Posts filed under Process of Inquiry

On finding a hermit monk

finding hermit monk.jpg

Over the years, a number of folks have written to ask me, how do I find the hermit monks in the Zhongnan mountains? And honestly, this has been a really difficult question to answer.  

On one hand, there are real practical considerations. For example, hermits are generally not hermits for life so they move here or there or return to monastic life with a community, so one can never say with certainty where they are. There are real language and cultural barriers. Although I speak Mandarin, I needed a translator to understand some of the monks in the film as many were from different parts of China and spoke with heavy accents or in local dialects.  I imagine many of you remember that in Road to Heaven, Bill Porter gets picked up by the police because he wandered into a restricted area while looking for Wang Wei’s mountain. And we can’t forget that hermits are hermits in some respects because they don’t want to be disturbed.  I share this not to discourage but to shed light on some of the realities of this journey.

But most importantly, I think it’s important to reflect upon why it is that we are seeking a particular path.  I learned this lesson the hard way, as they say, when I set out on my journey after graduating from university.  

When I was a student, I wanted to be Japhy Rider. He was my hero. Just as Japhy Rider did in Dharma Bums, I also set out to read Han Shan poems from the original texts, and I spent a summer on a fire lookout in the Pacific North West.  Inspired by his story and the amazing wisdom he encountered on his path, I wanted to go to Japan to study Zen.  I decided to write a hand-written letter to Gary Snyder (Japhy Rider) telling him about my plans and why I wanted to go to Japan.  I told him that I wanted to write a book and translate poetry and other grand schemes only a twenty-one year-old could utter all at once in a single breath.  He graciously returned my letter and pretty much told me, If you are going there for those reasons, then please don’t go. He told me I should go if I am seeking spiritual cultivation and really feel that it’s my own authentic path, but if it’s for any other reason, I shouldn’t bother.

I knew he was right, but I didn’t understand his meaning. Not at that time, anyway.  I felt that my motivations were definitely spiritual. What I think I didn’t understand was the “authentic” part. I still bought a one-way ticket to Japan and I found my way to a Zen Monastery. And it was only until I was actually sitting meditation in a Zendo, staring at the cold slate floor, that I realized I was not supposed to be there.  Something deep in my stomach told me that this wasn’t right and that I was not following my own authentic path.  I made the painful decision to return back home. What followed was a long period of doubt and confusion.  I was overcome by frustration over my failed trip.  I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next. 

And then one day I was sitting meditation in my room at home.  I was feeling agitated and couldn’t keep my eyes closed. I then looked up at my bookshelf and realized that the shelf was full of books about China and Chinese Buddhism.  Not Japan. China was the place I was really committed to. The Chinese poets were the ones that carried me through the day and taught me to appreciate the world around me, the nature, the subtle wisdom of strangers, the good things in life, like moss on rocks and a shady spot under a pine tree. The Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch was full of mysteries into which I knew I wanted to inquire. I hardly slept that night, for when one thinks they have discovered their path, they want it to start right away.  I awoke the next morning and started making plans to go to China. And China is where I lived for the next decade.  China is where I found my teachers.  And meeting the hermits and making Amongst White Clouds has only been part of this larger journey.  

So being with hermits has taught me something, yes. But I don’t seek them out anymore. Opportunities for practice are all around us, usually in ways that we never expect.  Nowadays, I actually spend more time with Chan monastic communities, where I enjoy the support of a community of seekers, all gritting our teeth through sore legs and cold, cold nights. The relevance of these organic, deliberate communities is the topic for my upcoming film, One Mind.  

Will your path bring you to the Zhongnan mountains? Maybe, or maybe not. The important thing is to follow your Path for what it is, not what you envision it aught to be. So thank you Mr. Snyder for the poetry of that letter. I only half-listened back then. But I hear you now, loud and clear.

Edward Burger, edited by Agnes Lam

Photo by Ishwar Harris

What makes us happy?

