The Mindfulness of Movies

Nanzenji gravel

The edge of a humble path leading to an insignificant subtemple of Nanzen Temple

A great North American teacher of mindfulness wrote

When done in the right way, analytic deconstruction of emotion actually allows you to feel more deeply and intensely. . . The feelings become deeper and more intense but at the same time less problematic. Unpleasant feelings are more poignant but at the same time cause less suffering and pleasant feelings are richer but at the same time lead to less neediness. (Shinzen Young, p. 12)

From this I learned striving to remove desire and suffering from our lives does not mean to shove away emotion as well, but actually enhances them for us. This idea prompted me to sit on two cushions at the open door to my balcony for a good half hour before I grew too impatient.

But I think that meditation comes in many forms. Parts of the practice and rewards are wrapped into the tea ceremony, Noh drama, brush calligraphy, and many of the traditional Japanese arts, and I really love the time I can settle my mind fully into my lessons. Yet, I believe more paths to mindfulness exist.

One path I discovered in a conversation with Hana, my friend who lives on the other side of the Gosho, to the north. We were walking out of Daitokuji temple in search of the famous grilled mochi rice cakes sold at Kazariya, a shop just outside the gates of Imamiya shrine. Hana was talking of the pain in her legs during her efforts to meditate and her desire to overcome it so she could experience all the wonderful things she reads about Zen in books. I laughed and said, “Perhaps reading is another form of meditation.” And oh how true.

I’m reminded of a book that was mentioned in a lecture at Smith my senior year, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Perhaps that book framed the whole lecture or perhaps Pirsig was even the lecturer, but I can’t find any information on the Smith website. In any case, he points out that riding a motorcycle can be truly meditative once one becomes one with the bike, the road, the wind, and the nature so close around oneself.

In the same way, once reading the letters and words in a book becomes chore-less, the ideas, the timelessness of the printed reflections and emotions washes over the reader and one can become one with the world in a book.

Noh drama comes very close to issues of human desires, pain, reflection, death, spirits, and Buddhism. Actors confront these things directly in training and preparing for different roles. They “deconstruct” the mental states related to many difficult situations. My teacher, Udaka Masashige of the Kongo school of Noh, has gained a unique spiritual understanding from his art. His understanding might even be said to radiate from him. He even speaks of “cleaning the air” with concentration as one enters the stage. This radiating effect and this “clean air” give him impressive presence, which I believe bespeaks his mindfulness.

In any case, Udaka-sensei once mentioned he finds release from the stress of his incredibly hectic schedule by watching movies. I can only imagine the pure, deep emotions he can feel as he watches, for movies can simplify momentary existence. One forgets one exists apart from the film, and one can become flooded with the emotions of their stories and music. Yet, afterwards, the emotions leave little to no trace of the previous impact, similar to what Sinzen Young spoke of above.

Thus I am led to believe a well-made film can be at least partially meditative. Yet, two challenges remain. To be mindful, one must bring mindfulness back into one’s daily life. And finally, Tomas Kirchner, a Rinzai Zen monk at Tenryuji temple and friend of mine, says one must finally be able to see where thoughts begin. Enjoying ones emotions is a far cry from finding their source within oneself. For me, there is a lot left to meditate for. (Updated June 3, 2006)