Journal of Religion and Film

Oblivion beyond Forgetting: A Buddhist Reflection
on Suffering in Ashes of Time

by Heawon Choi

Vol. 14, No. 2 October 2010

Oblivion beyond Forgetting: A Buddhist Reflection
on Suffering in Ashes of Time

by Heawon Choi


This paper reads Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994) through the lens of Buddhism, specifically focusing on the issue of suffering and of mind. Buddhism attributes suffering to mental attachment, expressed as craving and clinging. In this sense, Ashes of Time, which also reflects on the problems of anguish and suffering with respect to its characters’ unfulfilled desires and their attachment to memory, shares several fundamental ideas with Buddhist thought. More importantly, the film proposes ways to break free from suffering that are similar to those espoused by Buddhism. In doing so, the film reflects the Buddhist dialectic idea that insists on absolute negation as the way to be released from suffering, which eventually progresses to an absolute affirmation; that is, embracing suffering in a paradoxical sense.


[1] Wong Kar-wai believes that human beings suffer because of memory, which is ironic because memory is generally supposed to be a blessed ability that people are afraid to lose. Hong Kong-based filmmaker Wong is a director who has persistently explored similar themes throughout his work. Most of his films focus on time and memory and on solitude and anguish as the results of lost time. Ashes of Time (Chinese title: Dongxie Xidu; 1994), which is based on Louis Cha’s Chinese martial-art novel series The Eagle Shooting Heroes, addresses such themes. It describes the solitariness and alienation of people who are obsessed with the scars of memory. The film reflects Wong’s revolutionary modification of the traditional Chinese martial-art story into a meditative and philosophical narrative that has a gloomy and melancholic tonality. In the film the heroic figures who typically appear in traditional martial art films are replaced by wounded and isolated beings whose lives are ruined by their memories.

[2] Film critics like Stephen Teo and Wimal Dissanayake note general Buddhist elements in Ashes of Time, but the film reflects fundamental Buddhist ideas and perspectives in a much more profound sense than those critics observe.1 One of the film’s crucial connections to Buddhist ideas is the notion of human suffering. Buddhism is a religion and a philosophy that tenaciously delves into the problem of suffering; its tenets begin with the realization of suffering and end with proposing solutions to it. Buddhism concludes that craving and clinging derived from deluded thoughts cause suffering. Likewise, Ashes of Time not only reflects deeply on the problems of desire and attachment, but also proposes ways to free oneself from suffering, which is similar to Buddhism. Given this potential for dialogue between Ashes of Time and Buddhist ideas, this paper reads and interprets the film through the lens of Buddhism.

[3] The story is set in a desolate desert in ancient China. The protagonist, Ouyang Feng, runs a tavern in the middle of the desert, but is also working as an agent for killers. Ouyang was once an ambitious swordsman whose goal was to achieve fame in the martial arts world. However, the betrayal by his girlfriend, who decided to marry Ouyang’s elder brother, made him abandon his goal. He retreated to the desert and abandoned communal society. Every year Ouyang is visited by his friend Huang Yaoshi, who is portrayed as a lascivious but intelligent figure. Huang loves Ouyang’s ex-girlfriend (now Ouyang’s sister-in-law), and he visits Ouyang as an excuse for seeing her. Meanwhile, she wants to hear about Ouyang from Huang. Although she betrayed Ouyang, she is depicted as living an unhappy life because she misses Ouyang. Huang’s lustful mind creates two victims: Murong Yin/Yang and the Blind Swordsman. Murong loves Huang, but Huang’s rejection of her love has caused Murong to become a schizophrenic who suffers from two contradictory personalities and emotions: a female (Yin) versus a male (Yang) and love versus hatred toward Huang. The Blind Swordsman, who is growing blind, was originally Huang’s close friend. However, his wife betrayed him by having an affair with Huang, which led the swordsman to leave his home and become a wandering warrior, obsessed with a tragic memory.