Years ago I met Willoughby Britton at Brown University. She is an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, director of her own lab at Brown, and also works with Hal Roth and his Contemplative Studies Initiative. That's how I met her. Hal Roth had invited me to screen Alms and Vows as part of his program that year. That's when I learned about Willoughby Britton's fascinating and very relevant work. The Britton Lab at Brown "researches the effects of contemplative practices on cognitive, emotional, and physiological aspects of affective disturbances in the interest of the cultivation of greater well-being." To put it another way, she's studying the mechanics, the chemistry, (the alchemy?) of happiness, contentedness, and compassion. It's the real work. I think it's very exciting science. 

Today I discovered a TEDx talk Willoughby gave last year. If you ever wanted to know what neuroscience has to say about happiness, this is a great, very concise 15-minute introduction. And it's hopeful. It says that mind is ours to mold - and that if we want happiness, we have to work at it, just like anything else. The key, it seems, is to understand what it is exactly that makes us human beings happy, and let that be the point of departure. She says getting what we want doesn't make us happy. So what does? Watch the video to find out. 

As a Buddhist and meditator, I have my own way of processing and appreciating this kind of science. What's your take on it?


The Lens of Engaged Buddhism

Lately I am having conversations about development work, and development filmmaking and I reflect on the Buddha’s definitions of violence, unethical behavior, injustice in the world as the actions of people who are suffering and acting out of that suffering. It sometimes shakes us up to sense that Buddhists can be more concerned with the cause of those terrible things than the terrible things themselves. But where is the line drawn? In the film Crazy Wisdom, when a student asks Chogyam Trungpa what he thinks about the aggression in our world, Trungpa Rinpoche responds, “I want to talk about the aggression in this room!” (quoted from my memory) Is reflection, inward journey and confronting our own demons the starting point for confronting social issues?


Reflecting on the Mahayana concepts of Sunyata and the Bodhisattva ideal, self-cultivation happens in and through suffering in the world. Sometimes this happens in a quiet room sitting on a cushion. Sometimes it means holding steady and confronting something terrible in our world. There must be chances to practice every day at home or in the office or in the street.

I am learning about socially engaged Buddhism and how it brings our practice out into the world. It’s a messy world. And there’s a lot of dust in the air. But as a young Chan monk once told me, quoting his teacher, “we can only see a beam of light by the dust that floats in it.”

I’m reading an amazingly lucid book on Engaged Buddhism by a scholar named Ken Jones, entitled The New Social Face of Buddhism. It is inspiring me to think through my values as a filmmaker. In development filmmaking for example, like the films I make for NGOs here in Vietnam, I believe a film is as much for the beneficiary as it is for the audience. The issues calling for our attention in this world, the “problems” we need to fix, are as much the problems of the beneficiaries as they are ours. Because this world we live in is created by us all. Sometimes in ways so subtle we cannot see, we put into play actions that affect innumerable beings, creatures and landscapes of our world. I draw great inspiration from the writings of Joanna Macy who eloquently draws the complexities of our suffering planet, our suffering economies, our suffering societies… to the truth of Dependent Co-arising.

My films are only successful if they speak to the issue in a way that engages both the viewer and the viewed and sheds light on the universality of suffering. That’s why I say that film can be a bridge between us. That it is a platform for mutual respect and dignity.


Why Buddhists Tell Stories


Story-telling and Buddhist life: not just how we tell them or live them but where we find them in the very being of things.  The sunyata of all things is a kind of story itself, as I see it – a narrative that tells us where something comes from and where it’s going to. Looking deeply into a sheet of paper, for example, we see wood from a tree that grew from soil and rain and sun and time (soil takes time, the sun took some time too, oh yes and the universe…) and space and chemical reactions… and that’s not even the folks who cut the tree down, work in the mill, the paper factor, who buy and sell the stuff on telephones and with computers made by who? What a story. The Story.

I’ll begin with this quote from Shunryo Suzuki:

A wonderful painting is the result of feeling in your fingers. If you have the feeling of the thickness of the ink in your brush, the painting is already there before you paint. When you dip your brush into the ink you already know the result of your drawing, or else you cannot paint. So before you do something, being is there, the result is there. Even though you look as if you were sitting quietly, all your activity, past and present, is included; and the result of your sitting is also already there. You are not resting at all. All the activity is included within you. That is your being. So all results of your practice are included in your sitting. This is our practice, our zazen.

Posted on November 11, 2012 and filed under Attention and Mindfulness, Process of Inquiry.