The Truman Show

The Truman Show, a movie released in 1998, demonstrates a couple of Buddhist and/or common spiritual ideas. These include how insight experiences mature to insight and how deceptive reality will eventually be illuminated and overturned by Truth.

In the movie, Truman (Jim Carrey) is adopted at birth by a corporation The Turman Show movie coverand becomes part of a reality TV show featuring him that airs worldwide 24 hours a day.  His world consists of a man-made set, Seahaven, which is an island populated by actors.  Every once in awhile he may get an idea that his world is peculiar, but the participants in the deception work to support his view that Seahaven world is real.  The movies depicts Truman, in his third decade, becoming suspicious and trying to break through the veil of deception.  While the Truman Show director and producers are trying to keep him trapped, the viewing audience is rooting for his escape.

I was originally introduced to the movie by Geshe Michael Roach, who suggested it illustrated the idea that buddhas are all conspiring to get us enlightened.  However, it seemed to me, that the most active participants in Truman’s world were working to keep him in his trapped state.  Albeit, the viewing audience was on his side, they were powerless to help him.  This is much like the idea that we have to do our own work to reach enlightenment.  Buddhas can help by teaching, but they cannot create our enlightenment for us.

The movie, however, does seem to illustrate quite nicely the idea of deceptive reality.  In the Buddhist model, the world we live in is quite real, but the reality of it is deceptive.  This is similar to how Truman’s world was real, but not the way Truman thought it was.

Our normal reality, or conventional reality, does not work the way it appears to work.  For instance, it appears that when we do something wrong (e.g. lie to our boss that we missed work because we were sick when we were not) that good comes from that (e.g. we keep our job and get a day off). This apparent cause and effect is a deception.  Only the unpleasantness of being lied to or being deceived can come from telling a lie.  This is not obvious because of the time delay between the action and the fruit of the action.  This is how we can act in ways that harm ourselves – the cause and effect connection is not obvious.

Truman had experiences in his childhood and as a young adult that could have led to insight into the reality of his world, but it wasn’t until he got older did enough of these experiences mature into true insight.  When he got the idea that his world might not really be as he thought, he began to test that insight and it was validated.  This realization then caused him to renounce the world. In fact, he was so done with the world that we was willing to die as opposed to living the lie anymore.

This is similar to any spiritual quest.  One starts with a dissatisfaction with the world and a seeking for something better.  This causes one to examine their world more closely.  In Buddhism this culminates in a realization that the impermanence and suffering in the world are truly not satisfying and feeds the drive to reach a “state” that can provide lasting satisfaction.

In Buddhism we say that samsara will have an end and that all beings will become enlightened because truth is a powerful antidote.  We see that manifest in Truman’s world.  Despite his world continuing to feed him lies, he recognizes truth and goes after it.  In the end he reaches freedom and the Buddhas (viewing audience) cheer.

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Groundhog Day

This is the first post in a series on my favorite spiritual and/or Buddhist movies.

Groundhog Day is one of the best illustrations of the idea ogroundhog day movie coverf cyclic life (samsara) and how we are trapped.  This comedy, released in 1993, has Bill Murray redoing the same day over and over and over again.  He starts out a semi-nasty character and follows along on that tract trying over and over to seduce Andie MacDowell as he repeats the same day over and over.  He mingles in crime and debauchery.  He reaches a state of desperation and then, over time, he lets go of his unethical ways and begins to embrace goodness until finally he wakes up one day and time has begun to move again.  He has become, free from cyclic life!

The movie is a perfect illustration of the slow process of enlightenment.  This slow process guarantees that all sentient beings will become enlightened and leave cyclic life by a process of trial and error.  Not unlike Bill Murray, we will all eventually learn what doesn’t bring us lasting happiness and will discover what does.


Samsara is the Sanskrit for “cyclic life” or korwa (Tibetan)

The definition in Tibetan is:
sakche nyerlen gyi pungpoy gyun yagne yangdu lenpa ni korwa yin

which is translated:

Samsara is the condition of having to take on, over and over again, a stream of impure parts (heaps or aggregates) which were forced on you.

The Tibetan word pungpoy refers to something like a heap or pile.  The Sanskrit is skandha which is usually translated as aggregates.

The Tibetan word nyerlen implies that you are forced (by karma in this case) to take on the impure parts.

The idea of samsara and being forced to be reborn is central to the Buddha’s teachings and in contrast to some spiritual schools of thought that believe we choose to come into this world in order to learn lessons that we have likewise chosen to learn.  This is an interesting samsaric idea, but closer examination of the mind reveals how little choice we have in our unenlightened state.

Enlightenment marks the end of samsara as evidenced in the Buddha’s words:

Through countless births in the cycle of existence I have run, not finding although seeking the builder of this house; and again and again I have faced the suffering of new birth.

Oh housebuilder! Now you are seen.
You shall not build a house again for me.
All your beams are broken, the ridgepole is shattered.
The mind has become freed from conditioning; the end of craving has been reached.

—Dhammapada XI. 8&9 (153&154)