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Breaking the cycle: Groundhog Day and Samsara 
2nd-Feb-2010 03:00 pm
religion

I love this day. I love this day because I love the movie that goes with this day, and the reasons I love this movie change with every viewing. It really wasn't until today that the possibility of a link to Buddhism even occurred to me, but when pointed out it was so obvious I nearly laughed out loud.

Harold Ramis, the director of the film and one of its writers, said last week that since it came out he has heard from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and that the letters keep coming. "At first I would get mail saying, 'Oh, you must be a Christian, because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief,' " Mr. Ramis said during a conversation on his mobile phone as he was walking the streets of Los Angeles. "Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it, because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation center for 30 years and my wife lived there for 5 years."

Groundhog Almighty - Alex Kuczynski
I'm no teacher, or even a true scholar of Buddhism. I just try to follow the Way because I think it provides me with my best shot at happiness. So much of my own opinion is uninformed and lacks confidence. Instead, I chose to read a lot and share some of what I read around my own infantile thoughts.


The primary rule of Buddhist humor is that you never laugh at someone else’s expense. But, rather, laughter arises when we realize our futile attempts to escape the first noble truth. Pointing to our common bumbling deluded nature—with humor—apparently relieves some of the suffering. Ramis has done that in most of his films, but especially in Groundhog Day, where he seems to be saying, ‘This is what it’s like. Every day is the same thing; we make the same mistakes over and over.’ Ramis is always trying to shatter our ordinary take on reality, to reveal hidden dimensions. He is trying to create what Buddhists would call ‘beginner's mind.
Wes Nisker, quoted in And if He Sees His Shadow... By Perry Garfinkel
To live is to suffer - that's the First Noble Truth. Phil Connors knows this because he starts the film with a life filled with suffering. He dislikes his life, he dislikes the people around him, and he gives them no reason to like him. Life repeats itself; literally, in the case of reincarnation, but also in the repetition of apparently identical days we sometimes consider ourselves trapped in. And extra-literally in the case of Phil, who finds himself trapped in one day that loops over and over again. It moves in a loop, but it's not still. Things happen; both bad and good, and they happen over and over and over again. And we suffer in a cycle - the cycle of samsara.

At first Murray's character responds with bewilderment. Then he despairs and begins to treat life as a game: he risks his life and gorges on food, expressing both his sense of hopelessness and his growing recognition that, no matter what he does, time will reset itself and he will wake up as if nothing had happened.
...
But as the days pass endlessly into the same day, this half-empty character finally finds a purpose in life: learning everything he can about his female producer, Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, so he can pretend to be her ideal man and seduce her. When that fails, and his efforts net him slap after slap, day after day, his despair deepens and he begins to spend his days killing himself. He kidnaps the groundhog and drives over a ledge into a quarry; he takes a plugged-in toaster into the bath; and he jumps off a building, always waking up whole in the morning.
Groundhog Day: Breakthrough to the True Self, by Ken Sanes
Suffering is caused by unskillful attachment - this is the Second Noble Truth.We can't stand the bad things that happen to us because we're too attached to the good things. Phil suffers through his cycling day because he was attached to the idea that he'd leave Punxsutaney tomorrow; later he suffers because his attempts to seduce Rita aren't having the result he wants. He complains about a good day he once spent with a girl, and how it was that day: he's too attached to yesterday and tomorrow to enjoy the  endless today he's experiencing.
While Phil initially struggles with the idea that he must endure the same day over and over he gradually learns to accept it. This epitomizes the Buddhist belief in accepting reality and suffering known as Dukkha, an unavoidable part of life. By accepting his situation, Phil grows in compassion and understanding and starts to change his reactions.

A Buddhist Interpretation of Groundhog Day by Sanja Blackburn (archived)
It is possible to end suffering - this is the Third Noble Truth. It is possible to let go of the attachments that cause suffering and it's possible to end the cycle of endless rebirth and reach nirvana. Phil eventually breaks free of Groundhog Day; we know he will because it's a story and stories have to have an end. I don't think anyone watches the movie without knowing that Phil will escape - it's the how, that's important. Not the destination, but the journey.
Phil exemplifies the bodhisattva (literally, "being of awakening"), the sincere traveller on the Buddha way, devoted to the unending work of saving all sentient beings. As Phil saves every citizen of Punxsutawney, so the bodhisattva saves every living creature in the world. Naturally this goal is impossible (notice how Phil cannot save the old man), yet it is also impossible for Phil or the bodhisattva to refuse the challenge.

Groundhog Day the Movie, Buddhism and Me: Franz Metcalf

The Eight Fold Path is the way to ending suffering - this is the Fourth Noble Truth. I'm not going to individually treat every part on the path in this post; it's enough to say that the eight parts are loosely grouped into three: wisdom, ethical conduct and mental development. Phil needs to go through all three to escape Groundhog Day.

Wisdom is given to him at the start - that's the wisdom that he's in the cycle. All the other characters show up and repeat the day over and over again, but they're unaware of it. Phil knows he's in a loop because he remembers. That's what separates him from everyone else; not that he's repeating the day, but that he knows he's doing so. His wisdom isn't perfect at the beginning, and requires development throughout the film, but knowing about the loop is what first gives him the chance to escape.

Mental development and ethical conduct come later, not completely independent of each other but not totally linked either. Phil devotes time to learning piano and ice sculpture and poetry and a number of other things he ends up accomplished - some for selfish ends, some for personal fulfillment and some because they help him help people. By his last day, however, he's also given his day up nearly completely to helping people - to saving the lives he can save and improving happiness where he can - and in doing so he finds happiness for himself and Rita begins to actually love him.

And then, just as hereaches the pinacle of wisdom, development and ethical conduct, he breaks out of the cycle and is free to live in his Nirvana.

Groundhog day is the 2nd of February - that's today, for those wondering why I'm talking about it. I don't much care what somebody said a rodent did or didn't see, and I don't mind how long I have to wear coats for. But I do hope to sit down tonight, enjoy a great movie, and remember to live for today, because it might be the only day I get.
Opinions 
2nd-Feb-2010 11:23 pm (UTC)
I've always loved that movie and I've never really understood why. I think this post explains a lot of why I instinctively liked it, without knowing why. It's been quite a while since I've watched it. If I can find my DVD copy I'm so watching it tonight, thanks for this post!

Can't believe it came out in 1993!
3rd-Feb-2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
Great post. I love finding the spiritual implications in films and TV shows that don't wear their spirituality on the surface.
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