Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Shaolin

I'm definitely going to gush in this post, because there is no way I can overstate how fantastic Shaolin is! That's all I need to write, but I will go on nevertheless.

Shaolin is incandescent with the spirit of the martial arts, and it's no surprise the Shaolin temple itself endorsed the movie. It must be said that the fights are not ends-in-themselves scenes that you get from most great martial arts movies. There's nothing like Jet Li schooling a crowd of martial artists in Fist of Legend or anything like Tony Jaa wrecking dozens of thugs on the way up a massive staircase in The Protector. The fight scenes in Shaolin are satisfying for sure, but they are also  completely integrated into the plot. This is a good thing, and it elevates the film into the stratosphere, but it is something to keep in mind if you like your martial arts films to heavily emphasize fights. That said, I can't imagine anyone into martial arts movies being dissatisfied with Shaolin because the martial arts and - what the movie terms Martial Zen - are so central to the plot.

Aside from that tiny non-caveat, Shaolin has everything you could possibly ask for in a martial arts movie: rousing battle scenes, amazing fights, martial arts philosophy, Zen monks, a spiritual journey for the hero, a believable villain, great characters, a fantastic cast, genuinely touching drama, and terrific comic relief. At just over two hours, I loved Shaolin so much that I wish there was a version that works in the deleted scenes so I could enjoy the additional depth they provide in future viewings. Of course, as good as the deleted scenes are, I can understand why the director cut them. Strictly speaking, there are not necessary. Further, for a wide audience, pumping the length of this movie towards three hours would likely be too much. I found Shaolin so rich in plot, character, and action that I would eat up the extra material! Director's Cut please!

I'm not even sure where to begin in discussing this phenomenal movie. It must be said that the plot is not original. Andy Lau plays evil warlord Hou Jie, whose ambition overtakes him and causes the destruction of everything he has and most of the people around him. Brought to utter despair, Jie becomes a Zen monk and rebuilds himself through Martial Zen amid the monks of Shaolin temple. We've certainly seen this kind of story before (e.g., Fearless). However, the path Shaolin takes through the trope makes it as engrossing as if it's the first time we're seeing it. For example, since Jie defiled the Shaolin temple just before his fall, most of the monks are not thrilled that he has claimed sanctuary with them and Jie has to prove himself. Also, fate washes up wave after wave of bad karma for Jie to wade through, and it's not long before he has to face the music for his past offenses despite the fact that he has changed. (Again, the deleted scenes deepen Jie's transformation from warlord to monk in some wonderful ways).

All this plot works up to a massive battle scene at the end. Despite the huge scope of this final battle, every detail resonates powerfully because we have so much back story on all the characters. Even secondary and tertiary characters are filled out (often in the deleted scenes) so as to be like flesh and blood people, an example of the amazing writing and characterization woven into the action and fights. This movie would definitely reward multiple viewings.

Andy Lau in Shaolin
As for the performances, I just can't say enough about Andy Lau as General Hou Jie. He commands all the different facets of his character - cruel warlord, doting father, shattered man, earnest monk, and contrite hero - equally well. The evolution and (I think it's fair to say) enlightenment of his character is totally believable and presented in a seamless fashion. Lau also does a great job communicating his character's state of mind, even when he has little or no dialogue. I especially found the scene where he lies at the bottom of the pit and stares at the stars asking "Why?" to be emotionally affecting and right on the money from a 'Martial Zen' point of view. His character's transformation in this movie is one of the most complex performances I've ever seen in a martial arts movie, largely because it can stand on its own as a true dramatic performance.

