Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Twenty years ago director Ron Fricke released Baraka, a film consisting of disparate visual vignettes from all around the world. The point of the movie seemed to be adding up the visuals into a holistic semi-whole. It was a gorgeous movie and a wonderful viewing experience.  In 2008, he released Samsara, a movie with a similar approach.

The title of the movie suggests what the holistic message might be. Samsara is a concept that seems to recur in multiple religions. In Zen Buddhism it refers to the world around us, which is rife with delusion and contention. When we are wrong-minded, we buy into it and create suffering. Another - more Zen-like - way of describing this is "the cycle of life and death". Hence, the initial brief images before the credits consist of related images: a sarcophagus, a mummy, lava erupting.

After this there is a shot of monks painstakingly using sand to create a mandala which (I'm willing to bet) is a depiction of samsara. (If not, I'd love to know what it is as I think it must be a key to understanding the movie's message). The film goes on to lay out some beautiful images, drawn from all over the world. The fractal-like shapes seen in the mandala are echoed in shots of highway systems at night and housing developments over the sea in (I believe) Dubai.

The film goes on to some beautifully shot but disturbing images: juxtaposing human-looking robots with images of the sex trade, seeing animals trapped in pens for feeding and then obese people eating the products of those animals at a fast food restaurant, people in slums and then convicts doing calisthenics with dance music tracked over it, the manufacture of weapons of war with tribal peoples holding the weapons.

If I'm correct about the meaning of the mandala the monks create at the start of the movie, then one of the last scenes is especially pointed. The monks wipe away the mandala they have painstakingly created. This would be the solution that Zen suggests for dealing with samsara and delusion. Don't.

Samsara is beautifully shot and is very interesting visually, although be prepared for some disturbing images in this amazing video essay.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Mumonkan, Koan 23: Think Neither Good Nor Evil

The Sixth Patriarch* [*Eno] was pursued by the monk Myo as far as Yaiyu Mountain. The patriarch, seeing Myo coming, laid the robe and bowl on a rock and said, "This robe represents the faith; it should not be fought over. If you want to take it away, take it now." Myo tried to move it, but it was heavy as a mountain and would not budge. Faltering and trembling, he cried out, "I came for the Dharma, not for the robe. I beg you, please give me your instruction."

The patriarch said, "Think neither good nor evil. At this very moment, what is the original self of the monk Myo?" At these words, Myo was directly illuminated. His whole body was covered in sweat. He wept and bowed, saying, "Besides the secret words and the secret meaning you have just now revealed to me, is there anything else, deeper still?"

The patriarch said, "What I have told you is no secret at all. When you look into your own true self, whatever is deeper is found right there." Myo said, "I was with the monks under Obai for many years but could not realize my true self. But now, receiving your instruction, I know it like a man drinking water and knowing whether it is cold or warm. My lay brother, you are now my teacher."

The patriarch said, "If you say so, but let us both call Obai our teacher. Be mindful to treasure and hold fast to what you have attained."

I sense several concepts in this koan, running from how to attain buddhahood to how to retain it to what you are supposed to do with it.

Myo is offered the robe, but Eno's words have a double meaning. The robe is only a symbol, so fighting over it is foolish. That's the reason it should not be fought over. Myo can't pick up the robe anymore than he pick up the insight he seeks. Nor can either be given to him. This reminded me of a passage from Bodhidharma's Bloodstream Sermon:

"Trying to find a buddha or enlightenment is like trying to grab space. Space has a name but no form. It's not something you can pick up or put down. And you certainly can't grab it." (source: The Zen Teaching of Bodhidharma, translator: Red Pine)

Myo cannot pick up what he is seeking, but he is illuminated when Eno advises him to look within ("at this moment, what is the original self of the monk Myo?"). Thus, Myo attains enlightenment.  Neither the robe nor instruction, if given, leads to enlightenment. This comes from within.

Eno fends off Myo's question about "anything else, deeper still" by again urging him to look to himself ("your own true self"). This is done independent of good or evil...or any sort of mental assessment of what true self means or represents. It just is.

Lastly, Eno urges Myo to "hold fast to what he has attained." Without doing this, a moment of enlightenment is just that: a moment. A brief flash of illumination and then darkness again. Enlightenment must be retained and inform us from then on if it is to have any real value. Knowing is one thing; retaining and making use of what you know is something else.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Paris (Day 3)

This was a big walking day for us! First we took the metro to the Tuileries with the idea of getting into the Musee de l'Orangerie, but it was unexpectedly closed. Since it was fairly early (at what time do people in Paris get to work?), we strolled the gardens and took a gander at the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde.

Then we crossed the Seine on the Pont de la Concorde and hit the Musee d'Orsay for a deep dive into Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Symbolism. By this time, I was already overwhelmed by the wealth of art Paris offers a visitor. No matter how enthusiastic one is, there's only so much art that can be absorbed in a meaningful way in such a short amount of time. Nevertheless, I could not stop looking.  Even when my back and feet were killing me, some amazing painting would beckon. Oh, to live in Paris for a while and be able to pop into the museums every so often, check out one wing or a few works, and absorb things more deeply! It's not fair!

After lunch, we strolled along the Seine, crossed back over on the ornate Pont Alexandre III (stopping to enjoy the amazing views), and checked out the architecture along the Avenue Winston Churchill, before heading up the Champs Elysees. Overall, we didn't take a ton of pictures on this day. I guess we just generally prefer to be free of the whole 'recording the moment' mania. Jim is better about this than I am, but taking a picture doesn't really make the moment more personal. Sometimes, it's better to just 'be'. Anyway, the Champs Elysees was obviously a part of the trip we were really looking forward to. And...well....

Let me just say this. The Champs Elysees is a wonderful walk, no question. Saw some crazy sports cars, got a sample of cologne, and enjoyed the people watching. However, I can't help but wonder if it's perhaps a little less impressive than it may once have been. The reason I say this is that the brands/stores along the way were not very different from what one would see on the Mag Mile in Chicago or what we saw on a main drag in Rome. I'm sure it sounds terribly jaded to - in even an oblique way - say 'meh' to the Champs Elysees (it's the Champs Elysees!), but perhaps one downside of globalization is that each country loses a bit of its unique charm. After all, there's nothing Parisian about Benetton, Nike, Hugo Boss, or the Disney store. Even brands with some legit French heritage (Louis Vuitton, Lacoste) are readily patronized just about anywhere. Or maybe I just don't get it because I'm not a hardcore shopper!

All musings aside, we enjoyed the walk that led us to the Arc de Triomphe. Totally impressive piece of architecture, and the view from the top was truly worth it. Paris is such a fantastic looking city in general, but to see it sprawling out before you from that height is breathtaking.

After all this walking and sightseeing, we were wiped out and - after dinner - sleep was a well-earned luxury!