Buddhism Today: A Clash with Modern Values

Dana Bustamante

In "Incense", director Ning Hao makes a comment on the state of traditional Buddhism in modern China. He portrays a disspirited, empty setting in which old Buddhist values are replaced by modern values of materialism and capitalism. Ning Hao portrays how modernity is inescapable, even for the most spiritual characters, such as when the monk's old master is shown polishing a brand new motocycle.

The film is shot from the Buddhist's perspective, emphasizing the modern lifestyle's emptiness and lack of spirituality. One main ideal of Buddhism is the elimination of all attachment to the material world in order to achieve enlightenment. The city dwellers replace enlightenment with material goods. Not only are they disspirited, but Buddhism itself becomes lost and empty. Ning Hao represents Buddhism in shots of a scarecrow in a cold, empty, snow-covered field. Later, the Buddha statue's head is placed on a scarecrow body, symbolizing the hollowness of the new Buddhism. In the capitalist economy, Buddhism is commercialized and becomes a hollow commodity produced for the paying masses, who buy it in a desperate need for spiritual fulfillment. The monk is reduced to selling himself and his religion, first as a fortuneteller, and then as a Feng Shui master, to get money for the new statue.

The film also depicts the insidiousness and corruption of the capitalistic economy and culture of materialism. The monk is arrested for begging alms, an honest activity, because he is outside the temple. Later, he receives no consequence from the authority for lying about being a fortuneteller or conning a couple into paying 3,000 yuan for a 15 yuan joss. However, although Buddhist ideals are all but destroyed by modernity, karma is still a factor. The monk is beaten up after his fortune telling stint, and his money is stolen. In the end of the film, it is announced that a road will be built where the temple stands, after the monk finally gets his new statue (paid for with dishonest money). Ning Hao presents an idea that justice, lacking in the modern system, is still provided by karma.
The abandonment of true Buddhism (as opposed to a commercialized version) is universal for all characters in the film. Because it conflicts with the more attractive materialism, it is wiped out, or altered in order to conform to materialism. The city is filled with people pursuing money, material goods, or some sort of material or physical validation of their good deeds. For example, when the monk first begs in the city, people gave him more money when he recorded their names on a donation tablet. In Buddhism, karmic retribution requires no physical record. Other hints of the new capitalistic economy include announcements for a department store closing (reaffirming a focus on material goods), and two speakers practicing a speech on social progress and change.

The film portrays the great paradox of the new Buddhism both as a religion and a way of life. The religion teaches that desire, based on the material world, is the cause of human struggle. In becoming a commodity in itself, the new Buddhism goes against the traditional teachings. Traditional Buddhism is proven true in the film. The monk's original desire to fix his shoe caused the statue to fall and break, leading to greater desires and greater consequences. This slippery slope is rooted in the new capitalism which Ning Hao presents as harmful and corrupt, and leading away from truth. This view is not only relevant today around the world, but true. Modernity, namely capitalism, materialism and industrialization, is rapidly replacing many traditional values and belief systems. From a Buddhist perspective, this materialistic lifestyle leads to struggle. From other perspectives, however, the film might be very different, portraying the new age as providing greater opportunities for personal success.

Dry Spell

Caitlin O'Brien

Though director Ning Hao made admirable efforts with a low budget, his movie Incense failed to bring forth an intrigue. The plot was dry, the lack of dialogue dragged the movie on, and overall the movie lacked any focal point. Incense did not evoke sympathy for the monk; in fact it caused frustration towards the dematuration of the monk.

For a film that is one and one half hours long, over 1/4 to 1/2 of the movie contains no dialogue. With some directors, they use silence to their advantage; character's movements become more complex and are able to tell the story. But Ning Hao lacks movement, beauty, and grace. His character, the monk, is essentially a silent character that cannot persuade anyone to give him money. The vulnerability of his character is evoked, and draws a weakness in the movie. His silence towards other characters does not strengthen Incense. Ning Hao failed to create unique scenes from the silence. He did not use his simplistic plot to his advantage. The silence did not make the movie more interesting; it made it boring and lengthy. If he had been able to evoke some emotion, some familiarity from the silence, the movie could have been a success.

