Sunday, May 03, 2015

A Zen Life: DVD review

When A Zen Life, came out I asked the Sangha if everyone wanted to pitch in and buy it. Nobody responded to my e-mail. Crickets. Finally got it on Netflix. It's not bad. There are many talking heads and good historical footage, and interesting bits from his history that was filmed, many photos. File under history of Buddhism coming to America. It is How the Swans Came to the Lake type stuff. He really influenced a lot of people, lots of artists and psychotherapists, and if you can imagine a time when it was hard to get information about Buddhism, he was an initial popularizer with over one hundred books in English.

Of course now, there are so many different presentation of Buddhism and Zen, and they can be more precise, or easier to digest, or tied to a movement. I'm not sure how much his books are read these days, but I they aren't things I go back to reread.

The movie has Suzuki as against the war, when we know from Zen at War (2nd Edition) that Suzuki also said things supporting the militarization of Japan. I tend to think that he was probably against the war, but said pro-war things just to get along in that climate, before he felt confident enough express his real opinion. But I could be wrong, and I might be whitewashing it like the film does.

D.T Suzuki was a great writer, and I most appreciate his translation of Lankavatara Sutra: A Mahayana Text (Buddhist Tradition) (Vol 40). I read a lot of his books and got confused while I was in college. But later on when I found a sangha and learned the tradition, Zen makes sense to me. It is a tradition that focuses on the perfection of wisdom aspect of the tradition, and emphasizes meditation. But Suzuki taught at a Shin university for a time, and wrote some books on Shin Buddhism.

He felt at one with nature, and felt he was the trees, experienced satori. I have had that experience, but I also felt I was the wind and the leaves and the trees. It was an amazing experience, and I hope to get back to a place where I can approach that kind of awareness. To be on a retreat for many days after building up to a retreat with lots of meditation and reading and spending time with friends. These peak experiences can't be one's only guide though, you have to keep on plodding along and doing the work even when it isn't glamorous, exciting.

I didn't even really talk about it because I have the two book title slogans rattling around my head: Nothing special and after the ecstasy, the laundry. It's not easy to sustain that kind of awareness for me, and I'm far from that today. Glimpses of what could be can entice one and inspire one, but there is also the dark night of the soul as well, and other times that are not so rewarding. And then life can sweep you up and take you into other areas. Keeping up the circumstances that sustain deeper practice are not that easy in our times.

D.T. Suzuki was someone who wrote books, but did not found a movement. When a friend asked to meditate, he sent him to another friend to teach him meditation. Of all the talking heads in the video only one person asked to meditate with him. My favorite talking head is Snyder. I'm also fascinated by his secretary Mihoko Okamura.

Watching this DVD has been on my list of things to do, and I would urge you my Buddhist friend to put it on your list, if you haven't seen it, even if you're not into Zen, because there are not that many movies about Buddhism. This is an essential one about the history of Buddhism in America. It's on Netflix, so put it towards the top of your queue. There are some used copies on Amazon, but they're pretty expensive. I wouldn't be surprised if this DVD became unavailable soon, life is so transient.

The film also leaves one question (at least). What happened to his son? He adopts a child, and when his wife dies, the movie doesn't follow up and say what happened to him. 

John Cage is interviewed, and I've read a book about how Zen influenced the avant-garde art in America, the name escapes me at the moment.

I would put this movie up there with Crazy Wisdom, about Chogyam Trungpa, who was also a huge chapter in Buddhism coming to America, and early Buddhism in America. Like Trungpa, Suzuki was an imperfect human being, and time has helped us to flesh out the biography and explore the dark sides. Beware the guru that denies the dark side.

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