Sunday, February 3, 2013

Groundhog Day Dhamma

OK, stop throwing shade. I know I'm a day late on this. But when was the last time you knew of a gay man showing up on time for anything? I thought so. I was caught by surprise anyway to learn that it was already Groundhog Day. Somehow I envisioned this momentous event occurring a bit later. Had I known I would have thrown a special fete and bought a new shirt or something. Well, I did buy a couple CDs yesterday.

Anyway, while I was on a stationary bicycle at the gym trying to burn off some portliness I had accumulated during my absence from exercise the past six weeks because of a broken foot, I happened to see on the television screen on the stationary bicycle next to me (yes, those mini TV's are ubiquitous at just about every gym these days) Bill Murray in the scene from the movie "Groundhog Day" when he wakes up the day after Groundhog Day and realizes that he's finally broken the cycle of the same day being repeated over and over, leading him to nearly lose his mind.

Wow, that was a seriously long sentence.

But the point is when he wakes up on the morning after Groundhog Day, he realizes that he can move forward now. The joy it brings him is sublime. He experiences a satisfaction so supreme that he remains motivated to continue walking the same path that led him to cease being the self-centered and selfish prick he had been at the start of the movie.

I have always thought that this movie presented the principle theme of the Bhaddekaratta Sutta extraordinarily well.

o_O What has a movie featuring a corpulent rodent and an insensitive man who continually alienates himself from others because of his lack of compassion and empathy to do with the Buddha's Dhamma, you ask?

A lot more than you may think. And this movie is also instructive when you think about some of the other teachings of the Buddha I mention frequently in my blog posts.

Bill Murray's character, Phil, is a crass and insensitive television meteorologist who has the hots for Andie MacDowell's character, Rita, his producer. But Rita wants nothing to do with Phil because he is crass and insensitive. In fact, Phil's relationships with others are so poisoned by his flippant selfishness that his co-workers tolerate him solely because on air, his audience loves him.

People who are unlikable do not become unlikable in a moment; rather, such a person creates this persona over time with the way he or she manifests his or her intentions into actions or words while interacting with others. It is usually a gradual process, much like slowly adding salt to a large glass of water. If you add one salt crystal to the water, you will not taste it. But if you continue to add salt to the water, it will eventually become so salty it is undrinkable.

Phil is a glass of water so salty that no one wants to take even the merest sip. And the point is Phil has done this on his own through his interactions with his co-workers. As expected, he continues to behave the way he does with the expectation that others will accommodate his selfishness and self-absorbed ego as he and his crew travel to cover a weather forecasting "rat," as he calls Punxsutawney Phil.

And then a curious thing occurs. When Phil wakes up the following morning, he soon realizes that it is Groundhog Day all over again. The next day, the same. And the next day, and so on. Phil becomes frustrated because like many of us, he has always expected the world around him to accommodate his actions and character. But the world suddenly refuses to budge.

Slowly, Phil begins to adapt, shown when he learns to avoid the puddle he always steps in every morning. And he begins to see an opportunity to change, although his motivation remains selfish: he wants Rita.

Nothing wrong with starting a new path when motivated by selfish reasons. The point is to strike out a new path and stop doing everything the same way while still expecting different results. Much like the Buddha's teaching to his son Rahula, Phil reflects on his actions and the likely consequences they bring. He seeks a specific result - that Rita will fall in love with him - and so he gradually modifies his actions and his speech until he develops the behaviors that lead him to his desired result.

Along the way, something completely unintended occurs: Phil develops compassion. This is shown through his futile efforts to save a local homeless man and prevent his ultimate death. Phil believes, based on everything else he's been doing, that he can find a way to create a different tomorrow for this homeless man, but despite his repeated efforts, the man always dies.

Phil learns to let go. This is extraordinarily important. Because if Phil doesn't learn to let go, then his initial selfish motivation to change won't fully transform into real human compassion. But he does let go and his desire for Rita is no longer motivated by greed. Phil learns at last how to live within the moment, becoming fully aware that how he behaves right now is creating his future.

You shouldn't chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past
               is left behind.
The future
               is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see right there,
                  right there.

Just as the Buddha taught, Phil eventually realized the opportunity he had to change the direction of his karma, to ultimately erase his karma. We all have that same opportunity to do that. Every day is a new opportunity to become more aware of the present, another chance to relinquish our grip on the past, and recognize that what we think, say, and do in this moment will shape our future.

This is Buddhism. This is the path I strive to follow.


  1. Letting go is a tough one for me. One of my biggest faults is the inability to give up, even when it's clearly a lost cause.

    Thanks for this article.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Letting go is difficult, it is the nature of clinging and the source of dukkha.