Update from the trail: Zen and the art of film making

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Blog Sept. 21 Sudoeksa

Zen and the art of film making

Kak Seong sunim, the friendly middle aged monk at Magoksa Temple said something that struck a chord with me as we talked to him before we left the temple.

When I asked him about learning from nature, he said anything can be your teacher. As we travel across Korea filming our pilgrimage to honor the 7th Century Korean Buddhist monk Wonhyo, I’m learning that he’s right.

I’m learning a lot about mindfulness and concentration through making a film of the pilgrimage. When you’re searching for an interesting event or scene in a film like ours, you become conscious of tiny details you normally overlook – the ways ants crawl over a dead bird or how bees feed off a decaying apple or the beauty of water gushing over a rock in a stream.

Today in my bare feet I walked across a river over a series of jumbled rocks while the cameraman shot the water flowing around my ankles and carves. I was totally conscious of the cold slippery, slimy patches on the rocks as I walked carefully across the river, feeling the water bubbling and gushing around my ankles and toes.

Earlier, we had filmed a Korean Cosmos, a beautiful mostly pink flower that lines many of the small roads and high ways in Korea. I had to gently cup my hand around the flower and bend down and smell it. I had to do it slowly, carefully and gently. I did so with full awareness. It has been a long time since I have looked at a flower so carefully and examined it so minutely.

This mindfulness or awareness is a goal of Buddhist practice and I was happy to realize that I could grow and develop my practice even while making a film. I suspect we can all grow spiritually if we realize that we can learn from anything.

While chatting with Kak Seong sunim for whom English is a second language, he threw a word at me that I hadn’t heard before – limen. We were examining one of the massive gates at Magoksa temple. Typically, gates of Korean temples are huge affairs, the size of a small cottage with dark-grey tile roofs and housing huge statues of demon-like guardians.

Kak Seong sunim wasn’t interested in those symbolic guardians so much as in the concept and meaning of the gates. Limen, he said, was a word like threshold, signifying both exit and entrance, an ambiguous area a kind of either/or world, an area of potential and possibilities. I had never thought of a gate that way before and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of the in between worlds, the world between sleep and wakefulness, the world between ignorance and knowledge, the world between the conscious and unconscious, between enlightenment and samsara.

Today we left our big room at Magoksa temple, the “flax field” temple. We were using a large tea room/classroom with a huge charcoal drawing of Bodidharma. You see drawings and statues of Bodhidharma everywhere in South Korea. I often wondered why. He is usually portrayed as a scowling, ill-tempered-looking man with a beard, and is often referred to as a blue-eyed barbarian, almost the direct opposite of the fat, happy Chinese Buddhas. Reputedly the son of an Indian king, he is credited with bringing Zen to the East. I was told he was a direct, no-nonsense person who had little respect for position, including the emperor, which may account for the way his face is portrayed.

Our last breakfast at Magoksa was a delicious meal of rice, tofu, sesame leaves, acorn jelly, and crispy apple/pear.

I again looked at the signs on the dining room wall and our interpreter , Miss Kim jiyun, translated one of them. Roughly translated it said: “A shallow stream makes a lot of noise while a deep river is quiet. Shallow people, like a stream, make lots of noise but a wise person, like deep water, is quiet.”

Later in the day, Mr. Chun, our senior interpreter arrived back with us after spending some time in Seoul working at his regular job. Like his assistant Miss Kim Jiyun, he is a volunteer on this project to establish a permanent Wonhyo Pilgrimage trail across Korea. The pilgrimage wouldn’t be possible without Korean volunteers and wonderful help we’ve received from Koreans as we travel across the peninsula in emulation of Wonhyo’s trip 1,300 years ago.

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