Recently saw Parasite—a brilliantly whacky and over-the-top satire on class relations. If you haven’t already, I’d say it’s worth checking out.
The title of the film points to its primary theme and central ambiguity, expressed nicely here in one review:
Who are the real parasites? The poor who attach themselves to the rich or the rich who suck the marrow of the poor? Or is the system itself the parasite, drawing its energy from the turbulent interaction between rich and poor?
The visual symbolism employed by director Bong Joon-ho is heavy-handed enough so as to cast the movie into something like a parable, fairytale or morality play. Its moods range widely, from resigned melancholy to near-slapstick comedy, to tragedy and B-horror flick—and back again to comedy.
Throughout it all we’re invited to reflect upon class dynamics: real, imaginary and/or hoped-for.
The Best Plan
Another theme that’s drawn through the scenes of Parasite is the virtue and/or pointlessness of “making plans.” Again and again we see how the best-laid plans—carefully crafted by the various characters—go sideways or completely off the rails. None of them ever bear fruit in exactly (or even close to) the way that was hoped for.
The conclusion that the film seems to lean toward is expressed in this way by the character Ki-taek, in somber conversation with his son:
“You know what kind of plan never fails? No plan. No plan at all.”
In other words: The best plan is no plan at all, because without a plan there can be no disappointment.
But this is not the liberated “free and easy wandering” of a sage—moving effortlessly in spontaneous alignment with the Tao.
Rather it’s a “no plan” born of psychological resignation—of feelings of abject powerlessness, hopelessness, defeat. In this way, the film consistently flirts with a nihilistic outlook.
In one of my favorite scenes, from later in the film (and phrasing here so as not to be a spoiler), a main character begins laughing uncontrollably at pretty much everything and everyone in his life.
What he finds especially humorous, it seems, are people who present themselves in rigid identification with their social roles: as detective, doctor, etc.
It’s as though this character now sees clearly the absurdity of such theatrics—and is no longer fooled by them. The construction and enactment of a social identity has become transparent to his new understanding. He can no longer take them seriously.
To my ear, this was the film’s most liberating moment. It represented a breakthrough into the “space” beyond class and all other social identities. Though the character was portrayed as being a bit crazy—i.e. psychologically unstable—he was actually manifesting deep wisdom, if only for a time.
The most poignant scenes of the film are its final two—which unfold quickly (within about five minutes) and leave us pondering questions such as:
* To what extent can our intentions, our plans, the things we hope and imagine for ourselves, actually come to fruition?
* And to what extent does our happiness depend upon our various plans working out as we imagine them?
Overall, Parasite invites its viewers to consider not only questions around class dynamics, but also big-ticket issues regarding destiny and free-will:
* To what extent can we not only imagine but actually manifest (to some degree or another) specific body-mind-world circumstances?
* To what extent (if any) can we shape and transform our experience?
In relation to nondual spiritual inquiry, questions such as these dovetail with those related to body-mind cultivation techniques—and the role they may or may not play in realizing our true nature, or fully integrating such an insight into our daily activities.
We’ll circle back to this issue below. But first let’s take a metaphoric stroll through the grounds of the Australian Open …
Double-Faults & Aces: The Australian Open
The tennis fans among you will already know that it’s Australian Open time! In fact, the tournament is now drawing toward its apex—with just a few players left standing.
Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say that among the players (256 in total) who received a place in the men’s or women’s main draw, each and every one is a world-class athlete—even if they were eliminated in the first or second round of play.
And becoming a world-class athlete requires years and decades of practice—of cultivation of the skills associated with playing a tennis match. Players practice their serve, their ground-strokes and their volleys. Many also employ visualization and other mental techniques to help improve their performance.
And I’d guess that all 256 of these tennis players have—at least once—clearly imagined themselves winning the Australian Open, and hence being honored as a Grand Slam champion. Yet each year, only one man and one woman raise the winner’s trophy.
Yet a majority of those who don’t win a given tournament will continue to train, to hone their skills, with the intention of improving their game and returning to the same competition next year.
