Zen Again

Steve wished me “bon voyage” in a comment to my last post & that wish must have done some good since the “voyage” part of my trip downstate did have some adventurous moments, but turned out well in the end. I had meant to post something about my experience at the Zen Mountain Monastery as soon as I returned, but the semester began, classes, heated up, meetings had to be attended & so I’m just getting a chance to makes some notes about the retreat now, almost two weeks after the event. There is also the fact that describing religious experience is extremely difficult — most such descriptions disintegrate into cliché or bathos. The writings of the great mystics — Western & Eastern — astonish us at least in part because they manage to communicate the ineffable in ordinary human language.

The most adventurous part of my adventure occurred before I ever got to the monastery, but I think that “bon voyage” must have helped, but the trip very nearly became the Zen Mountain Massacre. Fortunately, I was helped by a couple of bodhisattvas along the way and made it to the monastery in time to begin the retreat despite my GPS unit, usually very reliable, trying to take me down a road with a washed-out bridge. I had driven happily through the Adirondacks and down into the Catskills, avoiding the Northway (I-87), which would have been more direct. Around sundown I found myself in Lexington NY on a road that both the satellites and my new iPhone said would get me where I wanted to go. What neither of these smart devices knew was that floods last spring had washed out a bridge. The road ended in a barrier. As it turns out, Zen is all about barriers, but I’ll come to that later. Continue reading

Zen

Because I grew up among Pharisaical Christians (who were never more indignant than when denouncing pharisees), I am chary of discussing much of anything that has to do with religious practice; but I have been a practicing Buddhist for several years — after a lifetime of diffuse agnosticism — though I have not been a member of any group, practicing instead by myself as a kind of Zen hermit by the river. I sit zazen every day, read texts & commentaries, even light incense on a personal alter. (A lot of this emerged from my encounter over the last fifteen years with Vietnamese culture.) But tomorrow I will leave for a weekend retreat at Zen Mountain Monastery, which is run by the Mountains and Rivers Order, founded by John Daido Loori Roshi. Daido Roshi died a couple of years ago and has been succeeded by a new abbot, but the monastery’s practice continues, so far as I can tell, in the traditions he established. I was attracted to MRO partly because of Daido Loori’s interest in and emphasis on the arts as part of Zen practice and also because he clearly wanted to practice a rigorous sort of Zen free from New Age slackness. Now that I’m about to submit myself to some training, I’m a little frightened! Well, “frightened” is probably too strong. Let’s just say that I don’t respond well to authority if it is exercised arbitrarily. The teachers I have admired and learned from in my life have earned respect through their demonstration of power, insight, understanding — whatever the subject of their expertise. So I’m wondering what the weekend will be like — lots of zazen of course, but I’m not sure what else.

Buffalo Boy (Mùa Len Trâu)

Watched Nguyên Võ Nghiêm-Minh’s Buffalo Boy the other night to see if I wanted to use it for my Understanding Vietnam course next term. I’ve added a one-a-week evening film viewing to the course this time around & I’m still setting on the final list of films I’ll be showing. I’ll definitely be showing this film. One gets a panoramic view of the landscape of the southern-most parts of Vietnam; set in Ca Mau, there isn’t a frame in the film that doesn’t include water. Beyond the portrayal of landscape — important for my students, most of whom have grown up in the northeast United States — the film dramatizes the lives of people who live on the very margins of the socio-economic margin in 1940s Vietnam.

Based on a story by Son Nam, the film looks at the lives of young men whose parents, landless peasants, barely eke out a living as share croppers on large tracts of rice land, using their buffaloes to cultivate the paddies. The buffalo is the most valuable thing that the peasants own & the death of an animal is a disastrous event — literally a matter of life & death — for a family. During the rainy season when the floods come even the poorest peasant must hire buffalo herders to take the animals to pasture. Kim, the hero of the story, is the son of such a poor family & he refuses to go to work as a laborer for a landowner, so he takes the family’s two buffaloes himself when the floods come, one of the animal dying of starvation during the journey. The death of the animal marks the beginning of the disintegration of Kim’s family & the rest of the film chronicles his life after he joins up with the Lap, the leader of the largest “gang” of herders.