[4] Ouyang, his ex-girlfriend, Murong and the Blind Swordsman represent mentally or emotionally wounded beings preoccupied with and overwhelmed by tragic memories about their unfulfilled and unsatisfied cravings for love. The film visualizes the mental/emotional states of these characters through images of an empty desert and waving water, which in a sense involve contrasting implications; while the former implies the static or stillness, the latter implies the mutable or movement. These two images appear repeatedly throughout the film, yet often without any reference to the context. As Wong in an interview states, a desert, which is also the background location where the story of the film unfolds, symbolizes the emotional state of those characters, i.e., the sense of solitariness and isolation.2 The desolate emotional states of the characters, as symbolized by a desert, are also connected to their inertial, aimless or even dreamlike appearances; as Teo points out, there are many scenes in the film which depict the characters gazing in to the distance, doing nothing.3 In a fundamental sense, Ashes of Time also attempts to represent their inner state of mind which is, by contrast to their outward appearance, in fact disturbed and agitated. In this context, the film employs the image of the undulating sea (or waving water) as symbolizing such characters’ agitated and disturbed minds.

[5] The waving water image as a reference to the state of mind implies the Buddhist view that suffering is intrinsically grounded in the problems of the mind. This idea is explicitly revealed in the opening scene of the film, which begins with a famous Zen Buddhist saying, showing an image of an undulating sea. The saying declares: “It is written in the Buddhist Canon: The flags are still, no wind blows. It’s the heart [mind] of man that is in tumult.”4 The canon originally appeared in the Platform Sutra (Liuzu tanjing), which records the sayings of the Sixth Patriarch of Zen lineage, Huineng (638-713). The flag analogy in the text conveys the Buddhist view that understands the phenomenal world as constructed by mind; that is, what is considered to be mutable in the phenomenal world is actually the result of mental functions that see the object to be mutable as the mind is moving.5 In the story, a moving mind refers to a distracted and deluded mind that cannot see things as they really are.

[6] More importantly, Huineng suggests that mind is originally pure and tranquil. In this regard, Buddhism compares the mind to the water of the sea; whereas a calm and glassy ocean corresponds to the original mind, waves caused by wind stand for a disturbed or moving mind. This metaphor is observed in the Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana (Dasheng qixin lun), an important Mahayana Buddhist text in East Asia. The text says that movement (wave) is not the nature of water and the wet nature of water remains despite the influence of wind; that is, if the wind stops, the movement also stops. It goes on to say that tranquil and waving waters were originally not separable; they are intrinsically the same because both have wet natures and thus are of “one mind.”6 As such, the opening scene of Ashes of Time reflects, in a significant sense, the Buddhist understanding of mind and further of suffering that results from the function of mind. In effect, the same seawater image as used in the background of Huineng’s flag analogy reappears several times throughout the film, visually intimating the state of the characters’ agitated and disturbed minds.

[7] In the film, the characters’ anguish is grounded on their unfulfilled and unsatisfied craving for an object of love: Murong’s desire for Huang, his desire for Ouyang’s ex-girlfriend, her desire for Ouyang (and vice versa) and the Blind Swordsman’s desire for his wife. As in Wong’s other films, the characters’ desires always end in failure, and at the end they are left lonely and single. As Buddhists claim that craving inevitably leads to clinging/attachment to objects of desire, which finally ends in suffering, Ashes of Time reaffirms such a Buddhist claim by highlighting the issue of craving and attachment through its complex narrative structure and further by ultimately understanding them as the sources of the characters’ anguish. The film, for example, shows that the betrayal of Ouyang’s ex-girlfriend, which is in fact the beginning of the film’s story (i.e., which made the protagonist Ouyang retreat to the desert) originated from her attachment to the three words, “I love you,” which she considered a pledge of lifelong commitment to a permanent and immutable relationship. She longed to hear these words from Ouyang, yet he never said that he loved her. Murong also attaches importance to Huang’s joking words that he would marry her, which he stated while under the influence of alcohol. Murong believes Huang’s joke to be truthful and her attachment to Huang’s words, which reflects her desire for Huang, made her a schizophrenic figure.

