One could refer to [The Tibetan Book of the Dead] as “The Tibetan Book of Birth.” The book is not based on death as such, but on a completely different concept of death. It is a “Book of Space.” Space contains birth and death; space creates the environment in which to behave, breathe and act, it is the fundamental environment which provides the inspiration for this book.
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead
*Spoiler alert: This post discusses the film Enter The Void. If you are interested in watching this film without having any details or subject matter given away, please stop reading now.
A few months ago, a good friend of mine told me that there was a movie I MUST see, saying that it was THE Buddhist movie of our generation, the On the Road for “people like us” (I’m assuming he meant Western Buddhists who grew up in big cities with all the exposure to drug use, violence, and sexual liberation and/or degradation that entails.) I then heard some not-so-nice things about the film, that it’s pretentious, gratuitous, needlessly long (in typical “art film” fashion), and my personal favorite, “it’ll give you a seizure!” The film is Enter The Void, by French filmmaker Gaspar Noé. Having not gotten around to seeing it when it was playing at a few theaters in the city, I was happy to see it in my local video store this last Sunday.
Described as a “psychedelic melodrama,” the film begins in the first person view of the main character, Oscar, complete with the quick dark flashes of his blinking eyes and his full internal thought dialogue. As Oscar and his sister sit and talk in their apartment in Tokyo, she expresses concern about his drug use and the type of people he’s been consorting with. Oscar then shows his sister the copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead that he is reading, to which his sister replies, “So WHAT, You’re gonna become a Buddhist now? All religions are the same, just a bunch of sects that want your money.”
After his sister leaves Oscar then smokes a hit of dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. DMT is the psychoactive component in the ancient South American shamanistic medicine ayahuasca, and is said to be the very same chemical that the brain releases at birth and at death (and also in smaller amounts when dreaming.) For further reading on DMT I recommend the book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences by Rick Strassman, MD. Oscar’s DMT trip is shown visually, a wild psychedelic display of moving colors and patterns, as if he was peering into a dimension of fractals and living clouds of light [SCENE IS BELOW]. Oscar is interrupted from the trip and brought back into reality by a call from a friend summoning him for a drug deal.
Joined by another friend, the two set off to do the deal. While walking, Oscar asks the friend about The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the friend explains, in very simplistic terms, that is is about what happens when you die, that your consciousness leaves your body, that you go to a place where there is a lot of light, that you re-experience events from your life, that sometimes this experience feels good and other times terrifying, and that the way out is to find rebirth. Oscar asks his friend something along the lines of, “So you mean we’re stuck here in the world living lifetime after lifetime forever?” a question that is a clear allusion to the Tibetan Buddhist cosmological teachings on the Six Realms (the realms of Hell, Hungry Ghost, Animal, Human, Jealous God, and God of which we continually cycle through in an endless succession of lifetimes until we attain liberation), and is an important aspect of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The two then reach the club where the drug deal is to take place and in a bust gone awry, Oscar is shot by the police. This is just the first ten minutes of the film.
The rest of the film takes place in various Bardo realms, although that word is never specifically used. As Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche explains in his piece Bardo Teachings,
The bardo is the intermediate stage between the beginning and the end of anything. The “in-betweenness” is itself the bardo. Therefore we must also understand that there is nothing in all outer and inner phenomena that is not included within the bardo. For example, one bardo is from the moment you are conceived to the moment you are born. Another is from birth until you begin to crawl, and another until you are sent to school, and then another until you finish school. The period between falling asleep and awaking the next day is a bardo, and when you dream, the time from the beginning to the end of a nightmare is another bardo. The moment you start eating breakfast until you finish breakfast—that, too, is one bardo! All of these bardos are classified within the bardo of birth and death.
In the case of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Enter The Void, the bardo realms referred to are mostly those which relate to death, rebirth, and everything “in between.” For example, Immediately after the shooting Oscar experiences the Bardo of the Moment before death. As Chogyam Trungpa explains,
The first basic bardo experience is the uncertainty about whether one is going to die, in the sense of losing contact with the solid world, or whether one could go on living. This uncertainty is not seen in terms of leaving the body, but purely in terms of losing one’s ground; the possibility of stepping out from the real world into an unreal world.
For the rest of the three-hour film, there is no more of Oscar’s internal thought dialogue, signifying that the “experiencer” is simply Oscar’s consciousness and not his, for lack of a better word, ego. Oscar enters a realm of pure light, a depiction of what The Tibetan Book of the Dead refers to as the dharmata bardo, a “luminous void” of “pure naked mind.” After this, the majority of the film consists of Oscar’s consciousness re-experiencing key moments of his life as well as watching over his family and friends after his death. This is the device that is used to push along the plot of the film, most of which revolves around Oscar’s relationship with his sister. Possibly the most true-to-text bardo depiction is the film’s finale, which is the sidpa bardo, or “bardo of rebirth,” which consists of visions of couples having sex while the disembodied consciousness zeros in on a site for rebirth.
So what did I think of the film? I’m glad I watched it. I liked it. However, I wouldn’t argue with the various critical assertions that the film is indulgent and gratuitous. Gaspar Noe is definitely an artist, and it is clear he was just as concerned with being edgy as he was with being profound. Oscar’s sister is a stripper, leading much of the film to take place in flashbacks and disembodied experiences of a seedy Tokyo strip-club. I daresay this was not necessary in a film about the bardo. Even the drug use and DMT explanation/depiction didn’t seem necessary, as interesting and visually stunning as it was. I think the same film could have been made about a simple farmer in small-town America or a fifteenth century Tibetan villager and it would have been just as profound. That said, psychedelic smoking drug dealers in Tokyo die just like everyone else, so Oscar is just as worthy a subject as any.
In conclusion, I recommend reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Whether you are a devout Buddhist that already believes in reincarnation or just someone with a general interest, it is definitely worth reading. If, on top of this, you also like gritty independent art films, then I also recommend watching Enter the Void.