Ning Hao also chose several scenes that did not aid the plot. Situations that the monk was in seemed like they were going to lead him somewhere, ended either in failure or are never resolved. There is a scene when the monk is in jail with three prostitutes and they try to help each other out. The monk drives one prostitute home, and it appeared that she would help him, but he just walked away. He wasn��t walking away from her help, he just forgot about her. The scene, like several others in Incense, is left unresolved. It was frustrating, as a viewer, to question where these hopefully interesting scenes were going only to have them disappear amongst the movie. Ning Hao fails to have a resolution, which detracts from the overall outcome of the movie.

There is no maturation of the monk in the movie. He actually becomes a worse monk from the situations he puts himself into. He lies when he says he is a physic, just to make money. All of his cheap situations detracts from the innocence and draw to the movie. What he wants to accomplish, buying a new Buddha, essentially fails because he does not do it honestly. Monks are supposed to be honest, good people, and Incense fails to represent a real monk. It makes the movie hard to watch, and hard to believe that this could really happen. Ning Hao does not make the movie easy to watch because he fails to represent a truthful monk.

Incense does not provoke any sense of intrigue. Its slow moving plot, lack of dialogue, and faulty characters create an unsuccessful movie. Ning Hao tried, with what little provisions he had, to create a unique movie, but the product failed to live up to the expectations of a good movie. The movie was too slow, and could not be successful because the storyline failed to provoke interest.

Ain't Karma a B*$%h!

Jose Hasemann

Picture a Buddhist monk, a bit dejected and with a general aura of discontent about him. He almost resembles the live stock the village cares for more than he does a man. The monk tackles on his daily routines, praises Buddha and tries to keep something that resembles dignity and order in a broken down temple. In the temple you find a statue of Buddha, paint and decorations fading, with very view offerings at its feet, and with a branch at its side for support. Everything seems to be going as it should, as the monk drags himself to the outside of the temple. Only today, wasn't to be an ordinary day, only a few moments later the statue crashes on the ground and lies shattered. The unexpected but overdue accident sends the monk on a quest for money to repair the statue, and the viewer on a journey that makes faith highly suspect.

It becomes clear that Karma is a key player in the life of the monk. He gets warned at first, with slaps on the hand and then Buddha decides a smack across the face would work better. The whole process of alms begging becomes distorted in short time. The monk begins to ask for money under the pretense that he is keeping those who donate on temple records. This defies the whole concept of an unselfish act of love like those performed by Buddha. But it is not the people that donate which are in question but the monk. After collecting all the money he would need in almost no time he gets stopped by the police, mostly because he was unfortunate enough to walk besides a police officer waving his wad of money. The money gets taken away and he leaves empty handed. A sign(?). He then tries to scam people through fortune telling (wrong on various levels, one he was being dishonest, and two he was taking someone else's lively hood), works wonderfully until the day is over and he gets beat up on the basis of tax collection. The final straw comes when the monk decides to take advantage of a man's weakness for religion and desperate need for hope. He blesses the abode and hands them a 2 yuan statue that has been blessed by the high priest himself and charges 3,000 yuan for the flim flam.
The Monk gets a beautiful statue with the 3,000 yuan he got from his little con act. The statue is even adorned and with a few offerings. At first you want to sympathize with the monk and understand why he did such a horrid thing. It really seems like the monk has gotten away with the scam, and its his turn to be milking the capitalist order. (If you have something people want, they will pay dearly for it, nobody said you can't make them want it). It was about time he got a break anyway, right. Wrong. In the middle of celebration city planners intrude to plot the land for a highway, unfortunately the temple is in the path of the construction and has to be demolished. In the end, all it comes down to is the monks sick ploys and ill begotten money that lead him to his demise. He never had the communities religious well being in mind, but his own apathy towards labor.

Throughout the film the Monk resorts to authorities (public and religious), friends, and townspeople, in the end turning to ploys and tricks, which sets the monk up for the inevitable. In this particular film there are two recurring, palpable, themes: the first being the stinginess of the people Buddha gives so much to, and I believe the second to be the monk's "devotion�� to his job. By devotion I mean his own conscious understanding that he is a leech of the system and that he (not the temple) can't survive without a statue. Of course, it is the beauty of irony and the monks work (a lot more subtle, but throughout the whole film) that makes it worth watching all the way to the end.