[8] The film tells that the characters’ attachment derived from craving for an object of love does not stop even after their desires turn into failure. In other words, the characters’ ruined desire continues in the form of attachment to memory. Their obsessions with their tragic memories lead them to live an isolated and lonely life. In a similar context, Jean-Marc Lalanne explains the world that Wong’s films depict as a “world of individuals” wherein people are destined to be “systematically unhappy alone.”7 They are trapped in the world that they made and in such a world where they are imprisoned, past memories control and condition their present life, as observed in Ouyang. For Ouyang his present life is a kind of medium that enables him to access his past, i.e., memory of his ex-girlfriend; he recalls the image of his lost lover and the life with her through the appearance of Murong, the Blind Swordsman’s wife and a poor peasant girl he meets in the present.

[9] The characters’ life being obsessed with memory in Ashes of Time, naturally brings up the issue of self/self identity. In this context, Peter Brunette, drawing on the Lockean notion of personal identity, claims that Ashes of Time addresses not only memory or the past but also identity, “which is always a function of memory and the past.”8 Locke holds that the same and uninterrupted consciousness causes a person to remain the same person and the same self over time.9 From a Buddhist viewpoint, which understands a person as an aggregate of different constituents and thus the belief in self/identity as caused by a false thought (i.e., self as a permanent and substantial entity), such a Lockean sense of personal identity as existent in a real sense is rejected. However, Buddhism may agree that memory indeed plays a significant role in producing or fostering the sense of self, though this is in its nature fictitious in a Buddhist sense. In effect, even Hume, who understands a person as a “bundle or collection of perceptions,” rejecting the Lockean notion of self as existent in a real sense, admits that memory is a source of a sense of self, which is by nature the fiction in a similar sense to the Buddhist claim.10

[10] Given the keen relationship between memory and self/identity, it may be said that Buddhism, which insists on “no-self” as a way to get free from suffering, shows a negative view towards memory. According to the Buddhist theory of consciousness, the sense of self is produced and fostered by the function of manas-consciousness, the seventh among the eight consciousnesses; this consciousness manages the thinking function. However, this seventh consciousness in a more fundamental sense depends on the eighth, alaya-consciousness (storehouse consciousness), which preserves the information that is transmitted from previous consciousnesses and thus which is the most basic and underlying consciousness. The alaya-consciousness can be understood as a similar notion of memory, though the former involves much broader implications than the latter. Buddhist theory effectively explains that manas-consciousness produces a false impression of self through mistakenly identifying the substratum of alaya-consciousness with the self.11

[11] Dissanayake, in his substantial study of Ashes of Time, claims that fragmentation is one of the key characteristics of Wong’s films, reflecting Wong’s view of people and of the world. By fragmentation of people, Dissanayake refers to not having “identity as essence but [rather] identity as construction;” in the film, the characters’ searches for identity are always incomplete, leaving them as fragmented and de-centered beings.12 However, given the Buddhist understanding of memory and of self/self-identity as discussed above, the fragmented figures as depicted in Ashes of Time, should be understood in a different sense. In other words, from the Buddhist point of view, the fragmentation in Dissanayake’s term does not imply the lack of identity of Wong’s characters; rather, it reflects the result of an overabundance of their senses of self and self-identity, which eventually leads them to live an autistic life, making it impossible to communicate between beings. This is especially true of Ouyang.

[12] The film depicts the protagonist, Ouyang as having a strong self-respect, which is observed through his somehow complex psychology. In the film, Ouyang’s retrospective monologue confesses thus:

Being an orphan, I learned to protect myself from an early age. The best way to avoid rejection is to reject others first. For this same reason, I never returned to White Camel Mountain. I had such a happy time then! But I can no longer return to my old days!