Cultivation v. Perfection
Improvement in relation to any physical or mental skill-set has limits. Even so-called “perfect” athletic performances include mistakes. If there were no mistakes, there could be no tennis matches or any other athletic competition.
Tennis players, for instance, strive to serve as many aces as they can. But if they served only aces, there would never be reason to practice ground-strokes or volleys—because every point would be won on the serve.
Likewise, if “perfection” of ground-strokes meant that players never hit the ball out of bounds, then once a point commenced, it would never end …
The point is that improvement of skills happens on a continuum. Success is not defined by 100% perfection—which, within the realm of phenomena, is simply impossible. And the game of tennis (and all other games) requires this impossibility.
Individual instances of failure—e.g. hitting a serve out of bounds—don’t undermine the possibility of a gradual improvement of the skill, over time. A player’s overall percentage of aces can increase, even though—at any particular moment during a match—they may serve something other than an ace.
Cultivation of body-mind skills is generally not an either/or proposition. It happens along a continuum, and improvement can be formally measured only by taking a wide view, e.g. by observing changes over months or years.
Imagine making this argument: “If a tennis player could actually improve his or her serving skills, then he or she would serve aces all the time.”
We might phrase this statement a bit differently: “If a tennis player could truly influence how they serve, then they would serve aces all the time.”
Or perhaps: “If a tennis player could choose how they serve, then they would serve aces all the time.”
Immediately we feel that there’s something about this logic that is faulty. But what is, exactly?
To continue our exploration, let’s present the argument in three distinct stages:
- If a tennis player could choose how they serve, then they would serve aces all the time.
- Tennis players don’t serve aces all the time.
- Therefore, tennis players don’t actually choose how they serve.
Again, we recognize this as faulty logic—though perhaps it’s hard to say where specifically the mistake is being made. To help us out, let’s take a look now at some common logical fallacies, and how they apply to this particular example.
Happy Thoughts, Aces & Hasty Generalization
Once again, we’re considering this argument:
“If I could influence my tennis serve, then I would serve an ace every time. Since I don’t serve an ace every time, therefore this means that I can’t influence my serve.”
Parallel in structure, though applied to the subtle phenomena of thoughts rather than the cultivation a physical skill-set, is this argument:
“If I could choose my thoughts, then I would choose only uplifted, positive, happy thoughts. Since not all of my thoughts are happy thoughts, this means that I don’t actually choose my thoughts.”
Now it’s fair to notice that these two arguments employ two different verbs—viz. influence and choose—whose implications can be quite different. And we’ll consider these potential differences below.
But for now let’s have a look a some common logical fallacies, beginning with hasty generalization, that can help us clarify our thinking.
1. The fallacy of hasty (or faulty) generalization happens when we reach an inductive generalization based upon insufficient evidence. We make a rushed conclusion without considering all of the variables, or draw an expansive conclusion based on inadequate or insufficient evidence. We assume that a single data point defines (or invalidates) an entire statistical pattern.
In terms of our tennis example: If I base the conclusion that I have no influence whatsoever over my tennis serve upon the observation that I don’t hit an ace every time that I serve—I’ve succumbed to the fallacy of hasty generalization.
Why? Because the “evidence” of a handful of missed serves does not support the general conclusion of having no ability whatsoever the improve my serving.
2. A related logical fallacy is the fallacy of composition, which occurs when we assume that what’s true for a part is necessarily true for the whole.
In terms of our happy thoughts example: If I assume that the unhappy, discouraged quality of a handful of thoughts defines the overall quality of my thinking (i.e. my general mindset) then I have succumbed to the fallacy of composition.
Why? Because I have assumed that what’s true for a part (viz. one thought) is necessarily true for the whole (of my mental tendencies).
3. In the false dilemma fallacy, we exclude the possibility of an in-between option or a continuum of possibilities.
In terms of our tennis example: If I assume that the only two possibilities are (1) hitting an ace every time I serve; or (2) having no influence whatsoever over my serve—then I have succumbed to the false dilemma fallacy.
