John Tarrant introduces a modern Bodhisattva of Compassion, as found in Mike Leigh’s latest film, Happy-Go-Lucky.
Question: How does the Bodhisattva of great compassion use all those hands and eyes?
Answer: It’s like reaching behind you for a pillow in the night.
Guanyin, Kanzeon, Tara — under various names the Bodhisattva of Compassion has one of the few good female roles in popular Buddhism. She has a thousand hands which means she does things; she doesn’t just stand around and look peaceful and cute. Mayumi Oda gave me a print to use in our kitchen at retreats in which Guanyin has egg beaters and spatulas in her hands. It’s a vision of work as fun.
Mike Leigh’s film Happy-Go-Lucky is based around a Bodhisattva of this type. His way of developing a film is to work up characters in rehearsal; it is done individually at first and then your character meets another character and they start talking.
This is itself interesting; you start from zero and leap into the unknown together which is what life always seems like to me. The together part is the optional bit and the impulse to connect is represented by the main character, Poppy.
Poppy (played by Sally Hawkins) is a North Londoner approaching 30. She can’t stop talking, is addicted to double entendres and to saying the obvious — “nice day for it” — and the clichéd –“let’s go, gigolo” (said when she gets in a car) — and thinks she’s hilarious. Her conversational style extends to the visual, too — she has a chiropractic treatment in a coral-colored bra, yellow underwear, and blue, see-through lace stockings. She can’t stop flirting.
Leigh is a director who achieved escape velocity from Manchester and likes to explore the idea that any rigidity of mind is a prejudice, a terrible disability that leads you to miss out on life, something he would like you not to do. He is sometimes subtle about this; he will set up an expectation in the audience’s mind and then help us to escape it. This makes him an interesting director if you care about how people learn and change. Poppy, as she is revealed, turns out to be a perceptive, skillful and intelligent grade school teacher. She loves helping and understanding people and is not intimidated by their daunting qualities. Naturally this is highly irritating to some people who are quite happy being daunting.
Poppy’s character was built from the premise that she doesn’t judge others and doesn’t judge herself. She comes out of a bookstore to find that her bicycle has been stolen and says to herself, “Oh no. Come on,” as if she can conjure it back into the spot it occupied when she left it. Then, she says, “I didn’t even say goodbye.” And it’s over with, she goes on.
The big interaction is with her driving instructor, Scott. The actors improvise their scenes in the instructor’s car while the director lies down out of sight in the back seat. Scott’s character is driven by being afraid of Poppy’s warmth while attracted to it. The more open and amusing she, is the more excruciating Scott finds her.
When Scott’s character was being developed the actor (Eddie Marsan) started with the thought that he would be deeply troubled, as in Taxi Driver but, faced with Poppy’s warmth, the character became somewhat more within the social range of the human, though not at the lovable end of that range. He makes a fine test of Poppy’s magic powers of kindness.
The film is full of teaching situations and reflections on learning. Poppy preps for her class, she teaches geography, she learns to drive and gets lectured on pedagogy by her instructor. She learns flamenco, she brings in a social worker and a student learns not to hit other kids. She ends up in bed with the social worker of course, another learning experience that we were all hoping was going to happen.
Poppy is on a Bodhisattva’s journey through the world. She is there to bring others to understand kindness if they can bear it. In popular Buddhist legend, the Bodhisattva of Compassion reaches down into hell to touch the souls there. Poppy has an underworld night scene in which she meets a deranged tramp. She approaches him and talks with him and it seems as if it might be an unwise thing to do, but this is just showing us our prejudices. We can think that the world is dangerous when it’s fine. I’ve been out walking with Byron Katie and seen her stop and stroke the hair of a homeless person, and talk with him with great curiosity and enthusiasm and move on.
You might think that Poppy lives in a dream world but when you see how effective and focused she is, you realize that she is offering a different way to live. She’s not trying to be nice, she actually loves people and loves being a grade school teacher. Her way of not judging others and not judging herself comes down to a complete practice for living effectively and joyfully — and the flirting seems to be an essential part of the package. People actually learn things when they hang around with Poppy. There’s hope for us all.