“Scriptures enter the world not passively but actively through their ability to scripture persons”
On the surface, the movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring(2003, directed by Kim Ki-duk) is a coming-of-age narrative that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of a character from boyhood to adulthood. Yet there are deeper layers to this deceivingly simple story which can only be apprehended through a more careful look at its inherent symbolism. The cycle of the seasons, implying birth, death and rebirth; the quiet flow of the mirror-like lake, reflecting the colors of the sky and promising redemption and rebirth; the silence that overflows the air. Meaningful are also the animal and mineral worlds which signal that the story is going to take effect in an all encompassing level.
The beautiful setting is a tiny monastery floating in the middle of a lake where a young monk lived with a Buddhist monk since his childhood. The movie narrates the story of how the wayward apprentice becomes enlightened. Through the cycles of the seasons, we witness the young monk’s very special trajectory towards enlightenment. In the process, he succumbs to love and lust, runs away from the monastery and, years later, ends up killing his wife. Hopeless and enraged with his life, the tormented man finds his way back to the floating monastery where, through very trying probations, he will resume his path to Buddahood.
This movie can also be approached as a Buddhist take on the myth of Sisyphus. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus had disobeyed the gods and was punished to roll a rock up a hill for eternity, only to watch it fall right back down, endlessly repeating the task.The film explores this motif well by suggesting that we are all tied up by something that prevents us from thriving as human beings. As a child, the apprentice displayed a sense of cruelty towards animals by tying a rock around their bodies so he could see them struggle. The older monk punishes the boy by applying the same treatment: he ties a rock around the boy’s body saying that he could only remove it once he freed the animals. The boy cries when he sees what he had caused to the animals and the monk tells him that he will carry that stone in his heart for the rest of his life. The monk was right in both symbolical and literal senses: as an older man, the now redemptive monk climbs a hill with a rock around his body, struggling to accomplish the mission of taking a statue of Buddha to the top. Much like Sisyphus, he understood that carrying that rock up the hill was a way to atone for the wrong choices he had made in life. What marks the difference between him and Sisyphus is that the monk at the end attains enlightenment, whereas Sisyphus is left with the senseless task of dragging the rock up the hill eternally. Both cases can be interpreted as metaphors for the human condition depending on our perspective.
Maybe more importantly for the purposes of this text, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring provides a persuasive example of how Buddhist scriptures enter the world. As an illustration of expedient teaching, the old monk asks the student to carve out the letters of the Heart Sutra with the same knife he had used to kill his wife. The carving of the Prajnamparamitra represents a turning point in the student’s trajectory in that it leads him to finally find his Dharma. He had to carve out the words of the Prajnamparamitra with his blood to understand its teachings.
Time passed like the seasons… and Spring came again. The old monk had died and now the apprentice became the master of the monastery. The Dharma was practiced. The Dharma was realized. The student became the teacher.