Monday, November 19, 2012

A Zen Life: Film Review

As usual Wildmind has a good article on this movie about D.T. Suzuki, and put his influence well:

"Avant-garde musician John Cage; Catholic mystic Thomas Merton; Beat writers Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac; psychotherapists Carl Jung and Erich Fromm; Zen teachers Robert Aitken and Philip Kapleau, philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger: 20th century giants all, and all have one thing in common — they were deeply influenced by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a gentle scholar-practitioner from Japan."

A Zen Life is a documentary film about Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. He was an early popularizer of Zen in English speaking countries, mostly America. He met many interesting and famous people, and plays a part of the cultural history in America.

It's hard to portray in depth a life, with episodic quotes and interviews. This movie gives a kind of broad impressionistic summary of Suzuki's life. I had a million thoughts during the movie. I'm always interested in biography, the arc of a life. I thought it was interesting that his deep experiences were similar to mine, I once felt that I was the wind and the trees. I didn't see that as enlightenment, just a deep meditative experience. I found it interesting he adopted a mixed child in a time in Japan when these children would be shunned, but he had an American wife, Beatrice Erskine Lane.

While I respect Bodhipaksa's idea that Suzuki was unfairly blamed for being pro-war, reading Zen At War, Suzuki clearly makes pro-war statement in his writings. The fact that many good people got swept up in the country's ideas, doesn't make him less pro-war, though perhaps it makes him human. We look back now that it is a mistake to be pro-war, and that's easy with hindsight, but we don't really appreciate all the complexities and circumstances with a snap judgment.  Everyone gets swept along in a tide of ideas, none of them their own.  For someone of Suzuki's stature to be swept along is understandable too. I still think he was pro-war, in writing anyway if Zen At War is to be believed, and am not sure why we would have to protect him from being, at least at points in his life, pro-war.

I think you can also easily criticize a popularizer's work, the first person to really begin writing about something to a country unfamiliar with Zen and Buddhism. At times Suzuki seemed profound to me.  The interviews were a mixed bag, I wasn't sure why some people got so much time.  I suppose it's hard to get footage of some people. I wanted more from Snyder, Fromm and Merton. Making a movie is not easy. I think writing something critical is easy, takes a few seconds, but making a movie takes a lot of time and effort, so I respect that.

I recently saw Crazy Wisdom, and this can be set alongside A Zen Life. They summarize a Buddhist life, and the influence people make in sharing their knowledge, in a foreign language such as English would be to Trungpa and Suzuki. Two early communicators of the Dharma in America and the English language world.

One thing that is easy in life, is to deny and cut off parts of it.  I have learned the spiritual lingo and yet it's not easy for me to change and evolve. I found it weird that Mihoko Okamura, the woman who cared for Suzuki in his later life, denied that he was dead, saying life and death were dualistic ideas. I felt sad for her loss, to such an important part of her life.  She seemed like an excellent caregiver; It's important noble work, and you can tell her devotion in her facial expressions and body language.  Suzuki seemed to be lucky to get such a devoted caregiver. I wonder how she made the decision to do that, and what her story is.  (Here is a blog of someone who met with Mihoko Okamura.)

I want to write a play about Suzuki living in a household with 5 young women, when he lived with Paul Carus, when he first came to America.  I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that house.

I read a few of Suzuki's books in college and was totally befuddled.  Now I have a glimmer of where these Zen masters were coming from, but at the time it was very confusing.  When I was reading the Lankavatara Sutra I saw that he had some essays on that, but the book is out of print and used copies are expensive.

So I don't know if learning about Suzuki gets me closer to enlightenment, but I do enjoy the peripheral history and culture of Buddhism in America.

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