"When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter."- Phil Connors
That is a line from the funny 1993 Harold Ramis film "Groundhog Day. It stars Bill Murray as a egotistical and cynical weatherman Phil Connor who is sent to Punxatawney, Penn., to cover Groundhog Day. He rather be anywhere than near that darn groundhog. He's accompanied on this trip by Rita (Andie McDowell), the segment producer. Because of a snowstorm, they are forced to stay another day. When he wakes up the next morning at 6am (with Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You Babe" on the clock radio), he discovers that it's Groundhog Day all over again. Everyone and everything is the same except for him. And it keeps happening over and over, day after day after day.
Just like my review of the film "Harold & Maude", this film also has a Buddhist theme. According to Buddhist critic Tom Armstrong, its "the greatest Buddhist movie ever made".
I really enjoy this film and upon re-watching this past weekend, you yourself will feel like your stuck in a time loop and want to catch the next greyhound bus out of town for good. But more importantly, you can see that change is possible. The kind of change that affects you, your environment and your karma.
You leave the film thinking, man Phil is one enlightened guy! Phil is not a god. He never says he is but believes he's like a god. But he's an ordinary person like all of us. We may see what he was able to accomplished as extraordinary (like having super powers or something, which I will address in a upcoming post), but its fact is not. Phil perfectly depicts what a Bodhisattva is.
So we know that Phil relives the same day over and over again. The same events happen, day in and day out. But how is he like a Bodhisattva? As witness his journey into the Ten Worlds (some say his character is in a time loop for about 8.5 years or more) ,he begins to realize that in order to break this cycle he needs to change himself. Here is what we know about Phil and a general sequence of events that happen to him:
- He's not a nice guy, arrogant, insincere, egocentric.
- He cannot believe the day is repeating itself, aggravated.
- He tests how far he can go without ever paying for any consequences for his actions (punching out a man, overeating, robbing money), "I don't worry about anything anymore".
- He has fun getting information to use the following day to take advantage of people, testing his memory of events.
- He uses the same tactics on the segment producer Rita so he can woo her.
- She repeatedly slaps and rebuffs his advances.
- He looks terrible, tired and defeated, and figures he has to stop the groundhog so Winter could end
RITA You want to try one that's a little sweeter?
PHIL That's as sweet as I get. I'm outa here.
- He drives off a cliff (with the groundhog in tow) to his suppose death
- He survives that so begins his quest find other ways to off himself (stabbed, poisoned, hanged, frozen, jumps off a building, burned, electrocuted.
- He thinks he's a god because he survived all of those attempts and tries to convince Rita by telling her all the things he knows about her, Punxatawney and its people.
RITA I'm just amazed. And I'm not easily amazed.
PHIL About what??
RITA How you can start a day with one kind of expectation and end up so completely different.
In other words, change you, change your environment.
To me the turning points happens when he's with Rita flipping cards in a hat and he says that its always the same day, February 2nd and there is nothing I can do about it. Rita tells him:
"I don't know, Phil. Maybe it's not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it."
Later when she falls asleep, he speaks from his heart to Rita and says: "It doesn't matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life. I'm happy now."
- Now he wakes up with a different more positive attitude.
- Learns how to play the piano, ice sculpt, speak french, attempts to save man' life who once before he completely ignored.
- Saves a kid falling out of a tree, fixes a flat tire for a bunch of elderly women, helps a choking man, shows his piano playing abilities at the groundhog banquet..slowly but surely impressing Rita.
- He unveils his ice sculpture of Rita and says "I'm happy now because I love you no matter what happens.
- He wakes up again, next to Rita...its a brand new day, February 3rd
"Groundhog Day" really illustrates the Buddhist concept of samsara, the continuing cycle of birth and death that ordinary people undergo in the the world of illusion and suffering. Buddhists regard this suffering one must escape. This rebirth is referred to as "transmigration in the six paths." The six paths are the realms of hell, hungry spirits, animals, asuras, human beings, and heavenly beings. Unenlightened beings are born into one of the six paths in accordance with their actions in their previous existence; when the present life is over,they are reborn in the same or another of the six paths, REPEATING this process so long as they fail to free themselves from it. Sound familiar? Freeing oneself from transmigration is our goal. The causes for such transmigration are regarded as ignorance of the true nature of life and selfish craving. In order to free yourself from this, you must awaken to the truth of your life and eliminate selfish craving, which leads to attaining nirvana.
The film also illustrates the Buddhist concept of attachment. Because of our attachment to ignorance, hatred, greed or things outside ourselves, we are never satisfied. And the more attach we become, the more we experience misery, complaints and doubt.
Phil awakened to the truth which is why he would be considered a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is one who aspires to attain enlightenment or Buddhahood and carries altruistic practice. Phil displays this in many forms when he begins to give back, save lives and more importantly shows compassion for the citizens of Punxsutawney. In Nichiren Buddhism, one can attain Buddhahood in your present form and completed in a single lifetime. Phil goes through the lower ten worlds over and over and in the end, finds happiness and satisfaction in devoting himself to relieving the suffering of others. His early selfish actions (bad causes), did not yield good results (effects) for him either. When he began to embrace his life, his existence- he changed the people around him. They were magnetized to him or as we say attracted to his high life condition. And as a result, finds a genuine love relationship with Rita.
Many may wonder how he gets there. One could say because he really heard what Rita said and changed his perceptions when he stopped trying and began to care or when he stopped making bad causes and surrendered to the truth of his heart. I like to think its because he had a omamori with him (traveling case that holds your Gohonzon) in his room or somewhere, he was shakabukued. And after every failed day, he chanted to find clarity and wisdom. It was trial and error each time but he finally found the key to unlock his suffering. Here the eightfold path is evident. He had the self-awareness, optimism and courage to change his life. We all do. Its about acknowledging that the mistakes we make, can be improved upon and by making one small or big change, you can significantly achieve whatever it is you want. In other words, you are ultimately responsible for your own happiness.
According to Dean Sluyter, the author of Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies, the film repeat parts of the same day forty-two times, or six weeks, exactly the time we will wait for winter to end if the groundhog sees his shadow. “In other words,” he said, “we are the groundhog and we are afraid of our own shadow, a shadow created by light. That light is truth, reality. Ultimate truth, then, is not a bummer. It’s nothing.”
But that can't be done if you stay in your groundhog shadow because you will never see the Spring. He saw Winter has an opportunity, a challenge to change himself and his environment. And as we learned from our Buddhist practice Winter never fails to turn into Spring.
By Seleus Blelis