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.
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.
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.
. . . utterly bereft of a sense of humor. (See the comment thread to this entry about Sarah Palin at the Tricycle Editor’s Blog.) What a bunch of sanctimonious nitwits!
So I’ve been studying Buddhism over the last year or so, after merely paying attention to it in my peripheral vision for the last decade. For me, that means books, of which I have accumulated a shelf full. I’ve discovered an entire universe of discourse & have only just begun to have a vague map & chronology of the intertwining traditions that make up “Buddhism,” which is not one thing, but many; a pluralist, I find this not only deeply satisfying, but consider that it underwrites the validity, even the truth claims, of Buddhism, since for a pluralist no single approach can be sufficient.
Of the various traditions, though, I have focused mostly on Zen. Of the various Buddhisms, Zen interests itself (more than the others) in literary & artistic matters. (In contrast, the early sutras of the Pali Canon have an outdoors, sunlit, brightly colored quality — a healthy-mindedness — that is also very attractive & that contrasts with Zen’s black & white brush strokes.)
Two main schools of Zen survive today from among the many that have flourished over the centuries since Bodhidharma traveled from the west bringing Buddhism to China in the 6th century. Both schools of Zen, the Soto & the Rinzai, make use of teaching stories called koans, but it is the dominant method in Rinzai, while it is treated more tangentially in the Soto school, which emphasizes “silent illumination.” (At least that is my understanding; experts should feel free to correct me.) In traditional Zen practice, koans are presented almost as law cases, with a brief statement, then the main narrative, then a commentary by one or more teachers, followed sometimes by a capping verse added by still another hand. Sometimes the cases are used by teachers to test students’ understanding; sometimes a student will use a particular case in meditation until it becomes clear — sometimes a matter of months or years! That’s the formal koan tradition & to be honest I don’t know all that much about it, but there is also what might be called an informal tradition of teaching stories that employs some of the same narratives and texts. Stories, I know something about.
That’s a long didactic run-up to mentioning two lovely little books from the Zen storytelling tradition, once ancient & one modern. The Sayings of Layman P’ang (translated by James Green) is a compilation of short conversations between the eponymous layman and various monks & masters. The Layman, who lived between 740 & 808 CE, gives new meaning to the word laconic:
At another time, the Layman asked Ma-tsu, “If you met someone who was a distinctly authentic person, how would you recognize him?” Ma-tsu directed his gaze downward. The Layman said, “Only you are able to play a tune on a stringless harp.” Ma-tsu looked up and the Layman bowed. Ma-tsu then returned to his room. The Layman followed him, saying, “Just now, I tried to trick you, but you made a fool out of me instead.”
The Buddhist tradition has other enlightened lay followers, most notably Vimalakirti, who loved during the Buddha’s time; the Vimalakirti Sutra is loquacious where P’ang’s sayings are hermetic. I prefer the Layman to the elaborations of Vimalakirti, but then I’ve always tended to respect silence — perhaps an odd trait for a poet & a fairly talkative one at that.
There is a blurb on the back of The Sayings of Layman P’ang from John Tarrant, an Australian Zen teacher & the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros, a modern treatment of several traditional koans, along with some koan-like stories drawn from other traditions. Tarrant has a transparent and lucid prose style that does not get in the way of the stories he’s retelling and that serves the originals well without trying to displace or “improve” them. My favorite story in Tarrant’s book is based on a traditional koan, the title translated by Tarrant as “A Condolence Call,” is also known as “Daowu Won’t Say.” (Here is the formal version of the koan in John Daido Loori’s translation.) Tarrant takes this bare-bones bit of Zen scholasticism about Daowu & Jinyuan and turns it into a deeply human story about a student’s desire to understand & a teacher’s willingness to go to any length to help him. Tarrant adds some characterization & description in the manner of a modern storyteller and expands the narrative a bit; these modest changes, though, add up to something that does justice to the original story but is at the same time completely its own. Tarrant’s version is somehow more good-natured & humorous without in the least descending to parody. As both a teacher & a student, I find Tarrant’s version of this story deeply moving, profound without being freighted with “meaning.” That is, it is in the best Zen tradition, as I understand Zen.