Does a river have meaning? About the documentary film The Departure, by Lana Wilson

ALEIX RUIZ FALQUÉS

One of the apparently most disconcerting phenomena in rich societies is the high rate of suicide. It is a very particular problem because of its taboo component and the impossibility of unravelling the real causes that may lead a person to take his or her own life. Being the decision a personal and non-transferable combination of lucid and confused reasoning. In a society that desperately seeks scientific, effective and definitive medical solutions through the control of tangible matter, the impossibility of predicting and treating spiritual or mental problems becomes a source of constant frustration. At the same time, it is impossible not to take action, and we can say that everyone is doing the best they can with the means at their disposal, like someone trying to navigate through a dense fog.

Portada del DVD del documental The Departure («La salida»), dirigido por Lana Wilson

The documentary The Departure, directed by Lana Wilson, addresses the issue of suicide from the perspective of preventive therapy. Is there a formula for treating people who have suicidal thoughts? Ittetsu Nemoto, the Japanese Zen monk who is the main character in the documentary, devotes himself body and soul to visit and advice potential suicidal people. Some show obvious signs of mental imbalance, such as the man who (understandably) cannot bear to see his children only for an hour a month and feels he has failed as a father and as a person. Other patients show no signs that would distinguish them from what we would call ordinary people. However, the recurring thought of taking their own life has invaded their lives and they are helpless to face the temptation to end it once and for all. This is where the peculiar Zen monk Nemoto comes in, who receives non-stop calls and messages by mail and phone, and is available around the clock to care for people on the brink of the chasm.

In addition to visiting his “patients”, the monk Nemoto organises a regular retreat called “the departure”. This is an exercise of group meditation about death and leaving behind the most cherished things and people. It is a kind of simulation of one’s own death. The monk asks the workshop participants to write down on slips of paper the nine things they could not do without. Then he asks them to remove strips of paper until only one is left: what they would choose if they could only keep one thing. But even this tiny strip of paper has to be discarded in the end. “My mother” reads on the paper of one participant, “my memories” says another, “travelling the world” has been written by another participant. One after another they discard the last remaining piece of paper. “Now you have lost everything. This is death.”

Monk Nemoto with one of the participants in his retreat. Source: http://lanawilson.net/projects/the-departure/#trailer/3/http://lanawilson.net/projects/the-departure/#trailer/3/

The most remarkable thing about Nemoto’s method is its lack of system, the absence of protocol. He is driven by compassion, strictly speaking. He does not feel the pain and confusion of his patients as something alien. He is emotionally involved and committed to them. Perhaps it is true that the monk does not possess great oratory skills. In his conversations with potential suicidal patients he does not rush to give a fully articulate and rational response to the issues raised. Rather, he listens with his heart, trying to live what the suffering person is experiencing. He does not use theory or protocol first. In this sense, Nemoto is a Zen therapist and not a psychiatrist. He does not seek to judge the suicidal person; it seems that he does not even try to prevent the suicide from being committed. Nemoto himself sometimes suggests that he too often feels the urge to end it all. With this kind of quiet, casual conversation, he acts as a mirror, so that the other person can better understand the reason for his frustration and his desire to disappear.

One of the recurring topics in Master Nemoto’s teaching, which is otherwise a vague and foggy teaching, is the impossibility of giving meaning to what has no meaning in itself. When one of the girls in one of the workshops on death tells him that sometimes she would like to understand the meaning of life, the monk replies that perhaps there are certain things that do not necessarily need to have meaning: “Does a river need to have meaning?” There is a subtle difference between this remark and nihilism which would directly assert that things have no meaning. The monk neither affirms nor denies that life is meaningful or meaningless. He simply questions the approach: Does it make sense to ask about meaning? Does everything need to have a meaning? Is it necessary to be so? It seems to me that here lies the strength of Nemoto’s discourse, for it subtly points to what might be at the root of the suicidal drive: compelling life to offer something it cannot offer, and thus forcing a conflict with no possible solution. What Nemoto proposes is not a solution, but a change of approach, giving the possibility of another kind of approach to life.

Nemoto himself is at a crossroads that also reflects the dilemmas of his patients. His health is fragile due to heart problems. The stress of his job and constant concern for depressed people are taking their toll on his health and endangering his life. But at one point he states that perhaps a good life does not have to be long. A short life, but one devoted to helping others, is ultimately a good life. “Perhaps some people see it as a form of suicide,” he ponders at one point. The only thing that worries Nemoto is that his wife and young son will suffer because of him, and so it seems that in the end he decides to change his lifestyle.

In fact one of the most striking elements of this monk is that he goes to discos, he dances, gets drunk and has a family. He became a monk because he saw a newspaper advertisement for a monk to take charge of a Zen monastery. The fact that he applied for the job, however, is no coincidence, as Nemoto was going through a period of change after a very serious accident. He had abandoned his former bohemian and hedonistic life, in which he no longer found any meaning. It seems that in this case “clothes did make the monk”, and although at no point in the film is Buddhist doctrine alluded to, the way in which Nemoto embodies the virtues of compassion and generosity is really touching.

Shooting the documentary The Departure with Lana Wilson, the director, taking care of the background sound. Source: https://chickeneggpics.org/grantee/the-departure/

The film has a remarkable aesthetic beauty, at times a bit stark and austere, and a slow pace that leaves room for reflection on the conversations. An interesting and attractive aspect of this documentary is that it does without the format of a direct interview with the protagonist. This is probably due to the fact that the protagonist himself is, in a way, constantly interviewing other people. One does not know whether this is a work of fiction or a documentary. The structure of the story also avoids convention and it is conceived in a circular way, with an anticlimactic ending, in which we seem to be back to the beginning, although with a contradictory feeling of not knowing whether things have changed or stayed the same. A sense of timelessness that somehow symbolises this pause for reflection that Nemoto tries to offer his companions.

This is the second film of Lana Wilson, who had already co-directed with Marta Shane After Tiller (2013), a documentary about doctors who perform abortion in the United States. More recently, she directed the documentary Miss Americana (2020), about Taylor Swift. Her works denote an interest in marginal and controversial points of view, and have a clear component of social criticism. In the case of The Departure, she manages to dig into the drama of human suffering, of suicide in general (not only in Japan), and she succeeds in portraying the activity of a therapist monk in a faithful and respectful way, with a simple art full of subtlety, with an elegance and absence of pedantry worthy of the best Zen art.

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Aleix Ruiz Falqués (Barcelona, 1982) holds a BA in Classical Philology from the University of Barcelona (Spain), an MA in Sanskrit from the University of Pune (India) and a PhD in South Asian Studies (specialising in Pali) from the University of Cambridge (UK). His field of research is Buddhist literature in Pali, specifically the Burmese tradition. He is currently teaching Pali language and literature at the Shan State Buddhist University, Taunggyi (Myanmar), and also teaching Pali at the Institute of Hispanic Buddhist Studies (www.iebh.org). Together with Abraham Vélez de Cea and Ricardo Guerrero, he translated Bhikkhu Bodhi’s book En palabras del Buddha (In Buddha’s words) (Kairós, 2019) and will soon publish the book Los últimos días del Buddha: El Mahāparinibbānasutta pali con el comentario de Buddhaghosa (The Last Days of the Buddha: The Mahāparinibbānasutta pali with Buddhaghosa’s commentary) (Trotta, 2022).

*This article is part of the special edition: “Buddhism and cinema” of Buddhistdoor en Español.

An Interview with Ella Manzheeva, Director of the New Documentary Geshe Wangyal: With Blessing of the Three Jewels

LYUDMILA KLASANOVA

Geshe Ngawang Wangyal (1901–83), sometimes known as “America’s first lama,” was a Buddhist monk and scholar born in Astrakhan Province of the Russian Republic of Kalmykia. He left his home in 1923 and spent more than 30 years in Tibet and India. In 1955, Geshe Wangyal traveled to the United States, where he spent rest of his life as a key figure in the spread of Buddhism in the West. He opened the first Tibetan Dharma center in the West, trained the first generation of Tibetan Buddhist scholars in the US, and taught at Columbia University. He was a close friend of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and helped to develop the code for the CIA that aided the Dalai Lama’s departure from Tibet. 

Geshe Wangyal: With Blessing of the Three Jewels, which premiered on 16 November at the Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles, is a newly released documentary about his life. It was written, directed, and produced by Ella Manzheeva, the first film director from Kalmykia, co-produced by Victoria Lupik and Zayana Pompaeva, with Ekaterina Orlovskaya as the director of photography.

With a dynamic script, professional cinematography, and a beautifully meditative music score composed by Anton Silaev, the documentary presents the dramatic story of the incredible worldly and spiritual journey of Geshe Wangyal. The film is a historical document of an essential episode in the modern history of Tibetan Buddhism, of the spiritual and political connections between Tibet, India, Russia, and the US, and of the dissemination of Buddhism in the West thanks to the efforts of a great teacher who planted karmic seeds in the hearts of his disciples and in his homeland Kalmykia. The film also features His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Telo Tulku Rinpoche, Robert Thurman, Jeffry Hopkins, Joe McClearly, Joshua and Diana Cutler, and many others figures from the Buddhist world.

