The Selfish Monk: Kim Ki-Duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring”

The ancients asked a question we ask too seldom today: How can I live a good life? Not a happy, successful, or important life, but a good one? The answer the Korean director Kim Ki-Duk gives in his 2003 film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring is: live alone, in a house that floats in the middle of a lake that lies in a beautiful, deserted valley. Do not love, do not raise a family, do not seek out other human beings.

My wife Ilana and I saw this exquisite and nearly perfectly-crafted film at the Jerusalem Cinematheque (another South Jerusalem asset) last Monday evening. Its four segments and coda follow the interaction of an elderly Buddhist monk and his young novice. The latter appears in the first segment as a young boy, obedient, fearless, independent, and in possession of a cruel streak. We see him tie stones to a fish, a frog, and a snake, and laugh at them as they struggle woefully against the burden of which they are unaware.

In the second segment, summer, the boy has grown into his teens. A mother brings her ill daughter to the monk to be cured, and leaves her in his care. The boy falls in love with the girl and possesses her. His love cures her—but the cure means she must leave. The boy, distraught, decides to go after her, despite the monk’s warning that lust becomes possession, which in turn leads to murder.

In the fall segment, the monk is living alone. But, as he expected, the boy, now thirty years old returns. He has murdered his wife after finding out she loved another man. He overcomes his anger, does penance, and is led away by two detectives.

In the winter segment he returns, in middle age. The elderly monk has placidly committed suicide on the lake. The boy takes possession of the floating monastery and achieves inner piece. A veiled woman brings him a baby, and the cycle begins again in a short spring coda.

The entire film takes place in the house, on the lake, and in the small valley around it. The landscape is stunning, the peacefulness palpable in the cool colors of the water and the trees. No doubt the story and scenes refer to elements in Korean and Zen Buddhist stories with which I am not familiar, but the film stands on its own without this background.

Despite the beauty, however, the message is disturbing. The film says: maintain your spiritual and emotional equilibrium by eschewing love and human contact (especially with women). The evil impulse within us all will do us in if we dare to engage other human beings.

The peace that the older monk evinces and that the younger one achieves is alluring; who of us has not wanted, at times, to flee the world and live alone. But is this really the way to live the good life? Isn’t it, fundamentally, a selfish life?

I guess I wouldn’t make a good Buddhist. For my money, this is a fine film to see, but not one to live by.

9 thoughts on “The Selfish Monk: Kim Ki-Duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter …and Spring””

  1. It sounds like a nihilistic, ‘Buddhist’ costume drama to me, or maybe a Buddhist ‘Candide’, or perhaps romantic piffle (sorry).

    I am having difficulty with the idea of liking a film with questionable ethics, but it sounds like it had lots of eye candy.

    Surely the only point of any activity is that it should help to live the good life–certainly religion. By entering into the practice you can start to make sense of the world–that is what I expect from my religion (Buddhism). When I listen to other practitioners from other religions that are well regarded in their communities their words resonate with the understanding and knowledge I have acquired through my own practice. I have yet to find a well-established religion–a religion that has existed for many centuries–where this isn’t true.

    So when I come across art or anything pertaining to represent a religion that doesn’t make sense I assume that either the person responsible hasn’t understood something or (much more likely) I am missing something. This is just a roundabout way of trying to explain why I think that all (sincere, authentic) religion boils down to the same thing though they may have entirely different methods.

    Buddhism talks about how attachment to things destroys true love–authentic love doesn’t crush its object (how many parents and lovers have tragically failed to understand this). There are Western Buddhist practitioners that have done many years (one woman 12 years) of solitary retreat. If they thought that they were trying to escape the world then they would have been taught by a ninconpoop who doesn’t know the first thing about the teachings and could very possibly top themselves at the end of the first month (or more likely, give up). The idea is to develop yourself, like an architect in training, or an athlete preparing for a competition. When the meditator comes out of retreat their spiritual development becomes available for others–the motivation for the retreat must be to benefit others (especially in the Mahayana, which Zen is a part); this kind of retreat is necessary for serious spiritual development. The other thing to bear in mind is that the benefits of such spiritual development aren’t for this life only but carry forward for future lives, so it is quite a good investment of one’s time, if you get the opportunity and have the abilities to do it. See the short biography of Dilgo Khyetse Rinpoche. It is just not easy for the modern mind to comprehend what people like this achieve through retreat.

    A good article; it is well to raise these questions.

  2. I don’t know if the director intended such a statement, having not seen the film, but as a student of a Korean tradition of Zen, I can say that’s not what Zen teaches. Therevedan Buddhism might, but not Mahayana and Zen.

  3. I saw that film some time back on DVD and it was remarkable. I was left wondering how one such as the monk could acquire the knowledge he had without living differently than we saw him, in earlier life. As I recall there was no reference to his own early life.

