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First Winter -- Practice & the Apocalypse

by Patrick Groneman
(follow Patrick on Twitter)

"What do you think, great king? Suppose a man, trustworthy and reliable, were to come to you from the east [..west... north ... south...] and on arrival would say:

'If it please your majesty, you should know that I come from the east [...west ... north ... south...]. There I saw a great mountain, as high as the clouds, coming this way, crushing all living beings [in its path]. Do whatever you think should be done...'

..If, great king, such a great peril should arise, such a terrible destruction of human life...what should be done?"

- The Buddha to King Pasenadi Kosala in the Pabbatopama Sutta.


In the face of tragedy, death, sickness, old age impermanence, sadness, loss, how do you act?

This is the question posed by the Buddha in the Pabbatopama Sutta to a well-meaning king, who is trying to understand how to practice right conduct in a perilous political climate, one where warrior kings, obsessed by greed for sensual pleasures rule "a great sphere of territory on earth."

Sound familiar?

Fast forward to 2011, a well-meaning filmmaker poses the following scenario to his cast of real-life yogis turned actors in the feature-length film First Winter:

"When winter begins, life is serene for a group of new-age Brooklynites living in a remote country farmhouse.  Sex, drugs, yoga, and organic cooking absorb their days, safely tucked away from the stresses of urban life.   But when a blackout of apocalyptic proportions strands them with no heat and no electricity during the coldest winter on record, their utopian commune is breached by anxiety and their idyllic harmony begins to lose its tune.  As time wears on and the food supply dwindles, power struggles, jealousy, and desire threaten the group's ability to work together in order to survive." --  Tribeca Film Festival Write-up by Genna Terranova

The Buddha:  "I inform you, great king, I announce to you, great king: aging and death are rolling in on you. When aging and death are rolling in on you, great king, what should be done?"

The King: "As aging and death are rolling in on me, lord, what else should be done but Dhamma-conduct, right conduct, skillful deeds, meritorious deeds?"

Right conduct, skillful deeds, meritorious deeds.   These are more easily spoken than embodied.   How does one actually practice dhamma when faced with hunger pangs?  With jealousy, delirium and hunger pangs?  With uncertainty as to the state of the world around you -- and jealousy, delirium and hunger pangs?

The Buddha concludes the sutta with the following:

"Like massive boulders,
mountains pressing against the sky,
moving in from all sides,
crushing the four directions,
so aging and death
come rolling over living beings:
noble warriors, brahmans, merchants,
workers, outcastes, & scavengers.
They spare nothing.
They trample everything."

In First Winter the characters, and real-life-yogis who play them, must embody this conduct in the face of "mountains..moving in from all sides".  And though the film has its flaws (what doesn't?), it stands out in our culture of self-aggrandizing creative pursuits as beautifully humble and contemplative. 

There are intimate, loving shots of the natural landscape around the farm, with a subtle attunement to winter's muted-grey textures.  The psychological state of characters are reflected in the film's editing, and the characters are flawed, pompous, jealous, angry and all striving to find some peace and unity in the face of the perilous circumstances.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Tibetan meditation master, described the path of awakening in this manner:

“We are willing to feel empty and deprived and confused. But something comes out of our willingness to feel that way, which is that we can help somebody else at the same time. So there is room for our confusion and chaos and egocenteredness: they become stepping-stones.”

First Winter allows space for confusion and chaos to emerge, to be experienced and transformed.  It is this spaciousness which makes the film unique, and it is the humanity of the characters which is its source of luminosity.


May is Arts Month at IDP.  Visit this page for a full list of programming.

For more information about First Winter and upcoming screenings, you can visit the film's website here.

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