Buddhistdoor Global had the privilege of interviewing Ella Manzheeva on the day of her film’s premier. 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Image courtesy of Ella Manzheeva
Buddhistdoor Global: Hello Ella, and thank you for sharing your time with us! Can you tell us a little about who Geshe Wangyal is in the eyes of a young Kalmyk woman? 

Ella Manzheeva: In Kalmykia, the name Geshe Wangyal is unfortunately not so familiar. If you ask who Geshe Wangyal is for me, I can say that from working on this film and communicating with him through his students, he is of course a teacher for me. I never considered this film a movie project: I am a Buddhist and this was my practice. 

I went through a lot of personal transformations during the making of this film. I learned a lot about myself. Geshe Wangyal’s life is so vast and so inspiring that it can never fit into one film. I hope that somehow I was able to follow an important thread from his life—what he dedicated his life to, where his inspiration came from, and in what he strongly believed. Probably this movie is about that.

BDG: How did the idea of ​​making this film first come about? 

EM: It happened by chance. A person contacted me out of the blue and opened the door by asking if I wanted to make a film about Geshe Wangyal. Of course, I said no. This is a very complicated subject, one can see just from reading Geshe’s biography on Wikipedia, As a director I know perfectly well how everything works, and so of course I refused. After the meeting I began reading more about Geshe Wangyal. I couldn’t stop. From morning to evening, I read about him constantly through books I found that were connected with his name. A week later I called this person back and said that I wanted to talk about this topic again. 

This documentary was originally conceived as a feature film. The documentary that the audience will see now was filmed for the purpose of research in order to write a full-length script on a topic about Geshe Wangyal’s life. That was the idea. No one knew that it would take so long; it’s been five years! And now there may be no need to make a feature film. I didn’t know if I was ready for that, but I managed to get some unique interviews. Each and every person with whom Geshe Wangyal was connected and who participated in the film could have a movie made about them! Each of these people has a unique story. Of course, this was difficult for me because I wanted to tell their stories as well, especially His Holiness the Dalai Lama. 

The biggest challenge was to make sure that this did not turn into a film about His Holiness. It was very difficult to find a balance and find places for His Holiness to be included in the same timeline with the names of the other respectable people. And, at the same time, he should not be the main protagonist because that is Geshe Wangyal. There were earlier cuts in which everyone said that this was a film about the Dalai Lama, so it was difficult for me as a director to find a balance. This was not my character with whom I could do anything or edit the film as I pleased. Deciding not to edit anything, but to just follow Geshe’s life was very difficult. I deliberately made this film as an offering. It’s not my film; I’m a different person as a director and this is my small offering. 

Roberth Thurman. Image courtesy of Ella Manzheeva
BDG: What was the working atmosphere like among this mostly female production team?

EM: The film was made by women, that’s true. The director of photography, the producer, and co-producers were also women, as well as me. I didn’t deliberately choose women; it happened naturally. But it was probably very convenient because, first of all, there was a sense of mutual understanding between us, and second, it was technically very convenient. During the whole four months that we were shooting with the director of photography, we practically lived together 24 hours a day. We spent a month in India and a month in the US. I flew to Hong Kong to meet Gyalo Thondup, His Holiness’s brother, and we were in Kalmykia. We received help from the Kalmyk diaspora in New Jersey, South Carolina, and California. We did not travel to Tibet, but one man filmed in Tibet specifically for this film.

BDG: How do you feel today, on the day of the premiere?

EM: I am very happy. Today is a special day. When you have spent a long time making something, it feels like your are pregnant—you carry the project with you over months and years. And now it finally feels like it’s coming true. I’m very glad that today, for the first time, I will share the film with people and it will begin its own life. What people will say, whether they will like it or not, is not really my concern and not my responsibility. 

With the premiere today, I am finishing this story. I am very happy that the film will be shown for the first time in the US because this is an American story. There is not a single word in Russian. Of course, it’s very important for me to show the film in Kalmykia because very few Kalmyks know who Geshe Wangyal was. In my opinion, he is the greatest Kalmyk of the last 2,000 years. This is only my opinion, but I do not know of any other Kalmyk in history whose destiny led them to participate in the geopolitical landscape of the world, in part by chance, but also not by chance because of the incredible things Geshe Wangyal has done.

I know that this film raises a lot of questions because it is a teaser for an exploration of the whole body of Tibetan Buddhism as it developed in the 20th century, and how difficult the circumstances were after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. So this is effectively a teaser for a much larger story that cannot be told in a 90-minute documentary.

Mandala offering with American flag. Image courtesy of Ella Manzheeva
BDG: Where we can trace the results of Geshe Wangyal’s contribution?

EM: In Kalmykia. Geshe Wangyal came to America and met Diluwa Khutuktu, the previous incarnation of Telo Tulku Rinpoche. Can you imagine that Telo Tulku Rinpoche, a Kalmyk who was born in America and in his previous life was Diluwa Khutuktu, came to Geshe Wangyal and took him to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Then Telo Tulku Rinpoche went to India, studied in a Tibetan monastery, followed the advice of the Dalai Lama, and together they went to Kalmykia, where he became the shajin lama (supreme lama) of the Kalmyks and remained there for the next 30 years. If there were no Geshe Wangyal, perhaps the Dalai Lama would not have come at that time when Telo Tulku Rinpoche was needed.

When we requested an interview from the Dalai Lama’s secretary, the man who was supposed to give us permission said that when we finished the film and had conducted all of the interviews, then they would give us an audience. He said that the Tibetan people would never forget what Geshe Wangyal did for them. I was surprised that the Dalai Lama’s secretary already knew about Geshe Wangyal’s contribution, and I asked him why he thought like that. It turned out that as soon as His Holiness arrived in the US for the first time, at that moment all the mass media turned its attention to Tibet. Until then, only Taiwan was in focus. The situation in Tibet was scary and the attention of the international media helped to save the lives of many ordinary people.

BDG: What is the most important message of the film?

EM: The most important thing that audiences can see in this movie is Geshe’s spiritual success. If they understand Geshe Wangyal’s path, it will be a very helpful example for everyone. Geshe Wangyal once said: “Keep your motivation pure. It helps you to achieve great things.” And this is true. If something is going wrong, it means something is wrong with your motivation. There’s no need to make a big fuss to solve this problem—just sit down, meditate, and try to purify your motivation. You don’t need to go outside, but you do need to meet your ego. This is the key. If people can understand this, they will really become happier. I think this is very important. 

BDG: Thank you very much, Ella. We wish a great success for this film!

*This article was originally published in Buddhistdoor Global.

«My Buddha is Punk» Acinematographic review.

EFRAÍN VILLAMOR HERRERO

In the era of Gautama Buddha, some 2500 years ago, the concept of human rights had not yet been ratified as the standard of humanism. Just as today, many rights that we now believe to be essential were continuously violated, even unnoticed, at that time. Gautama Buddha did not create a social revolution movement. Yet he never accepted violence, nor did he accept the supremacy of any being, human or divine, and therefore, of course, much less did he accept that anyone should be discriminated because he or she was different. The documentary film that I am reviewing here, My Buddha is Punk (2015), shows with great skill and narrative audacity the despair and social anguish of Burma, a broken society, in which “Buddhist” fundamentalism has supported for years flagrant violations of human rights. The genocides committed against the Muslim minority of the Rohingya people have brought a group of young Buddhists to rise, with the aim of exposing such atrocities, but more importantly, of what they believe Buddhism truly entails. Interestingly, these young activists insist that punk is their only “Buddha”. I think it goes without saying that in Gautama Buddha’s time, punk did not exist. However, as I point out here, I very much doubt that the humanist thinking of the founder of Buddhism, his teachings and the history behind the Burmese punk movement in this documentary are unrelated.

The photographic staging of the documentary is magnificent, and although I am not a specialist in the field, I consider myself enough of a cinephile to be able to say so. The protagonist’s daily routine allows us to travel with his ideals to different Buddhist temples and hidden places in Burma. His serene expression during meditative practice contrasts with his exacerbated features throughout the scenes that chronicle the frenzy with which they hold their concerts. Their music, as well as their activism, also travels through the more rural areas of the country, with the mission of connecting with new generations and bringing them not only closer to their band, but also to their principles. The intense gaze of his protagonist, Kyaw Kyaw, thus appeals to reshape Burmese society by fusing punk music with his interpretation of Buddhist teachings.

Synopsis of this documentary

The story of this filmography features the Burmese activist, Kyaw Kyaw, lead singer of the Burmese rock-punk band. They are known as The Rebel Riot. Their intention is clear: to rebel against the established system and, through their music, to highlight the human rights violations in their country. Their motivation involves their interpretation of Buddhism, which aims to dissociate itself from the rigid relationship that this religion maintains with the high political spheres and the most deeply rooted traditions of their culture. The story is told from the point of view of these young people, who question the true meaning of Buddhism, expressing through punk the values they consider truly universal.

