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Three people live in a remote Buddhist monastery near Mount Chonan: Hyegok, the old master; Yong Nan, a young man who has left his extended family in the city to seek enlightenment - Hyegok calls him Kibong!; and, an orphan lad Haejin, whom Hyegok has brought to the monastery to raise as a monk. The story is mostly Yong Nan's, told in flashbacks: how he came to the monastery, his brief return to the city, his vacillation between the turbulence of the world and his hope to overcome passions and escape the idea of self. We also see Hyegok as a teacher, a protector, and a father figure, and we watch Haejin make his way as a curious and nearly self-sufficient child. Written by
How to approach beautiful, crazy Zen in a way that makes sense to us in the West? In a way that it, and this film, can actually inform us.
This problem, one of translation, was inherited by cinema. China conceived this poetry where humane dispassion is passionately sung about, where a flower looks back at us looking at it, but we know of Zen from Japan, us here most likely from their cinema. Perhaps even without knowing it.
But when the most fascinating form to express it in came along, so did Mao. Japan shouldered the task to do what the Chinese couldn't, with their affinity for broken symmetries and abstraction cultivated in the tea room, but even here we concede to a certain unfamiliarity that keeps these things at a distance. Teshigahara makes some general sense to us, but he's not really opened until we learn about ikebana.
How to bridge the rift then? Which is bigger than we think because we have the words, 'emptiness', 'desire', 'self', but mean by them wholly different things than the Buddhist.
Which is to say; having been brought up in a culture that distinguishes between the omnipresent creator who created something out of nothing and us as creatures separately placed in that world to atone for an original, ancestral sin (which means that the world itself is the punishment), or still swears by Descartes' old stratagem that we are because we think, how can we begin to wrap our heads around notions of emptiness as actually soothing? What are we to make of Zen poems that speak of death, which so terrifies us, as merely the echoes of bamboo flutes returning to the bamboo forest?
When Zen Master Ikkyu says that "I'd like to offer something to help you; but in Zen, we don't have a single thing", take his word for it. He's being a bit of a smartass, but that's because he wants you to listen for a moment. Which is to say that if we come to this looking for something, a taste of Zen that will guide us home, we'll likely have to struggle to stay awake long enough to realize that there is nothing to be offered.
More precisely, nothing to be taught. But if we become aware instead? If we come to embody what the film does? We are related with various aspects of the teachings here, how ego and desire bind us, how in stillness of mind we can free ourselves of those bonds. The illusionary burden of duality. But as the young monk meditates, a cow breaks free of her captivity. So what to do?
Down in the city, the monk offers up his alms' bowl in the middle of the busy marketplace. This is where stillness of mind attains proper meaning, in the sound and fury.
But again, if the film has few words to impart, and it does, like a visual mantra which in repetition calls for us to concentrate on the texture of the sound itself, what are we to take from it? Perhaps a few pointers to wisdom, mere signposts on the road.
Most importantly, meditational absorption (the actual Chan/Zen). Again we may be troubled by our inclination to regard images here as symbolic, as meaning something else, a flying crow or a cow leading a boy, when things are actually simpler; which is the most complex they can be. This is not a mystical work, things here mean what they are. If it is difficult to come to terms with this, it's because we've been so accustomed to grasp 'flower' by what stored ideas we have of 'flower'. Descartes again.
But to depart is to arrive, as the dying Zen master says. To send the mind out is to see it come back again. Isn't that cool? So how to depart from established notions? How to look at the flower as it looks back at us, to actually do this?
One of the great contributions of Zen to this conundrum is the koan, the enigmatic phrase whose purpose is to tie our tongue so that we may reflect in silence. There is a koan asked of the novice in this, which points towards the kensho, the awakening of the true self. The title of the film is another. Life is the most complex; how to gather all the different notes we can feel played out in us into a single harmonious music? And how to play that music, actively, joyfully, as it plays us?
There is no right or wrong answer to these, other than what we embody through our experience. Embodying this is enough. And by this I don't mean a fancier version of being 'mesmerized'. I mean be one with it, like the calligrapher becomes one with his brush, the haiku poet with his blank paper. Hear what is said, then be quiet as the question answers itself.
Something to meditate upon.
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