By Tom Davenport
I shot the live footage of the sesshin at Bodhi Manda Zen Center in June of 2003. This "Sesshin" or Seven Day Intensive Retreat was the last one in a 90 day spring training period, and I had attended another one a month earlier. This was the first and only time that I had done two sesshins so close together. I began filming on the fifth day of the sesshin. By that time, the atmosphere was not as strict and the participants weren't pushing themselves as much as they had been early in a training period and during the first three days of this sesshin. Things had settled and deepened when I took up the camera.
It often happens that when you are doing zazen, creative ideas bubble up like surprises. These ideas are like the coins that the soldier in Hans Christian Anderson's "The Tinder Box" finds deep at the bottom of a well, in heavy chests, guarded by fierce dogs. With each successive chest and each larger dog, the coins are more valuable and the soldier empties his pocket of the copper for the silver, and finally the silver for the gold. But the soldier also finds an old rusty tinder box which appears to have no value at all. It later turns out that the tinder box is the valuable thing and not the gold, but this time, the idea of making a video bubbled up in my mind and I picked it up like a coin.
During one of our short breaks on the fourth day of our seven day retreat, I went to the abbot of the center and asked her if she would like me to document the retreat. Hosen had seen my fairy tale films. They had been favorites of her two sons, and she was happy for me to do it.
Did she have a camera? I asked. Yes. A Sony camcorder and two one-hour Hi-8 cassettes. Not the best format and only a limited amount of video tape, but that was all she had.
Thankfully the officers of the sesshin permitted me to move around and film from my cushion. The participants were settled enough and concentrated enough that I don't think I bothered them much. I felt as though I was dancing familiar steps with old friends. With only two cassettes, I had to be careful and conserve tape but the only stuff that I overshot was the Roshi Teisho or lecture which I used very little of in the final film.
I returned home to Virginia and put the tapes away for a year. Finally I imported them into my computer and tried to edit the footage. I showed my wife Mimi some early attempts and she remarked that we looked like "a bunch of zombies". Sure enough, It's hard to make a film of people just sitting and chanting and eating. How would I be able to convey the intensely dramatic atmosphere and inner struggle that Zen sesshins are?
I put the project aside.
Hosen had given me a VHS tape produced by the Canadian Film Board on a traditional Zen retreat in Japan. This high budget, polished film follows a young monk to the monastery and documents a Rohatsu retreat -- held at the coldest time of the year and marked by austerity, extreme discipline, and effort. The monks are not allowed to lie down to sleep for the seven days. To sleep, they must continue to sit but bent over with their heads propped up on special sleeping sticks.
The film exhibited the cliches that have plagued documentaries on Zen Buddhism -- a romantic and reverential narration, beautiful shots of mountains and gardens and of monks doing perfect zazen, all set to a musical track of Japanese flute, drums, and clappers. Very perfect and other worldly. As a beginning Zen student, I would have been very impressed by this film.
The break for my film came as a gift in the mail from my old friend Bill Stephens. (Bill started the Blue Ridge Zen group in Charlottesville in the 1970s and built a tiny jewel of a Zen center in the mountains nearby called "Flat Top.") The book he sent was Unsui: Diary of Zen Monastic Life with drawings by Giei Sato made in the early 1960s just before the Giei Sato died at 47 years old. Immediately on opening the book I saw how similar our practice was to the Japanese one, revealed with warmth and humor in these cartoon-like drawings. By using the pictures I would be able to compare and contrast and build on the feelings that the drawings evoked, and I am deeply indebted to my friend Bill and to Gei Sato and the University of Hawaii press which published his drawings.
The editing was done simultaneously with the writing of the narration, and it is the narration which drives the film. The editing program I used was Apple's Final Cut Pro which has a neat tool called "voice over" which allows you to record test narrations and apply them immediately to your editing. So you can test a narrative line against picture and if it doesn't work, change it or the picture. It is a back and forth, tentative sort of editing that is the way I work. I made lots of changes in the narration as the film developed and deepened.
My intent was to release the film on the Internet, and I put a draft up on the video site www.revver.com and asked people to review these drafts. I contacted an old Zen friend from the late 1960s, Stuart Lachs. Stuart had written a valuable and somewhat bitter criticism of Zen Institutions -- showing how Zen groups have a tendency to create an idea of the Zen Master as someone above and beyond the understanding of normal human beings. His essay "Dressing the Donkey with Bells and Scarves" showed how the institutional role of the zen master can damage the student and the teacher.
Our talk led me to insert a photo from the "Wizard of Oz" -- the scene where the dog Toto and Dorothy and her friends discover the man behind the curtain. Dorothy, angry at having being tricked into all their heroic adventures, tells Professor Marvel "You are a very bad man!" and the contrite Professor Marvel replies "I'm not such a bad man. I am just a very poor wizard."
In the end, I removed the picture but a remnant of this insight remains in the narrative line..."Through the years, my teacher has become less of a wizard and more of a man who is old and short and good as most men are."
I'd also like to acknowledge other influences. Working as I was with very limited footage, I wondered how I was to use the long dolly shot of the shoes outside the Dharma (lecture) hall. I liked the shot -- the shoes in that long line looked so particular, just like the faces and hands of my friends. When I put that shot up at the end of the film, I recalled a talk that Robert Aitken had given on his newly published book "A Zen Wave: Basho's Haiku and Zen." I had known Robert Aitken from my days at the East West Center at the University of Hawaii in the mid 1960s and it was during that time that I began reading D.T. Susuki and talking about Zen practice with Robert, who was on the staff at the East West Center. That evening, sometime in 2004 at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, Robert read one of Basho's last poems, composed on his death bed.
I remembered that when I thought of the narration about the legend of Bodhidharma's shoe. As the camera dollies to the last pair of beat up slippers...
I still ponder over that miraculous question.
Other helpful support came from my old Zen friend Murray Kramer who has been my traveling companion to many Zen sesshins. We talk going out and coming back, and I am afraid that on the way back, brimming over with ideas and words, I have exhausted Murray. Possessing a kindly and quirky sense of humor, I valued his feedback and suggestions during the filmmaking process. And finally of course, there is my wife Mimi who at the end, said that it was a good film, which meant a lot to me.
Permalink (Permanent link to this page.)