Venerable Kusala mentioned the movie during his dharma talk with the University Buddhist Association at UCLA and Reverend Danny Fisher wrote a review for the film. I’m sure many others have contributed their two cents on the movie Inception so here’s mine.
The part of Inception that became the most memorable for me was not the gravity-defying fight scenes nor was it the magnificent dream worlds the characters were transported through. Rather, the one part of Inception that really had me thinking was the totem. Cobb describes the totem as a small object used to confirm whether one is in reality or a dream – what an idea! Three totems are introduced in the film: Cobb and Mal’s spinning top, Arthur’s weighted red die, and Ariadne’s chess piece.
In thinking back on the movie, I wondered what I would choose as my totem. I think I would use a ring I received on one of my past birthdays. I have a bad habit of taking it off and playing around with it during class and every once in a while, I drop it. It hits the floor with a pinging sound and rolls to a stop with a light clink. I imagine that if I were in a dream, the ring would not make the same sound (if a sound at all) once it hit the ground. In accordance to the title of this post, feel free to share what totem you would choose. I’m quite curious to know!
But besides being ranked as an Inception fan’s top ten questions to ask on a date, the idea of a totem isn’t actually too distant from practices people use in everyday life to discern what one should or shouldn’t do. After all, every one of us is met with dilemmas and challenges, doubt and hesitation, thoughts that force us to question the validity and morality of what we do, in the same way Cobb questions the reality of the memories and images that manifest in front of him, whether in reality or a dream. While in Inception the totem is used to distinguish dream from reality especially when one feels lost or confused in one’s own mind, for a Buddhist it seems as though we use Buddhism as our totem to help us distinguish the skillful from unskillful.
I say “Buddhism” but really you can break the “totems” down to the specifics. Cobb spins his top to ground reality. We read the Dharma for wisdom, pray to the Buddha for guidance, and/or seek the Sangha for support. We meditate to cultivate mindfulness and peace of mind. We chant sutras to remind us of the teachings and create a sense of community that echoes even after the voices have stopped. We practice the precepts to generate compassion while maintaining discipline. I’m sure the list goes on. In a way, everyone, not just Buddhists either, learns to carry something that helps his/her navigate the mind.
Yet how is a totem different from a basic sense of human judgment seemingly inherent within us? A characteristic of a totem that seems to make it so useful in Inception is its ability to act independently of its owner. So while Cobb travels in and out of dreams, envisioning Mal and his children in both worlds, the spinning top is a neutral indicator detached from his mind. The top spins infinitely in a dream and stops in reality. That does not change no matter what Cobb sees, does, or thinks. Similarly, it seems as though for Buddhists, Buddhism acts as that removed agent, that “totem”, that provides the wisdom to guide us outside of the distractions that cloud our judgment and delusions that cause us suffering.