inq: What's a Zen movie?

Josiah Luke Winn jlwinn at
Mon Nov 17 01:50:58 EST 1997

There is a brief bibliography at the end of my message.

Sybil Thornton wrote:
"I think, we should look at Zen film less from the perspective
of the product than from the perspective of its production and
reproduction of its tradition.  I don't think there is any such thing as
Zen film.
There is however a process for training filmmakers and performers
characterized by a preconceived model of form and diction and a rigorous
apprenticeship under a master."

It would seem that I am not the only one to consider Robert Sharf's work
on Zen as useful for this discussion (strange,in that he wouldn't regard
himself as a Zen scholar). When I initially responded to Paul's question,
I also wrote that I didn't think there was such a thing as a Zen film,
but then decided to omit this, thinking that I was being a little too

When I wrote last time,  I wanted to detract from the rather crude
efforts of a 'Zen style' of film that lingers on emptiness and silence,
and suggest a 'fuller'  film style, one that I think reflects more
accurately, the zen lifestyle. 
I should add something at this point 
following David Desser's comment: "'the Zen of everyday life' wherein one 
lives fully, in the moment, totally dedicated to whatever it is one is
Admittedly this kind of remark is found in every popular book on
Zen, yet it is by no means unique to Zen.  Every  Buddhist tradition
would include this as an essential practice. It's this kind of
misunderstanding  that we need to be aware of when talking about Zen.
There is, in fact, little that distinguishes it from any other Buddhist
tradition except
for an obsession with it's patriarchal geneaology and a greater emphasis
placed on meditation-although not in all cases.

Clearly, if we are to make a 'zen film', we should be aware of what Zen
and understand the rhetorical moves often found within the tradition.  The
Zen tradition is fortunate in many ways, that it had such a charismatic
spokesperson to represent it in the West (Suzuki).  In Japan the situation
is different of course.  Zen is just another Buddhist sect and far from
being the most popular.  It's influence on the arts derives mostly from
it's political connections during the Muromachi period, and not because
there is something intrinsically unique to it that defines the Japanese.
Much of our understanding of Zen and Japanese culture comes from Suzuki's
book of that title, a book which although still in print, is now the
subject of much criticism today among scholarly circles.  

My knowledge of art within the Zen tradition is very slim, and although I
have criticised the emphasis on Zen emptiness, silence, minimalism, etc.
these are features that we can identify in traditional Zen arts.  Indeed
if one were to go to a Zen monastery one would see that there is very
little ornament, especially compared to, say, a Shingon monastery.  Yet,
minimalism isn't the exclusive property of the Zen tradition, nor is
emptiness.  We should remember that Buddhism is an ascetic tradition and
that this lifestyle demands a certain amount of minimalism (admittedly few
Japanese priests would seem to follow this).  The emphasis on emptiness is
also by no means exclusive to Zen.  It has been the central philosophical
doctrine of the entire East Asian Buddhist tradition since it's arrival in
China in the 2nd century.

Obviously there is a Zen aesthetic, yet how we translate that onto film
I'm not quite sure.  How significant should we deem it anyway?
Surely,there would be more to a Zen film that it's immediate sensual
properties. I
do remember enjoying  Bae Yong-Kyun's film but am inclined to think that
Paul's original question was referring more to Zen style than a film
explicitly about Zen.  As I have mentioned, I am more interested in
considering what a Zen narrative would consist of, what themes would it

With regards to Markus' comment:
"Yes, but perhaps more important for this discussion is the function of
in popular culture; this is basically what we are dealing with when it
comes to the cinema question. This helps us sidestep questions which you
begin to raise on "authentic" traditions. A better approach is to think of
practice, its appearance in popular culture being one important form that
may have absolutely nothing to do with what goes on in the monasteries."

To do this we have to consider whether we are talking about Zen in the USA
Zen in Japan.  The two are quite different.  I'm not sure if I should
really attempt to answer how Zen functions in either culture as I have
only spent a couple of months in Japan, and most of this was in a
monastery.  Neither am I qualified to talk much about Zen in the USA, as
I'm really only a visitor here.  In Japan, there are a few opportunities
for the populace to practice Zen meditation outside of the monastery.
It is also common for Zen monasteries to encourage companies to send
groups of business men to do week long intensive retreats.  The retreat I
did had twenty or so business men there, most of whom had never meditated
before. Their company was also kind enough to provide cakes and buns for
everyone each day!  
Anyway, I will leave Zen and popular culture to someone else for now.  It
has been my intention to point out the misunderstanding many Westerners
even some Japanese) have about the term 'Zen'and to encourage a more
'enlightened' (sorry!) perspective.  I really think it could be much more
interesting than what we have had up to now.  It would also allow us to
appreciate the richness of the tradition beyond the usual spin on
emptiness and minimalism. Unlike Sybil, I do think that a 'Zen film' is
possible, one that communicates issues found within the tradition
without a reliance on overt symbolism and empty imagery and yet offers
Zen answers or a Zen perspective on life through the use of narrative in a
subtle and familiar way. Since it is a religious tradition, it should be
relevant to all aspects of life, offering suggestions and guidance. Neither
would the film rest on the pretence of  offering the viewer a glimpse of
(within the Zen traditon, enlightenment is handed down and certified
individually from master to disciple, something a film-maker could not
Well, if anyone's interested, I would really love to work on getting a
project together.....


p.s. here's the brief bibliography:

Faure, B. 1995.  'The Kyoto School and Reverse Orientalism.' Japan in
Traditional and Postmodern Perspectives. Eds. Charles Wei-hsun Fu
and Steven Heine. Albany: SUNY.

---  1993.  Chan Insights and Oversights. New Jersey: Princeton
University Press. 

---  1991.  The Rhetoric of Immediacy. New Jersey: Princeton University

Foulk, T.G.  1988. 'The Zen Institution in Modern Japan'  Zen Tradition
and Transition. Ed. Kenneth Kraft. New York: Grove Press. 157-177.

Ketelaar, James Edward. 1990. Of Heretics and Martyrs in Meiji Japan.
Buddhism and its Persecution. New Jersey: Princeton University

Sharf, Robert H. 1995. 'The Zen of Japanese Nationalism.' Curators of the
Buddha: The study of Buddhism Under Colonialism. Ed. D. Lopez Jnr.
Chicago: Chicago
University Press.

--- 1994. 'Whose Zen? Zen Nationalism Revisited' Rude Awakenings.  Zen,
the Kyoto School & the 	Question of Nationalism. Eds. James W. 	Heisig &
John C. Maraldo, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

Stone, J. 1990.  'A Vast and Grave Task: Interwar Buddhist Studies as an
Expression of Japan's Envisioned Global Role.' Culture and Identity:
Japanese Intellectuals During the Interwar Years. Ed. Rimer, J.T. New
Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Suzuki, D.T. 1953.  'Zen: A Reply to Hu Shih.' Philosophy East and West.
3: 25-46.

More information about the KineJapan mailing list