But the rest of the cast is also strong. Of course, Jackie Chan is a highlight. As Wudao, the eccentric cook, Chan provides comic relief without ever going over the top. His character also has its own subtle transformation, although a lot is left open. This is, of course, a sign of good writing and a movie that doesn't look down on its audience. We don't need every little thing spelled out for us. Elsewhere, Nicholas Tse delivers a wicked villain whose learned his lessons too well at Jie's knee. It would have been easy to overdo this character, but Tse is able to go right up to the edge without losing control. Martial artists Wu Jing and Yu Xing (the latter a Shaolin monk in real life!), and actor Shao-Qun Yu play senior monks in the temple. Each is given a fully-defined character and - in the deleted scenes - subplots to help us get to know them. Xing is especially sympathetic as the fiery Jing Kong who reaches enlightenment when an unexpected refugee arrives at the temple. Great stuff! And this is only about half of the characters that get small but critical screen time without at all detracting from the flow of the main story.

While the martial arts content satisfied me, as I said if you really must have fights that are totally upfront and center, then Shaolin might not be as obvious a 'thumbs-up' movie for you. On the other hand, the amount of material relating to martial arts and Zen philosophy that is sensitively and believably worked into this script (without being preachy), for me, would make up for any possible deficiencies in the number and length of fight scenes. It should also be noted that Shaolin relies on a good number of large battles and, as usual, these scenes tend to displace the hand-to-hand fighting most desirable in martial arts movies. However, on the plus side, every fight and battle is driven by the character's paths. When characters die, triumph, or meet their fate, there is always a resonance for the viewer because these people are so clearly drawn for us. The final battle is totally satisfying and a worthy capstone to the complex story and excellent action that has occurred up to that point.

I've just watched Shaolin, so I hate to be too laudatory. However, I really believe Shaolin will ultimately end-up as one of my favorite martial arts movies of all time. Like Fearless, this is a beautiful-looking movie that celebrates the martial arts spirit, has strong fights, and yet also goes above and beyond by delivering affecting characters in a well-acted and powerful story.

Definitely a must see!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Zazen vs. Meditation

One of the reasons I was initially attracted to Zen Buddhism is that I associated it with calm and inner peace. Find myself running too fast in the world? Letting too many things mess up my equilibrium? Need to remind myself what's important to me? Zen - and specifically Zen meditation  - is the answer! I'm oversimplifying somewhat but, at root, this is kind of what I thought about Zen Buddhism when I started studying it.

During the intervening ten or eleven years, one thing I've learned is that there is a big difference between popular ideas of meditation like the ones I had and Zen meditation (or zazen). One the most important differences is that while popular meditation seems to promise things like happiness, reduced stress, and inner peace, zazen does not. More deeply, Zen itself makes no claims about providing these things to practitioners. Even so, whenever you hear a Zen monk speak - or even just look at the way they carry themselves - you can just tell they have achieved those things (although 'contentment' might be a more accurate word than 'happiness'). So why is this? I believe the explanation lies in the philosophical differences between Zen and the self-help/new-age movement.

A few disclaimers before I continue. In writing about these differences, I'm not trying to say one way or the other is wrong or could never be helpful to anyone. I'm just sharing my own experiences and understanding. Let's also define some terms: 'meditation' will refer to popular practices and 'zazen' will stand for Zen meditation specifically. Now, onward...

The best place I can think to begin explaining the philosophical differences between zazen and meditation is to say that meditation seems to view unhappiness (or more broadly, suffering) as an emotional state that is very different from happiness. It's a kind of negative energy from which we need to free ourselves in order to be happy or at peace. In contrast, Zen views both suffering and happiness as responses to the world around us. So, in essence, they are the same thing.

Further, in Zen both happiness and suffering are temporary states. We are happy until something makes us unhappy, and then we remain unhappy until something makes us happy again. Zen is about escaping from this vicious circle entirely. As a result, from a Zen perspective, the idea of meditating to end unhappiness or stress is wrong-minded.

While Zen Buddhists see suffering as an inherent part of being alive, we also believe that much of the suffering people endure is unnecessary. It is needlessly self-induced. When we are unhappy or stressed or lacking inner peace, it is often not the result of external factors but due to our own undisciplined thinking. The human mind is a magnificent machine that can solve the deepest scientific questions about the universe, envision masterpieces of art, and compose symphonies. However, in our day to day life, it can be more like a spoiled brat: running amok as if high on sugar and stamping its foot and screaming if it doesn't get a cookie that it wants right away. The Zen view is that, left undisciplined, the mind is more likely to create suffering than symphonies. Zazen is the means of disciplining the unruly mind and, by extension, ourselves and our approach to life.