Still from the film My Buddha is Punk

The new generations represented in the documentary grew up in the age of Burmese dictatorship. Perhaps because of this, they seem to find in punk a channel for their personal quest. They identify with this style of music and promote it as the spirit of the liberation movement that they themselves perceive as the authentic Buddhist message. According to public interviews given by the band’s leader, the Burmese punk movement, as an urban phenomenon, emerged in the 1990s. In 2007, protests led by certain sections of monks, known as the “Saffron Revolution”, led to the punk phenomenon becoming a symbol of resistance, Kyaw Kyaw says. The humanist, democratic and Buddhist principles of their society are challenged by this group of reformers. Among the daily idiosyncrasies of the Burmese capital, Rangoon, the bold punk outfits contrast with the more conservative costumes of the people on the streets. The scepticism towards individual freedoms in their country arises as part of the rebelliousness that these young people want to convey, not only from the ethnocentric vision most deeply rooted in their society, but precisely because they consider that this is far from the essence of the Buddhist message. Modern versus traditional does not clash in this story as part of a generational struggle, but rather, it originates from a search for spiritual peace, based on social activism. Together with the members of his band, Kyaw Kyaw tries to raise awareness among the people of his homeland about the lack of democratic tools in their society, but above all about the constant violation of human rights resulting from the military dictatorship backed by the staunchest Buddhist orthodoxy.

Why does this story need to be told? 

Support for obstinate hate speech from certain Buddhist-monastic sectors in Burma, against much more than just the social reputation of the Rohingya, supported the campaign of ethnic genocide carried out primarily by the country’s military forces. According to the director of this documentary, Andreas Hartmann, his purpose in filming this documentary was to reveal the troubled history of Burma, a country which, in 2011, after more than fifty years stained by the blood of a tenacious dictatorship, continues to suffer from the violation of human rights. According to data provided by the non-governmental organisation devoted to the research, defence and promotion of human rights, Human Rights Watch, the ethnic minority of the Rohingya has suffered discrimination and relentless repression for decades in Burma. The Rohingya are an ethnic minority of Bengali Muslim origin, most of whom do not have national recognition (in 1982 the Burmese Civil Act denied their nationality). As stateless people, they have suffered persecution, execution and discrimination for many years. The genocides of their ethnic group by the Burmese military in recent years have gained international media interest, although the conflict does not seem to have been fully resolved.

According to the organisation, approximately one million Rohingya are estimated to be crammed into camps in Bangladesh, where the vast majority of them took refuge following war crimes committed against their ethnicity in Burma in August 2017. Approximately 600,000 of these people have been belittled for their ethnicity, being confined in different concentration camps across the country. This misfortune is not alien to fundamentalist orthodoxy, the political doctrine that claims to be “Buddhism”. At the heart of the plot of this documentary is precisely a reflection on the true Buddhist message. Its story reflects on whether fundamentalism could in fact be considered authentic “Buddhism”.

From a Buddhist philosophical point of view

I do not know any Burmese monk personally. I know that Buddhism has been established for centuries as their religious backbone, and that, as is the case in the vast majority of Southeast Asian countries, its main strand is ascribed to Theravāda Buddhism. However, because of my specialisation and training in the subject, as well as the fact that I know quite some people, I am aware that “clothes do not make the man”, not even in the Buddhist context. Gautama Buddha’s ontological analysis was precisely this, that what really matters is what is inside the heart. From the point of view of Buddhist philosophy, how can we read the message of this film? Well, although we don’t need to be a spoiler, since answering this question does not require an exquisite knowledge of Buddhist teachings, I would like to briefly outline here some points for your consideration.

If the mental process (saṅkhāra) of harbouring hatred or rejection (dosa) (without even pausing to discuss that it might be justified towards a certain type of ethnicity) were useful in reversing (paṭiloma) the causes of suffering (dukkha), Gautama Buddha would have reflected this in his teachings. Instead, he, who advocated compassion and empathy for all sentient beings, professed precisely the opposite message. 

In this world, never does hatred cease hatred.
It is getting rid of hatred [that extinguishes the flame of hatred]: this law is universal.
na hi verena verāni sammantīdha kudācanaṃ
averena ca sammanti esa dhammo sanantano (Dhammapada 5)

As we can infer from the contextual analysis of these famous verses, social inequality, the shedding of innocent blood, as well as the suffering of other beings (whatever their nature), were issues that concerned Gautama Buddha. Although in his time nationalist thinking had not yet developed in the same way as in contemporary history, the devastation arising from the war between different kingdoms shares ethnocentric ideas with the Burmese conflict addressed in the documentary. Beyond the Buddhist apologetic discourse, from an academic point of view (I dare say, precisely because of what concerns me), Gautama Buddha’s teachings historically promoted the practice of the four “refuge in Brahma”, which are nothing more than different ways of expressing the most human quality: empathy. Universal love, compassion, rejoicing in the achievements of others, are the altruistic practices that he defined as restorative, first and foremost, for the practitioner, especially when performed through the perspective of equanimity (upekkhā). The activism of the punk-Buddhist band refers to the reflection (even if sometimes expressed with too much distortion on the guitar, for my personal taste) of these teachings.

The Eightfold Path (ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga) is the basis of the Buddhist ethical message. The Middle Way, the method that Gautama Buddha coined so that everyone could attain his own liberation, involved more than mere words, doing the right thing. The right thing to do may be subject to interpretation according to the situation. This does not mean doing the right thing. Gautama Buddha never denied the (individual) conscience of the human being to discern the right thing, quite the contrary. Although Gautama Buddha and his group of followers completely renounced their social status, there is no doubt that throughout his life, he encouraged philanthropy and altruism in all its possible forms. For him, doing the right thing is always what “connects” us to the absolute truth. Kyaw Kyaw, too, does not question the individual’s ability to achieve happiness. Like Gautama Buddha, he tries to promote people’s awareness of this capacity through his social activism. Which, in my opinion, is none other than his interpretation of compassion, the exercise that Gautama Buddha emphasised helps us to detach from all that binds us to continue suffering. The Burmese punk band’s volunteer activities include Food Not Bombs, an international movement that began in the United States in the 1980s, where they distribute food to people in need. He and his punk band travel around the country’s rural areas to help those in need.

Still from the film My Buddha is Punk

Not clinging, not even to Buddhism itself?

The renowned Chinese monk Línjì 義玄, founder of the school of Zen Buddhism that bears his name Yìxuán臨済 (in Japanese read Rinzai), left for posterity his message summed up in the phrase: “If you meet a Buddha, kill him”. This striking advice, paradoxical as it may sound, precisely advocated detachment from any kind of essentialism (a philosophical stance that Buddhism denied from the very beginning). Burmese religious fundamentalism, promoted by certain sectors that consider themselves Buddhists, seems not to be a particular trait of its people, despite the claims of the Burmese national-centrist movement. The filmography we review here, or rather the central problem from which its story arises, comes precisely from this, from the ethnocentric view of those who fear the disappearance of their traditions. To interpret phenomena statically, as if they were independent “things” (rather than interrelated processes) is far from what Gautama Buddha taught. To him, clinging to an idea (micchābhinivesa) resulted in misinterpretation (micchādiṭṭhi), which in turn results in acting (micchākammanta) in a biased way (micchāgahaṇa). Those who do so (micchācārī) guide their mind (micchāpaṇihita) in the wrong direction, which leads to continued suffering. The eagerness (micchāvāyāma) and thoughts (micchāsaṅkappa) that may be shown in whatever is done in this direction, which, we emphasise, attaches us to suffering, are the trigger of a false life (micchājīva). Some of the oldest passages of the Buddhist canon ascribed to the Theravāda school record as direct teachings of Gautama Buddha the following:

Recognising that this is suffering, when these experiences, when you realise that these phenomena are false (mosa), then the very moment you are in contact with them, the contact fades away and you understand their nature (dhamma). A self-respecting monk, [is the one who] without hunger, eradicates his sensations and becomes free (parinibbuto).

Etaṃ “dukkhan” ti ñatvāna mosadhammaṃ palokinaṃ phussa phussa vayaṃ passaṃ evaṃ tattha virajjati, vedanānaṃ khayā bhikkhu nicchāto parinibbuto ti (Suttanipāta 739)

Being aware of this danger, that “the flame of attachment” gives rise to suffering, a monk should act consciously, acting free from attachment, not clinging [to anything].

Etam ādīnavaṃ ñatvā taṇhā dukkhassa sambhavaṃ vītataṇho anādāno sato bhikkhu paribbaje ti. (Suttanipāta 741)

In these passages, among the oldest known in the Buddhist canon, the idea seems clear. Attachment and hunger are two metaphors that go beyond material possessions; let us not forget that, in the Buddhist monastic context, they are meaningless. So what is being referred to here? Basically to discard any kind of idea, in other words to get rid of ethnocentrism. The denial of an individual entity (anattā), exercising compassion and altruism towards all beings, as well as many other Buddhist teachings, are nothing but an appeal to this very same thing. If we want to be even more specific and elaborate the argument, we will say that, in this way the cognitive process (based on our consciousness’s craving for stimuli) can be deconstructed. That which we regard as real, when we hold on to what we experience, is it merely the product of the interdependence between matter and consciousness, which keeps us within the existence (saṃsāra). Deconstructing the empirical process is the goal of Buddhist practice. If you meditate, but hurt others, you are not a Buddhist. If you are punk, but help others (you are also helping yourself, hence the idea that altruism is liberating), you are truly Buddhist. Being a Buddhist is not about wearing a specific robe, but about behaving in the right way. Rightness does not imply a specific behaviour, it depends on the situation. What is not relative is the direction it has to take to be identified as right. The goal is always the same, to counteract the effects of what produces suffering.

