The Buddhism of 'Benjamin Button'

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, Feb 6, 2009

Dharma-Inspired Movie Review:

Singapore -- 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' is based on a 'simple' premise. How would one (Benjamin) who lives life backwards (born old and dies young) experience it? Ben is not a hero; and not even an anti-hero – he is really the everyman who lived life with an extraordinary condition.

Though fantastical, the story remarkably highlights realistic themes on the significance of life and death. Reflecting on life in reverse seems to spur more insightful hindsights (literally) on itself! Below are some to share.
Meeting in the Middle

Daisy, Ben's love interest remarks when they are both in their prime that they are finally 'meeting in the middle'. The truth is, we are always 'meeting in the middle', in the flowing river of time. Buddhism sees the present moment as the centre of time's passage, which is but a measurement of change. We are always smack in the centre, between the past and the future. In fact, now is the only moment we have. There is no need to pine for the transpired past or for the unshaped future, while every moment taken care of now creates happy memories and a better future.

Existential Crisis

Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be stumbled upon the grim realities of ageing, sickness and death, thereupon becoming bent on seeking the path to transcend the suffering they entail. Though Ben doesn't realise enlightenment, he does become more enlightened in his approach to life. However, his passing, being in the state of an infant, did not hint that he passed in a more awakened state. Then again, there's always the next life to resume the path to enlightenment, and the potential to recall past lessons learnt.
Life as Disease

It is perfectly natural for the audience to feel empathy for Ben's bizarre condition, but should we really feel sorry for him? The truth is, we too are in a similar condition. Ben advances towards death (and rebirth) just as we do, albeit in a physically reverse way. Forward and reverse are relative notions too. We could just as well see our collective condition to be much more bizarre – since it's the reverse of Ben's. Ben did not really see himself to have a disease but this is perhaps our problem too – to not see the unenlightened life as problematic, a 'fatal' existential disease that we die of continually via the cycles of rebirth. The cure for endless rebirths though, is to be found within the same rounds of rebirth.

Direction of Time

A clockmaker creates a monumental clock that runs backwards, in the hope that turning back the clock can bring back the past, to give the young lost at war a second chance to live full lives. In Buddhism, time travel is impossible, since it messes up the intricate network of cause and effect of everything that had happened. However, we can relive the past to reminisce or relearn missed lessons, letting the past transform us in the present, instead of trying to transform the past itself. Even though we die, we will be reborn time and again, till we master all we should learn to transcend life and death.

Unpredictability of Life

To tragicomedic effect, the old man Mr Daws repeatedly asks, 'Did I ever tell you I was struck by lightning seven times? Once when I was… just in the field, just tending to my cows/ just sittin' in my truck just minding my own business/ repairing a leak on the roof/ just crossing the road to get the mail/ walking my dog down the road…' Though the chances of being struck by lightning are infinitesimally small, Mr Daws does remind us that life is not just unpredictable once, but often! As Queenie, Ben's foster mother said, 'You never know what's comin' for ya.' Mr Daws later remarks, 'God keeps reminding me I'm lucky to be alive.' It's unfortunate that he 'needed' to be reminded so many times! But what about others? Ironically, despite Mr Daw's naggy reminders of unpredictability above, most of us are going to forget them soon!

Purpose of Life

Ben's favourite childhood story is one of Rudyard Kipling's 'Just So Stories' called 'The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo', about an animal that wanted to be different from all others. Ben exclaims that "This is just how I am", while Captain Mike later says "You gotta do what you're meant to do." But the question is how should we be different, and what are we really meant to be? In the story, the Kangaroo got more than he bargained for in the negative sense, though what he went through had positive transformative effects too. In Buddhism, the goal is not so much to be different from the crowd, but to be similar to the Buddhas, with perfect compassion and wisdom.

Gods and Monsters

Ben, who was born small but old, was ostracised from birth by his father, who assumed he was 'a creature not meant to last', while Queenie, Ben's foster mother believes that God has his reasons for creating him the way he is, that he is still a miraculous child of God. This prompts some questions. Who is the true monster? The creator of one or the one created? The one who assumes another is a monster or the one assumed to be a monster? Though fictitious, the author F. Scott Fritzgerald has his g(o)od reasons for creating Ben – for imparting many lessons! The inscrutability of a creator who is both a healer and destroyer is illustrated when Ben musters self-confidence (and/or faith?) to walk during a faith-healing session, while the healer drops dead right after.

Youth and Old Age

Perhaps gently touching on the subject of spring-autumn and 'underage' love relationships, Ben's case asks how do we decide if a one is too young or too old to be with someone else, granted that maturity sometimes has little to do with one's years? Some people are 'old souls', not unlike Ben, who despite getting younger physically, was becoming more seasoned with life. Never judge a person by his or her years or appearance! It is also possible to be reborn a child prodigy with ready skills well-honed from a past life. Youth is a state of mind more than the state of one's body. If we are able to live each moment anew, without clinging to self-limiting misperceptions gathered from the past, are we not always young? Though ageing is continual, the changes brought about can be gradual, hardly noticeable. Impermanence of youth does not sneak up on us; it already is happening!

Inevitability of Death

Ben realises that despite his unique condition, death is still inevitable. As his first encounter with death, he is surprised when he discovers a literally 'old' friend to had passed away. He later discovers the deaths of many when out at a war in which he almost dies. Death is seen as an equaliser of all mortals, that cannot be cheated (other than via attaining spiritual liberation). Not only is it eventual, it can come suddenly too. When Ben hears news that his foster-mother had passed on, he did not seem overly grievous or passive; just reflective. Perhaps he had learnt to have a more equanimous Middle Path attitude towards death?