The Monk and the Money

Greg DeCarolis

With Incense, I believe that director Ning Hao is trying to make a statement about what is considered sacred in modern society. The monk has the purest of intentions: to repair a statue of Buddha so that the villagers may worship. However, in the course of getting the money, he does some dishonest and very ��un-Buddhist�� things. So does the end justify the means? The movie is a commentary on how prized money is in modern society, which of course can be expanded to a commentary on capitalism in China. I am somewhat reluctant to make this jump, however. I think it is underestimating Chinese directors to say that all of these movies are about the shift from communism to capitalism. They can certainly be read that way, but it makes it seem as though there is nothing else to discuss, and that cannot possibly be true.

I am going with the message about money and sacredness in modern society. This movie presents two interesting contradictions that serve as good talking points. First, and most obvious, is the fact that the monk uses some dishonest tactics to get money for the statue. He starts out honestly at first, but eventually is forced to pose as a fortune-teller and palm-reader. The contradiction is that he is supposedly doing this all for the villagers, which is a noble cause. To borrow a phrase, lying for Buddhism is like fucking for virginity (pardon the language). Would it not be better (in terms of Buddhist philosophy) to simply let the statue stay broken if it requires dishonesty to repair it? We see here that the monk has a second motive; he must repair the statue or else he will either have to move or join secular life. So the monk has his own problems to worry about, but that still does not justify a monk of all people violating Buddhist practices.

The second contradiction is the whole idea of the villagers paying to have their sins (killing the sheep they raise) removed. This is not just a Buddhist notion; one of Martin Luther��s major qualms with the Catholic Church was the use of "indulgences," or monetary gifts aimed to absolve one��s wrongs. Given this system, it calls into question what is really considered sacred. Sure, the tenets of Buddhism are important, but the money must play a big role as well, if it is required for absolution. Sure, the monk wants to serve his faith, but his own livelihood obviously comes first. Of course, his faith is his livelihood, but I doubt he would be looking after the temple if there were no money involved. I would venture to say that money is just as sacred to the monk and the villagers as Buddhism itself. If that were not the case, a broken statue of Buddha would really not be that big a deal.

The thing I like most about the movie is the ending. I feel very little compassion for the monk because he doesn't stick to his principles. So when the temple is marked to be dismantled, and the monk is left standing in the road, I feel like justice has been served. Ironically, that end does justify the means. The monk used ill-gotten money to fix up the temple, and keeping all things in balance, the temple must be destroyed. Of course, in the world of the film, the demolition would have happened regardless of whether or not the monk got the money at all. In that case, the collapse of the statue could have been read as a sign that the temple itself was destined to collapse.

Buddha Dropped Dead and No One Noticed

Chris Seeds

In the independent film Incense, a Buddhist monk is trying to obtain money from the government to fix his Buddha statue. He tried to beg alms from local towns people in order to raise money, but the police caught up with him and thought that he was just begging and that he was not a real monk.

The main theme of the movie is the clash of traditional Buddhist values and the new modern way of living. It is this loss of traditional values that cases the monk to question his motive. He is living in a town where everyone takes part in the slaughtering of sheep, which is a taboo in the Buddhist religion. I think that the Buddhist monk, in this case has been reduced to just an image of the older China. Most people still believe that his cause is good, but none of the government officials were willing to give money to him to fix the statue. I believe that the Buddhist religion still has a foothold in the culture, but it has lost its purity that it once had in the past. An example of this is when the monk goes to see his master at another temple, and he finds him busy cleaning his motorcycle. The Buddhist religion teaches against being materialistic and obsessing over worldly goods.

In this film the Buddhist religion has been reduced to a symbol of old China, everyone accepts that it is there but no one really pays attention to it. At the very end of the movie government contractors are surveying the property where the monk's temple is on, so that they can build a road though [through] there. It seems as if he is the only one in this little environment that really cares for the traditional values.

Throughout the movie there are many instances in which the Buddhist monk is questioning his devotion to his religion such as when he lies to the couple about their happiness/marriage and when he tries to get money from different people. Even after seeing all the different aspects of modern society, prostitutes and gangs for example, he still is focused on getting his temple fixed so that people can come and worship.

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