Posts filed under Shared Journey

Breaking the tea cup

We are really happy that Rev. Heng Sure will be introducing ONE MIND and joining the Q&A at the upcoming premiere this Sunday, Dec. 18th. He is the director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, which is in the lineage of the late Master Xu Yun (Empty Cloud) who revived Zhenru Chan Monastery in the mid-20th century. Rev. Heng Sure is a groovy monk (he’s also a banjo player and nature photographer) and we think everyone will enjoy hearing his reflections on the film.

Watch Rev. Heng Sure tell a story about Master Xu Yun and why breaking a tea cup isn’t always a bad thing! 

Far from society, close to humanity.


The word "hermit" is pregnant with implied meanings and cultural assumptions.  When one hears the word, “hermit,” many of us imagine people who want to run away from society, to be alone and separated from others. Some think this is a selfish pursuit, while some others believe it is a noble path to take. So which is it?  My teacher, a bit of a hermit himself, would probably say, “both and neither.”

But what I want to talk about is what it means to be a hermit here, in China. Not anywhere else, as I can't speak to that.  I started to visit the Zhongnan mountains in 1999.  Up until that point, the only hermit I knew anything about was Han Shan, a man who lived in the very remote reality of the Tang Dynasty. I envisioned his tattered robes and his wild, joyful gaze, leaning against a pine tree over-looking the mountain forest. I imagined him writing poetry by moonlight and passing away quietly on the mountain. 

And though I have discovered some such literary and romantic moments, the reality of hermit life was different than I had imagined.  What surprised me early on was that the population of monks and nuns living as hermits in the Zhongnan mountains was a very fluid and changing population.  For those of you that have seen Amongst White Clouds, a few years after finishing the film, I returned to the valley and found that some of the hermits had moved on. Some huts laid empty, while others had new hermits living in them.  In some ways, I felt that this made the moments with the characters in the film that much more precious as they were “like clouds passing by” as Han Shan would say.  Very few hermits are hermits for life.  Most monks and nuns see hermit life as a practical choice to support their practice at a specific time when it’s needed. After a period of time (typically anywhere from three to ten years), most return to life in a monastery. 

photo by Ishwar Harris

photo by Ishwar Harris

As it’s highly impractical to live a life totally severed from society, you’ll actually find that most hermits, as the crow flies, don’t live that far from us.  Though it is true that there are some hermits that live deeper in the mountains which can take days to reach on foot, most hermits are as close as a couple hours hike from a local village.   The reason for living in closer proximity to village life is practical - sometimes hermits need supplies or laypeople who support them may come to visit the hermitage. Although some hermits do live in caves, many actually live in hermit huts which are often converted shepherd’s shelters or simple structures built out of stone, brick and wood.  Some hermits build these shelters themselves, like the nun and the ascetic monk in Amongst White Clouds. While for others, the shelters were already in place when they arrived.  

To say that hermits are completely isolated and alone is a misnomer. The hermits tend to live from just 30 minutes to a few hours hike from each other. They check in on one another and care for each other when they get ill. They share the fruits and vegetables from their gardens. At one shared water-well in the Zhongnan mountains, my teacher told me that the hermits would hang their water dipper on the well when they were on the mountain, so that when any one visited the well for water, he/she would know exactly who was on the mountain at any given time. It's a “hermit community”. And that's not an oxymoron. 

So what purpose does living as a recluse serve? It is true that practice is strengthened by the stuff of life and living among others in family and community. The hermits are not strangers to this notion. It is at the heart of Buddhist practice.  But there are certain esoteric practices which serve to take that experience to a deeper, more profoundly transformative level which require extended, uninterrupted periods of time. So they head to the hills for a time, so to speak. It's a practical gesture, supported by an ancient tradition accepted by society, and even exalted.  

