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.
Pain does not ennoble. When the writer Jenny Diski was told she had inoperable lung cancer, she told her husband, “Under no circumstances is anyone to say that I lost a battle with cancer,” she told him. “Or that I bore it bravely. I am not fighting, losing, winning or bearing.” So, begin by denying power to the conventional narratives attached to sickness. Pain will teach you about pain. Pain hollows you out to make room for itself. In this way it is like anxiety–anxiety of the body.
Wheelchair: It’s not when you first get in a wheelchair at the hospital because the insist on it, but when you tell the person by the door, “I’m going to need a wheelchair.”
Happiness: I am not unhappy. A couple of years ago my Zen teacher, on the day after a particularly tough teisho, came into the zendo & announced, “I really would like everyone to be happy!” Okay, Sensei, I am. Even now, with cancer.
Hospitals are filled with working-class people working. The patients come & go, but the staff gets up every day and goes to work. It astonishes me that they can do what they do because patients are so fucking depressing. The even depress other patients.
Waiting for test results: I have been given a general diagnosis & had one MRI scan, two CT scans & a biopsy, the later just yesterday. A friend emails, “I imagine that the waiting must be among the most painful parts of this . . . .” No, I don’t think so. The days between right now & my appointment next week with my oncologist1 occupy a liminal space. Next week could be (relatively) good, or terrible. Once I know, I will know. And then I will have to act & be acted upon.
Night Thoughts: Items one to five above are all very well, but after a pleasant day, I am awake at a quarter past midnight, when every small ache feels like a new blossoming of rebellious cells at a new location in my body. I’m not sweating, or anxious: I’m just thinking.
Heading tomorrow to ZMM for sesshin. When I get back next week I want to pick up my discussion of Zen from early in the year, regarding Zen’s relationship to the divine & supernatural from some previous posts.
In a common Zen invocation, Vairochana Buddha—the pantheistic divinity regarded as existent in each and every particIe—is addressed. Noting the presence of many buddhas and bodhisattvas in Zen, some of us may see it as polytheistic. Others regard Zen as atheistic, since the central ﬁgure on the altar is usually Shakyamuni Buddha—a human being, not a deity. Those who have faith in Amitabha Buddha often refuse to worship other divinities, so their practice may appear to fall into the category of monotheism.
Thus, Buddhists—including Zen practitioners—can be seen as running the gamut from having faith in a single deity to many deities to omnipresent deities to no deity at all. The ambiguity and diversity of this situation do not seem to bother people much. Accordingly, I propose a concept of ambigu-theism to characterize the theological orientation of Buddhism (13).