September 9, 2016

Zen Buddhism: In Search of Self: 1000 Years in the Making

The camera doesn't skillfully linger over the three golden Buddhas, the founders' painted portraits, or the architectural details of the Baek Hung Buddhist Temple which dates back to the 10th century. That isn't the point. The editing doesn't create a flashy montage of eating, bowing, praying, meditating, chanting, cooking, walking, and rolling the dice. Because that isn't the point either. For the first six minutes, there's no dialogue at all! So what do we see? Basically, two dozen nuns, mostly with heads shaven, generally silent, going through an age-old ritual that takes place ninety days in the winter and for one week lasts literally round the clock. (A nun with bamboo sticks taps the backs of those whose lotus position has lost form or who have fallen asleep.) What are they contemplating out here on Palagong Mountain for three months? Eternal questions that almost read like poems (and which are superimposed for us here on the screen):

"One thought rising, it is hell.
One thought reversing, it is heaven."
"Where did I come from?
Where am I going?
Came with the cloud.
Going with the wind.
Then what is this
that is coming and going?"
As the head nun at this zen temple suggests to the now-departing nuns at the end of the retreat, today is the same as yesterday which is the same as ninety days ago but how time flies. And so at the end of this documentary, you are still where you were when you started it and yet you are not. Do any of the nuns emerge enlightened? Let's hope a few! Do we share that enlightenment by witnessing their rigorous practice? Perhaps a little. And for that, I give thanks.

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