Death Doing Apart

One of Ben's main sources of suffering was to see loved ones already conventionally older than him pass away before him. Then again, in real life, the young often witness the passing of elders too, just as elders sometimes witness the passing of the young. However, as Stonepeace put it, 'Though you might lose your lover (to departure or death), you need not lose your love.' Do we only learn to treasure the beloved when we know they will come to pass? Or rather, we should treasure the beloved now because they are already passing by, changing from moment to moment, even if subtly.

Symmetry of Time

The story of Ben's life illustrates an amazing symmetry of time in terms of the stages between birth and death. Just as we were small and helpless at birth, we get increasingly shrivelled and hapless when old. It's the other way round for Ben, yet the characteristics of ageing are similar. Ben develops dementia when he becomes a boy, not unlike how an old person might become senile. All children should reflect on the truth that their parents meticulously cared for them when they could not eat, walk, defecate or remember lessons properly. If so, what excuse do we have to be impatient towards our aged and sick parents when they can no longer eat, walk, defecate or remember well? The roles of guardianship in parent-child relationship switch in time. Though we began life in baby diapers, we could end up in adult diapers later!

Unconditional Love

Daisy wondered if Ben would still love her when she becomes old and saggy, while Ben asks if she will still love him when he has acne as a teenager. How conditional or unconditional is our love? There is really no way to be sure until the ravages of time transform the beloved to test our love. Paradoxically, love is to accept the beloved as they are, while also accepting that they will change in time to be who they are not now. An attribute of true love is that it must make peace with change, yet be unchanging in its devotion to be continually caring despite these changes.

Letting Go of Life

Into this life we come alone, with nothing, and we will leave it alone too… The cycle of samsaric rebirth is personal, yet common to us all. Captain Mike tells Ben, 'You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You could swear, curse the fates, but when it comes to the end, you have to let go.' True, though the more you are habitually resentful of life while alive, the more likely will you be resentful of life and/or death while passing away. Habits shape us. How we live is going to shape a lot of how we going to leave. As the Zen saying goes, 'To learn to live, learn to die. To learn to die, learn to live.'
Treasuring the Moment

Time seeps away, even as you try to cling to the moment. All we can do is to cherish the present moment best we can. If you love, you might regret (due to eventual loss). If you do not love, you might regret too (for not having cared). The question is 'How to love well without regrets?' As Stonepeace wrote, 'Because everything changes from moment to moment, we should treasure everything in this moment. Because everything changes from moment to moment, we should not be attached to anything in this moment.' Was Ben's wish to remember how Daisy and he were in their common middle-age attachment? Maybe. Compare this with Elizabeth, with whom he had an affair, who simply wrote him a goodbye note that read 'It was nice to have met you.' Ben remarked to Daisy, 'I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.' To which she replies, 'Some things last.' She doesn't say what these things are though. Could it be love? Or memories? What are we doing to create that which endures timelessly? How about the cultivation of compassion and wisdom to benefit one and all, to become more enlightened from day to day, moment to moment?

Renunciation for Love

Ben leaves Daisy and their daughter before she becomes old enough to know him, to form attachment to him. It was also a bid to avoid giving Daisy suffering when she eventually has to take care of him when he becomes a young child. It was renunciation of family not due to lack of love, but out of love. However, as he was still attached, he returns abruptly for a visit, thereby disrupting Daisy's new family (with a new husband) a little, stirring up mixed emotions. True Love lets go in good time. Perhaps he shouldn't have returned - if Daisy was already happy with their past times together? Love can still be love at a distance.

Never Too Late

Ben writes this to his daughter, 'For what it's worth: it's never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There's no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you're proud of. If you find that you're not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.' Indeed! In the course of countless rebirths from moment to moment and from life to life, it is truly never too late to try again, to change, but change must always take place in the now.

Cause and Effect

Ben says, 'Our lives are defined by opportunities, even the ones we miss.' Sounds a tad fatalistic, because our lives are defined by the opportunities we actively create too. Ben writes, 'Sometimes we're on a collision course, and we just don't know it. Whether it's by accident or by design, there's not a thing we can do about it.' He was reflecting on how Daisy could have missed a car accident if some event along the network of events that led up to it was otherwise. In the Mahayana Buddhist context, even accidents are never truly accidental, but are results of the natural karmic interplay of causes, conditions and effects. The good news is that with adequate spiritual cultivation, misfortunes can be minimised or averted.

Hummingbird of Time

Captain Mike talked about how hummingbirds' hearts might explode if you hold their wings still, that they beat in the shape of the sign for infinity. This seems symbolic of how it is impossible to pause the passing of time, which flows on ad infinitum. Hummingbirds however also symbolise stoppers of time due to their ability to hover in a one spot. Of course, this is an illusion, as their tiny wings need to flap furiously… in time! Their ability to fly forwards and backwards also remind us of how we can look back into our past to inspire our future. A hummingbird appears at unlikely places in the story, once at sea and once during a storm. This perhaps represents how the moments were as if frozen in time, to be recalled vividly in time to come? Just as a hummingbird needs to fly mindfully to navigate its way, we too need to mindfully learn from what happens in time, and from the passing of time itself. (If you have more Dharma lessons to share on this movie, please send them to for further compilation!)