An independent film and video-maker based outside of Boulder, CO, James Zito is making the best films about Buddhism that you haven’t seen. His company Vajra Video last produced 2003’s wondrous, essential documentary Compassion and Wisdom: A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. For the past three years, James (who is the son-in-law of the late Tibetan master Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche) has been at work on a new film, Inquiry Into the Great Matter: A History of Zen Buddhism, which “surveys the history of Zen Buddhism in Japan by examining the lives of some of its most important masters” (specifically, Dōgen, Musō Soseki, Daito Kokushi, Ikkyū Sōjun, Hakuin, and Ryōkan). He recently spoke about the project with me at Naropa University’s Allen Ginsberg Library.
Danny Fisher: There’s a concern across your work about what is referred to in the new film as “the glitzy, the modern and the industrial.” Would you say a bit about this?
James Zito: One of the most important elements in Buddhism is the lineage: in all of the Buddhist traditions available to us today, there is an unbroken lineage of realization which needs to be maintained properly or the tradition is broken and lost. The rapid pace of global development presents a threat to the survival of some of these precious lineages as well as the traditions that constitute them. In fact, some aspects of Buddhism are likely endangered species. Today, for example, there are said to be less than a thousand monks at any given time in the whole of Japan, whereas there used to be a few hundred in just one of the major monasteries.
In my opinion, the rigorous documentation of Buddhist materials is a very important priority of Buddhology. To document something means to make a record of it—preserve it—for the future. Buddhist documentaries have an important role to play in showing how things were and are still in these different places where the traditions are to some extent being eroded.
You know, the Tibetans painstakingly translated all the texts they could get their hands on in a period of the first dissemination of Buddhism to Tibet. Eventually, Atisa, who had come from India, was amazed to find texts in the library at Samye Monastery that had long disappeared from his country. This points to the necessity of carefully preserving everything we can about extant Buddhist traditions because they aren’t simply aspects of history, but keys to enlightenment and liberation, as well as methods for cultivating sanity and connection to basic goodness—spiritual treasures for all mankind.
As a filmmaker, how did you decide what to present and what not to present of the Zen tradition?
There were certain restraining factors up front, such as the availability of funds and the language barrier. There was also some difficulty in accessing some of the materials and sites that I wanted to include. I was very lucky to have help from some expat Zen authorities in Japan, though, and I generally did the best I could.
There’s also the shortening of attention spans and the telescoping and oversimplification of issues to contend with. For example, on American television the whole of the day’s international news is usually condensed into about five minutes. Interviews typically last about as long. Buddhism is a complex topic of examination which necessitates time. The challenge is to provide an abbreviated but internally complete picture of the subject. Fortunately, though, the structure of DVD also gives one the opportunity to include ancillary, reinforcing materials that don’t fit into the film itself.
Somewhere it says that one of the greatest sins a Buddhist can commit is to cause a schism in the sangha. In my own work, I shy away from presenting controversial material which might be referred to as “Dharma gossip”: what teacher slept with whom, what teacher drank a lot, whatever. With this project, I also could have gotten into this whole discussion about “war Zen” and the position of many roshis vis-à-vis Japan’s involvement in World War II. But I just want to present the best face that I can of the tradition. I’m not trying to hide flaws; I would just rather start with the great exponents of the tradition and the greatness of the tradition itself than get involved with these other things. I’ll leave that to someone else.
What special challenges faced you as a documentarian making a film about a tradition that has its own very unique (and sometimes inscrutable) way of expressing itself?
There’s a saying in Zen that the instant you speak about a thing, you miss the mark. Zen is supposed to be a transmission beyond words and letters, and so it can be a tricky subject for a film or documentary. On the other hand, maybe it’s an appropriate medium because in film we can show images and juxtapositions of images that can go beyond words.
At any rate, this project required a long process of research on my part. I made trips to Japan to film over three years, and each time I went I think I had a better ability to see and understand what I was seeing. Embedded within the gardens, the temples, and the art are many hidden references to various aspects of Buddhism and Japanese cultural traditions. Although I must admit to being largely ignorant about many of these things, at least I was able to begin harmonizing myself with the symbolic language used in Zen. (I like to think that my experience as a Buddhist practitioner, albeit in the Tibetan tradition, was helpful to me in this.)
In addition, the practitioners and scholars that I interviewed (including Taigen Dan Leighton, Thomas Kirchner, Jeff Shore, Preston Houser, Steven Addiss, Martin Collcutt, Kenneth Kraft, John Stevens, and a number of others) have had prolonged, deep exposure to Zen in Japan. I believe they’re uniquely qualified to give expert testimony on this tradition. I’m honored by their participation and I believe that their combined body of work represents an important ingress into a deeper knowledge of the roots of Zen.
Would you say something about balancing the historical and the spiritual in your work? Why is reflecting both so important to you?
In Tibet, one of the words for Buddhist is nangpa, which means “insider.” From the outside, like in the West, enlightenment is often regarded as mythic, otherworldly, shrouded in mystery—part of “Shangri-La.” From the inside of all the living traditions of Buddhism, however, enlightenment is an ongoing reality—a validation of the truth of the Dharma.
In Tibetan Buddhist biographies, for example, enlightenment is taken as a bedrock foundation of the tradition. So when we look at the histories of these great Buddhist masters, there’s this extra dimension there. It is a reality that the outside rarely gets to see or know. It is part of the insider’s—the Buddhist’s—world.
The Tibetans also often begin the presentation of whatever text one is studying with a brief introduction to the lineage masters who represent the forbearers of that particular text or school. The reason for this is to help generate faith and certainty about what one is studying. As a Buddhist filmmaker, this is an approach I find useful.
In the new documentary, each of the masters I profiled reveals a different facet of the tradition and a different illustration of core Zen values. Their biographies thus include not only the usual biographical information, but also elements of their personal spiritual development. I also tried to present jumping off points for viewers to go further and investigate these figures and their teachings on their own.
How can films help us deepen our understanding of Buddhism?
I think it’s very important to provide people who are interested in Buddhism with media material that serves their interests. I think the growing Western Buddhist population is hungry for this kind of material. I’d like to be able to operate in this area by offering thoughtful programming that can help educate and inform people about various aspects of Buddhism that they might not have been aware of or come into contact with. I hope I can structure and present the material in a way that is useful not only for beginners but more experienced and knowledgeable practitioners as well. I also think that it’s cool to literally document Buddhist sites and images that may never have been seen on TV or in film before, and that’s a motivating factor for me.
One theme that comes up again and again is the gap between what people expect Buddhism to be when they first begin and what they actually experience. Sometimes if people who are interested in Dharma cannot find appropriate role models or inspiring teachers, they might give up or stop their interest in Dharma. To help prevent that from happening, I really want people to through my work to have access to the greatest teachers and scholars of Buddhism that they might otherwise be unable to find by themselves. I want to help facilitate further inquiry on the part of the viewer.
What are you working on now?
My next project will focus on the issue of the relics of the Buddha and the meaning of the stupa. Among other things, it will offer a look at some of the great Buddhist stupas in the world, including the Mahabodhi Temple, Swayambunath, Shwedigon Pagoda, Doi Suthep, Borobodur, and so on.
Really, I feel like I’ve got potential topics for documentaries that could occupy me for a lifetime. I hope that I will have the opportunity to continue in this vein and make many more documentaries and films addressing Buddhist topics and themes.
For more information about James and the film, visit http://www.historyofzendvd.com