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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.

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