The First Truth is that all life is suffering, pain, and misery. The Second Truth is that this suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire. The Third Truth is that this selfish craving can be overcome. The Fourth Truth is that the way to overcome this misery is through the Eightfold Path.
In the first type of movie an outsider would overcome challenges to triumph at the end. This was The Karate Kid and Flashdance. In the other type of movie mates would tragically die at the end of their adventures. Other kinds of movies didn’t grip me. I needed triumph or tragedy. Not Rambo or Top Gun. Not even Return of the Jedi coz The Empire Strikes Back was better. Did Americans know they were the Empire and not the Rebel Alliance in those movies?
Quite often, it seems to me now, I would stay up late in the holidays and see something life changing on TV. I once stayed up late at my Gran’s house and saw Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It remains one of my favourite movies. I think it’s the loyalty of the two men to each other. They live a fantasy life and, in the end, they refuse to compromise it. The consequences are tragic but feel noble. What’s the alternative anyway? Get an office job?
Another late night movie was Gallipoli: the Australian film with Mel Gibson. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid it is a movie that has stayed with me a long, long time, and also like that movie it focuses on the relationship between two men and ends tragically.
I suppose I saw two possible lives. One in which I would blow everyone away with my prodigious talent and soar on a cloud of joy to nirvana, or one where I would have fun – up to a point – and end up in a hole.
The 1Oth went forward to meet death instantly, as the 8th had done, the men running as swiftly and as straight as they could at the Turkish rifles. With that regiment went the flower of the youth of Western Australia, sons of the old pioneering families, youngsters-in some cases two and three from the same home-who had flocked to Perth at the outbreak of war with their own horses and saddlery in order to secure enlistment in a mounted regiment. Men known and popular, the best loved leaders in sport and work in the West, then rushed straight to their death. Gresley Harpers and Wilfred, his younger brother, the latter of whom was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass….
The Story of ANZAC, Volume II, pp.617-8
Which was the inspiration for the movie and which, even now, moves me. Even now that I have thought long and hard about Gallipoli, and ANZAC Day, and despise them. But I despise the machinery of it; not the participants. I despise the fact of so much willing death in the name of something that merely disguised the urge for the powerful to maintain power. I do not despise Wilfred. Nor Gresley. Nor their parents. All the suffering that followed.
What do we make of the second noble truth in light of this: that suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire? At a meta-level this is true. Empires in conflict like leviathans clawing at each other in awful contest were certainly selfishly craving world domination. At a micro-level? Well, there is some truth to it I suppose. Many of those men probably ran at the guns with the idea that there would be glory and not death ahead. And then, when death seemed more likely than glory, that dying bravely would be better than living as a coward in the eyes of society. Which tends to put caveats on the second noble truth. It may be that society requires selflessness and that this is selfish.
I find it impossible not to put myself in the shoes of the characters in Gallipoli. I would have gone over the top. And died. It’s no use thinking otherwise with 100 years of hindsight. Which is why I think the movie moves me and makes me cry. It doesn’t matter how much we think we are free we are not. Society and time sets the limits on our existence; on our what is possible. Buddha is telling us to see things cosmically, beyond society and time and in that regard he loses me. In that regard he is useless. I am bound to my time and place. I can view it happily or as if I am on a rack but it is true nonetheless.
There was nothing else to do if you were a man from Western Australia in that trench at Gallipoli on that day except rise up out of the ground on the whistle and lay yourself down forever in no man’s land for no objective good. We might choose to see ourselves free of attachment to all things, to all people, and therefore on the route to complete freedom, but Buddhism’s freedom is alien to human desire for attachment and connection. I do not doubt that it is objectively true that I would be calm and transcendent without contact to anything human but I would also be inhuman.
Admittedly, Butch and Sundance aren’t as obviously participants in this existential drama. Except, they are. You know it. They are a futile emblematic resistance to the taming of the frontier. The first and most tragic resistance came from the Native Americans. The second was the taming of the wild west in farms and towns and Victorianism. Like Lear’s fool Butch and Sundance dance on the shrinking line of this frontier until the romance of it all, literally, leaves them to die.
Allow me an aside. I remember playing a video game in a video arcade with Steve watching. It was a game where you have a space ship at the bottom of the screen and you shoot at the alien ships that scroll relentlessly down towards you. It wasn’t Space Invaders but it was very close. Your own space ship was not stuck to the bottom line of the screen but could fly free among the enemy and the strings of their lazer pellets. I once entered a zen state playing this game. A losing zen state in which the screen filled with a tidal wave of enemies spraying the screen with a tapestry of lazer bullets and I flowed through it all, a tiny blip dancing through the rising tide of death in a series of improbable side steps. Until, of course, all the mathematical options ran out and I died.
But the magic of that moment between everything being normal, and the end. It was the same moment that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid freezes on in its final frame. The same moment that Gallipoli focuses on just before it’s final frame where the sound drops away and it is just a young man running. That’s the only mistake in the film Gallipoli. It should have cut with him running in the drained silence.
Running in the drained silence before the predictable end for us all. That’s the place to be. The place I seek when I make a speech, or do a reading, or sing a song. I want that place that reaches out beyond time and makes things connect and feel eternal. We are eternal in our shared hearts, and terminal.
Fall into my arms
And tremble like a flower