[13] His account reflects a kind of subtle mixture between the emotions of grief and of fear. His grief is derived from the loss of the object of his love, i.e., his ex-girlfriend, yet this grief also overlaps with nostalgic feeling for his native home, White Camel Mountain, where he spent much pleasant time with his ex-girlfriend and where she still resides. Further, Ouyang’s account intimates that his grief is related to the feeling of fear, i.e., the fear of being rejected by his lover again. In effect, Wong in an interview states that Ashes of Time is a story about “rejection.”13 As Brunette puts it, by rejection, what Wong means is not only the refusal of love between the characters, but rather it means to “reject the other first so as not to be rejected” as observed by Ouyang.14 This notion of rejection explains why the characters in the film, especially the protagonist Ouyang, cannot avoid, after all, remaining lonely and isolated beings as if it is their fate; in the film Ouyang’s monologue continues to say: “The book of Fortune predicts that I will never get married. I never did marry her. How true is the book!” However, it is not difficult to guess that behind his fear of being rejected lies his strong sense of self, i.e., a sense of self-respect, which he is afraid to be hurt. The film hints that it was, in truth, Ouyang’s great self-respect that did not allow him to say to his ex-girlfriend the three words, i.e., he loves her.

[14] Viewed from this perspective, it may be said that the wounded beings in the film, i.e., those who are overwhelmed by scars of memory, in fact refer to those whose selves are wounded; however, from the Buddhist viewpoint, such a self is an illusion produced by false thoughts and thus does not exist in a real sense from the beginning. This idea naturally leads to the issue of suffering, i.e., the nature of suffering. In other words, if self is an illusion derived from false thoughts as claimed by Buddhists, suffering which appears to be experienced by such a self should also be an illusion. In effect, Ashes of Time, through the tangled relationships between the characters, represents the Buddhist notion of interdependence, which is also true of suffering; the characters’ sufferings are indeed conditioned by one another. Murong’s suffering is conditioned by the existence of Ouyang’s ex-girlfriend, whom Huang loves; Huang’s anguish is rooted in his jealousy of Ouyang, who is longed for by Huang’s lover; the Blind Swordsman’s miserable life is caused by Huang’s misbehavior. Despite their isolated appearances, the characters are all related to each other in one way or another. That is to say, the conditions of their existence and further of their suffering are mutable. Understood in this way, it follows that suffering does not exist in a fixed and substantial sense and thus it is possible to get free from suffering.  

[15] Ashes of Time is not only the story about the characters’ anguish and their tragic life; the film, in a true sense, suggests ways to be free from suffering, interestingly in a similar way to Buddhism. As discussed earlier, Buddhists claim that it is deluded thoughts (which lead to craving for an object or false belief in self) on which suffering is grounded. Thus, the Buddhist diagnosis naturally focuses on correcting such distorted thoughts, even suggesting “no-thinking,” in a somewhat radical manner. The Buddhist notion of “no-thinking,” implies a kind of wisdom—the ability to view things that exist in the phenomenal world without imposing or projecting distorted thoughts on them. According to Huineng’s explanation of “no-thinking” in the Platform Sutra, it has a twofold meaning. First, it refers to refraining from attaching oneself to any single instant of thought. Secondly, it also means not letting a thought attach to anything, that is, non-attachment to things.15 Specifically, the first notion of no-thinking is directly related to non-attachment to memory; in effect, Huineng urges people not to reflect on the past but instead to consider the future and to make future thoughts good.16

[16] The Buddhist notion of “no-thinking” is aesthetically manifested in Ashes of Time through the art of forgetting. One day, Huang presents to Ouyang a mysterious wine that supposedly causes forgetfulness, saying: “Man’s biggest problem is that he remembers the past. How wonderful it would be to forget the past. Everyday would be a new beginning.” Just as Nietzsche emphasizes the significance of forgetfulness, asserting that without forgetfulness there is no happiness, no hope and no present, here Huang also addresses the effectiveness of an active forgetting that grants people the power to create new things.17 This mysterious wine was originally given by Ouyang’s ex-girlfriend, who asked Huang to deliver it to Ouyang just before she died of an illness, hoping that Ouyang would forget her. The amnesiac wine implies her regrets and lamentation of the past. She confesses to Huang in a grieved voice:    

Nothing is important to me now. I thought the words ‘I love you’ really mattered. I thought they meant a lifetime commitment. But looking back, nothing matters because everything changes. I thought I was the winner until one day I looked into the mirror and saw the face of a loser. I failed to have the person I loved most to be with me in my best years.

