My mother, who loved poetry & the poetic, would have loved reading to me when I was a little boy, but I was bored by verse & wanted her to read books about fire engines & other machinery. When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, I burst into tears, terrified. And though I went on to write poems, I am still wary of stories, preferring accounts. Over the last eight weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on a fold-out bed with a wide screen TV on the wall opposite. I had not turned it on for many months prior to my illness, but given the flat stretches of time adding up afternoon after afternoon, I began looking for movies to watch. But I don’t really like movies. I wound up scrolling through Amazon’s documentary offerings–full-length films as well as TV series. I filled several afternoons with shows about archeology. Most of the things I could find about Asia, Buddhism, or religion in general were awful. Junk New Age “spirituality” of a very low order. But there are some lovely exceptions, listed below.
- Journey with Robert Thurman in Bhutan: Did you know that Uma Thurman’s father is a big-time Buddhist teacher in the Tibetan tradition? I didn’t, until my friend J. who is a movie buff, told me. This is an hour-long travelogue that manages to fit in three or four major dharma talks by Thurman without seeming the least bit top-heavy. Thurman is, in the West, a Buddhist conservative. He maintains a strong, even combative, commitment to traditional doctrines such as reincarnation. I don’t always agree with him, but I have immense respect for him–& as time goes on, I find his doctrinal conservatism less & less of an issue. Visually, the film–just under an hour long–feels old-fashioned. The presentation is unified despite moving back & forth between straight travel film & the sections in which everyone sits down & Thurman teaches.2.
- The Zen Mind: This is a travelogue, too, though not in such an obvious way as the Thurman film. The filmmakers go to a number of Japanese monasteries and talk to Zen teachers. The discursive sections help explain things unfamiliar to Westerners without being intrusive. I was going to say that the film is more about Zen Practice than Zen Mind, but of course they are the same thing. The cinematography is effective, the structure a simple narrative.
- Zen Buddhism: In Search of Self. This film is pictorially gorgeous. It follows a group of Korean Zen nuns as they go to a remote mountain monastery for a 90 day retreat. The film provides subtitle translations of what the participants say, but almost no explanations or descriptions. What struck me is that the nuns perform many of the same rituals and behaviors that I am familiar with from my American monastery. They also play games during breaks that, without explanation, will mystify a Western viewer. The prize for the three winners in one of these games is that all they other players must give them three formal bows–a lesson in the reciprocity of winning & losing, but also a subtle critique of Zen’s penchant for hierarchy: usually we bow this way only to our teachers, but the winners receiving the bows are just part of the community, their status contingent & temporary. The film’s subtitle, “In Search of Mind,” seems misleading, since what these women are presumably in search of is no-mind.
- Talking with Buddha: This film depicts how Tibetan Buddhism is surviving in its Indian sanctuary. The opening sequence is really slow, but there is a lot of good photography and talks with monks and one brilliant Western nun. Filled me with hope and joy.
- Zen: This biopic of Dogen Zenji the 13th century Master & founder of Soto Zen was not new to me. I watched it first a couple of years ago. It also breaks from the first four movies in my list by being dramatic, not documentary, though what it documents is drawn from what we know of Dogen’s life. The film seemed more contrived to me on this watching, more didactic than I had remembered. Not surprisingly, I liked the commentary from Buddhist teachers & the filmmaker included on the DVD.
- Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring: I haven’t watched this one yet. Another dramatic film, it comes very highly recommended. I expect to watch it sometime over the next couple of days.
One of the things that makes Vietnam unfamiliar, even incomprehensible, to many Westerners, is the sheer density of religious practice here. I suspect that to most visitors, Vietnamese religious practice is mostly invisible, at least in part because it is ubiquitous. The Vietnamese have settled, to varying degrees, on a practical & syncretic combination of three traditions that they designate tam giáo, “triple religion,” which combines elements of Confucianism, Buddhism & Daoism, though the cement that binds them is the cult of the ancestors, which is fractal, reproducing itself at scales ranging from the family, the neighborhood / village, to whole regions & the nation itself.1
The 11th of November was the 30th of the lunar month, so all the temples were open & busy. Families were burning votive paper on the curbs, sometimes in the small metal incinerators constructed for the purpose, sometimes right on the concrete. The city fills with the smoke at the new & the full moon.
The Vietnamese make a distinction between a temple & a pagoda that may be lost on Western visitors. A temple is a place where spirits & deities of many different kinds can be addressed & petitioned; a pagoda, on the other hand, is a specifically Buddhist place of worship. The neighborhood temples–many of them founded when people from a particular village moved into the city in the 15th century–were open & people were bringing offerings of food & incense.
