Mel Gibson’s excellent and provocative The Passion of the Christ started a national conversation on the ultimate and central issues: What is the answer to sin and suffering? Is there purpose beyond our own actions and passions? Quite serendipitously, a beautiful new movie by Korean director Kim Ki-duk has worked its way into U.S. release, and offers what can now function as a Buddhist commentary on the issues raised in Mel Gibson’s movie.
This film’s title is Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, which offers the first indication of the Buddhist difference. It tells us, from the very outset, that there is nothing new under the sun, that our travails were undergone by others before us and will be undergone by still others after us. But within this ahistorical view of the cycle of life, the diagnosis of the human problem is remarkably similar to that of Christianity.
The whole movie is set in a lovely Buddhist hermitage in the middle of a lake–shown picturesquely through the four seasons. As the film opens, we meet an elderly monk with a novice–a very young boy–studying under his wing. The monk catches the little boy tormenting small animals (a fish, a frog, a snake) by tying rocks to them and watching them struggle. The boy’s delight in inflicting pain is both perfectly innocent and deeply malicious: a remarkably accurate depiction of the Christian doctrine of original sin. The old monk teaches the youngster a lesson by making him carry a large rock tied to his own back, and try to find and liberate the creatures he has hurt. In the next segment of the film, the young novice has grown up and gets involved sexually with a pretty woman who has come to the hermitage in search of traditional medicines. He is racked by guilt; the old man tells him that sex is natural, but that he should beware of lust–which leads to possessiveness and, in turn, eventually to murder. From there, the young monk’s story bears out the old monk’s lesson.
In the movie’s last 15 minutes, we see the young monk–now full-grown, as old as his mentor had been in the first scene–carrying a huge millstone and a statue of either a Buddha or a Boddhisatva up to the top of the high mountain that overlooks the lake and the hermitage. His climb is both a penance and an attempt at transcendence; when he reaches the summit he places the statue on top of the millstone, and shares with it a bird’s-eye, God’s-eye view of the lake far below. The hermitage appears now like the center of a navel, at long last seen in its context: To use a phrase from I Corinthians, the monk finally “knows as he had been known.” (As if to reinforce this connection to the imagery of St. Paul, throughout the film we are shown reflections in the water of the lake. In the famous phrase in which Paul says that in this life we see “through a glass darkly,” the King James Version’s word “glass” means “mirror.”)
The monk’s redemption is a gift–an act of grace–but he knows that his act of contrition is somehow right, that there is a righteousness for him to fulfill. He is ready now to fulfill his adult role, as mentor to another little novice.
In addition to directing, Kim Ki-duk wrote the screenplay, and also plays the adult monk in the final scene. He has done a marvelous job of personalizing a spiritual odyssey in a quiet drama; while the dialogue is in Korean, very little of the action is dialogue-dependent. This is not a talk movie, but an action movie, in the sense that acts cause the problem and also mediate the solution. In Buddhism as in Christianity, the answer to suffering and sin is not preaching, but the action and passion of persons. It is through doing–Christ’s voluntary Passion, this fictional monk’s penitential climb–that we reach the stillness that is forgiveness and peace. And that stillness remains nonetheless a gift, free of charge to us, from its Creator.
For anyone interested in how one of the world’s greatest spiritual traditions deals with the problems that torment us all, and also for people who simply appreciate quiet beauty, this film is strongly recommended.