[17] Her remorseful speech resonates with the Buddhist claim of impermanence and further the meaninglessness of attachment. The woman was attached to Ouyang’s love, which she believed would be proved by the three words, “I love you.” The scene of her confession parallels the previous scene, wherein Ouyang acts as Huang and tells Murong that he loves her (Murong) the most. In this scene, Ouyang’s voice-over says: “Someone once asked me the same question [who do you love most?]. I didn’t answer. Acting as Huang, however, I found it’s not so hard to utter those three words.” Here what made it possible for him to confess love to Murong, which ironically he couldn’t do to his real lover, was his detachment from the sense of self, which occurred because he was acting as another person. This scene again brings up the issue of self which hinders the characters from communicating with each other and further from accomplishing their love.

[18] The amnesic wine appeared to work for Huang who, unlike Ouyang, could enjoy it; thanks to the mysterious wine, he was able to forget many memories; he even could not recognize his old friend, the Blind Swordsman, who sought to obtain revenge on him. The same wine, however, did not work for Ouyang. Ironically, for Ouyang, the amnesic wine reinforces his memories of his ex-girlfriend. He says:

That magic wine was just a joke she played on me. The harder you try to forget something, the more it’ll stick in your memory. Once I heard people say that if you have to lose something, the best way is to keep it in your memory.

[19] Through Ouyang’s voice, the film proposes going beyond forgetfulness, in a more perfect and complete sense, and paradoxically, it refers to embracing suffering in a spontaneous and affirmative way. This idea reflects nothing other than the Buddhist view that the originally pure mind is not separated from the disturbed or moving mind, i.e., “one mind,” as stated earlier. The Buddhist notion of “one mind” implies non-dualism in an affirmative form that involves not only a pure and tranquil mind but also a disturbed and moving mind. This idea is finally extended to the Buddhist claim that suffering is the same as enlightenment, as is also emphasized by Huineng.18 All of this reflects the Buddhist view that suffering is intrinsically illusory because it is caused by deluded thoughts. Understood in this way, it follows that in order to achieve liberation from suffering, one must not forcefully eliminate suffering, which is illusory, but rather must maintain or regain one’s original pure mind. This understanding frees one from the notion of suffering itself, that is, from attachment to the idea of eliminating suffering, implying non-attachment in a complete and spontaneous form.

[20] Perhaps the amnesic wine did not work for Ouyang, who tried to get rid of memory by force, because he was attached to the very idea of eliminating suffering. Given that Huang is portrayed as much freer than Ouyang, whether from attachment or suffering, it is no wonder that the amnesic wine is effective only for Huang. In a sense, the amnesic wine is nothing but a “joke” with no real effect, as Ouyang stated. Huang’s forgetfulness might have resulted not from the wine but rather from his spontaneous and non-attached mind. Despite his love for Ouyang’s ex-girlfriend, Huang is satisfied by merely seeing her, without taking any further action such as confessing his love to her. The film shows that Huang understands that craving and desire cannot be fulfilled and satisfied in a complete sense. After his lover’s death, Huang retreats to Peach Blossom Island and lives a hermitic life. Here Huang’s appearance features a subtle combination of Buddhist and Daoist sages who manifest non-attachment and spontaneity with unbound, free spirits.

