Dharmic Dimensions in "The English Patient"
by Alison Ross
"The English Patient," the award-garnering 1996 movie based on the novel by the same name, is one of those hypnotizing, multi-layered gems that humble the viewer into lauding the very creation of films. The movie, set near the end of Wolrd War II, concerns a charred plane crash victim who nostalgically narrates to his nurse the tale of his fateful romance with a married woman. The film style invokes the golden era of movies, with its sweeping scenery, quixotic reliance on romance, and intimately drawn characters.
But the film also has a less discernible dimension. As I see it, "The English Patient" is literally suffused with Buddhist themes. Whether this was intentional is unclear, but I don't think any observant viewer can deny the movie's intrinsically spiritual milieu.
The book also radiated some patently Buddhism themes, and so I was glad to see it carried over into the movie incarnation. In the book, specifically what struck me was the Indian character Kip's Zen-like meticulousness in defusing bombs. This is not as tangible in the film, but you do see a certain Zen-esque serenity in Kip's manner. Of course, Kip is a Sikh, a religion which mingles mystical Hindu and Islamic qualities.
Buddhism can be seen most predominantly in the story's concentration on the absurdity of boundaries. Again and again this theme is brought up. Buddhism believes in the interdependence of humanity and nature. Yet, we insist on continually demarcating ourselves by class, ethnicity, citizenship, species, and so on, and this serves to divide, to sever and separate us. This, according to Buddhism, is the cause of our immense suffering, and what leads us to war with one another. When nurse Hana expresses her delight in meeting someone from her country (Caravaggio), Almasy, the burned patient, bridles at her: "When you meet someone on the street at home, do you invite him to live with you?" Hana counters that in wartime such things are important, but Almasy dismisses it as foolish. Where we come from does not matter in his mind (and according to Buddhist thinking); we are united by our humanity, not where we reside. But our fierce clinging to country leads to jingoism, which foments war.
There are many more references to the inanity of boundaries sprinkled throughout the film, but the one that stands out the most is when Katherine, Almasy's paramour, writes, in a letter to him, "We are the real countries, not the ones drawn on maps by powerful men."
Another Buddhist theme in "The English Patient" is the transitory nature of life. All things are incessantly in flux; nothing lasts. Hana learns this several times over through the death of her loved ones. First her boyfriend dies, then her best friend. When she begins to care for the burned patient, she knows he too will die, but she does not turn back. Instead, she plunges into caring for him, to nurture him to his death. She is not, as Almasy wrongly assumes, determined to keep him alive - she knows his demise is inevitable, which of course all death is, and forces herself to confront it. A further cause of our suffering, according to Buddhism, is that humans strain against change, and we most especially insulate ourselves against death. But Hana has finally accepted death, and is the stronger for it.
The English patient, similarly, has embraced death. As we see from comparing the flashback scenes in which he is healthy, handsome and haughty, with the post-burn scenes in which he is physically mangled and yet more self-reflectively personable, Almasy is markedly different after his plane crash. He has had a kind of existential epiphany: he sees through the veils to the multifarious ironies of life. He is able, then, to view everything with a sense of amusement and detachment, indeed a Buddhist quality. Enlightened beings are dispassionate and lighthearted, and the patient embodies these traits in many ways.
And this brings us to yet a third theme, that of ownership. Throughout the film, the characters talk of owning and possessing, alternately embracing and condemning (but mostly condemning) the notion. And of course this ties into the issue of boundaries. Buddhism holds that when we cleave and grasp and try to possess, we are only deluding
ourselves, because things and people are innately not ownable and possessable. Our ephemeral nature actively resists ownership. We strive to own that which we hold dear because we are so afraid of losing it; but lose it we will despite our tenacious efforts - all things die, nothing remains. Instead of grasping we should just "let go," and our suffering diminishes. Hana is sad when the patient dies, but not as solemn as she might be had she denied the inevitability of his death. Conversely, Almasy is ripped apart by Katherine's death, because he clung so ferociously to her. Though he claimed to detest ownership, he became rabidly obsessed with Katherine and tried in vain to "own" her. In the end, of course, he is set free when he comes to terms with her death.
The fact that the patient had only one thing in his possession(Herodotus) echoes the Buddhist theme of minimalism (i.e., eschewing material items); the spacious, seemingly boundless desert summons again the idea of no boundaries; and sand and water are traditional metaphors for transitoriness. These are additional Buddhist themes in "The English Patient."
"The English Patient" is quite saturated with Dharmic principles, and the film is all the more enjoyable when viewing it through this distinctly Eastern lens.