"My meaning is, that no man can expect his children to respect what he degrades." Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens
"Why can't we know this secret of the universe?" And the answer given was very significant: "Because we talk in vain, and because we are satisfied with the things of the senses, and because we are running after desires; therefore, we, as it were, cover the Reality with a mist.” Swami Vivekananda
“While the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done.” Mark Rothko
One of the most significant movies one can examine the themes of buddhism with is The Matrix. There the filmmakers aligned the idea of maya, illusion, with an oppressive machine dictatorship that tricked the human race into believing they were living in a familiar world of work, family, friends and urban settings. What Neo, the protagonist discovers, is that all humans were put into an illusionary drug state and were dreaming of reality. The real world was where humans lived underground without any average simple human pleasures like a nice meal, countryside or freedom: humans were used as batteries to run an entire planet of war and destruction. The drugged dream state where humans believed they were happy productive citizens was a kind of illusion, and a good portrayal of the philosophical concept of maya. Maya is a sanskrit word for illusion, where one hopes to see through illusion to reveal the realm of Dharma.
I’ve always joked with my friends that the most spiritual city I’ve ever been to was Las Vegas. There, everything is either entertainment, food, money and mind-altering drinks. There isn’t any subtext and no pretense that something deeper than the most direct physical aspects of life are to be found everywhere. Las Vegas doesn’t pretend to be deep, or intellectual or artsy. There is no illusion to escape within. You are at a casino or a pop culture concert. You are a physical animal on a physical planet.
The movie The Mirror is filmed in Tehran and stars a seven year old girl. Child-focused Persian films are almost a genre in Iran since childhood is innocent and their narratives can often get past censorship. The story involves a grade one student waiting for their parent to pick them up after school, but the parent does not arrive. The child is offered a few rides and one adult after another tries to help her get home and the little girl is feisty and strong-willed often turning down help from adults that don’t always know how to help her. Yes, this is a bit of a pilgrimage story. But it also becomes something else. The story explores the tension between reality and art, between structure, imagination truth and fiction. The structure of the film begins as a lush, ellegant treatment of a city and then the second half utilizes Cinéma vérité. Cinéma vérité means “truthful cinema” and The Mirror explores this idea of truth in art and the world and storytelling with a feel of documentary improvisation and the camera attempting to unveil something hidden behind an illusion.
Like a character from a Dickens novel our little girl meets lots of strange characters and is lost and wants to find her way. She does not need saving or deliverance. She eventually finds a public bus route she recognizes and we observe the day-to-day life of Iran where most of the women complain about their marriages, how their children don’t respect them while on a gender-specific sectioned bus. Throughout the movie the men are purely concerned with a soccer match between South Korea and Iran.
The child actor captures our attention with her soulful eyes and firm conviction she can find her own way in the world while suspense is created with terrifying traffic crossings, while she seems alone and vulnerable. This is a strange movie. It is so realistic and so experimental at the same time. It seems to be about filmmaking as well as about how we look at truth and reality. When we go to a movie we hope to suspend our disbelief. We say, “Don’t look at reality” or “Don’t break the illusion”. We expect directors to fool us absolutely. Critics will denounce a movie if it’s “too fake.” Here in The Mirror, we can’t tell whats fake or real and the feeling lasts a long time after the movie is over. What happens when we do break the illusion? In this movie we find that fiction and reality have the same problems and challenges! What a philosophical puzzle. The movie also hints at another puzzle. How do we reconcile the apolitical with social consciousness?
In March 2010 Jafar Panafi, the director of The Mirror and several other critically acclaimed films was arrest and sentenced to six years in jail. He is still under house arrest with a little freedom to move about, but he is not allowed to leave Iran.
‘After morning service and breakfast we shoulder our packs and he leads us down the steps, across the road, and down again into a ravine cut by a swift stream. “The old henro-path runs below the present road,” he tells us,” and below the henro-path are dozens of graves. This came to be called the Valley of Amita’s Pure Land.” We plunge into a tangle of rank weeds and scrub, searching for stones. Of those we find, most are marked simply HENRO; a few bear a posthumous Buddhist name and date.” Japanese Pilgrimage Oliver Statler.