Why? Because cultivation of an athletic skill-set happens along a continuum.
Within nondual spiritual traditions, the most well-known of false dilemmas is between eternalism and nihilism. In terms of our daily living and psychological outlook, a similar false dilemma would be between determinism (the eternalist view) and utter chaos (the nihilist view).
For those of you who are interested, here’s a more extensive list of logical fallacies, presented in colloquial language.
Choice & Influence
What we know from our own experience is that physical and mental cultivation is indeed possible. Influencing of thoughts, words and actions can and does happen, over the course of time. If it didn’t, then cultivation of a skill-set—within an athletic, musical or intellectual context—would be meaningless.
The influencing and shaping of body-mind-world circumstances happens. It doesn’t happen in a purely deterministic fashion—but neither is it completely chaotic and hence hopeless.
The possibility for transformation and/or freedom lies in avoiding these two extreme views.
While we may not be able to deterministically choose a particular outcome in the moment (e.g. to hit an ace), we can, over time, skillfully influence a habit-pattern (e.g. our overall percentage of aces).
That said, the gateway to ultimate freedom, causeless joy, and the only true perfection lies not in exploring the possibility of choice and influence—but rather in asking who chooses?
The question of “who” is doing the choosing or influencing takes us into an Absolute level analysis, which is best kept separate from relative-level analyses. When these two levels of analysis become confused, we end up making another logical error—namely a category mistake: applying Absolute-level criteria to relative phenomena, and vice versa.
See also: Do I Choose My Thoughts?
Influencing happens, shaping our body-mind-world circumstances happens, choosing happens.
Our only real mistake is to assume a permanent, separate, autonomous “self” that is the chooser and doer of such actions. This is the extreme of eternalism.
But it’s also a mistake to assume that not-finding such a permanent, separate, autonomous “self” implies that influencing and choosing can never appear. This is the extreme of nihilism.
The possibility of true freedom lies in between ….
Returning once again to the characters in Parasite, we might consider ways that their plans could have been more skillfully executed—to better achieve the results they had intended.
We might also wonder about the difference between (1) inhabiting a social role with both authenticity and playfulness; and (2) casting ourselves as a completely fantasized/fictional character, with the intention of manipulating or harmfully deceiving others.
In relation to Buddhist philosophy, this harkens back to the Three Natures of Existence—and in particular the difference between the imaginary and the dependent natures.
Once we’ve seen through all roles as being constructed (i.e. dependently-arisen), what does authenticity mean in relation to inhabiting these roles?
From an Absolute point of view, any rigid identification with a social role is a form of pretending to be something that we really aren’t. Perhaps only by holding such roles very lightly—and thus remaining transparent to our true identity (as Pure Awareness)—can we inhabit them in a way that might be called “authentic.”
But let’s consider the case of someone (like the characters in Parasite) who intentionally impersonates, say, an art therapist—while lacking any actual training in this field. Clearly this person knows that the role that they’re playing is not real.
Is such a person more or less authentic (or deluded) than someone who has actually received formal training as an art therapist—and now firmly believes that who they are essentially is an art therapist?
Perceived & Perceiver
So what have we learned?
In relative contexts, influencing happens! Shaping happens! Intentional transformation happens!
And … an Absolute-level analysis will reveal: nothing happening, and no one actually doing anything.
In other words: if we go looking for a separate, autonomous, permanent body-mind “me” who is the doer of such actions, we will not find such an entity. Nor will we find any separate “cause” or “effect.”
Nevertheless …. As long as we remain clear that various forms of cultivation are happening within the realm of the “perceived” rather than the Perceiver (aka Pure Awareness)—it’s fine (and potentially really fun) to engage in the creation of new skill-sets, new body-mind habits, new living environments, etc.
While such phenomena can never formally “cause” nondual insight, they can perhaps set the stage—and later be enjoyed simply as forms of celebration, as ornaments upon this causeless peace and joy.