The depiction of the life of these herders is remarkably like the wild west, with drinking, dope-smoking, fighting, murder, & rape. The one thing the herders have is a kind of freedom — they are not farm laborers working for someone else. The plot of the film works out Kim’s coming of age & his coming to a kind of understanding. Throughout everything, the buffalo stands as a symbol of mute persistence in the face of nearly impossible adversity. The critique of French colonial economics is subtle, but clearly present in the story. It is not an accident that a French patrol walks past without concern while Kim is burying the remains of the family’s buffalo. Throughout, the hardness of the peasant’s life is set against breathtaking beauty and the characters are presented sympathetically but without any hint of overwrought romanticism.

In looking around just now for commentary on the film, I discovered this post on the All In One Boat blog, which gives a fuller account of the story. The blog itself looks interesting as well, dealing with the environment, poetry, religion & all sorts of things I’m interested in — I’ll  certainly look in again from time to time. And here is the NY Times review of Buffalo Boy.

Late Spring by Yasujiro Ozu

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, one of the narrators, Mme. Michel, is an admirer of the films of Japanese Director Yasujiro Ozu. Because I liked the novel, I wanted to see at least one of Ozu’s films for myself — not just through the eyes of the fictional Mme Michel — so a couple of evenings ago I used Netflix to stream Late Spring. I am not a cinephile by any means & in fact until the last few months have always had a hard time sitting through movies, though I have tended to admire literary films that are carried along by language & have preferred emotionally cool movies over those stir emotion. That is, I have liked movies the best when they were most like books.

Ozu’s Late Spring is literary in this sense. Late Spring is about as far from the noise & movement of contemporary movies as it’s possible to get. From the middle of Ozu’s career & shot in black & white, the film consists mostly people talking to each other & key events happen away from the camera, while seemingly minor events are lingered over. Transitions are straight cuts, with the occasional use of a static shot of a building or landscape. These transitional frames feel very much like still photographs and sometimes invite a symbolic or metaphorical reading with their inclusion of lonely trees or clocks. Key dramatic moments are often implied rather than fully dramatized: one important plot turn takes place during the performance of a Noh drama when two characters merely look at each other and nod, with a third watching and “reading” this brief & conventional interaction.

For the contemporary Western viewer of Late Spring, the motivating problem of the story may be hard to grasp. (Assume that narratives have motivating problems or conflicts and that this is true across cultures (I think it is); nevertheless, conflict gets expressed in different ways in different cultures. And what is recognized as a particular sort of conflict in one culture might be seen is a very different light in another.) The twenty-seven-year-old Noriko lives with and cares for her widowed father, a professor. Both the professor and his sister would like Noriko to get married, but Noriko, despite being attractive and apparently happy, resists.

And it’s not that Noriko doesn’t like men, or is shy. She flirts with her father’s assistant and might have married him except that he is already engaged. One even gets the impression he’s have broken his engagement to marry Noriko. She does not want to get married because she feels genuine filial piety, a concept foreign to the West but highly developed in many Asian / Confucian cultures. This is one of the things that made this film feel so psychologically strange to me. It took me a long time to figure out that Noriko really did want to stay home and care for her father & that she genuinely preferred this to getting married, which she well understood was the expected thing to do. Actually, staying home with her father and getting married were both “expected” of her in post-war Japan and therein lies the conflict of the drama. Noriko is caught between two equally compelling social responsibilities, one traditional and one modern.

Noriko’s wedding is not dramatized. She is shown in her bridal regalia leaving to get married, then her father and a woman friend — a divorcee we’ve met earlier, a friend of Noriko’s — are shown in their wedding clothes in a bar drinking sake. The implication of this final scene is that the father will marry this not quite respectable woman rather than the woman to whom he nodded during the Noh performance, ironically proving himself to be more modern than his younger daughter, who even in marriage continues to represent the traditional Japanese virtues of filial piety and self-sacrifice.