“In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could put forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinship.” Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
‘We are headed back to Number One but I know now my pilgrimage will not end there. When I started from Mount Koya on my first pilgrimage, the abbot of my temple sent me off by saying, “You will see all aspects of man, some pure, some impure. You should see both without misunderstanding.” Pure and impure: I have seen both aspects, in myself. He also said, “If you are earnest, you will to some degree be transformed.” This I know to be true. Anyone who performs the pilgrimage seriously must be to some degree transformed. But in my own case, to what degree? Of one thing I am certain: the transformation I yearn for is incomplete. I do not know whether I am any closer to enlightenment-I do not really expect to achieve it-but I know that the attempt is worth the effort.’ Japanese Pilgrimage, Oliver Statler.
The sanskrit word sutra is related to the word suture because of the meaning “thread” or to “sew”. How interesting that the idea of our thoughts and speaking often has aphorisms to indicate movement and perhaps holding things together. We say “train of thought” and we call internet discussion topics “threads.” When we are stressed and worried or manic we say a persons thoughts are “cycling” or “racing”. We “weave a story” or connect ideas or join our thoughts. Writing, speaking and thinking have tradition in exploring our selves as we do with philosophy. A pilgrimage can happen when we write or share ideas with each other. We can construct contradictory or complimentary thoughts and ideas by sewing them together and have an experience of “moving” within our selves commonly called a paradigm shift or shining a light on a topic we thought we didn’t know, or knew about, seeing it fresh. The film maker Ron Fricke constructs and edits his movies as visual meditations: his most popular movies Baraka and his cinematography on Koyaanisqatsi became cult classics with audiences who shared by word-of-mouth and box office sales how powerful their reactions where to challenging juxtapositions of images. As one watches a Ron Fricke movie we travel through emotions and sensations of thought and no-thought.
Ron Fricke has attempted to sew together images of great beauty that can also be very disturbing. Workers in huge factories, or a warehouse full of inflatable dolls or beautiful tribal body adornments mixed with stunning nature. The viewer isn’t sure whether we are to enjoy or reject these images and somehow we might to want do both. Is life meaningless amid crushing mindless jobs, or is life so creative it explodes with meaning? Does everything mean something or does everything not mean something? If nothing matters then everything doesn’t matter. Often people apply an “if-then” logic to Buddhist philosophies as they are introduced to ideas that run quite differently to Western science or Christian-Judeo philosophies. Often people interpret “if everything is the same, then it’s meaningless.” Somehow this even extends to a political interpretation of Buddhism. Sometimes people confuse liberalism with Buddhism because of attempting to intellectualize equanimity. Practicing Buddhism doesn’t mean you accept everything and every behavior: we practice Buddhism as a constant movement between potential opposing concepts while feeling compassion. Compassion doesn’t mean one accepts cruelty or social mind-games or all politics or economies. Compassion means we think about those human issues by recognizing we are part of the path and we have darkness and foibles within us that we do not want to control us, and we want to have boundaries to reject darkness and foibles from others. Difficult or dualistic notions in the world are a pilgrimage in themselves.
A pilgrimage doesn’t have to be a huge hike. The practice of circumambulation is rooted in walking meditation. Dozens of cultures practice forms of circumambulatory movements, within temples, within neighborhoods, and on hiking trails. Walking in a pattern around a stupa, or a Jewish bride around her groom. a catholic priest around an altar are all versions of circumambulation: or walking meditation. Many New-age practitioners adopt a trail or nature walk to meditate while moving. In the movie Samara we watch thousands of people perform a walking meditation around the most utilized structure in the world for such activity, the Kaaba. Using cinematography, high-tech cameras, time-lapse photography and a montage of human and natural images Samsara offers a chance for optical democracy. We can spend a relatively short period of time having a visual pilgrimage.
A brief guide to walking the Japanese Temple trail. A “henro” is a pilgrim.
2) The Spiritual Pull of Henro Pilgrimage
3) Writing as pilgrimage
4) A spiritual film review
5) Roger Ebert review