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Zen, directed by Banmei Takashi


“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.

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