And few would argue the importance of cultivating these illuminated states of awareness, as they are not just an experience, determined by conditions, but are actual changes in the makeup, the alchemy, of perception which allow us to understand, in life, the truths of nature and existence. That is why much time is devoted to these practices - we need these people, as this cultivated wisdom is seen as beneficial for all beings.  I sleep better at night knowing that there are hermits out there. And when the right time comes, most of these hermits return to life in community at a monastery. There they will help guide others on the Path.  Bill Porter once told me that if monks are the undergraduates of the Buddhist world, then the hermits are like the PhD students. 

I believe that in the end, in our modern world, we are in fact the masters of isolation. Our collective cultures, for all the beauty and complexity, we must admit, have cultivated a myriad of ways to distract us from one another, from our society’s issues, and from ourselves. With so many tempting distractions, it can be difficult to just be there and be present, mindful of ourselves and others. There is always a TV to turn on, a link to click, or another update in our inbox. Not to say these things are necessarily bad (as I am also a frequent user of this technology), but I think they often can be used to distract ourselves from facing what really matters to us.   

If this impulse to distract ourselves is at the root of our inability to resolve our own collective suffering, then hermits might be among the most responsible members of our society!  Because, though they take time out to leave our society, they return to their humanity. And the hermits have chosen to make this a full-time pursuit. They return to their human-ness, and they stay there, without distraction, for better or for worse, comforting or painful, dark or light. We have to ask ourselves, honestly, do we have the courage today to return to our humanity, and to stay there face-to-face with it for a long moment, a breathe, an hour, a day, a lifetime? 

Edward Burger, edited by Agnes Lam


Posted on October 29, 2013 and filed under Shared Journey.

the best of intentions...

zhaitang_01 - Version 2 (1).jpg

Reviewing the footage today for One Mind, I found a conversation with a young monk who is talking about how tough it can be to maintain a pure and motivated heart for the practice. He says folks always arrive at the monastery with the best of intentions, but inevitably the novelty and excitement wears thin. What follows is a period where you have to reach deep, remember your purpose and commit to seeing it through before really settling into life there.  Sound familiar?

Posted on October 17, 2013 and filed under Shared Journey.


A friend of mine led me to this article from the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm blog

They have a group there called Ecosattvas, which is such a brilliant new term. I really like this. Ever since I discovered the high mountain basin farms of the Chan Monasteries in Southern China, I have been enamored by the sure purity of their consumption cycles. ALMS is a short portrait of that. It shows a community that lives in a sensical, respectful and intimate relationship with their landscape.

When I was a student in Bodh Gaya, I remember watching cows eating up the waste from the little restaurants near the Vihar where I lived with my classmates. The plates were made of a kind of tree leaf. I wish I knew what kind of tree. The bottles and plastic bags had been collected away already, re-used in a million clever ways. Those cows would gobble down all the “waste” from the restaurant and then out back in the grazing area near the river folks gathered up the cow patties in baskets to dry in neat little bricks which in turn were burned in homes and restaurants to cook on.  For the 20-year-old from Ohio, seeing the shear efficiency and purity of this cycle struck me deeply. And it is part of my world ever since.

Posted on April 20, 2013 and filed under Shared Journey.

The Real Work of Life

photo by David Harris

photo by David Harris

From the final interview in Amongst White Clouds: beings in this world live in ignorance… they summon heaven and they summon hell…

Reading in Joanna Macy’s “World as Lover, World as Self”, there is a discussion of systems theory and how it relates to the Buddhist definition of karma. Macy quotes Karl Deutsch: “Each step on the road to ‘Heaven’ or to ‘Hell,’ to harmonious autonomy or to disintegration, was marked by a free decision…” Macy goes on to say that in life’s evanescence, “lies hope and promise. For in the flow of decisions and deeds, choices can be made that open broader vistas to perceive and know, wider opportunities to love and act.”

I feel this is hopeful.  In any given moment, we have the capacity to move one direction or another.  In this sense, I feel we are truly empowered.


Posted on November 15, 2012 and filed under Shared Journey.

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.