From the perspective of the punk band leader, certain sectors of his country’s main religious tradition had tolerated, on the basis of essentialism, firstly, that the political systematisation of religion resulted in it being detached from its original altruistic message, but above all that this resulted in something that further contradicts its conciliatory message: hatred and its greatest exponent, violence. The fundamentalism generated by religious orthodoxy is not unique to Burma. Strong links with the political sector of the Buddhist community in other Southeast Asian countries have led to nationalist ideas being endorsed under the pretext of not allowing their beliefs to be undermined. The conversation that the leader of the Burmese punk group Kyaw Kyaw has in the garage with other followers of his movement shows the root of the disagreement. Kyaw Kyaw points out that to understand and implement the Buddhist message in an integral way, what you really need is “to change oneself, from the heart”. The young man calls for something beyond what has been established in his country as Buddhism. His quest for spiritual freedom is more than remarkable. His channel is punk, to him, his “Buddha”.

Panoramic view of Bagan Temple Myanmar (National Geographic)

Final thoughts

I am convinced that Gautama Buddha would not have liked punk music very much. In fact, I am not even sure that, if he had listened to it, he would have considered it “music”, as such. Well, this is perhaps an excessively subjective opinion of the author. Still, what I have no doubt is that Gautama Buddha would not have completely disapproved of the implicit intention of the message: “Punk is my Buddha”. For all lovers of humanism, the modern history of Burma, but especially how certain people have overcome adversity and fought to defend the Truth, a visit to the press archive as well as a deep personal reflection is certainly worthwhile.

Recommended reading related to the documentary

https://www.nytimes.com/es/2019/07/11/espanol/birmania-budismo-musulmanes.html

https://www.punkethics.com/rebel-riot-interview/

https://www.sandrahoyn.de/portfolio/the-punk-of-burma/ 

https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/09/saffron-revolution-good-monk-myth/541116/

Dhammika Herath. (2020) Constructing Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar: Imaginary of a Historically Victimised Community. Asian Studies Review 44:2, pages 315-334.

McCarthy, Stephen (2008). «Losing My Religion? Protest and Political Legitimacy in Burma», Griffith Asia Institute Regional Outlook Paper, No. 18.

Steinberg, D. (2008). Globalization, Dissent, and Orthodoxy: Burma/Myanmar and the Saffron Revolution. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs9(2), 51–58. 

http://www.jstor.org/stable/43133778

Efraín Villamor Herrero (Bilbao, 1986) Degree in Japanese philology and Japanology (2012-2016) from Yamaguchi Prefectural University (Japan). PhD, University of Salamanca (2020-2023). His main fields of study are Indian Buddhism and its influence on Japanese thought. In his doctoral thesis he has analysed differentjātaka stories that were transmitted to medieval Japanese literature. He is a member of the Erasia Humanismo Research Group (Spain), the Society for the Study of Pali and Buddhist Culture and Japanese Association of Indian and Buddhist Studies (Japan).

* This article was originally published in Dharma-Gaia Foundation.

Valley of Flowers, a Buddhist “fantasy” in the Himalayas

ROBERTO E. GARCÍA

When talking about Buddhist cinema, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is a film portraying the lives of monks, exploring the benefits of meditation for mental health or the ethical virtues of the teachings, some of the topics of current interest to Buddhist practitioners. It is more unusual to find film productions that explore aspects of Buddhism that have little appeal to modern thinking, but are quite common in traditional Buddhism, for example: spirits as a constant dangerous presence; karmic stories that span several lifetimes; redemption stories of criminal characters who amend their paths through the power of Buddhist teachings, among other subjects.

Such is the case of Valley of Flowers (2006) by the Indian filmmaker Pan Nalin, who achieved worldwide acclaim with his film Samsara (2001), in which he portrays the moral downfall of a Buddhist monk in Ladakh. Unlike Samsara, where he directly addresses Buddhist monastic issues, in Valley of Flowers Nalin develops a tragic love story set against the backdrop of the Himalayan environment, more specifically Ladakhi, where different ethnic and religious identities such as Buddhism, Bön and Shaivism coexist. Thus, Nalin manages to embed his story in a complex social and cultural environment, in which Buddhism is the predominant player, but not the only one. While acknowledging this reality in his film, Nalin clearly adopts a Buddhist perspective in his narrative, which is framed by the doctrines of karma, transience, the roots of good and evil, and the dominance of Buddhist power over other spiritual forces.

Valley of Flowers is based on the novel Love Magic and Black Magic (Magie d’amour et magie noir; Scenes du Tibet inconnu, 1938) by Alexandra David-Néel, the fascinating Belgian-French traveller and writer who first visited Tibet in 1924. Although it is an inspiration rather than an adaptation of the novel, Nalin’s film draws on the legendary world narrated by the traveller and masterfully recreates it in stunning settings in the Ladakh region, including monasteries, villages and high mountain areas, many of which are extremely difficult to access. In addition, the careful work of the production, especially in terms of costumes (by Natasha de Betak) and the many props, gives the staging an atmosphere of enormous realism, which in itself is a great artistic achievement for the director and his team, as well as an extraordinary visual delight for the viewer.

But what kind of film is Valley of Flowers? To be honest, it is difficult to say. It is a production that cannot be categorised into a single genre. It is a road movie, a thriller, a crime and even a horror film all at the same time, but first and foremost it is a Buddhist romantic “fantasy”. Now, I should point out here that, although I describe it as a “fantasy”, the elements that may seem fantastic to the modern viewer are not so from a traditional Buddhist perspective. The use of magic, the presence of protective and evil spirits, the possession of superhuman powers and other prodigies have been part of the Buddhist imagery since its inception, so in a sense this film is faithful to ancient Buddhist stories that quite naturally include such “wondrous” elements.

The plot of the film can be summarised as follows (spoiler alert!). In the early 19th century, a bandit named Jalan (literally “Blazing”, played by Indian Milind Soman) leads a gang of charismatic and multi-ethnic thieves who loot and plunder convoys passing through the Himalayan region of Ladakh. During a robbery, he meets Ushna (literally “Burning”, played by the French Mylène Jampanoï), a mysterious young woman who claims to have seen him in her dreams and who is determined to follow him. Ushna gradually awakens Jalan’s passion, as well as the gang’s support, helping them to steal more and more valuable things. However, on the trail of these criminals is a character known as the Yeti (played by the famous Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah), a free interpretation of the legendary creature that according to local testimonies inhabit some Himalayan regions. In Nalin’s film, the Yeti is fully human, has a fondness for alcoholic beverages and is devoted to taming dangerous spirits. Certain aspects of the character bring him close to the mahāsiddhas, the highly realized Buddhist tantric practitioners, some of whom, such as Maitrīpa, are associated with the consumption of alcohol, while others, such as Padmasambhava, are depicted as great appeasers of hostile spirits. Consistent with these iconic figures of Buddhism in the region, the Yeti is portrayed as a guardian and protector of the dharma wielding with a kangling, a trumpet made from a human femur, and a drum called ḍamaru, two objects that are used in tantric rituals in Tibetan Buddhism, and whose uses include the ability to summon and subdue dangerous entities, both external and mental. As anyone watching the film will realise, the Yeti is determined to use his tools of power to subjugate the lovers, in whom it is possible to find more than one evil and literally “demonic” factor.

Still from Valley of Flowers

Pan Nalin’s film does not patronise the couple of love-struck bandits and their criminal transgressions. Nor does it express moralistic judgement on this couple who could well be a Himalayan precursor of Bonnie and Clyde. In the style of the karmic tales of traditional Buddhism, it rather devotes itself to presenting the dire consequences of the actions they themselves have created. Imbued with the theft of increasingly valuable things, not only material but also energetic and spiritual in nature (such as the good fortune of others, their powers and even their energy and life-breath), Jalan and Ushna face the relentless inevitability of their own karma.

The elixir of immortality, which at one point they manage to steal from an evil yogi, becomes a poison that bestows human mortality on the enigmatic Ushna -a powerful entity who has recklessly crossed the barriers between the realms of beings and is now trapped between worlds- and binds Jalan to live an existence of hundreds of years without being able to experience death, while the two are bound only by the painful memory of each other. In Jalan’s case, this condition of unwanted immortality, marked by the longing and absence of his beloved, leads him to procure the assisted death of those who ask for it, taking the narrative to 21st century Japan, where the last meeting between the lovers and the Yeti will take place, who will finally restore order, drawing on the power of the Buddha who, according to him “is the one who can turn conflict into collaboration”.

Several Buddhist doctrinal aspects are present throughout the film, however perhaps the most notable are the constant references to the transgression of the second Buddhist precept, abstention from stealing, and its karmic consequences. Jalan and Ushna are not monastics; however, their story unfolds in a cultural environment where Buddhist ideas and practices predominate, and where the presence of powers associated with Buddhism is taken for granted. Thus, the Yeti serves as the guardian of the dharma and of the regions where Buddha’s power reigns, and his task is to bring the criminal couple to justice, but above all to make it clear to them that their actions are subject to the inexorability of karma, so that their punishment is not something imposed from outside, but something gradually built up through their own actions.

