You can figure out from its title that the film "Zen" deals with
Buddhism. The movie tells the story of Dogen, a Buddhist monk that travelled
to China to learn Zen and back to Japan founded the sect Sotoshu and taught
"Shikantaza" (the practice of Zazen). The only reason for me
to go to see this movie was that I received a free appreciation ticket
from a friend. Anyhow, I was satisfied with the result of having watched
a good film.
Dogen's mother died from a disease when he was still a child. The movie
starts with Dogen and his mother conversing together. The bedridden suffering
mother asks her child, "People say that once persons go to the other
world obtain happiness, but what do you think about it?" Dogen's answer
was, "It is meaningless to obtain happiness in the other world. Paradise
should be in this world." The last words of his mother were, "You
should look for ways people could follow to escape from suffering in this
When Dogen grew up went to China and wondered about looking for a trusty
teacher. The Buddhist corruption disappointed him, but when he finally
met with a good teacher Dogen obtained enlightenment at the end of his
ascetic training and once back home started to spread "Shikantaza"
in Kyoto. Buddhist monks dissatisfied with the on going Buddhist corruption
identified themselves with Dogen's strict teaching and many disciples started
to gather around him. Nevertheless, monks of the temple Hieizan set fire
to his temple out of jealousy and he was forced to leave for Northern Japan
where he opened a temple and bent to ascetic training with his followers.
At the same time, an official supporting him from the Kamakura Shogunate
(government) asked Dogen to go to Kamakura to help the Shogunate's high
authority suffering from neurosis due to the aftereffects of war. Dogen
did his best to assist the frantic regent with the practice of Zazen and
succeeded in making him practice it.
The regent invited Dogen to build a big temple in Kamakura with the financial help of the Shogunate but he refused and went back to northern Japan to continue the ascetical training. Dogen died practicing Zazen when he was 54 years old.
Although I am not confident enough in talking about Buddhism I, as a person with religious believes, got deeply interested in Dogen's attitude with regard to people's suffering in our society. As I have already mentioned above, Dogen teaches people how to get rid of suffering by insisting that, unless we obtain heaven in this world there is no meaning to salvation. But on the other hand, the meaning Dogen gives to salvation is to obtain "satori" through the practice of Zen.
In the film a mother, holding a baby with a deadly disease, requests Dogen to save the child. Dogen asks the mother to go back to the village and if she finds a house where nobody in the family has died, then there is hope left. The mother looks desperately around but, in every family someone has passed away. Finally, the baby died and when the mother goes back angry at Dogen's temple his disciples tell her, "Rev. Dogen always taught that everybody has to die sooner or later." At their side, Dogen cries while embracing the baby.
Of course, it is important to correct social injustices. Material assistance should be given to the poor. Nevertheless, people suffering cannot be helped only by that. Suffering and pain impossible to heal exist around us. Dogen, in this film, extends his helping hand the same way to both, the Shogunate's high authority and the mother of the baby, a prostitute. He shares their suffering, cries with them and practices Zazen. One can observe here an excellent balance of spirituality and social involvement.
NAKAMURA Kantaro, a popular actor of Kabuki, plays the role of Dogen. He performs brilliantly the difficult 30 first minutes, all done in Chinese. The actors are professionals. The President of Komazawa University, a Soto-shu University, is responsible for the production and execution of the film. Thus, Buddhist teaching and its ascetic practices are faithfully expressed. I recommend the movie to those interested in Buddhism and Zen.
[Shibata Yukinori, Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo]