night, I didn’t feel God, but I did have an overwhelming sense of drowning in dukkha, suffering.

As much as I tried to shake the devastation swelling inside of me, I couldn’t pull myself from the clenching vice of grief and sadness that seemed to have permeated my blood. Walking into my apartment I headed straight for my meditation cushion. Before even my first breath, I felt salty tears cresting and falling, brine of so much pain etching the skin of my cheeks. I glanced at the picture on my altar of Jack, my sweet ginger cat, who died three months ago, and I was in the wake of a mammoth storm of suffering.

(NOTE: if you haven’t seen the film, you may want to skip the next paragraph.)

The scene from the movie that kept coming up for me was when the journey of Pi and Richard Parker came to an end and both of them made it to land. Barely alive, Pi watches as the tiger slips into the Mexican jungle, and never looks back. All the many years later as Pi recounted his saga to the writer, that unsatisfying departure of his friend, his partner in survival, was still gnawing at him.

What a poignant description of cravings, of the unrelenting desire to have just one more drink of water, one more day of life, one more look from the only being who truly understands what you have endured. As I breathed, offering myself waves of metta, loving kindness, I also asked for guidance. Out of the dark silence I heard the words  “love death as much as life.”

I tried to take in that wisdom, rewinding the film and my emotions, seeing how we cling so tenaciously to this existence, yet when we hold in our hands what we thought was most precious, what we wanted more than anything else in the world, another craving takes its place, holding before us something we never thought we would want, never thought we would miss.

 My sleep that night was fitful and just as angry as the seas of my imaginings. The next day as I walked along the calm coast of my resident ocean, I saw life and death, children and their parents, pets and caregivers, each of them beginning and ending in time-lapsed scenes of impermanence. It was as if I had opened Krishna’s mouth and instead of seeing the worlds and wonders living inside, I saw all their desires, all their unsatisfactoriness, all their insatiable longings. It was samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth.

Even as I write, I can’t quite still the currents and riptides that tug at my core. I keep looking for a happy ending, perhaps as Pi keeps searching for closure with Richard Parker. There are the cravings that make us smile and those that make us cringe. All of them keeps us tethered to the mast of this existence, believing there is something more, something better waiting for us in the next harbour, when in fact it is just another ship about to set sail in search of the same rewards.

The yearning that calls loudest to me across all the seas and all the worlds is the longing for all the suffering to end, to set my course for eternal peace, nibbana. That is the shore I search for in the dark, when the stars are like beacons leading the way or the moon is new and offers only patience as a compass. It is the wet, warm sand I long to touch, the solidity of its embrace curving across my tired shoulders, stepping to the edge of eternity, and never turning back.

Sojourns in the Parallel World

by Denise Levertov

We live our lives of human passions,
cruelties, dreams, concepts,
crimes and the exercise of virtue
in and beside a world devoid
of our preoccupations, free
from apprehension—though affected,
certainly, by our actions. A world
parallel to our own though overlapping.
We call it ‘Nature: only reluctantly
admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too.
Whenever we lose track of our own obsessions,
our self-concerns, because we drift for a minute,
an hour even, of pure (almost pure)
response to that insouciant life:
cloud, bird, fox, the flow of light, the dancing
pilgrimage of water, vast stillness
of spellbound ephemerae on a lit windowpane,
animal voices, mineral hum, wind
conversing with rain, ocean with rock, stuttering
of fire to coal—then something tethered
in us, hobbled like a donkey on its patch
of gnawed grass and thistles, breaks free.
No one discovers
just where we’ve been, when we’re caught up again
into our own sphere (where we must
return, indeed, to evolve our destinies)
—but we have changed, a little.

“Sojourns in the Parallel World” by Denise Levertov from Sands of the Well. (c) New Directions Books, 1994.

Image credit:

via Wikimedia Commons

Comments

  1. I have been wanting to see the movie but maybe will hold off as I pass through some personal storms in my life. I feel your tumultuous journey my friend, and also see how strong your sails are to return to those shores of which you dream. Know that there are others out there you inspire with your light. xo

    • Thank you, dear Mags. Here’s to gentle breezes finding their way to you and quelling your tempests. And the movie is worth seeing, when the tides are right. ox

  2. “love death as much as life”

    What a healing phrase. Thank you.

  3. I’d really like to see this movie. Thank you for the poem and contemplation.

    • Thank you, Okei. I’m glad you stopped by. The movie is truly worth seeing; magnificent in its awe and beauty. Blessings to you.

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