The Buddhist vein running through Valley of Flowers is by no means obvious. It appears here and there through metaphors that refer to various ideas central to the teaching of the Buddhas. One specific example of this is the symbolism of the flower throughout the film. The flower represents the joy of the senses, the pleasure of being alive and experiencing the world intensely, just as Jalan and Ushna do. That is why their purpose is to retreat to the safety of a place known as the Valley of Flowers, a region located in Uttarakhand, a state in northern India. In their vision, this valley would represent an eternal, unfading region where the couple could enjoy the immortality they had stolen. But in Buddhism, eternal happiness cannot be stolen. Neither the bliss of nirvana nor the joy of the Pure Lands, described in the sūtras of the mahāyāna (and which, by the way, overflow with unfading flowers made of precious stones), can be obtained through robbery. Only merit, the cultivation of virtue and wisdom can lead to them. In contrast to this, the Yeti offers the couple a flower, a Buddhist symbol of transient pleasure, of the mortality of beings, of impermanence (one of the hallmarks of right view according to Buddhism), thus showing them the inevitability of their death and separation.

The conclusion of Pan Nalin’s film is tremendous and profoundly Buddhist. There is no passion without suffering, no pleasure without decadence, no evil act without fruition. However, it also points out that right understanding leads to balance. After all, Buddhism is a system that teaches how to transit from a state of disruption and conflict to one of mental healing and balance. From this perspective, Valley of Flowers can be seen as a great metaphor for the dangers of the mind and the need to keep its harmful manifestations under control. Jalan and Ushna’s is a world where it is possible to identify evil on the outside, as part of people’s behaviour, as a characteristic of certain human or non-human characters, who might be thought to be intrinsically evil, or at least to have a tendency to act with malignity. However, the film points out that the real evil, the genuine evil, is not to be found outside of us; it is in our own minds, in harmful states of mind: it is an enemy that lurks from within. It is not fortuitous that the film opens with the following quote attributed to Milarepa, the great Buddhist sage of the Himalayan region:

” What looks like a demon, which is called a “demon”

That is recognised as a demon, exists within the

human being and disappears with him”.

———————————————-

Roberto E. García is a translator of Sanskrit and pāli and a scholar of Indian Buddhist narrative traditions. He is currently Professor-Researcher of Buddhist Studies at the Centro de Estudios de Asia y África (CEAA) of El Colegio de México, where he conducts research on the lineages of regal authority in Indian Buddhist literature and on the history of Buddhism in Mexico. He has published several academic essays on Buddhist literature and culture. His publications include the book Jatakas, before the Buddha, Buddhist tales from India (JātakasAntes del Buda. Relatos budistas de la India), a direct translation from the pāḷi of Buddha’s past life stories. From 2015 to 2017 he was a researcher and translator at the Buddhist Translators Workbench, a Sanskrit lexicography project of the Mangalam Research Center for Buddhist Languages in Berkeley, California.

*This article is part of a special issue “Buddhism and Film”  in Buddhistdoor en Español.

Xuan Zang, directed by Huo Jianqi

JOHN SHANNON*

Beautiful. Exceptional. Thus, would I describe the film ‘Xuan Zang,’ a Chinese-Indian co-produced film, made in 2016. The film is a Buddhist film about Buddhism and about a Buddhist subject: Xuan Zang, a Tang dynasty Chinese Buddhist monk who, in the 7th century C.E., made a pilgrimage from China overland through Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, around India, and then back to China, on a journey of up to 15,000 miles (accounts differ) over a period of up to 19 years (again accounts differ). He went in search of original Māhayāna sūtras, as he had found discrepancies in the translations available in China. He brought 657 original Sanskrit sūtras back to China, translated them and added much to China’s understanding of Buddhism at that time. He also brought back important Buddhist images and relics, founded the Weishi (or Faxiang) School of Buddhism, a Chinese development of the Indian Yogācāra School and wrote an account of his travels, Great Tang Records on the Western Regions. The text of this account was the inspiration for the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West.

The film, ‘Xuan Zang’, made in 2016, known as Da Tang Xuan Zang in Chinese, should not be confused with another earlier Chinese film of the same name in English, known as Xuan Zang Da Shi in Chinese. So, to avoid possible confusion, I describe the 2016 film, the subject of this review, as ‘Xuan Zang (2016)’.

‘Xuan Zang (2016)’ was filmed in China, Central Asia and India. It follows the travels of Xuan Zang as he journeyed overland, mostly on foot, from Chang‘an (present-day Xi’an), the capital of Tang China, through deserts, mountains and steppes to Nālandā, in north-eastern India, the site of the great Buddhist university, and then back to Chang’an. The film was directed by Huo Jianqi, and stars Huang Xiaoming as Xuan Zang. The art advisor is the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai. Photography is by Sun Ming and Nie Yunxing (aerial), and music is by Xiaofeng. Several Chinese Buddhist monks acted as advisors to the film.

The photography is stunning, particularly the scenes in the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts and the Tian Shan mountains, much of it filmed using drones. The original music, an evocative mix of Chinese, Central Asian, Indian and Western music, and Buddhist chanting, adds much to the atmosphere. The sets, re-creations of temples, forts and palaces, are good, but there is, of course, a certain amount of CGI too. The acting is adequate, though Huang Xiaoming (Xuan Zang) does a particularly good job. The dialogue is in Mandarin, but the English subtitles are good. On balance, I consider the film to be excellent. And it includes mention and explanation of several Buddhist teachings too, rare in most recent “Buddhist” films that I have seen. A beautiful, exceptional film.

But before I start the review, let me briefly describe my perspective as a reviewer. Brought up in the UK as a Catholic, I later became interested in Zen Buddhism through reading the works of D.T. Suzuki, and became a student of the late Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn in the mid-1990s. In recent years, I have been influenced by the teachings of the late Vietnamese Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạhn and most recently have started to lean towards Secular Buddhism. I would now describe myself as a Secular Zen Buddhist. Having lived in Hong Kong for almost 55 years, I have inevitably been exposed to Chinese Buddhism, which has influenced me too.

‘Xuan Zang (2016)’ opens with a scene in Mumbai University Library in 2015, when a student asks to look at a book, ’Ancient Geography of India’, an archaeological survey of India written by Andrew Cunningham in Delhi in 1870. The film then flashes back to 1870, with Andrew Cunningham saying how he had read a book from the Tang dynasty, called Journey to the West, written by a monk, Xuan Zang, describing Bodh Gayā and Nālandā. Cunningham continues, saying that the discoveries of his own diggings and the descriptions by Xuan Tang matched perfectly. The scene then flashes further back to the 7th century and we see Xuan Tang for the first time, a monk in a Chang’an monastery. 

An Imperial Decree of 627 announces that, because of famine, Chang’an citizens may leave the city and go wherever there is sufficient food. Xuan Zang tells his abbot that he wants to travel to India to bring back original Sanskrit sūtras to China. The abbot warns him against this, as the journey would be dangerous and take many years, and that monks needed official permission to leave, although ordinary citizens could leave as refugees. Xuan Zang decides to leave anyway and sets off, wearing a large bamboo backpack, on foot, along the Silk Road from Chang’an, heading westwards. In Liangzhou (present-day Wuwei), Xuan Zang witnesses some robbers who are killed in the town. He tends to their dead bodies and is taken in by the authorities for questioning. As he was travelling without permission, the governor tells Xuan Zang that he must return to Chang’an. An arrest warrant with a sketch of him is made and distributed to all towns and watchtowers to the west of Liangzhou ordering his arrest. Xuan Zang remains in Liangzhou for a while, teaching, before setting off secretly for the oasis town at Gua Zhou (present-day Anxi) along the Gansu Corridor on the edge of the Gobi Desert. 

In Gua Zhou, Xuan Zang is identified from the sketch and the governor advises him to return to Chang’an, but then rips up the warrant. Xuan Zang continues his journey westwards and meets up with a merchant camel train in the desert and travels with it for a while. But, as he can’t keep up with its pace, leaves it and continues alone. In a small oasis town, he meets a beautiful young woman with a camel who offers to guide him through the desert for a short distance, as all camel trains had stopped, because of a war. She accompanies him for a while and then the two go their separate ways and Xuan Zang is alone again. 

Xuan Zang then meets up with a young Central Asian man, Vandak in a small oasis town and the latter asks to become Xuan Zang’s disciple, who gives him the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts. Vandak becomes Xuan Zang’s guide, but when he learns that the monk does not have permission to travel from Chang’an, he becomes worried about his own safety. So, he decides to kill Xuan Zang, but, at the last moment, is unable to do so. Vandak asks Xuan Zang to return to Chang’an, but the two part company, with Vandak advising Xuan Zang to buy an old horse which knows the way. Xuan Zang continues his journey westwards and, in an oasis town, meets an old man who gives him an old horse. The old man’s daughter turns out to be the beautiful young woman with the camel that Xuan Zang had met earlier in another oasis town, and she guides him for a short distance, before they separate, asking him, longingly, if he will return. But who is this mysterious woman? Is she Mara, trying to prevent Xuan Zang from going to India?  