    Questions that occurred to me with the film…

    What is white without black? What is the good life without knowing how the alternative can be? Isn’t learning this what growing up and becoming an adult should be? To be a good parent one must be like the monk in demonstrating a way to live while allowing the young to experiment in their own way. If Junior is growing up just like you then something is wrong. Can blind acceptance of what is taught bring happiness, that is, can ignorance and innocence coexist with real happiness? To be happy one must be able to say, “I know, and therefore I choose”

    I loved the gate to the lake, as open on one side as on the other, with no need physically to go through the door. Yet it was a portal between worlds found in the mind’s eye…a psychic landscape of demands on one side and of acceptance on the other.

    I highly recommend the movie Koyaanisqatsi (Life out of Balance) to be seen with this movie in mind.

  4. This is a common message in Buddhism and can be found in the Pali Canon as well. Keep in mind though, Buddhists live thousands of lives, most of which are ‘normal.’ It is really only the last life (when enlightenment is achieved) that is lived in this manner. But one has to wonder how Buddhism ever achieved a following with a message like this. And I say that as a Buddhist. Sounds like a good movie though. I’ll add that, in general, Buddhism is very disturbing to the Western mind. And it only gets more so the further you go.

  5. My girlfriend encouraged me to respond further, though I hope I can explain reasonably well. I’m afraid the talk of future lives is off the mark. (Buddhism does talk about reincarnation sometimes, but it also teaches that there is no self – so you have to ask who gets reincarnated?) And the talk of “the Western mind” or “modern mind,” as if modern westerners were of a different planet and species, is worse.

    It is true that when we desire anything we become upset when we lose it. And eventually, we lose everything. Whether a happy thought or a sad thought, it moves on. Whether it’s death and dying or just finishing our ice cream, our situation is one where things change and go away. And so we seek to distract ourselves from our situation with tv, video games, or tying rocks to fish. Or drugs or fanatical religion. But these things help momentarily at best and often make things worse for ourselves and others.

    As we grow up, we tend to figure some of this out all on our own. But it’s kind of rare that we really move beyond that without some sort of meditation that requires some sort of radical retreating from the world. Maybe just 40 minutes a day and not a life on a lake, maybe a Jewish kind of meditation instead of Buddhist, but I’ll only make those decisions for myself and let others decide for themselves.

    So, yes, Buddhism does teach cutting off all attachments, which can seem nihilistic. But it also teaches us to go all the way with that. And it teaches us reasons for that. In the end, Buddhism teaches us to cut off attachments to “wisdom” and “enlightenment” and “Buddhism” -exactly as you seem to think it should- so that we can live our life in an authentic way. So we can love people without crushing them because of our fears that they’ll leave or that our love isn’t strong enough.

    So some people become monks at monasteries, and some go off to live in isolation like this monk. Some don’t become monks, but they form Zen Centers in New York and Boston. That depends a lot on the personality of the individual. But these Buddhists all take a vow “for all beings.” That’s Mahayana – that everything we do should be for all beings. But how can a monk go off to live alone “for all beings”?

    I asked a Zen Master about that, actually. “So you could have this big question.” So this monk isn’t living a selfish life apart from the world, but a life for others who would come to visit. And others who would make movies or write about movies and ponder just what it means to live the good life. It’s a teaching technique.

    Not to long ago I heard of a man who asked a monk about becoming a monk. The monk asked if the guy had a wife and family, and when the guy said yes, the monk told him not to become a monk. That’s another teaching technique.

  6. “The film says: maintain your spiritual and emotional equilibrium by eschewing love and human contact (especially with women). The evil impulse within us all will do us in if we dare to engage other human beings.”

    If one learned a little about buddhism and its beliefs, they would realize that the point of Buddhism- and this movie- is NOT “to eschewing love and human contact (especially with women)”. In fact a major component of the religion is to show compassion for all. Its true that one should not become attached to and desire worldly things because nothing is permenant, nothing is eternal, everything changes and having an attachement to something that is inevitably going to change causes suffering. So one is to love the present moment, the here and now, and give themselves fully to what they do at that moment all the while knowing and accepting that it will change.
    This leads to a seemingly love-less, heartless and harsh impression for those who have yet to learn anything about this religion…but after spending time speaking to and learing from peoples of buddhism one can see that in fact they are a very passionate people.
    So before assuming that buddhism and this movie leads to a love-less, heartless, isolated life one should maybe actually look into some of its teachings…

  7. s — Thanks for your comment. No doubt there’s much for me to learn about Buddhism that I don’t know and no doubt I’d appreciate this film more if I knew more about the religious culture it is rooted in. Still, as you yourself say, one of this faith’s fundamental messages is: “one should not become attached to and desire worldly things because nothing is permanent, nothing is eternal, everything changes and having an attachment to something that is inevitably going to change causes suffering.” Here, it seems to me, Buddhism differs fundamentally from Judaism, my own faith, and advocates a principle that I find extremely problematic.

  8. this movie isn’t intended to represent the truth about buddhism–it’s just using buddhism as a backdrop to mix with themes of nihilism and the concept of “no salvation in the end”. don’t make the mistake of thinking that this movie actually represents what buddhists really think. i’d posit that many buddhists would be turned off by this film actually.

Comments are closed.