Monday, October 10, 2011

Zen Movie Review: Zen

Zen Movie Reviews is a new segment, apparently, that covers movies about Zen and Buddhism in general to help you make enlightened viewing decisions.

Zen  The Movie

The Amazon Product Page for Zen lists it as Zen Japanese Movie Drama DVD with English sub NTSC all region. I think it's safe to just call it Zen for our purposes, as that seems to the the title the director Banmei Takahashi intended when the film was released in 2009.

Zen  Kanji

The movie Zen opens with our hero Dogen, seven years old, talking with his dying mother about creating a paradise here one earth. It's the driving force that sends him to China to seek enlightenment from the Chan masters in the mountains. It then fades into the opening credits with panoramic shots and soaring music which indicate that we're watching a serious drama unfold. Grab some popcorn.

Dogen and the Tenzo

And drama we get, while Dogen is out way seeking he meets the Tenzo of a nearby temple, a pivotal character in Dogen's story and is the inspiration for the Tenzo Kyoukun. After many years of study with the Tenzo and sitting meditation in the Zendo Dogen experiences his enlightenment and we are treated to one of the more amusing CG sequences which seems to depict a scene from an ancient sutra.


Dogen's enlightenment is confirmed by the temple priest and he is given the lineage chart or 'blood line' document along with a brown okesa, which allows him to teach the way. Not long after he returns to Japan to establish the Soto school of Zen.

Achievement Unlocked

On returning to Japan, Dogen faces many trials and tribulations, is forced to move his temple twice before settling in Eihei-ji to found what we now consider the mail training temple of Soto Zen. There is a sub-plot revolving around the life of a prostitute, first saved by Dogen as a child then later reformed by Zazen, it's a compelling story but I can't find any historical basis for it, and at first blush it sounds suspiciously like a story from the Surigama sutra or the story of Mary Magdeline from the bible.

Despite some moments of CG silliness the movie does manage to provide good dramatic pacing considering the amount to time in the movie that's dedicated to Zazen (admittedly not the most compelling thing to watch), the major events of Dogen's life are all covered, up to his death. The movie portrays him dying in Zazen as the monks continue to sit the rest of the period out of dedication to his practice. This portrayal diverges from the historical account but it's emblematic of the way a Zen master is supposed to die: either standing or sitting in perfect samadhi.

Overall Zen is entertaining and contains enough of a historical outline of Dogen's life that it's a worthwhile movie. I give it four out of five enso's:

EnsoEnsoEnsoEnsoEnso grey