Full Moon Day: Asalha Puja: Lights, Camera, Kamma

July 17, 2008


Lights, Camera, Kamma


Kamma or Karma means ‘action’. More specifically, intentional action. “Intention is kamma” said the Buddha (A.III,415). Kamma Vipaka is the result of action. Kamma is of two types: kusala and akusala – skilful and unskilful, respectively. Skilful actions are beneficial to oneself and others, unskilful actions are harmful to oneself and others. Skilfulness, of course, is understood in regard to the development of the Buddha’s path to freedom from suffering.

What are some of the effects of an actor’s or performer’s actions, both on the audience and on himself? Are their actions kusala or akusala?

One of the most famous comedians in England of recent times was Tommy Cooper. He made a lot of people laugh, but at what cost?

His final performance, I believe, was initially successful. People rolled about in their familiar bouts of hysterics. But then came an extraordinary sketch which at first proved to be uncannily real. It turned out it actually was. The flailing figure on the stage, with his characteristic red Moroccan fez, was in the middle of this piece when all of a sudden he slumped to the floor, clutching his chest. The audience roared with laughter. He was having a heart attack; they thought it was part of the act. So there was this dying man, gasping for breath and desperate for help, and the only response he got was pointing fingers and howls of laughter.

Doesn’t this make you think? That nightmare was his own creation.

There was once an actor who went to the Buddha and said that he had been told by his teachers that there was a special heaven that awaits actors. He asked the Buddha if this was true. The Buddha declined to answer. A second and a third time the man asked. On being pressed the Buddha eventually replied: For one who incites their audience to greed, hatred and delusion, a life devoid of happiness awaits.

The world is turned upside down. What people praise and look up to is often base and unskilful and productive of suffering. What people look down upon and criticise is often virtuous and noble and productive of happiness.

What is an actor’s prime objective? – to delude people. Look at a film. It’s not real! Yet the people involved in its production try their utmost to make it appear real. It is crafted in such a way that we are drawn in and taken on a ride of emotion; of defilement. The emotions that we feel during a film can be overpowering: from outpourings of relief when a certain character avoids death, to the depths of sadness when he dies. And yet none of what we are seeing is real. It’s all completely false. Those actors have created these emotions, these defilements, in you, out of nothing. They are, as the Buddha said, creating in the viewer greed, aversion and delusion – especially delusion. And what is at the root of our suffering? – delusion, the quality that prevents us from seeing the true nature of things and being truly happy.

Occasionally I look at the online version of the the Daily Telegraph. The other day I couldn’t help but notice – due to a pretty ghoulish photo – some articles on the now deceased Heath Ledger in his role as the Joker in the latest Batman film. One piece showed a selection of reviews of Ledger’s performance. What a fuss people are making! He’s now an icon. “Sensational…” “Genius…” “Electrifying…” “…he is pure, powerful, immense… a force of … nature.” But what else do we read? – “Terrifying” “…his very presence on screen makes you horribly nervous.” — Look at the powerful mental states this actor has created in the minds of his viewers. He is responsible for those reactions, for dragging people further away from mindfulness and wisdom, from an understanding of the nature of their own minds.

And what sort of icon is this? But yet all these actions are praised. He is the actor to emulate. And actors are seen as gods. This is how the world is turned upside down.

So the effects that an actor or performer can have on his or her audience are not skilful. But what effect does doing all this have on the actor himself?

Again, I’ll use Heath Ledger as an example.

Someone described an interview with him, either during or after the filming of him in his role as the Joker. Apparently, as they sat there, his eyes darted about the room, never quite meeting his interviewer’s. He had some object in his hand that he fiddled with ceaselessly. The writer said that it wasn’t hard for him to believe that at any moment this person could leap to his feet and kill everyone in the room.

It sounds as if Heath Ledger had been adversely affected by his performance as the Joker. Apparently he spent six weeks locked in a hotel room perfecting every nuance of his character’s terrifying and convulsive behaviour. And then of course he died of an accidental drug overdose not long after.

It doesn’t sound like the poor man was on the road to wisdom and happiness.

And how do comedians fare? Well, look at Tommy Cooper’s last moments. They are very telling. Thinking of the famous comedians of the present and recent past I should say that ninety-odd percent of them have all been deeply troubled individuals – Spike Milligan, John Cleese, Stephen Fry, Lenny Bruce, Kenneth Williams. But again, these suffering individuals are placed on society’s pedestals. Their personal agony only serves to enhance their status.

Not many people care to look into these matters of kusala kamma and akusala kamma.

Come you all and behold this world

Like an ornamented royal chariot,

Wherein fools flounder,

But for the wise there is no attachment.

Dhp. XIII 171


Today is Asalha Puja, the day when we remember the Buddha’s First Sermon. It’s so important that we know what the Buddha taught in this sermon. In short, it was: This is suffering; this is the origin of suffering; this is the cessation of suffering; this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.

Tomorrow begins the annual three month Rains Retreat – the Vassa. I’m not sure I’ll determine to drink just the one cuppa a day again, but I will definately be increasing my personal retreat time.

As I’m going to be seeking solitude a little more I’m going to update Dhamma Diary less frequently during this period. Now It’ll be on every New- and Full-Moon – that’s once a fortnight.


The next Dhamma Diary will be on:

The New-moon day, Friday the 1st of August.


5 Responses to “Full Moon Day: Asalha Puja: Lights, Camera, Kamma”

  1. ant said

    Very good, thanks. It just points out that following the worldly dhammas can lead to self destruction, although the world is all too busy sensationalising itself senselessly, heedless of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Look forward to the next installment. Metta, Mr Power

  2. I think films – like books, like bars, like opera – are all ways of spending time in a way that largely avoids the issue. You are born, you will die, and you don’t want to, particularly. They are diversions. I think the suffering and sadness of our current society is heightened by our exulting of such diversions at the expense of contemplation.

  3. Justin said

    “But again, these suffering individuals are placed on society’s pedestals. Their personal agony only serves to enhance their status.”

    This is quite true and quite twisted if you really think about it. Greed,hatred, delusion and self destructive behavior are looked up to in todays society. This is why Ajahn Mun referred to customs outside the customs of the Buddha and the Noble Sangha “the customs of people with defilements.” Ajahn Thanissaro once gave a talk where he asks us to look at the culture we live in the way an “anthropologist from mars” would so we don’t get swept away by all the insanity. Best of luck to you in the Vassa.

  4. Tahn Manapo said

    “The customs of people with defilements.”

    I thought that needed repeating.


    Tahn Manapo

  5. Hema said

    This is so strange. I was having the same conversation with a friend last night and read it here today. provided much insight. thank you

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