We were once self-luminous beings who fed on joy, lived in a state of bliss, were made of attention, and could go wherever we wished. But according to the Buddhist story of creation in the Mahavastu, one of us ate a mouthful of the “essence of earth,” and other beings, seeing his pleasure, followed suit. So began our descent. As the beings ate more of this ordinary food, their bodies became heavy, rough, and hard, and all of the luminous qualities were lost.
Where do we find ourselves now? According to the Mahavastu, violence and suffering arise from our appetites, our desire, our greed to feed the impulses of pleasure that have their source in the heavy bodies that cover up our original nature. We live in bodies of desire. But if I catch a glimpse of myself at some random moment during the day, the chances are good that I will find myself in my mind. I will discover that I am daydreaming, or rehearsing a conversation I am about to have or have just finished, or planning my escape from work. I might even be concentrating on some problem that needs my attention, like organizing a lecture or figuring out how to make the month’s mortgage payment. Whatever the source of my musings, this much is true: like so many people, I am living in my head.
In the movie version of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Robin Williams plays the King of the Moon, and through his role he throws into comic relief the illusory life of modern men and women living under a lunar influence. The King of the Moon appears as a disembodied head, floating and spinning in space. He is arrogant, self-congratulatory, cocky, taking his limitless freedom for granted as he coldly and condescendingly imparts his wisdom to everyone below. But there is one problem: he has forgotten his body.
Throughout most of the movie, the king’s body remains offscreen. When the body does appear, it exposes most embarrassingly the illusion of his autonomy: the body, it would seem, has a mind of its own. And the moon, like a kite on an invisible string, is suddenly subject to the powerful tug of the flesh. His body is suffering independently through its own desires and interests, distracted mainly by the pleasures of eating and the body of the queen. The king is split in two—a mind and a body—and out of that split all the inconvenient questions of self-identity, freedom, and unity arise. The king’s unresolved and cyclical suffering speaks for humanity; with him we can say (in St. Augustine’s words):
“I have become a problem to myself.”
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