At moments, I wished I picked a different film. The setting was so serene, a tiny hermitage on a raft floating in a lake in a deep valley in the Korean wilderness, a boy monk following a wise old monk through his gentle rounds. But animal cruelty was on the way. And worse to come.
On the big screen at the Jacob Burns Film Center, as part of theMeditative Lifeseries of all things, the acts of cruel impulsiveness seemed so stark. Why couldn’t everything be beautiful and kind, or mostly so? But I knew that all this thinking and judging was exactly the point. Before the film, I invited people to notice what was happening in body, heart, and mind. I had to see how the thinking mind creates distance from experience. And here was a director who was in my face, demanding I see life whole.
The great Zen sage Dogen called the state of waking up a dream. This may seem like a paradox, because watching a film is like dreaming. We forget ourselves and open to new new experiences and new worlds. Dogen taught people to find themselves by forgetting themselves—meaning forget the boundaries of what you think you are and notice all your feelings and responses. Pema Chodron builds on this, explaining that the more you open to what is happening, the more your boundaries dissolve.
“The journey of awakening happens just at the place where we can’t get comfortable,” writes Pema. “Opening to discomfort is the basis of transmuting our so-called “negative” feelings. We are wired to avoid this—to fight or flee or freeze out discomfort with our busy thinking and other means. And yet seeing and experiencing (and there are so many forms) is the way and the wellspring of our transformation.
Made in 2003, by S. Korean director Kim Ki-duk, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Springis a very much like dream. It is very simple, centering on that tiny monastery floating on a raft in a lake in the Korean wilderness. But the wildness is also inside the body, heart, and mind one young monk who passes through the seasons of his life.
Dogen compared Buddhist practice to a circle. Every moment includes not just the present but also the past and our intention for the future. In the film we watch the boy become a man. In the end, he practices with real devotion and energy, transforming the energy that created so much suffering. Slowly, we learn that this practice involves holding what has happened to us with compassion and wisdom.
Filled with compassion for another, the monk in the film carries a millstone up a mountain—his suffering and remorse. But he also carries Kuan Yin, the embodiment of compassion. She has the big picture, embracing everything, the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows. Nothing is outside the circle of her seeing and her compassion. From a great distance it becomes possible to see that the wise old monk was once a boy cared for and taught by a wise old monk who was once a boy who…