Constantine... the Constant Bodhisattva?

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, Feb 18, 2005

Singapore -- John Constantine (played by Keanu Reeves) is an anti-hero exorcist of sorts, who was condemned to redeem himself from hell after his failed suicide - by fighting angels and demons who step beyond their prescribed boundaries to win "souls" into heaven and hell.


These other worldy half-breed denizens are supposed to only tempt and influence for better or worse, but not force humans to be good or evil. Yes, we are the ones who decide to be good or evil. The so-called "original sin" of our fundamental ignorance is our personal responsibility, not a problem inherited from any mythical ancestors. There's afterall no point in pointing fingers at anyone else if we are not actively resolving our present misgivings.

Life is indeed too precious to give up by suicide, which only condemns us with further perpetuation of suffering rather than liberating us. It is thus a big no-no in Buddhism. Uncannily parallel, according to Buddhism, suicide can indeed land us in a hellish afterlife. While alive now, we are all Constantines in the sense that we fight demons too - these diabolical ones we fight day in and out are our inner demons though, not external ones. A Buddhist saying goes, "One who has no evil cannot be harmed by evil", evil being attachment, aversion and delusion. Evil is won only by the overriding by their opposites - generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. As sure as darkness gives way to light, our defilments cannot exist when we choose the virtuous alternatives in the moment.

Why should our "inner angels" be guarded against too? Well, lest they become demons too. Lest we become attached to selfishly amassing merits from doing good. Lest we practise compassion without wisdom. "To avoid evil and do good" forms only the first half of the Buddhist path to salvation. A key difference between the Buddhist approach to liberation from other religious paths is the crucial practice of "purifying the mind", which entails the realisation of the emptiness of conceptual thinking, of letting go of attachment to good while doing good, of renouncing aversion to evil while avoiding evil. A terrible mistake made by the angel Gabriel, as featured in the movie, was to be so attached to doing good that he became evil in goodness' name.

Of course, the afterlife realms of existence are not as simplistic as that portrayed in the movie. Life after death is not just one-stop eternal heaven or hell. Buddhist cosmology explains in rich detail the entire spectrum of planes of existence between the deepest Avici Hell and the highest formless Heaven of "Neither Perception Nor Non-Perception." Yes, afterall, life and death, and human-nature is not a black or white matter. There are infinite shades of grey in between. "A place for every being and every being in his place." Generally grouped, what lies between the poles of the Heavens and Hells (Depending on classification, there are up to 26 heavenly planes and 18 hell planes!) are the ghost, animal, human and asura realms. These worlds, while sometimes described as otherworldly dimensions of being, are also mental states we entertain from moment to moment within this very life. As human beings caught smack in the middle of this spectrum of planes, we are sometimes filled with hatred and fear like a hell-being, sometimes with constant craving like a hungry ghost, sometimes burning with rage and jealousy like an asura and sometimes spiritually complacent like a god. Which dominant half-breed are you? A human hell-being, human-ghost, a human-animal, human-asura or a human-god?

Constantine speaks of his existential discontent that "the wager between heaven and hell is on Earth (the movie's tagline)." This wager is us, human beings, who were supposedly condemned by a illusory God to come into being without personal choice, to wrestle with the forces of good and evil so as to win heaven. It questions the logic and benevolence of such a God, whose existence is clearly refuted in the light of the Buddha's teachings. As spoken by the Buddha in the Bhûridatta Jataka,

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why does he order such misfortune
And not create concord?

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why prevail deceit, lies and ignorance
And he such inequity and injustice create?

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Then an evil master is he,
Knowing what's right did let wrong prevail!

Constantine struggles hard to win a better afterlife because he assumes it's either eternal heaven or hell as his final destination. But can there justly exist an eternal heaven or hell? No, according to the Buddha. Karmic justice means no one deserves to be condemned forever, as evil done in one lifetime, no matter how great, is still not infinite, and thus does not deserve infinite karmic "punishment". True justice means we are to take as many rounds of rebirth as necessary to reform and perfect ourselves, to be liberated from life and death. There is no need to believe in a governing "God" for we are the lords of our lives. Let us take heed the Dharma then, and be mindful with our thoughts, words and deeds. We are the ones who condemn ourselves to hell, who win ourselves heaven, who ultimately free ourselves from Samsara (the cycle of birth and death) altogether. No one redeems us but us. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, however, with their infinite Compassion and Wisdom, are always ready to guide us, if only we choose to be guided with the Dharma. In fact, even in the darkness of the hells right now, are countless Bodhisattvas who do their best to shed light on the path to transcend suffering! What overwhelming Compassion!

It is my personal wish to see that Keanu Reeves, who played the Buddha in "Little Buddha" and the Bodhisattva-like Neo in the Matrx trilogy, who is a practising Vajrayana Buddhist in real life, would someday make a movie involving the colourful details of the planes of existence as introduced above. How about a modern day Buddhist fable for our times perhaps, not of "Constantine, the reluctant accidental 'messiah' of mankind", but of a "Constant Bodhisattva", who willingly chooses, out of great Compassion, to be reborn in the various planes to guide sentient beings to Enlightenment! I can see it now... the next Hollywood blockbuster. The next great film trilogy perhaps... of a quest for the universal awakening of all beings. Well, with the rich abundance of classic Buddhist stories and all, why not?