Tarkovsky: Stalker

I love a good etymology contemplation; like the etymology for contemplation: “Con” meaning “with,” “templation” meaning “temple.” We can think of the temple as a physical building, or we can think of the temples of our heads. (Fun nerd sidebar here: The bone behind the temple is the temporal bone; a bone relating to time and tense, and let’s not get into the deconstruction of the word “tense.”)

In contemplation, we’re entering our own temples. By awakening bodhicitta, we have the key to enter that temple and, in turn, find meaning within the temple. Bodhicitta can awaken within us the artistry and creativity to explore the grounds of our temples. The idea, too, is that we each go into our own temples — no teacher worth their salt would bring you into theirs, or enter with you into your own. The point of contemplative practice, of any practice, according to the Buddha is for us to see and experience for ourselves.


I love the skepticism inherent in Buddhism. The Buddha says in the Kalama Sutta, “Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’”

You can read the full Kalama Sutta passage (and its many misquotes) via Tricycle, but the conclusion I want to point out is: “When you know for yourselves that ‘these dharmas are skillful; these dharmas are blameless; these dharmas are praised by the wise; these dharmas, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.”


So what does all of this have to do with a 1979 Soviet sci-fi movie? Apart from the fact that Russians are virtuosos in the art of skepticism, I’ve always viewed Tarkovsky’s Stalker as a metaphor for contemplative practice, and for the relationship between student and teacher. The title character guides two men, the Writer and the Professor, from the black and white world of the seemingly everyday into the government-barred Zone, which has an Oz-like twist from monochrome smog tones into lush, vibrant greens.

There are treacherous aspects of the terrain, however, and it's a treacherous journey into the Room, a chamber that grants visitors their deepest wishes. The trick, as anyone who knows the Four Noble Truths will be able to guess, is that desire causes suffering, as will the fulfillment of that desire. So why does Stalker, among other guides before him, take the risk of bringing people to the Zone, into the Room, to discover this? Why doesn’t he simply tell them at the onset it’s no good?

Because, конечно, they need to see for themselves.


Today’s Contemplation

There isn’t much that we experience in this life that hasn’t been experienced by someone else. Perhaps we even know someone who has been through the same experience we’re currently in. Perhaps we know how their story ends. What is driving your desire to see current aspects of your life through to accomplishment? Pick one, and examine it with curiosity and without judgment. Can you reverse-engineer the journey? Can you bring it back to a more black-and-white intention? And what might that intention be?