Xuan Zang continues on foot, with his old horse, until he reaches the first watchtower on the edge of the Gashun Gobi Desert, between the Gobi and the Taklamakan deserts. At night he comes under fire from arrows fired from the watch tower. Xuan Zang is arrested, but later strikes up a friendship with the watchtower commander, who asks the monk to teach him about Buddhism. When the commander talks of his suffering at being posted to the watchtower and his desire to return to Chang’an, Xuan Zang teaches him about suffering, desire and the Four Noble Truths.

Xuan Zang sets off again, accompanied by his horse and, in the desert, encounters a major sandstorm, when his large goatskin water container is blown away and all the water drains out. But then it starts raining and the monk and his horse are saved. They continue their journey until, exhausted and thirsty, Xuan Zang goes mad, wandering around in circles in the desert, seeing demons, and dreaming of his mother, until he collapses in the sand, believing he is dying. Xuan Zang regains consciousness as his horse wakes him up and lies down on the sand enabling the monk to drape himself over the horse’s back. In this way, they arrive at the Central Asian oasis town of Yiwu (present-day Hami, in Xinjiang, China) where the king tells Xuan Zang that the powerful Central Asian king of Gaochang, an oasis town (near present-day Turpan, in Xinjiang), wants to see him. Xuan Zang doesn’t want to go to Gaochang, as it is out of his way, but when told that if he doesn’t go, then Gaochang would invade Yiwu, he changes his mind.

Xuan Zang arrives in Gaochang, where he is treated as an honoured guest in the palace of the king, who asks if he can become Xuan Zang’s disciple. He later asks him to remain in Gaochang to spread Buddhism in his kingdom, but Xuan Zang wants to continue to India. The king tells the monk that he has two choices: to remain in Gaochang or be forcibly returned to Chang’an. Xuan Zang stops eating and goes into a deep meditative state until the king eventually begs his forgiveness, saying he can continue his journey, giving him men and horses to accompany him, leaving his old horse behind at the palace. Xuan Zang and his party are treated as guests and entertained wherever they go, as they continue their journey. 

They cross over the Great Snow Mountain in the Tian Shan range, where they encounter a fatal avalanche, on into present-day Kyrgyzstan, on the Central Asian Steppes north of the mountains, then through present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, finally arriving at Nālandā in 631. 

 At Nālandā, Xuan Zang is welcomed in a ceremony by the abbot of Nālandā Monastery (played by Indian actor Ram Gopal Bajaj). When Xuan Zhang tells the abbot that he has come from China to study Yogācāra, the abbot says he had a dream in which the bodhisattvas Maitreya and Mañjusrī had told him that a monk from Tang China would come and study the Dharma with him. Xuan Zang studies Yogācāra with the monks at Nālandā for five years and then considers returning to China, but wants to see more of India first. He sets out on a study journey around India in 637, including Bodh Gayā, where the Historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, attained Awakening,

In a village, Xuan Zang meets a man wearing a mask, Jayaran, and a young woman, Kumari, selling fruit. He asks Jayaran to be his guide, who tells him that he was orphaned as a child and sold as a slave to a village chief. Six months ago, a fire broke out in his master’s house and Jayaran rescued Kumari, his master’s daughter. Because he, a slave, had touched the daughter, he was evicted, cursed and forced to wear a mask; only a Brahmin could lift the curse, but no Brahmin would take pity on a slave. Kumari is told that, as she has been touched by a slave, she must die on a Brahmin’s funeral pyre in order to be purified. So, she and Jayaran run away together and are living an itinerant life. Xuan Zang asks an old Brahmin to take pity on Jayaram and lift the curse, as he had risked his life to save Kumari. The Brahmin, impressed with Xuan Zang, agrees, saying that Jayaran must first bathe and purify himself in the Ganges River for ten days. Xuan Zang, Jayaran and Kumari board a ferry on the Ganges, with the sūtras and images that he had collected. A storm blows up and the sutras and images are washed overboard. Jayaram jumps into the river and retrieves them, and his mask falls off. The curse has been lifted. 

Back in Nālandā, in 639, the abbot tells the monks that Emperor Harsha, wants four monks from Nālandā to take part in an 18-day theological debate about the respective merits of Hīnayāna and Māhayāna, the outcome of which would affect all of India. The abbot chooses Xuan Zang to be the sole debater, though he and other monks would accompany him. In 642, the party is welcomed by Harsha in his capital at Kannauj, where the debate will be held.  Hīnayāna texts opposing Mahāyāna, and Mahāyāna texts, written by Xuan Zang, would be studied, then debated and a victor would be declared. After 18 days of study, Harsha, announces that there is no need for a debate as the study shows Xuan Zang to be the victor. Major celebrations are held and Xuan Zang is paraded, victorious, on an elephant. The abbot tells him that Buddhism is declining in India, with only Nālandā keeping it alive, but that it is growing in China and Xuan Zang should return there to help it flourish. So, Xuan Zang starts his journey back to China, despite a request from Emperor Harsha to remain.

The Tang Chinese emperor, Taizong issues an edict requiring all Chinese officials to assist Xuan Zang on his journey. And, in 645, Xuan Zang enters Chang’an to a tumultuous welcome, having left it illegally in 627. He had finally brought the original Sanskrit sūtras to China and now started to translate them. The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was built in Chang’an in 649 to house them and Xuan Zang passed away in 664. The film ends with Hong Kong singer Faye Wong singing the Heart Sutra, beautifully, in Mandarin. An exceptional film.

*This article was originally published in Buddhistddor en Español on September 1, 2023.

Zen, directed by Banmei Takashi

JOHN SHANNON

“Wonderful, wonderful!”, as my late Zen master used to say and this is how I would describe the film, “Zen”. The film is iconic, evocative and very “spiritual”, and I experienced the film while watching it, rather than just seeing it. But before I begin my review proper, I have a minor criticism. And this is the title of the film: “Zen”. The title is catchy, but rather presumptuous, in my view, as it appropriates the inclusive term “Zen” to describe itself. The film is not about Zen per se, but about Eihei Dōgen, the Japanese monk who founded the Japanese Sōtō School of Zen (Chinese Caodong school) in 13th-century Japan. So, what about the other Japanese schools of Zen? Such as the Daruma School and the Rinzai School (Chinese Linji School), both founded before the Sōtō School, and the Ōbaku School, founded later? Are they not Zen? Or Chinese Chan (the “original” Zen, from which all the other Zen schools developed), Korean Sŏn, or Vietnamese Thiền? Are they not Zen also? A misleading title, spoiling slightly, for me, an otherwise excellent film.

The film, “Zen”, is a Japanese film, made in 2009, directed by Banmei Takashi, based on a novel by Tatsuo Ōtani, a Japanese Sōtō priest. It was filmed on location in Japan. The dialogue is in Japanese, with Mandarin used in the scenes set in China. The film is available on DVD.

The film tells the story of the life of Eihei Dōgen, born in 1200 in Kyoto, during the early Kamakura period (1185-1333), who entered a monastery at the age of eight, following his mother’s death, and was ordained a monk in the Tendai School (Chinese Tientai School) on Mount Hiei, near Kyoto, at the age of 13. Unable to find answers to questions he had about Buddhism in the teachings of the Tendai School, he travelled to China in 1223 to study Chan, hoping to find the answers and “true Buddhism” there. After studying at various Linji monasteries, and feeling that koans would not provide him with the answers that he was seeking, Dōgen eventually met up with Chan Master Rujing of the Caodong School, who taught him shikantaza (“just sitting”), a zazen (sitting meditation) practice. Dōgen had found what he was looking for and attained enlightenment. After receiving inka (seal of Dharma transmission) from Master Rujing, Dōgen returned to Japan in 1227 and founded the Sōtō School. As the new Sōtō School started to gain an increasing number of followers, it ran into major opposition from the Tendai School, which saw it as a threat, and Dōgen and his monks were forced to move their monastery several times before eventually settling in 1243 at Eihei-ji (“ji” means a temple in Japanese) in Echizhen Province (now part of Fukui Prefecture), north of Kyoto. Dōgen died in Kyoto on a visit there in 1253, aged 52.

Before I start the review in detail, perhaps I should describe my perspective as a reviewer. Brought up in the UK as a Catholic, I later became interested in Zen Buddhism through reading the works of D.T. Suzuki, and became a student of the late Korean Sŏn Master Seung Sahn in the mid-1990s. In recent years, I have been influenced by the teachings of the late Vietnamese Thiền Master Thích Nhất Hạhn and most recently have started to lean towards Secular Buddhism. I would now describe myself as a Secular Zen Buddhist.

The film, “Zen”, opens with a scene of a funeral pyre at a Japanese Buddhist monastery, on which the body of the mother of a young boy, Dōgen, is being cremated. It then flashes back to a conversation the young Dōgen has with his dying mother during which they talk about paradise being here and now, and she asks him to find a way to end suffering in this life. 

