My favorite movie since it came out in 1979 is Being There, starring the late Peter Sellers. To adapt a quote by Robertson Davies, it’s one of those movies that one must see in youth, middle age, and old age 1. Well, I’m a couple of blocks from old age and enjoy that movie on a profoundly different level than when I last saw it almost a couple of decades ago.
The movie is about a very simple man named Chance who was cared for by a benefactor who dies at the beginning of the movie and a housekeeper/nanny/cook. It’s never mentioned what their relationship was. We just know the benefactor was much older – Chance referred to him as “the old man”. And the housekeeper knew Chance since he was a boy.
Chance never left the house and seemed to spend all of his time just watching TV and tending to the gardens. Everything he knew about the world was from TV. When the benefactor dies, no one properly represents Chance and he ends up evicted from the home, which happens to be in D.C.
From there, his unworldliness (and I mean that as a compliment) leads him to be almost run over by a car. The passenger of the car is the wife of a very rich, powerful man; a powerful man who is very near death. Chance meets many associates of this powerful couple, who take a great liking to him. His simple approach to life, based on care for a garden, was very appealing, refreshing sage wisdom to those D.C. folks.
No one suspects Chance is really just a gardener, who until a few days before never left his house. He became known as Chauncey Gardiner, when someone asked his name and he replied, “Chance … [cough] … th … [cough] gardener”.
This “sage wisdom” finds its way to the top tiers of the government – sounding profound, but unknown to all he encounters is that it’s based on a sentience knowing nothing beyond gardening. At the end of the movie, it seems Chance is a very viable candidate for the U.S. Presidency. I think what I took away from the movie all those years ago as a young adult was that the world often doesn’t make sense.
Unlike how Siddhartha Gautama was when he left his royal life as a prince seeking something, Chance left the safety of his home when his benefactor died already an enlightened Buddha, not seeking anything – although that’s not quite right because it’s more a matter of Chance’s light never having gone out. He never lost his empty cup and 100% acceptance of what is.
The scene where he is walking down the median of a big city freeway as if it’s a stroll through the woods is a marvelous illustration of the Buddha. I sometimes visualize this as I’m ping-ponged about the busy halls of my workplace or Downtown.
Give it a try. Don’t worry about outcomes, consequences, needing to get somewhere. Just walk. The world won’t come to an end, but you’ll get a nice break from yourself.
As Ringo says (in response to commentary of his drumming), “Don’t mistake simple for inferior.” In the world of functional programming it’s said that complexity is composed on top of simplicity. Complexity built on top of complexity is what human designing, desiring minds have created. But the One is the complex wonder, the self-sustaining system, built on top of the most elegant simplicity.
Watching this movie is a great way to prepare for Bodhi Day. Today, at near old age, I understand it as a brilliant example of seeing what an empty cup, 100% acceptance of what is, and walking the path with no agenda looks like 2. I can’t think of any movie that I as a Buddhist enjoy and relate to more.
1 “A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” – Robertson Davies
2 The core of The Eternal Fishnu’s Teachings is encapsulated in Three Zen Stories, of an empty cup, 100% acceptance of what Is, and walking the path.