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.
Every time I take a trip to Vietnam–averaging every couple of years since the mid-1990s–I’m asked what it is about Vietnam that draws me back again & again. It’s a reasonable question & one to which I have a set answer, but it’s an answer that doesn’t fully satisfy me. I usually say that, given my age, I have an inescapable historical connection to Vietnam. But that doesn’t explain, really, why I’m sitting in Logan International waiting for a 1:30 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, jumping then to Hanoi. And it doesn’t explain why I’ve now made twelve (I think) extended trips to Vietnam since 1996, including a Fulbright year in 2000 – 2001. It must be love.
I feel comfortable in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, which is less frenetic & less Westernized than HCMC. It’s not as if Hanoi is like home–I don’t feel “at home”–but I am attracted to the particular kinds of difference I experience there. And it certainly is different–the interpersonal expectations can take some getting used to. Social life is based on relationships of hierarchy, but also of trust, however paradoxical that may seem. Then there is that long sweep of history that gives weight to both social interactions and the arts, though much of this historical weight is being eroded by the forces of globalization.
Why Vietnam? What is it about going far from home that feels so lively & rewarding? Over the next few weeks I’m going to keep coming back to these questions, though I know in advance that whatever sort of answer(s) I come up with will be protean, shifting, unstable.
Catch the Cape Air commuter this afternoon to Boston, from which I take a Cathy Pacific flight to Hong Kong & then on to Hanoi. The layover in Hong Kong should be just long enough to eat at the airport’s wonderful dim sum restaurant. Of all the intermediate airports I’ve stopped at on previous trips, Hong Kong’s is by far the best. Tokyo & Singapore are all right, Frankfurt by far the worst, largely because of the snarling security functionaries.
Noi Bai, the airport at Hanoi, is improving, but can be chaotic during busy periods. The main lesson I’ve (mostly) learned from the dozen or so trips I’ve made to Vietnam is to travel light. I pack, then try to subtract ten percent of what I’ve packed. Closes are inexpensive in Vietnam, even when custom-made, so I usually anticipate buying shirts once I arrive, trousers, too: the tailors can copy any pair I bring.
Well, the full craziness of taking a two-week trip to Vietnam over Christmas break has now sunk in, at least partly. It will fully sink in, I suppose, next week when I am in the think of grading final exams and essays. I wouldn’t have chosen to make a trip like this at this time, but I really could not turn down the invitation from the Writer’s Association. And it will be good to meet others interested in Vietnamese literature in translation — there will be writers and scholars from Japan and China as well as the US. I’m also looking forward to some real down-home Vietnamese feasts — when I’ve been out with folks from the Association previously, they took me to some of the best places in Hanoi, often around corners and down alleys where I never would have found them. So, I’m feeling like a very lucky man, but also anticipating being exhausted when I return to my classes, which will have begun without me! Thanks to the internet and helpful colleagues, I’ll be able to kick my Understanding Vietnam class off with films and an online chat.
1. I just heard that I’m going to have two poems in The Georgia Review.
2. It looks very likely that I will be taking a group of Clarkson students to Vietnam next May.
Someday I’ll have to put the check-in procedures at Noi Bai into a story — no one would believe it as non-fiction travel writing. I always start too early for the airport, but today my early start paid off. Traffic was bad on the drive out of Hanoi and there was chaos at the airport as hundreds of Vietnamese workers on labor contracts were processed through to Cambodia and Laos. Their extended families came to see them off. And of course I had excess baggage, then there was no ticket number in the system for me. At various points I was separated from both my baggage and my passport for varying lengths of time. In any case, I’m now drinking iced coffee in the airport’s internet cafe, so all is well. And I must give the Vietnam Airline staff people props. I was frustrated and sweating, but they were calm and professional amid the chaos. Must be because they get a lot of practice driving to work!