Thus, Dōgen becomes a monk, in the Tendai School on Mount Hiei, but gradually becomes disillusioned with the way that the Sangha in Japan had degenerated and become corrupt, with monks behaving in ways contrary to their monastic precepts. So next we see Dōgen in China in 1223, in search of a master to teach him “true Buddhism”. The first monastery he visits is Tiantong Temple in Ningbo, a Chan monastery, where the senior monk, tells Dōgen that there is no need for a master and that one must rely on oneself. Dōgen moves on to continue his search.

He next meets an old monk, the head cook of Ayuwan Temple, also in Ningbo and, after discussing Buddhism, go their separate ways, hoping to meet again sometime. As they later do. We then see Dōgen in a graveyard, where he meets a Chinese monk, Jiyuen, and mistakes him for a dead Japanese friend, Kugyō Minamoto, a nobleman (the same actor plays both parts)

The film then flashes back to an earlier time in Japan, before 1223, when Dōgen and Kugyō are chatting in a forest near Kyoto, and Kugyō tells Dōgen that he should leave Mount Hiei and seek “true Buddhism” in China, while he hoped to become shogun and to become Dōgen’s disciple on his return to Japan. While they were talking, a young girl, Orin, steals food from them. Dōgen rescues the girl from Kugyō, who tries to kill her. Orin becomes a major player in the film, as their paths cross later, as we shall see. But did Orin really exist and if so, did she play a significant role in Dōgen’s life story? Or was she just included in the film for added interest? Feminine interest. Don’t know!  

And finally, in this pre-China scene, Kugyō, visits Dōgen and tells the latter that he is leaving Kyoto for Kamakura, the seat of the shogun, and will become the next shogun. A few years later, in a war between the Minamoto and Taira clans, Kugyō, now the shogun, is killed and his decapitated head is shown hanging on a pole.

Back now to China, sometime after 1223, and Dōgen tells Jiyuen that he has visited seven monasteries, starting with Tiantong Temple and has still not found a master. Jiyuen tells Dōgen that the senior monk at Tiantong has now died and Zen Master Rujing, of the Caodong School, who teaches shikantaza, has succeeded him, and that he is Rujing’s attendant. Dōgen accompanies Ji-yuen to Tiantong Temple where he becomes a disciple of Rujing; he had found his master at last! During his time at Tiantong, Dogen visits Ayuwan Temple, where he meets up with the old cook again and they continue their earlier conversations about Buddhism (Dōgen later wrote Tenzo Kyōkun (“Instructions for the Cook”), which are instructions for life, based on these conversations). After a few years, Dōgen attains enlightenment and is given inka by Rujing, who tells him to return to Japan to teach shikantaza and establish the Caodong School there (which he does, and which becomes the Sōtō School).

In 1227, Dogen returns to Japan, leaving Jiyuen, at Tiantong Temple, with Rujing. Back in Japan, we see the Mount Hiei monks consorting with prostitutes in Kyoto, eating and drinking, and stealing and fighting with the townspeople. They also talk about Dōgen being a threat to their existence. At his monastery one day, a young monk, Shunryō, talks to Dōgen and becomes his first disciple. Later, a monk, Ejo, from the Daruma school, visits Dōgen at Kennin-ji in Kyoto, where Dōgen is living, and asks to become his disciple, but Dogen says that the time is not ripe for this. 

Jiyuen, following Rujing’s death shortly after Dōgen had left China, travels from Tiantong Temple to Japan and, in Kyoto, asks a prostitute, Orin, now grown up, married to a crippled beggar and the mother of a baby, to direct her to Kennin-ji to visit Dōgen. Orin recognises Dōgen’s name and, remembering how he had saved her life, takes Jiyuen to the monastery. Jiyuen asks Dōgen to become his master now that Rujing is dead, becoming his second disciple. 

Armed Tendai monks from Mount Hiei go to Kennin-ji, telling Dōgen that he and his followers must leave Kyoto, otherwise they will be forced out. A one-eyed magistrate, Yoshihige Hitano, a nobleman, fortuitously arrives at the scene and intervenes, leading them to safety at An’yō-ji, near Kyoto, where Ejo, the Daruma monk, later joins them and becomes Dōgen’s third disciple.

Orin goes to see Dōgen, asking him to save her baby who is dying. Dōgen tells her first to find a family in her village where no relative has died, asking that family to give her a single bean. Orin does this but returns empty-handed and accuses Dōgen of deceiving her, who responds that all families experience death; this was the lesson that he wanted her to learn. A retelling of an old Buddhist story. After Orin’s baby dies, she offers Dōgen alms, earned from her prostitution, which Dōgen accepts, despite the concerns of his disciples, and she then starts to learn zazen. After a while, she accuses Dōgen again of deception, saying she can’t find Buddha, and that just chanting or calling out Buddha’s name are easier than zazen. Dogen says that Buddha is within her; chanting and calling Buddha’s name denies the Buddha within her, so she should continue her shikantazapractice.

The magistrate, Lord Hitano, visits Dōgen, telling him that the Mount Hiei monks will attack An’yō-ji and that he and his followers should leave and move to some land he owns in Echizen province, north of Kyoto, to establish a new monastery.

In the meantime, Orin’s husband says that now that their child is dead, they should move on. Orin tells him that she is considering becoming a nun. In an argument, she attacks him and then tries to drown herself, but is rescued and taken to An’yō-ji where she is cared for by the young monk Shunryō, who becomes increasingly attracted to her and she to him.

The Mount Hiei monks attack An’yō-ji and torch it. Dogen decides to move to Echizen to establish a new monastery, Eihei-ji, and sets off with the protection of Lord Hitano and his men. En route, they meet up with a group of Daruma monks, who join Dōgen and his monks.

Orin becomes a lay follower of Dōgen and asks to become a nun, but he tells her that she must first let go of her attachments. Later, Shunryō and Orin are working in a forest and he, overcome by lust, ravishes her, as she willingly succumbs. Shunryo, mortified at his behaviour, ritually cleanses himself in a river and Orin does likewise under a waterfall. Shunryō hands in his robes and leaves Eihei-ji, but Orin remains. To rid herself of her attachments?

Lord Hitano returns, saying that Tokiyori Hōjō, the young shikken (regent to the shogun), is suffering bouts of madness, because of war between the clans. A mad scene follows, with Hōjō flailing his sword at flying decapitated heads and flying butterflies (representing spirits). Hitano requests that Dōgen go to Kamakura to save the regent. So Dōgen and Jiyuen depart for Kamakura, leaving Ejo behind, as the head of the Sōtō School.

At Kamakura, Hōjō asks about the “true Buddhism” Dōgen has brought back from China. Dogen tells him that no matter how many sutras one reads, nor how many times one calls Buddha’s name, one would not find Buddha; only by shikantaza could one find Buddha, by seeing things as they are. The regent asks Dogen about enlightenment and Buddha-nature and Dōgen invites him into the palace garden to look at the full moon and says that he will then understand. Hōjō has another bout of madness, and asks Dōgen to rid him of demons. Dōgen tells him to accept them, embrace them and let go of self. The regent looks at the full moon and at its reflection in an ornamental pond and angrily tries to cut the reflected image into pieces with his sword, but the image becomes whole again when the water settles. Hōjō then asks Dōgen to stay in Kamakura and that he will give him a large piece of land on which to build a monastery, but Dōgen declines, saying that he wishes to return to Eihei-ji. 

In the penultimate scene, we see Dōgen back in Eihei-ji, dying. He makes several announcements, including that Orin should be ordained as a nun. After saying “at the moment of life there is just life, and at the moment of death there is just death”, Dōgen enters Nirvāṇa, sitting upright during zazen, in 1253, aged 52.

Finally, we see Orin, now a nun, giving her husband, begging on the street, some money and locks of her hair. She has let go of her attachments. We next see her teaching zazen to young children, and then walking into the distance to spread “true Buddhism”, as Dōgen had earlier done. The story, as an ensō!

It is an excellent film, albeit with some probable factual inaccuracies. Regardless, the internal temple scenes made me feel I was actually present in a Zen temple, with the only thing missing being the smell of incense. Highly recommended.

Zen for Nothing, directed by Werner Penzel

JOHN SHANNON*

Zen for Nothing. What does this mean?  According to Antai-ji, the Japanese Sōtō Zen monastery where the film Zen for Nothing was filmed, zazen (sitting meditation), if practiced solely for the purpose of zazen, is good for nothing! But only if done right! But “nothing” is important. What is nothing? Nothing is nothingness, emptiness, a void. An ensōMu! It has to be experienced, not just known. Is Zen nothing? It is an experience. What is Zen? It is attaining your true, before-thinking, nature, your Buddha-nature. It has to be experienced, not just understood. Likewise, the film, Zen for Nothing, has to be experienced, not just watched or learned about from this review. But everyone can experience the film, not only followers of Zen Buddhism. All that is required is the interest and the will. The film is available on DVD, with English, German and French subtitles.