This Zen idea of zazen as a form of self-discipline, or a way to bring the mind under control and focus it, is very different from popular thinking related to meditation. Most commonly, meditation seems to be presented as some kind of altered state of consciousness or a sleepy never-never land we visit to chill out. In contrast to these ideas, during zazen, one is alert and acutely aware of the immediate moment. Posture and/or breathing is rigorously paid mind to and, in some Zen meditation groups, a teacher will give you a little whack if you are not sitting correctly or are doing something else not appropriate for zazen. Compared to meditation, zazen seems a lot less like relaxation and much more like lining up before a drill sergeant for marching.

That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but there's definitely some truth to it. Just like a gymnast standing on one foot on a balance beam must have absolute focus and control over their body, during zazen we must have absolute focus and control of our minds in order to discipline them. To extend the metaphor, the time during which we sit in zazen is the same as the 'center' on which the gymnast's body is balanced. If the gymnast lets their body move off-center either backward or forward, they will fall. In zazen, we focus on the present moment and do not let ourselves move off-center by thinking about the past or future.

And when I say 'the present moment', I really mean right that second and nothing more. We do not think about what we will be doing even in an hour in the future, nor actively consider what has happened to us within the last hour. This kind of focus takes a good deal of effort at first, because we are simply not used to reining in our minds this way. When someone has achieved this focus during zazen for a sustained amount of time, we say they have entered samadhi. I've found that, when I am in samadhi, I have those feelings of calm, peace, and contentment promised by meditation.

Unfortunately, while one can have these feelings during meditation or samadhi (and perhaps even hold onto them for a short time afterwards), unless one is learning to discipline the mind, the feelings will 'wear off' within a few hours. This is why the focus of zazen is not these emotional benefits but the ability to discipline the mind. Without this discipline, nothing is actually gained. Further, once this discipline is mastered, it can be summoned and maintained during normal life.

So the positive emotional benefits are ancillary benefits of zazen - as opposed to the goal in meditation - and they occur as a result of the discipline we're learning by repeatedly sitting in zazen. In essence, sitting in zazen and experiencing samadhi in training us to recognize what the right mindset feels like. As we become familiar with the experience, we almost instinctively know when we are engaged in undisciplined behavior and we can shut it down. This helps us rein in our minds and avoid needless, self-induced suffering.

A final point also needs to be made about the difference between zazen and meditation. While meditation often uses phrases such as 'finding inner peace' or 'seeking truth', Zen practitioners believe we already have inner peace and truth. However, because our minds are not disciplined, we cannot focus on these things. The writing of ancient Zen masters all the way back to Bodhidharma repeatedly exhort us to merely sit in zazen because, in so doing, truth and understanding come without effort.

In fact, the picture to the right and the quote: "Peace comes from within; do not seek it without" is attributed to the Buddha. So you can see that this tenet goes right back to the origins and root of Zen Buddhism.

The implication of this tenet is that using zazen to seek... anything...or to actively strive for something is wrong-minded. Again, this is very different than meditation which often refers to a 'journey' we are on with some goal at the end of the trip. No trajectory of this kind is desired in Zen Buddhism.

It was difficult for me to put all this into words, and I may not have everything correct or stated as clearly as I intend. However, this is something that has been simmering in my head for a couple years now, and I wanted to take a stab at crystallizing it!

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Zen and Neuroscience

Buddhist monk participating in a neuroscience experiment
In recent years, neuroscientists have made strides in understanding human brain function. These strides have implications about our behavior, where our identity (some would say 'soul') resides, and even the concept of free will. Of course I imagine one must take these theories with a grain of salt since the science is relatively young, and we may not understand emergent brain functions that go beyond what specific areas of the brain can do. Still, there is no question that neuroscience is demystifying our brains (and us), and demystification is usually another way of saying we're abandoning superstition.

