ONCE A WEEK, when I was a child, my parents used to take my younger brother and I to the Movies (we called it “The Pictures” in those days), usually on Friday evening. After five dreary days of school, it was really something to look forward to.
The nearest town to our village had four cinemas, the names of which—if I remember correctly—were Odeon, Gaumont, Regal and Tatler. Near each of them was the inevitable sweet-shop, into which we were taken before going into the cinema, and given free choice. Supplied then, with a bag of sweets and chocolate, we would enter the dark womb of the cinema and join the hushed and expectant crowd waiting for the movie to begin; it was another world, and we were about to embark upon adventures.
Many people would say, “Yes, but a fantasy world, not real”. Not real? What do you mean—not real? What is real? You mean this world is real, but that is not? Now, hold on a minute! Life is like a dream—and sometimes a nightmare. It is real only in context, only at the moment, but because of the element of constant change, which we cannot do anything about, ultimately, it is not real; it comes and goes, whether we like it or not, and we cannot catch, hold or possess it. Can we really say that this life is any more real than a movie? When we watch a movie and are interested in it, it is as real to us as the life passing endlessly by; what is the difference? When a thing has passed, it has the same substance as a movie, as a dream; we cannot be certain that it ever really happened, or if we just dreamed it.
Everything is empty, void of lasting substance. What we think of as ours is not ours at all. Our houses are not ours, our cars are not ours, all our possessions, our money, our food and clothes are not ours—not just because we didn’t make them and that they came to us from others, but because even our lives are not ours. Our lives are not ours because we have no control over them; they come and go, without our permission. And if our lives are not ours, how can anything else be ours? Quite a sobering thought, is it not? So, is nothing ours—nothing at all? No, I didn’t say that. There is one thing—just one thing—that we may consider ours: the present moment, which is where we live, and where we have some choice and control. But it is not something to talk about, for no sooner have we opened our mouth to speak about it than it has gone; it is not a word and cannot be caught with words; it can only be lived. We can choose how we are going to live, what we are going to do in the present moment. Only this is ours; only the present moment is real, not the past, for it has gone, and not the future, for it never comes. And both that which we take for real, and that which we say is not-real (like the movies), exist, to us—each one of us—only in the mind, and nowhere else. We experience things—whether it be eating ice-cream, reading, brushing our teeth, surfing the net, or sitting through a movie, and so on—essentially only by the mind, via the senses. We call it perception. How do we decide what is ‘real’ and what is ‘not-real’? Life is like a movie, too; it moves, and never remains the same. Movie making has come so far and reached such a stage that the special effects are so realistic they almost jump out at us, and we are absorbed by, engrossed in them! But it is all ‘unreal’, we say. What can we catch and hold and call ‘real’ that won’t change and slip from our grasp?
The Buddha rejected the common belief in a soul—something immortal, personal and separate from others—and showed, by analysis of the component parts of a person, that no such thing exists. This is the most shocking thing that many of us can hear, as it undermines our whole belief in, or conception of ourselves, and removes—or so we think—our reason for continued living. But He did not say or imply that life was therefore worthless, and in fact, placed the greatest value and importance on being born human, as it provides us with the opportunity for spiritual growth and realization up to and including enlightenment. He said: “Here in this body of ours, but a fathom in length, is to be found the World, the Origin of the World, the End of the World, and the Way to the End of the World”. His was not a doctrine of pessimism or annihilation, but one of Liberation and Light.
Anyway, back to my childhood and our movie-going. One of the movies we saw involved the Yeti (otherwise called The Abominable Snowman)—a gigantic, hairy anthropoid which legend holds lives in the snowbound fastnesses of the Himalayas. Now, yetis are supposed to be shy and elusive, so none have ever been filmed or captured, except in this particular movie, which was only fiction and not true, of course. A British expedition went in search of this legendary creature, and—because it was a movie—it was not long before their Sherpa guides succeeded in tracking down not just one, but a family of yetis, and cornered them in a cave, where they turned and tried to defend themselves. Well, because the expedition was determined to capture at least one yeti at all costs, the mother yeti and child were shot, and the father yeti trussed up and shipped off to London, to be exhibited as “The Missing Link”.
Infuriated to the point where it could no longer bear abuse, the Yeti managed to escape from its cage and took refuge in the London Underground, where it went on the rampage, venting its fury on unfortunate commuters. Attempts to recapture it only resulted in more deaths, until finally, it was shot dead.
End of movie. But not end of the effects of the movie on me. I was so terrified by this creature, and could not get it out of my mind. My other brother—ten years my senior—knowing this, took delight in scaring me further, by telling me, just as I was about to go upstairs to bed: “The Yeti is up there waiting for you!” This fear lasted for a long time, and I do not remember when I outgrew it.
Two years ago, I saw this old movie on Australian TV, and could not believe how I had ever been scared of such a silly thing; it was ridiculous; but at the time, so many years before, the Yeti of the movie, and the irrational fear of it, were as real to me as the brother who got his kicks by scaring a child in this way! Children do not know the difference between fear of real things—fear that can protect us from danger and harm—and fear with no foundation in fact; to the child, it is simply fear. To purposely frighten kids with horrors stories and tales of ghosts is therefore not just stupid and wrong, but bad, and has a negative and sometimes long lasting effect on their impressionable minds. We should be concerned with the cultivation of the mind, not with its destruction.
But fear is part of the deluded mind, and it is heartening to learn that even Prince Siddhartha himself, before his Enlightenment as the Buddha—that is, while still a Bodhisattva—experienced fear; he knew what fear was like. It was fear that lay behind his questions when he went out of the palace one day and was confronted and shocked by the sights of the old person, the sick person and the corpse: “How do people become like this? Can it happen to me? Can my wife become like that?” These questions are very strange—coming from a Bodhisattva—and make no sense unless we realize that, while he was a Bodhisattva, he wasn’t aware that he was; it was only after his Enlightenment as a Buddha that, looking back, he realized He had been a Bodhisattva before.
Many years later, He related that after he had left the palace and gone into the forest in search of truth, at times, sitting alone at night, he would be scared by his imaginings and the noises all around him. Fear arose in him, he said, and his hair stood on end. What did he do? What could he do? He didn’t jump up and flee from the forest back to the palace, but sat there and faced his fear, and slowly brought it under control. He faced the fear, instead of being afraid of it, and by facing it, found courage. It sounds strange, but it’s true: Courage does not mean the absence of fear, but the presence of it; without fear, courage cannot arise; there is no question of courage apart from fear. Just as a large deposit of iron-ore may be turned into a lot of steel, so fear may be transmuted into courage; without iron-ore in its natural state, there can be no steel.
Sometimes, I’m not very happy with myself, and think I’m getting nowhere, or even slipping back. It is encouraging, therefore, to look back and see that I have made progress in this life, and am not finished yet. I mean, I might have remained scared of yetis all my life, mightn’t I?
“It is curious
that our own offences should seem so much less heinous than the offences of
others. I suppose the reason is that we know all the circumstances that have
attended them and so manage to excuse in ourselves what we cannot excuse in