Zen for Nothing is a German-Swiss film, released in 2016 and excellently directed and filmed by German film director Werner Penzel, with an atmospheric, innovative soundtrack by English multi-instrumentalist and composer Fred Frith. The film is about the experience of a Swiss actress and dancer, Sabine Timoteo, who spent part of the autumn, winter and spring of 2014/2015 living and working as a lay practitioner in a Sōtō Zen Monastery in Japan. Zen for Nothing, lasting 100 minutes, is described as a documentary, but is not a documentary in the conventional sense in that there is no narrative as such, just the sounds of Sabine and other people talking, of silences, of chanting, of Buddhist percussion instruments, and of other sounds, natural and man-made. And, of course, of images too, of movement and of stillness, in and around the monastery and elsewhere. 

Chan Buddhism is the origin of Zen Buddhism. The Sōtō and Rinzai Zen Buddhist schools of Japan, the Sŏn Buddhism of Korea and the Thiền Buddhism of Vietnam all developed out of Chan, a form of Chinese Buddhism which is a meld of Indian dhyana Buddhism and Chinese Daoism. All of these schools of Buddhism are essentially the same in their principles, though different in their practices. Simplistically, all may be described as “Zen Buddhism”.

The film Zen for Nothing was filmed in Antai-ji, a small Sōtō Zen Monastery in the wooded hills of northern Hyōgo Province in western Japan, overlooking the Sea of Japan. Antai-ji was originally founded in 1921 in Kyōto, but moved to Hyōgo Province in 1976. The monastery is known for its study of the Dharma, its practice of zazen, in particular, shikantaza (“just sitting”) and, unusually these days, for takuhatsu (formal begging for alms, with begging bowls, wearing traditional Japanese medieval-stye robes, large, upturned-bowl-shaped straw hats, and straw-rope sandals). Although receiving donations, Antai-ji is largely self-sufficient. “A day without work is a day without food”: Tang Dynasty Chan Master Baizhang Huaihai.

This contrasts with many Japanese monasteries and temples, whose income is largely derived from conducting funerals. Antai-ji is both traditional and modern, following strict monastic routines and practices and with a hierarchy, but with monastic and lay practitioners, men and women, both Japanese and non-Japanese, living, working and practicing together as equals. At the time of the shooting of the film, the monastery’s abbot was a German monk, Muho Nölke, the ninth and first non-Japanese abbot; he was succeeded by a Japanese nun, Ekō Nakamura, as the current and first female abbot. Going back in time, the fifth abbot was the eminent 20th-century Sōtō Zen teacher, Kōdō Sawaki, renowned for bringing Zen practice into the lives of ordinary people; some of his teachings are quoted in the film. “It all begins when we say, ‘I’. Everything that follows is an illusion”: Kōdō Sawaki, quoted at the beginning of the film.

Antai-ji, monestir zen de Sōtō al nord de la província de Hyōgo a l’oest del Japó

The film Zen for Nothing opens with a night-time external shot of Antai-ji, then moves inside where a large Buddhist drum and a metal sounding board are struck, followed by brief chanting in Japanese. This sets the scene for the film. We then meet a young European woman, the protagonist, Sabine Timoteo, travelling by train through a large, industrialised Japanese city, changing trains, taking time out for a cigarette on a station platform while waiting, and then on another train into the countryside along the coast and into the hills. Finally, we see her walking up a steep country road, carrying a large rucksack, and then up an even steeper flight of stone steps, with fallen, brown leaves visible, suggesting that it is early autumn, and into the compound of the monastery, Antai-ji. 

Frame of Zen for Nothing.

Sabine takes her boots off, enters a monastery building, and is met by a young American man, a lay practitioner, who shows her around the monastery and explains some of the basic rituals and practices she would need for her stay there, such as bowing and gasshō (“bringing the palms together”). Thereafter, she learns things largely by example, following what the others do. She does not wear robes, in common with the other lay practitioners; only the monastics wear robes, but not when they are working around the monastery and its grounds, where they, including the abbot, are largely indistinguishable from the lay Sangha community members, except for their shaven heads.  

The protagonist, Sabine Timoteo. Frame of Zen for Nothing.

Night-time. Darkness. Silence. Then early morning. It is still dark. And silent. A bell sounds. Time for the first zazen session of the day, before breakfast. In the meantime, breakfast is being prepared in the kitchen by practitioners, who are on breakfast duty that day. The time on the kitchen clock is 4.05 a.m. The others meditate, Sōtō Zen-style, facing the wall in the zen-dō (meditation hall). The abbot patrols the seated meditators. He uses the kyōsaku (“wake-up stick”) to strike blows across the back of the shoulders, two strikes on each shoulder, of those whose posture is poor, or who are falling asleep. The meditator and the abbot bow to each other both before and after the blows. Posture correction and muscular relief.  

A bell sounds. End of meditation. Chanting follows. Then breakfast. The time on the kitchen clock is 6.07 a.m. A bell sounds. The practitioners enter the dining hall and, once seated, chant briefly and make an offering of rice to the Buddha before eating. Breakfast is eaten in silence, and an eating and bowl protocol is strictly followed. Sabine learns by watching the others. Dawn breaks and there is an autumn morning mist. More zazen. Heavy rain. The karesansui (Japanese Zen garden) floods. But it will dry out and be remade. No problem! A beetle walks across the tatami matting in the zen-do. No-one pays any attention to it. Outside, seen through the shoji (traditional Japanese paper windows/walls), the sun has started to shine. A bell sounds. This session of morning zazen is over. The participants leave the zen-do and go outdoors to start their work for the day in and around the monastery and its grounds. As Chan Master Baizhang instructed.

Outside, we hear talking for the first time since lights-out the night before. In over 20 minutes of film time, no dialogue is heard, only natural and man-made sounds.

Sabine and a monk talk about life. Then time to work. Including washing vegetables outdoors, and food preparation in the kitchen indoors. Then eating. This is the mid-day meal, I assume, as strict Zen practice is normally to abstain from eating after noon-time. Night-time comes. Monks and laymen are seen showering communally. Nuns and laywomen are seen chatting in their futons on the tatami-covered floor of their dormitory. Lights-out. 

It’s morning again. Another autumn morning mist. Daily morning chores, such as mopping the floors of the living accommodation are done. A monk briefs the participants on the day’s work tasks. Buildings are to be repaired and maintained. Trees are to be felled, sawn into pieces, and chopped up for firewood. Undergrowth is to be cleared for planting rice. Hens are to be fed (for their eggs, I assume, as Zen Buddhists are vegetarians). It’s time for the mid-day meal. Chanting before and after the meal. Time for a chat. Then more work. Sabine reads a book of Zen poems in German.

Now winter has arrived! Deep snow covers the ground and the monastery buildings. Monastic and domestic routines continue. But relaxation is important too. A picnic in the snow on the hills above the monastery. Food, cooking pots, utensils, bowls and chopsticks are carried up the hill by some of the practitioners, wearing snow shoes. Fires are lit. What looks like a bottle of sake is being heated in a cooking pot. A non-alcoholic type, I assume, as the consumption of alcoholic drinks is contrary to the Fifth Precept.

“As long as you say zazen meditation is a useful thing, something isn’t quite right. Zazen is nothing special … You want to become a buddha? What a waste of energy! Now is simply now. You are simply you.”: KōdōSawaki.

Frame of Zen for Nothing.

Practitioners share their thoughts and experiences of life at Antai-ji. Sabine is moved to tears by quoting from a French poem, “To Paint a Portrait of a Bird”, by Jacques Prévert, in which she likens the painted birdcage in the poem to a frame. She initially felt that everything about monastic life was enclosed within frames, which scared her. But gradually she became less scared and started to like them. Now she treasures her experiences at the monastery. 

The snow on the ground is melting. Green shoots and leaves. Spring is here! Rice is planted. Bamboo shoots are collected. The karesansui is remade. Monastery buildings are repaired and maintained. Life at Antai-ji springs back fully into life again after a long, cold winter.

Sabine has an interview with Abbot Nölke, but not in the formal Japanese Rinzai Zen or Korean Sŏn style, with kōans, but an informal chat in German and she tells him how she felt protected and in good hands during her stay at Antai-ji.

Dead branches are cleared from the monastery grounds. A bonfire is lit. A picnic is held, with what looks like beer. Non-alcoholic beer, I assume. Rock music is played by some of the practitioners! Electric and acoustic guitars, and various percussion instruments. Sukha?

Frame of Zen for Nothing.

The next morning Sabine shaves the head of a Japanese female lay practitioner she has befriended at Antai-ji, Ekō Nakamura, who has decided to become a nun (she succeeded Abbot Nölke as abbot five years later). The abbot briefs the practitioners on takuhatsu and tells them that they will set off for Osaka on the following day to beg for alms. A group of monastics, led by the abbot and including Ekō Nakamura, now dressed as a nun, walk down the stone steps from the monastery, with Sabine at the rear, with her large rucksack on her back. Her time at Antai-ji has come to an end. In Osaka she bids the monks and nuns farewell and boards a train. The monastics start their alms rounds on the streets of the city.

“When you are dreaming, it isn’t clear to you that you are dreaming … Wandering inside your own illusions means living your life like a sleepwalker” (Kōdō Sawaki). 

And so the film ends.

 “Zen for Nothing” is a wonderful, beautiful, happy, and evocative documentary about life in a Sōtō Zen monastery in Japan. Highly recommended.

*This article was originally published in Buddhistddor en Español on January 19, 2024.