Angela Zito, co-director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, affirms that Phil Conners’ reiterating visitations to the same day of the calendar year is an undeniable allusion to the cyclical Buddhist notion of rebirth into samsara. The plots primary resemblance to Buddhist doctrine is the protagonist, Phil’s, continuous helpless transmigrations in cyclic existence. Buddhism scholar John Powers mentioned in one of his books that each community that adopted Buddhism, modified the image of Buddha in ways that reflect its own assumptions, doctrines, and practices, with the result that the Buddha is represented quite differently in different parts of the world. With little stretch of the imagination we see the character development of Phil fitting into the paradigmic mould of the historical Sakyamuni with his constantly improving and enlightening previous births, or Jatakas, towards enlightenment. Buddhism is a philosophy and it is possible to interpret any narrative in light of a certain philosophy. I will carry out a Buddhist treatment of Groundhog Day to show its resemblance to and influence from Buddhist history, myth and doctrine as understood from the insights of Khyentse Norbu, Ajahn Sumedho and John Powers into the discourses (sutras) and scholastic philosophies (abhidharmas) of the Buddha.

The protagonist is a self-centered and egocentric jerk with no signs of a buddhanature. He is in the scientific profession of predicting the unpredictable. Though meteorology is no exact science, Phil is dogmatic about his command over the weather as a celebrated weatherman. He is the anti-thesis of an enlightened being. One of the finer points about the plot is that Phil recognizes that he is revisiting Groundhog Day but, for the success of the narrative, the others around him see each cycle as a new day. They do not remember the events of the previous cycle. This shows the existence of a human being without the audience of others. So Phil gets no outside recognition of his self. This, in effect, makes his personhood a conception of his own mind and something void of inherent existence – an idea at the cornerstone of Buddhist thought and practice, says Powers.

While Buddhists are seeking the ultimate truth and enlightenment, Phil is not interested in either. Instead of these Buddhist attainments, Phil at first seeks escape from his samsara and ultimately Rita’s reciprocation to his love. In this respect the film is not very Buddhist. But his state of mind, his actions and the character developments Phil proceeds through has a Buddhist tinge to them. Therefore it may be helpful to see his expression of true love for Rita as a proxy for enlightenment and the attainment of this as a road to free him from his cyclic existence.

Powers states that the first requirement for enlightenment is the development of dissatisfaction with cyclic existence – a development that follows Phil’s initial emotions of frustration and disbelief about his predicament. So he attempts to rid himself of all unwanted emotions and indulges in pure hedonism. He takes advantage of the situation without fear of long-term consequences and enjoys learning secrets from the town’s residents, seducing women, stealing money, and driving drunk. Most accounts of Siddharta’s life refer to a similar stage of extreme indulgence. This indulgence in pleasure is experiencing of two type of desires, i.e. the desire for sensual pleasures and the desire to become something. When Phil attempts a theatrical suicide, we see an example of the third type of desire, i.e. the desire to get rid of something. In Buddhism, the self’s desires create suffering and Phil is evidently afflicted.

Powers also notes that one must develop a profound revulsion towards cyclical existence and vow to break the cycle by any means necessary to achieve buddhanature. Once this feeling settles into Phil, he stops trying to treat the day as a mental glitch and starts disrupting the day’s normal progression. For the sake of argument, by this time Phil shows a certain understanding of the Four Noble Truths. First, he realizes that no matter how extravagant his pleasure pursuit, he is still suffering. This is existential anguish or dukkha. By this time in the plotline, Phil is trying hard to bed Rita – another perceived source of pleasure but a real source of suffering – by conniving one way or other and collecting information about her to his advantage. He fails in achieving his goal. This is because he is ignorant of what he really wants. In the process he realizes that this suffering is a rising condition and has a basis. Buddha identified this basis as desire motivated by ignorance. Khyentse (Author of What Makes You Not A Buddhist) notes that nirvana is peace, but seeking peace actively, in this world or the next, will be a hindrance to enlightenment. To humor Phil’s situation, this intricacy in Buddhism is analogous to his goal. In his case, love incorporates sex, but seeking a sexual adventure will come in the way of love. So Phil understands the basis of his suffering and halts such fruitless pursuits. This leads him to the third noble truth: it is possible to bring suffering to an end by overcoming afflicted desire, and he stops his manipulative efforts of winning Rita over.

(Again Powers says,) One must develop the positive moral qualities that the Buddha cultivated in order to reach nirvana. Upon realization of the first three noble truths, Phil becomes a do-gooder and steps in the direction of the eight-fold path. He possesses the correct view, correct intentions, correct speech, correct actions and correct livelihood. His philanthropy is unmeasured and he shows non-attachment in his actions. Furthermore, he demonstrates correct effort, correct mindfulness and correct meditative absorption by redirecting his time and effort from conniving ways of getting hold of Rita to improving himself in a way that Rita will truly appreciate, i.e. by converting his talents to actual skills and becoming an adroit pianist, ice-sculptor and a likeable person.

To end, the plot of Groundhog Day resonates with resemblances to notions of the Buddhist path to enlightenment and the four noble truths but connections to the four seals are wanting. The four seals are meant to be understood literally – stated in plain English by Khyentse. In this Khyentsian sense Groundhog Day fails to capture the essence of Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings. But does well in every other way and is a good film to watch if you are an idiot trying to understand Buddhism.

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