One of my closest friends is what can only be described as a 'born-again atheist', and he posts articles to Facebook about science, debunked religious beliefs, longevity research, and neuroscience. He also sends me articles in a futile attempt to convince me that cats and dogs have no emotions but he is, of course, completely wrong about that, (jab jab, Paul!). Anyway, a while back I discussed one of his neuroscience posts that spoke to the physiological impact that sitting in zazen has on the brain (see post: Zazen and Brain Physiology).

He recently sent me an interview with a neurophilosopher(?) named Patricia Churchland in which she addresses the implications of neuroscience, what she terms neuroexistentialism (see New Scientist article You Are Your Brain). These implications tend to disconcert people. For example, they suggest our identity or self may be strictly tied to our brains. This would tend to discredit any belief that says who and what we are is an ethereal essence, which can continue after we die by floating off to heaven or being reincarnated into a new life. Despite the obvious controversial nature these views have for many people, I continue to be surprised how tightly they fit with Zen philosophy or, in some cases, how Zen philosophy seems to help me integrate them into my life in a positive manner.

The Afterlife
For example, while neuroscience may never be able to definitively prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife, the direction it takes us in is very disconcerting to afterlife proponents. In this question, Zen Buddhism counters by suggesting we should be focused on the moment. Not the past, not the future, not what might or might not happen after we die. As such, I found myself not especially upset that there may be no afterlife. Since I can't know what will happen when I die, expending mental thought fretting about it isn't sensible. Further, how do I know that when I'm however-old-I'll-be when I die that I'll want an afterlife? Again, worrying about this now and drawing myself away from the life I do in fact have just makes no sense. I have this equanimity as a result of the discipline I've learned while sitting in zazen.

Free Will
Another issue tackled by Churchland in the interview is that of free will. Does it exist? Her answer is very interesting from a Zen Buddhist perspective: "A better question is whether we have self-control...We need to be able to maintain a goal despite distractions. We need to suppress certain kinds of impulses." While this is a rather clinical description of the mindset one achieves through zazen, I can't find much fault with it. Through Zen, I have learned that the quantity and quality of my responses do much more to shape the reality I experience than the specific situations I face in a normal day. Many of us make ourselves unhappy by reacting to everything. In contrast, when I am disciplined enough to control and withhold response, I retain my equilibrium and focus. A natural by-product of this centered mind state is a sense of peace and, often, contentment. Again, this is core to Zen Buddhism.

Finally, there is Churchland's explanation of why she feels no need to be a 'cultural warrior' preaching the wisdom of the neuroexistentialist view: "People are, by and large, smart enough and reasonable enough that they come to a good decision eventually. But it takes time to think about it, to go back and forth. It's something that you have to marinate in for a while." This is absolutely the way Zen Buddhists learn. There is no proselytizing, and 'marinating' is a great way to describe what a Zen Buddhist is doing during zazen (and with their Zen studies, in general). We are experiencing the moment, finding the knowledge we have, and slowly learning how to bring that knowledge out of zazen and into everyday life.

I have repeatedly found that Zen Buddhism seems perfectly compatible with even the most challenging frontiers of science. In a way, it's as if Zen Buddhism helps me to embrace reality - even a potentially off-putting reality - and allows me to accept it in a way that is positive and healthy. Perhaps this is the true role of spirituality in relationship to science?

The Dalai Lama may have said it best during a talk where he was asked if the findings of cosmologists - which disprove certain Buddhist creation myths - will threaten Buddhism. In his opinion, the exact opposite is true. Science furthers our progression down the path.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

'Happy Holidays' vs. 'Merry Christmas'

Merry Christmas?
In the US, we once again enter the holiday season with some Christians waxing militant about always saying 'Merry Christmas' to everyone no matter what. They say the US is a Christian country, the non-denominational greeting 'Happy Holidays' diminishes their faith, and...well, you get the picture. It's a lot of negativity injected by some Christians into what is supposed to be a happy time.

