Zen: Film Review

Zen (2008, 127 minutes)
Film Review by Jonathan Ciliberto for Buddhist Art News

Buddhist art includes not only images of Buddhas, but also paintings and sculptures of historical figures: monks, nuns, teachers, poets, artists, and others. Tibetan thangkas which depict great teachers include, in addition to a large central figure: protective deities, lineage holders, and episodes from the primary subject’s life arrayed around the painting in such a way that the viewer might learn through narrative elements the history of the individual portrayed and thus Buddhist practice. In short: Buddhist art serves to explicate Buddhist practice.

“Dōgen stringently warned against the building of magnificent temples or the making of Buddha images for their own sake.” (Zen Master Dōgen, Yoho Yokoi, p. 33)

In modern media, films devoted to the life of the Buddhist masters in the same way offer an expression of Buddhist teaching through the narrative of an individual’s life. The recently released Japanese film on the life of the 13th century founder of Soto Zen on Japan, Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師, 19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253) , hews to this model, while also pursuing the aesthetics of film. Scene after scene portrays with superb symmetry his life and the understanding of Buddhism that he presented. At the same time, the film is wonderfully filmed, acted, and edited, such that viewers wholly unaware of Buddhist practice will find delight in its viewing.

Zen was directed by Banmei Takahashi and stars Kantaro Nakamura, the 19th generation Kabuki actor and son of Kabuki legend, Nakamura Kanzaburo, who delivers a masterful performance, capturing the quality of Dōgen’s character: from his early struggle to understand Buddhism, to his firm commitment to see Zen spread to his native country. Rather than portraying so monumental a figure as distant or superhuman, Nakamura conveys an everyday person, one engaged in this life fully. And, this is the Buddhism Dōgen professed: that enlightenment is not a goal, but rather a practice.

So, despite the spiritual and historical weight that Dōgen carries as the founder of one of Japan’s two main Zen traditions, his person is presented without sensationalism or pomposity: no miracles or grandiose gestures are attributed, nor does the filmmaker turn to extreme hagiography, and this is appropriate to the subject. Dōgen, frustrated with the artifice and worldliness of the Buddhism he encountered, sought his “true master,” one who practiced the true form of Buddhism. He found this in a Zen practice he encountered in China, which he transmitted to Japan in the form known as Soto. Dōgen

“claimed that people commonly believe the occult powers of Buddhas are such as exhaling water and fire from the body or inhaling water from the ocean into the pores of the body. These may be termed “small occult powers,” but they are not worthy of being termed true occult powers. The true occult powers […] exist within and only within the simple everyday occurrences of “drinking tea, eating rice, drawing water, and carrying faggots.” ” (A Comparative History of Ideas, Hajime Nakamura, p. 492)

The Dōgen presented in Zen pursues first and foremost: seated meditation. Many scenes which begin with a conflict of some sort end with Dōgen inviting seated meditation. On only one occasion does the film attempt to depict meditation in any other form than monks seated, meditating, and this representation of in terms of water, lotus, and light is brief.

In addition to the life of Buddhist practice, the film skillfully conveys the life of Japan in the 13th century: war, famine, political struggles, deep mountain forests and burgeoning urban areas. Although the cinematography (Chinese landscapes, mountain monasteries) is spectacular, the filmmakers seem to have made a particular effort not to lead the viewer to ooh and aaah at marvellous sites, always keeping focused on human beings in the landscape, seeking meaning.

Enforced upon those who encounter Dōgen in the film, and thus upon its modern viewers, is the key question Buddhism asks: what are you doing? “When death suddenly comes, neither the king nor his ministers, relatives, servants, wife or children, or rare jewels can save us. […] Therefore while we still retain our human body we should quickly enter monkhood.” (Shōbōgenzō, quoted in Yokoi, p.27) So insistent is this message that one leaves the theatre asking, “what am I doing with myself?” That such a question sounds so clearly, with such force, indicates the Buddhist quality of the film, serving as does all Buddhist art to guide the individual to self-criticism and thus better practice.

(I thank Emory University and the Japanese Consulate of Atlanta for their screening of this film.)

Movie site

Japan Times review

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