[21] The art of spontaneous forgetting was originally emphasized in Daoist thought, which highly values the notion of “no-action” as a manifestation of spontaneity. The Zhuangzi, one of the key texts of ancient Daoist philosophy, presents a paradoxical saying that in order to nourish life, one should forget life itself. This teaching supports non-attachment to the idea of nourishing life.19 Such a Zhuangzian method of spontaneity, which reflects the Daoist emphasis on non-attachment and non-dualistic thinking, is effectively absorbed into Zen Buddhism. Zen master Mazu (709-788)’s teachings of “ordinary mind” represent such a Buddhist adaptation of the Daoist concept of spontaneity. Mazu explains that the “ordinary mind” has no intentional thought or action and no dualistic thinking between good and bad, grasping and rejecting, life and death, or mundane and sacred. In this regard, the ordinary mind can also mean a “simple mind” that does not depend on complicated and calculated thoughts. In this understanding, Mazu claims that it is to the extent that it is through our ordinary life activities that we can attain enlightenment, i.e., liberation from suffering.20

[22] Importantly, it is this simple and ordinary mind that Wong, through the film, suggests to us as a way to happiness as represented by an interesting figure named Hong Qi. Hong is poor and almost beggar-like but a very skillful swordsman. He is hired by Ouyang as a paid warrior to fight against horse gangs. In many respects, he is different from the other characters, who are depicted as wounded beings. Rather, he is portrayed as a morally committed, ambitious person who longs for adventurous journeys. Above all, he is characterized by an uncomplicated mind, which is revealed when he helps a poor peasant girl avenge her brother’s death, receiving only a few eggs in return. While fighting with the militant gangs who killed the poor girl’s brother, Hong loses one of his fingers from a serious wound. The film intimates that Hong at first refused the poor girl’s request, but finally decided to help her. Hong confesses that his hesitation in helping the poor girl was that his mind had “second thoughts” to value judgments (i.e., calculated and intentional thoughts). He tells Ouyang that since he has been with Ouyang, he has lost his “real self.” Here the “real self” in Hong’s saying implies the originally pure mind in a Buddhist sense, and therefore Mazu’s notion of the ordinary mind, which is not stained by second thoughts and which thus is also a simple mind. Despite the loss of his finger, Hong does not regret his behavior. Rather, through helping the poor girl for almost nothing, he retrieves himself and remains different from the mercenary and heartless Ouyang.

[23] Hong’s uncomplicated mind also makes it possible for him to respond to each given situation without hindrance and in an affirmative, spontaneous manner. After recovering from his wound, he chooses to continue his martial arts journey. His wife, who does not want to separate from him, accompanies him on this martial arts journey, which conflicts with the conventional view that a woman or wife is an obstacle. Furthermore, Hong convinces himself he can earn fame as a skilled swordsman who has only nine fingers, thereby overcoming his physical weakness. Hong’s simple and ordinary mindedness enables him to practice the spirit of freedom, in a similar sense to the way that Zen Masters emphasize, i.e., “living here and now” and living actively as a master of one’s life.21 Whereas Huang chooses to live a hermitic life, showing a kind of transcendental attitude, Hong decides to pioneer a new life with a challenging and courageous spirit. Hong fully commits to his present life, refraining from attaching to any thing, manifesting the freedom. Among the characters in Ashes of Time, Hong is the freest from the notion of suffering. Wong’s final suggestion of a way to break from suffering is completed through Hong, a poor beggar but a happy sage-like being.

[24] Ashes of Time is a dark and serious film. It is dark in the sense that it depicts stories of the suffering of its characters; and it is serious in the sense that it deals with such issues in a truly contemplative and meditative manner. However, the film is also positive and even optimistic in terms that it in the end conveys Wong’s hopeful message about happiness through the character Hong. In this respect, Ashes of Time has a dialogue with Buddhism which suggests ways to be liberated from suffering through contemplation of the problems of human suffering. In addition, the film shares a common idea with Buddhism in that it attempts to deal with the issues in relation to the problems of the mind; in doing so, the film reflects the Buddhist dialectic idea that begins from a great negation or negativity and then eventually progresses to a great affirmation. As such, Ashes of Time dramatically and aesthetically represents serious discussions of the Buddhist views of suffering and of mind.

Grouped Notes

Ashes of Time

JR & F
Vol. 14, No. 2

JR & F
Home Page

Copyrighted by Journal of Religion and Film 2010
Site Maintained by
Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of Nebraska at Omaha

Contact Webmaster about site