I am sure that for many of you, one of your holiday rituals is to watch the classic movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. I never tire of watching this movie, as it is a classic. I know I have written about this movie before some years ago, but as I watch it again, I cannot help but feel the wonderful Buddhist message expressed in this classic film.
In the movie, the main character, George Bailey, becomes so despondent because he faces bankruptcy and maybe even criminal charges for the missing money from his savings and loan. His despondency leads him to jump off a bridge, wishing to end it all. A guardian angel saves him, but George still wishes “he had never been born.” The angel cleverly thinks of a good idea to “save” George, which is to grant him his wish and show him what life in his town would be like had he never been born. The whole town is different. There is no savings and loan that George ran. His wife never got married, because there was no George to meet and fall in love with. The lives of people in the town, everything is different, “because there was no George Bailey.” No one knows him, of course, because he never existed...not his wife, not his friends,...no one. How lonely he is now. How saddened he is to see how his town turned out without him.
Now, all the more, he wishes to have his life back again. If only he could have his old life back again, with all of its problems....old house, financial problems, savings and loan on the verge of collapse,....everything.
And as the movie goes, the angel gives him his life back. George is able to return to his wife and family. He is able to return to his old job and his old house and his old car that he ran into a tree. But George’s perspective on life has changed. He is deeply grateful for his life now. He doesn’t need anything more, whether it is a bigger house or more money. He realizes that his life is a wonderful life, it is the only life that he has, and to think that he tried to throw it all away.
If I could put words into George Bailey’s mouth that never comes out in the movie itself, perhaps George would say, “What a fool I was! How ignorant I was! What a sad case of self-pity I had fallen into. What was I thinking? What a wonderful life I have. What a wonderful wife and children I have. What a wonderful job I have. How could I have tried to throw it all away?”
We don’t have guardian angels in Buddhism like Clarence the guardian angel for George Bailey, but what Buddhism is trying to awaken us to, is the very thing that Clarence the guardian angel tries to awaken in George Bailey.
In the dramatic scene near the end of the movie, George Bailey returns to the bridge where earlier he had jumped off, trying to end it all, but now he begs to have his life back again. He pleads to Clarence the guardian angel, “I want to live again! I want to live again!” And so George Bailey miraculously is returned to his old life, with all of its problems and troubles. But somehow, now they no longer seem to him as problems and troubles. He is glad to have them.
Shin Buddhism talks about “birth in the Pure Land.” Many would argue that this is talking about our transition to the world of nirvana when our life comes to an end. I think that this “birth” is talking about a birth that occurs in this life, a new perspective of life that we are awakened to through encountering the light of the Dharma, the light of Amida. It is to awaken to this “wonderful life,” just like George Bailey. When we receive or encounter this awakening, then we truly want to live, from the depths of our being. We truly appreciate our life, including all of its problems and troubles. We wouldn’t exchange our life for anything or anyone else’s.....not for a million dollars, not to become Bill Gates, ....nothing is more precious than our own, unique life.
Our problems and troubles haven’t miraculously disappeared, just our perspective on them have changed. But with this new perspective, life is totally different. We do not wallow in self-pity. We do not stay in a state of despondency. We don’t seek to be somebody else or wish we had never been born.
Now we want to live. We want to live this one life that has been given to us in all of eternity, in eons and eons of time. How could we ever want to throw it away? How could we ever want to have it replaced by anything? After all, it really is a wonderful life.
Rev. Marvin Harada