Zen and 'cultural studies' group-think

GavinRees at aol.com GavinRees
Wed Sep 1 01:41:16 EDT 1999

It has been great to read the thread on zen, and even better to see that many 
of the people on the list seem commited to framing the question in a 
sociological or social anthropological context, rather than just an art 
historical or religious studies one. 

Peter raised a very interesting point, I think, when he said that it was 
important to look at wether the film makers themselves claimed to have been 
influenced by zen. That must be a good starting point. However as any social 
anthropologist worth his salt will tell you there is often a very noticiable 
gulf between peoples theories about their own behaviour and what they 
actually do. Piere Bourdieux said that the really interesting area to mine is 
the area of knowledge which lies between what people can confidentally say 
about their own society, and the things that they could not possibly say 
about it. In other words it is the half-glimpsed, half-said, half-thought out 
indigenous knowledge which can be the most revealing to look at. The sorts of 
stuff that film makers are unlikely to venture during interviews with film 

The question: is there any noticable zen influence in modern Japanese film, 
should perhaps first be reframed. It might be better to ask how far can zen 
be said to influence young popular culture in Japan, and to take the question 
from the perspective from how the material is recieved by the viewers, rather 
than just by looking at its production. If I was watching a film, any 
Japanese film, I am sure could contribute zen qualities such as "emptiness" 
to just about anything if I really needed to find it there in order to 
justify my dissertation.

I don't know if anybody has written anything good on "popular consumption" 
and zen, but that would be interesting to look. Obviously it is an absolutely 
enormous topic, and to produce anything interesting, I think will take a lot 
of effort.........an awful lot of effort!  It might also be interesting to 
get hold of some of the anthropology that has been written about the buddhist 
laity (spelling?). I don't have any references for it, but I am sure there is 
material that looks at how believers reconcile the contradictions between the 
doctrines they learn in temple visits, and the pressures of everyday life.

Joss's  comments about what actually goes on in monastries was really 
interesting to read. It reminded me of an excellent Korean film I saw, which 
I can't remember the name of. It might have been the one that alluded to in 
his post. In the film I am thinking, of a young monk makes the friendhip of a 
dissolute monk who believes he can only get closer to purifying himself 
through transgression, and coming into contact with the real soil of life. He 
drinks, visits prostitutes, and generally ignores what he has been told to 
do. In the end he freezes to death alone on a mountain top. There is a third 
character who takes a  more traditional "hard school" approach to 
enlightenment: he burns his fingers off, one by one. It might not sound that 
cheery, it is one of the most thought provoking films I have seen. However, I 
have no idea what it is called. Can anybody help me? (I bet Stephen Cremin 
can, if he is reading this!)

I thought Aaron hit the nail on the head a bit when he asked why people were 
not also looking at shinto and film. I think it is very hard to, largely 
because Shinto is very hard for foreigners to access. Most Japanese people 
don't seem to classify it as a religion, but some as a sort of cultural 
thing, and others as a variety of physics, an underlying theory of how forces 
in nature work. It is something that just is, and you don't really ask 
yourself whether you are influenced by it or not! The people who write  about 
Shinto, and pronounce upon it tend to be a small elite of Shinto 
professionals; and they are not, I think usually the kinds of people who have 
that much to say about the state of cinema. 

Despite saying that, I personally feel that the heavy use of flashback 
cutting, holding shots on empty spaces to suggest things which may be 
contained within them, reference to mystical forces in nature, possession by 
sullen deitys, shape changing characters, ghosts who come back to the living, 
are all things that could be said to have more of a connection to Shinto 
beliefs than anything Buddhist, and certainly anything Western. I am having 
to write this very quickly, and I have not got time to look up the references 
now, but I can think of a number of films, which might qualify as Shinto-poi. 
Perhaps other people have ideas.

All the best for now, 

Gavin Rees

More information about the KineJapan mailing list