Jnanavaca, the Chair of the London Buddhist Centre, often draws inspiration from films. Here he tells Maitreyaraja about some films that have particularly influenced him – and his practice
Maitreyaraja: What was the first film that you really enjoyed?
Jnanavaca: I remember being taken to see Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I think it was a half animated, half live-action film about magic and magicians and witches. I can just remember a football match between some animals. I don’t remember much else but I know I was thrilled by the sheer magic of it all. And I remember being convinced that Katie, who lived across the street and who was a little bit older than me, was a witch, because they had a broomstick in their house…
Can you tell me about a film which you feel has changed you in some way and why?
A film that has recently changed me in some way is Sunshine, Danny Boyle’s science fiction film about a group of astronauts. It’s set fifty years in the future; the premise is that the sun is slowly dying and this group of eight astronauts has been sent to reignite it. They’ve got a massive nuclear bomb attached to their spaceship and the idea is that they’ll fire that into the sun and reignite it. And of course one thing after another goes wrong and it even turns into a bit of a horror film towards the end. But I was very affected by it. I don’t think it’s a brilliant film, but visually it’s very beautiful. In the film you see some really beautiful images of the sun of the kind I guess you’d see from the Hubble space telescope. There’s even a sense of something more than beautiful – of something sublime. There’s this scene in the film where you see the transit of Mercury, a tiny black dot just crossing the sun. And the effect on all the astronauts is a sense of wonder at the hugeness, the vastness, the beauty of the sun. After seeing that film, the sun kept appearing in my meditations, and I realised that it had become a symbol for me. A symbol of the transcendental, I suppose. And of course it makes sense: the sun as the source of all life. But also the sun as something incredibly beautiful and attractive which you can’t stare at, and which if you approach it directly and get too close it’ll burn you. So it’s a symbol of spiritual death for me: to approach the sun, you have to die.
as you move towards the goal of Enlightenment you have to deal with the darker aspects of the psyche
All sorts of things happen to the astronauts. Some of them die heroically and some of them are more cowardly. But there is this sense that the sun is mystifying, beautiful and entrancing, a sense that they had to approach it; it was a kind of inexorable movement towards something that they knew could kill them. So there was something very beautiful and moving about that. I read the film as an allegory of the spiritual life, but most people I’ve met haven’t seen the spiritual dimension of the film. I don’t think it’s just me making it up! So for me all of that spoke very deeply about the Dharma life, the spiritual life – not on a particularly conscious level, but afterwards I realised that some of these archetypes had been sparked in my mind. So for example, there’s a character who goes mad and tries to murder the others. Critics have said that the film loses its way in that last act, but for me even that can be read allegorically: if you approach the light, shadows will be cast, just as if you practise the Dharma and move towards the goal of Enlightenment you will have to deal with the darker aspects of the psyche.
Any other recent favourites? Perhaps you could pick out just one or two for us.
The first I’ll mention is a documentary called Nostalgia for the Light. It’s a Chilean film. It’s set in the Atacama Desert, in Chile, the highest desert in the world and also the driest place on the planet, with zero humidity. Because of its climatic conditions it’s a world centre for astronomy. One strand of the film is about astronomers looking for meaning through exploring the universe: the further out into the universe you look, the earlier you’re looking in time, so you could say that they’re looking for the origins of the universe, and through that a sense of who we are. Another strand of the film, a very powerful one, concerns the fact that, because there’s so little moisture in that environment, things are preserved, so you’ve got archaeologists looking at remains from some of the earliest human civilisations. Thus you’ve got this other journey, backwards into time, into early human history, and a question about who we are from that perspective. And then the third, even more powerful strand, is from more recent history, going back to Pinochet’s dictatorship. During his time in power, many people were ‘disappeared’ victims of his regime, and many of them were buried in mass graves in the desert. It’s said that there are still bodies preserved there. The film focuses on the women who scour the desert digging for the bodies of their loved ones – sons, fathers, husbands – and it’s very moving because these bodies do turn up. There’s an interview with some of these women, some of these relatives who lost their loved ones to Pinochet’s regime – so the film becomes a meditation on what it is to be mortal, on the human condition, on human cruelty and human suffering and the fragility and the pain of that. And the film weaves these three strands together beautifully. I was moved to tears by it. ■