One of the first things I remarked about Vietnam, twenty years ago now, was that the line between the sacred & the profane was not so sharply drawn as in the secular West. But it is more complicated than that, or perhaps less complicated. The sacred saturates the secular in Vietnam, but at the same time is taken so completely for granted that religious practice can seem casual, even desultory. The casual respect paid to household gods says a great deal about the depth of belief–belief doesn’t really enter into it, in fact, if belief indicates some sustained act of will that must be held in mind and applied like a tool in particular situations.
In Vietnam, people approach the sacred, sometimes, from frankly mercenary directions. I’m not sure whether this contradicts what I just claimed about will. A Vietnamese friend, a scholar of languages & culture, speaks disdainfully of people who go to the local temple to pray for wealth, or children, or health. “They don’t know anything about what they’re doing,” he says. Though people do pray to different Buddhist Bodhisattvas, especially Quan Âm (Avalokitateshvara) or the historical Buddha (Thích), but most such prayers are addressed to Daoist gods & local deities in temples that, while they may include images of Buddha, are not strictly Buddhist. Related to these Daoist & local practices, the veneration of mother goddesses adds another layer of complexity to religious practice here. The roots of this practice are very old, but it has recently moved into new social space. There is a strong thread of divination practice in the goddess cults, though that alone does not set it apart from other religious practices–divination also flickers around the edges of Buddhism, with fortune-tellers taking up residence in some temples & pagodas.
The visible & the invisible, the profane & the sacred, coexist in Vietnam, but the categories overlap in ways not common in the West, if that is not too broad–or too vague–a characterization.
I’ve been a little careful about what I’ve been eating the last couple of days. This means choosing somewhat more bland restaurants, often ones designed specifically to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes, even if the food is Vietnamese. Whether this makes any real difference is difficult to say: It’s equally possible to eat something off in one of these places as in a street stall, maybe more so since the best Vietnamese street stalls turn over a lot of food very quickly. In any case, since I still feel a little wobbly I have been taking care.
The waitress in the tourist place seemed, at first, utterly bored. She was a little surprised when I placed my order in halting Vietnamese, then went back to what she was doing at her computer on the little desk at the side of the restaurant. I sat next to a window looking out at the street & sipped my lime juice & Schweppes soda. After a little while, she went to the back of the room then brought me my clay pot chicken with rice. I had to ask for chopsticks: “Xin cho Bác cái đũa.” The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young woman’s face. She went to get them, lay them on my table, then retired again to her computer.
The chicken was tasty but salty. About halfway through the meal I asked for another soda. When it came, I said, “Mặn quá!” (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, “It’s okay, just salty.” At this point, something clicked, I think. What I had taken as boredom was perhaps diffidence. A bit later, when she took my plate away, she asked me in Vietnamese how long I had been in Vietnam. I have a kind of standard answer to this question that simplifies reality somewhat, since my language skills are not up to the temporal details. “I’ve lived here a year,” I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that I’m a professor & work with a publishing house as an editor. I can get this all into choppy Vietnamese without too many problems. The young woman looked at the chair across from me & I nodded for her to sit down. At this point we had to begin moving back & forth between English & Vietnamese: “You understand a lot,” she said. “I don’t hear the language very well, though,” I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. “I think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,” she said. I don’t really know how she could know this, except perhaps by accepting my attempt to speak her language, or maybe by not dragging all my cultural assumptions into the restaurant with me. We talked about various things, mixing our languages, and then I went off into the night.
When any two speakers converse, whether they share a birth language or not, there is a moment of assent, fraught with vulnerability, right at the start. They agree to speak in good faith. (Most encounters are not actually conversations, of course, but instrumental exchanges–that’s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1 When the young woman in the restaurant glanced at the chair across from me, she was asking, even if she was herself not fully aware of it, that we drop the play-acting. We were then able to have a conversation, however halting, across our languages. Such encounters are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of one’s habitual bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each other’s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.
I can’t really reconstruct or recall the details of that conversation–it was mostly concerned with small matters. I asked a lot of questions about the names for things, I remember. Near the end of our talk, the young woman (I’ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didn’t seem important at the time) asked, “Why do you keep coming back to Hanoi?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe it’s actually simple: I keep returning so as to lift of the corner of the curtain & to remember that it iOS possible to have a conversation with someone–or with one’s self–in good faith.