As a Zen Buddhist, I'm not at all bothered by 'Merry Christmas'. In fact, I expect it from Christians as this is what the holiday means to them and it's an important holiday in their faith. However, it's positively bizarre to me that someone would suggest their Christian faith is diminished unless they always and knowingly wish 'Merry Christmas' to Jews, Muslims, atheists, and everyone/anyone that doesn't share their faith. As our country becomes more diverse, how does sometimes using a greeting that includes everyone (especially in classrooms, the workplace, or during a national address) diminish a faith that is allegedly about "peace on earth; good will towards man"? Do these militant Christians really expect non-Christians to go around wishing people 'Merry Christmas'? Flipping it around, why would they choose to be offended when they hear someone using an inclusive greeting? Isn't it a sign of someone being thoughtful or using common courtesy or...something like that?

Jim and I refer to our annual party as a Holiday Party. This is because neither of us are Christians. However, I sometimes call it a Christmas Party, and I'm happy if my Christian guests call it that too. Further, I often find myself saying 'Merry Christmas' to people (most often in response to the greeting), and it's never once crossed my mind that doing this was a betrayal of or in any way diminished my Zen Buddhist faith. As a result, I suppose I expect any reasonable Christian to be capable of using 'Happy Holidays' from time to time, if needed, without having a spiritual crisis about it.

I might be sympathetic towards the pro-'Merry Christmas' position if Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Zen Buddhists (or whatever) were making a stink over well-meant greetings related to their religions. But they aren't. Christians seem to be the only religious group who feel the need to do this (and politicize it, I might add). I were Christian, I'd be much more concerned about what that says about my faith than in any perceived slight from kind-hearted well-wishers. 

Holiday Party 2013 (and a mini-rant about 'Happy Holidays')

We just had our annual Holiday Party. Here's some photos from the festivities! Thanks to Kelly and Stacy for the photos (since I took none this year!)







Happy Holidays!!!!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

13 Assassins

Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins is an excellent samurai movie filled with loads of swordplay and action. Samurai movies aren't my usual cup of tea, because I prefer weaponless hand-to-hand combat. However, I was fully able to enjoy this movie thanks to the direct nature of the battles. Unlike many large-scale battle scenes where individual combatants are like ants on the screen, this movie places you right in the midst of the battle with specific characters. This has a lot to do with how well-shot 13 Assassins is. There is nothing low-budget or amateur about the look or cinematography of the film (although a few CGI scenes are off). Despite the polish, the movie never gets in the way of showing us action and plenty of it. Miike struck a near-perfect balance there.

While I typically do not demand character development to enjoy a martial arts movie, I certainly don't think it's a bad thing when it is well-integrated in the story. In this case, characterization is definitely thin, and 'development' is not on the menu. Given that we have thirteen assassins, that means some of them get lost or seem the same. However, I felt I could distinguish them enough for the movie's purposes, and their comradeship and interaction - such as it was - was compelling enough for me. If the movie had spent a little more time with them, yes it would have been a better movie for sure. However, the movie was not harmed by the lack of focus on characterization.

The movie is really in three acts: 1) assembling the assassins for the battle, 2) traveling to and preparing for the battle, and 3) the battle. In order to drive deeper characterization, the movie would have had to pump up acts one or two, and I think this would have made the movie take too long to get to the pay-off. And make no mistake, the pay-off is the battle at the end. It's a long, amazing battle that totally delivers! Best of all, I don't recall any use of wires, gravity defying superhumanism, or poetic beauty shots. This made everything much more exciting, in the moment, and rendered the swordplay much more impressive to me.

The only exception to the realism was when the vagrant character, Kiga, reappears at the end alive and well. He was obviously killed earlier in the movie, and I did not understand why/how he came back to life. However, the movie is so strong, that I attributed this to me missing something related to samurai culture/folklore rather than the movie doing something goofy. And it certainly didn't hurt my enjoyment; I just went with it.

