Win the Universal "War of the Worlds"

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, July 1, 2005

Dharma Inspired Movie review:

Singapore -- "No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable."

With the above words began the 1898 seminal classic of H.G. Wells - the Father of all science-fiction alien invasion stories. With these words adapted and narrated for the twenty-first century audience, the 2005 film version of "War of the Worlds" commences. (Read book at The movie tells the terrifying eyewitness account of a man's (played by Tom Cruise) encounter of extraterrestrial invaders and his adventures in keeping his family safe.

Does Buddhism subscribe to belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life-forms? Why not? The Buddha Himself taught us about the vast reaches of the universe and its inhabitants, including realms of existence unseen by the naked eye. Way before the microscope was invented, He once held up a cup of water, remarking that there were 84,000 (a number sometimes taken figuratively to mean "innumerable") beings within!

Riding on towering "tripod" war machines that emerge from the depths of the Earth, the aliens apparently "run" (pun intended) on the same "tripartite" roots of evil as humans - that of greed, hatred and ignorance (the three poisons). Just as the evil tripods caused suffering for humankind, the "tripartite" of evil is humankind's true bane. The aliens' purpose was obvious - to search and destroy, to command and conquer - that's greed. We see them mercilessly incinerating humans on sight - that's hatred. And their fundamental ignorance was not knowing they were vulnerable to the unseen bacteria of this Earth. Being unenlightened sentient beings after all, they are only "human"! The secretly buried tripods are like the hidden monstrosities of our three poisons. As the movie tagline goes, "They're already here." Yes, the true monsters are already here within us; not from outer space.

The alien machines' laser-zapping of the relatively tiny scurrying humans on the streets brings to mind a humbling thought... On the cosmic scale of things, the rights to live for all beings should be equal - these rights should not be relative to physical size or might. Just as the insect-like aliens exterminated humans as if they were pests infesting the Earth, humans seldom spare second thoughts for the "lesser" insects and animals they kill - be it for food, sport or even fashion. Who are we to see these aliens as savages, who also see our savagery to fellow sentient beings?

Thus taught the Buddha, "All beings tremble at violence. Life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should neither kill nor cause others to kill." This brings us to the Buddha's version of the "golden rule" - " 'As I am, so are others; as others are, so am I.' Having thus identified self and others, harm no one nor have them harmed." We are humans who lord over weaker and less intelligent animals, who forgot we are "animals" too, though in the privileged position to protect for, and not exploit the animal kingdom. With merciless aliens in the picture, humans are greatly humbled, no longer "gods" of their universe. In fact, even without the aliens, there are real "gods" beyond our realm of existence, not to mention countless immeasurably superior Buddhas! To realise humility, we only need to zoom out of our tiny egos to the far reaches of this universe - to realise that not only are we not the greatest, the universe does not revolve around us either.

The director Stephen Spielberg commented that he tried to bring in social issues such as terrorism into the film. Which brings to mind an interesting thought... Do we, citizens of this Earth, need an extraterrestrial terrorist-like attack from otherworldly denizens to urge us to abandon our petty wars, to stand united against this one common threat? Do we need global disasters to strike before we realise we are one people? Must world peace come at such a high cost? Spielberg also remarked that great tragedies can bring out the best and worst in humans. In the film, while some calmly unite efforts for everyone's survival like Bodhisattvas, some panic and go berserk, resorting to unscrupulous means for personal survival. The real terror comes not from terrorists, but from letting our own terror take over.

The conclusion of the novel, (rephrased as closing narration for the movie) reads, "These germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things - taken toll of our prehuman ancestors since life began here. But by virtue of this natural selection of our kind we have developed resisting power; to no germs do we succumb without a struggle, and to many - those that cause putrefaction in dead matter, for instance - our living frames are altogether immune... By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth, and it is his against all comers..." One man's air is another alien's poison! Just as humans learnt a painful lesson of humility from the aliens, the aliens learnt an equally painful lesson from "alien" bacteria! Massive collective karmic retribution perhaps?

A frightening thought... Humankind's ongoing tampering with nature through genetic modification and creation of unnatural antibiotics and such might lead to the evolution of new strains of viruses, which not only have the ability to infect and kill animals and humans, which also have the capacity to mutate and lead to pandemic diseases. Mad cow disease, the SARS and Bird-flu viruses were probable results. "Alien" viruses are thus unwittingly "bred" right under our noses on Earth, often out of greed for quick profiteering, and out of delusion of the possible side effects. Will we share a similar fate to the alien invaders in the movie? We can prevent this by supporting natural food and other everyday products we use in life. For instance, to prevent the development and proliferation of animal-related viral diseases, which might also affect humans, go vegetarian! In the web of interdependence, saving the animals can save us too.

What is, as titled, the universal "war of the worlds", of all worlds? You should know it by now! The real war that wages on is the invisible, and thus much more terrifying battle - that within our minds - against the three poisons. How can we win this war? Through none other than diligent study and practice of the Dharma!