13 Assassins was a thrilling ride, and I would definitely watch it again. Recommended!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Grandmaster

While flying home from LA on a business trip, I was stunned and delighted to find that the selection of movies included a martial arts movie: director Wong Kar-wai's Ip Man biopic The Grandmaster! Thank you, United Airlines, for not limiting my choice to the usual airline fodder: the latest attempts at comedy from former SNLers and formulaic rom-coms.

From what I understand, three cuts of The Grandmaster have screened (insert annoyed growl). There's the original Chinese theatrical release (130 minutes), a version shown at Cannes (123 minutes), and the typically slashed US version (108 minutes). From what I gather in the always helpful consumer reviews on amazon, no 'full' or 'uncut' version of The Grandmaster exists because new scenes were added to the Cannes version that did not appear in the Chinese release. So buying a copy of this movie right now is risky, as the situation cries out for a Director's Cut or Collector's Edition. I'm not sure which version I saw, but I'm 99% positive it wasn't the US version because a) what I saw had to be a minimum of two hours, b) there was no option for dubbed English, and c) dialogue concerning martial arts philosophy is what usually ends up on the cutting room floor in US versions of martial arts movies.

So, with that out of the way, the other elephant in the room is how Kar-wai's The Grandmaster stacks up against what (I imagine) is its key competition, Donnie Yen's Ip Man and Ip Man 2 (click to get to reviews on Zen Throw Down). My conclusion is that the Kar-wai and Yen movies are so different in approach and style that it's a bit hard to compare them. Yen's Ip Man (the original, that is, the sequel is pretty lame across the board) is the better picture in terms of fight scenes. While Leung reportedly studied martial arts to star in Kar-wai's movie, Yen is without question a far better martial artist. Ip Man has far more satisfying displays of martial arts than we get in The Grandmaster. The latter movie uses a too much wire-fu, slow-mos, cuts, and slick art direction to compete on this score. For example, the first fight in the movie employs a ludicrous amount of rain to dramatize the scene. It's like the actors are fighting in a pool of water! It's not that the fight scenes in The Grandmaster are bad; they're just not intended to be as direct and visceral.

That said, the fight scenes in The Grandmaster are given a far better context than Ip Man provided. Ip Man was a bit dark in tone and lacked much focus on martial arts philosophy. The Grandmaster delivers this content in spades. Over and over, the dialogue - and perhaps the whole theme of the movie - is steeped in martial arts philosophy and questions of honor. Several fights are driven by or preceded by such content. For me, this makes the fights resonate more. For a fan of martial arts movies, I think both are worth seeing depending on your mood. If you want straight-up fight scenes, then Yen's movie is your choice. If you want something deeper then opt for Kar-wai. For those not into martial arts movies as a genre, The Grandmaster is the best choice.

The Grandmaster has flashes of the cinematography and graceful wire-fu that made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero beautiful to watch. Wisely, Kar-wai doesn't take his film anywhere near as far in this direction as those movies. The Grandmaster and remains mostly grounded in reality. This approach fits the more dramatic tone of the movie, yet does not make us question whether the movie belongs in the genre. The Grandmaster is also propelled by the performances of an excellent cast. Tony Leung's portrayal of Ip Man outshines Yen's for, while Yen is without doubt the better martial artist, Leung is without doubt the better actor. The Grandmaster also offers the always compelling Ziyi Zhang. She very nearly steals the movie as - strangely - she has more storyline than Leung!

As a biopic overall, The Grandmaster works better than the Yen franchise. The Grandmaster covers the same historic timeline as the two Ip Man movies however, since Ip Man 2 is a very weak movie, The Grandmaster does a better job telling the whole story. Both films also have brief references in their endings to Ip Man meeting the young Bruce Lee. In Ip Man 2, this meeting is handled in an embarrassingly ham-fisted manner. In The Grandmaster, it is quite subtle. The facial resemblance of the child playing the young Bruce Lee to the actual actor is the only cue we're given and we are allowed to make the connection ourselves.

I'd highly recommend The Grandmaster, even if you have seen Ip Man. It's a different take on the story and a different kind of movie altogether, and it's a satisfying viewing experience filled with dialogue and fights that breath in the spirit of the martial arts.