I recommend the following documentaries on Zen and spirituality. I list them in no particular order.
One Shot, One Life
Here is the synopsis from the official website:
In traditional martial arts, mastery of the art is not acquired through technical skill alone. In following ‘The Way’ one must look beyond technique to become a true master. In Japanese archery or Kyudo, hitting the target by itself is not enough. In order to shoot correctly we are told to "Shoot from the Heart". As Takeuchi sensei says, "As a national team member I had to hit the target no matter what. Eventually all that technique became obsolete in exchange to express myself through the bow".
Yet teachers of Kyudo tell us that only through technique will we be able to hit the target correctly. If this is starting to sound like a Zen koan it is! As Takeuchi sensei continues, “Even if we dedicate a lifetime, we will not be able to master Kyudo. If we keep this in our minds we can continue further.”
To the outsider, drawing the bow and hitting the target is a test of one’s skill. For the Kyudo practitioner however, there is a clear distinction between hitting the target and shooting ‘correctly’ and one cannot progress until he or she learns to resolve the conflict arising from this. Irie sensei, Head instructor at Tohoku University tells us, “Shooting a bow is so simple that even a child could do it”. Yet Kyudoka insist that true mastery will take longer than one’s own lifetime! Can both be true? It is a paradox that haunts Takeuchi Masakuni, 7th dan Kyoshi who ponders, “How can one fail when both arrows hit the target?”
Awa Kenzo, a great Kyudo master, held that its true purpose was ‘to enlighten’. This idea took hold in the west through the book Zen in the Art of Archery, written by Eugen Herrigel, one of Awa’s students. Awa’s legacy of “Standing Zen” is practiced today at Enma dojo in the grounds of Engakuji Zen Temple. “This dojo has the purpose of developing the character,” states Koyama sensei. “It is a dojo for facing oneself.” For the sincere practitioner, there is no separation between Kyudo training and everyday life. Each arrow is shot as a single ultimate moment. Without an opponent, it is a path of self-discovery where the target is a mirror—a reflection of the self. Takeuchi Masakuni observes, “Ultimately no technique is left. No form is left. Nothing but the archer’s humanity remains”.
Whatever path you follow, the common ground is that true mastery of Kyudo is a journey that has no ending. In our documentary One Shot. One Life. the climactic end will have you holding your breath as Takeuchi Masakuni enters the 8th dan grading for his 16th attempt. It is a test so severe that this Kyudo master is forced to comment, “This struggle is my driving force and that is why I cannot stop.”
Welcome to the pursuit of excellence through the art of Japanese archery. One Shot. One Life.
You can purchase One Shot, One Life from Empty Mind Films.
The Zen Mind
Here is the synopsis from the official website:
In the last fifty years Zen has spread rapidly and far beyond Japan to affect every facet of western culture. Zen centers and Zen retreats have sprung up throughout America and Europe and enthusiasts in the West far outnumber Japan. Yet what do we know about Zen practice in Japan today? When Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, brought Zen to Japan from China 800 years ago, it quickly took root and became an integral part of Japanese life. The Zen Mind is a fascinating journey across Japan to explore Zen in its natural habitat.
A travelogue across the breadth of Japan to explore the practice of modern day Zen. We will take you from the bustle of rush-hour Tokyo to the tranquil mountains of Kyoto. From Zen centers hidden among city skyscrapers to the zendo in a remote monastery. With unrestricted access, we will take you into a world outsiders rarely see or hear about. It is a world where material wealth is exchanged for spiritual wealth. Where the mind is trained and conditioned like an Olympic athlete.
Zen training is explored in The Zen Mind through the practice of zazen or sitting meditation and kinhin (walking meditation). With interviews, demonstrations of sitting and actual practice, we take the lid off the many misconceptions that abound in Zen meditation. While the cloistered lifestyle of the Zen monk is in decline in Japan, Zen meditation is spreading rapidly in the west. Typical of this modern approach to dharma practice is the Dogen sangha, a Zen center in Tokyo where commuters stop on their way home for Zen meditation. It is a complete contrast to the remote mountain monasteries where formal Buddhist rituals are zealously maintained. This contrast heightens as we enter Japan’s largest Soto Zen monastery and join the monks in their everyday workplace, cooking and cleaning. Before and after their work is done they will sit in zazen. We will take you into the zendo or meditation hall and like a fly on the zendo wall, witness the monks as they begin what will be many hours of zazen and sometimes through the night. Only the abrupt crack of the roshi’s stick on the monks' shoulder breaks the silence as he summons them to focus, flushing out any thoughts, erasing self-doubt and ego, clearing a path to self-realization.
You can purchase The Zen Mind from Empty Mind Films.
A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki
Here is the synopsis from the official website:
“A ZEN LIFE - D.T. Suzuki" is a 77-minute documentary about Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), credited with introducing Zen Buddhism to the West.
D.T. Suzuki had an excellent grasp of written and spoken English, combined with an exhaustive knowledge of Eastern and Western religions and philosophies. He was highly successful at getting Westerners to appreciate the Japanese mentality, and Japanese to understand Western logic. The effect he had on Western psychoanalysis, philosophy, religious thinking, and the arts was profound. His numerous writings in English and Japanese serve as an inspiration even today.
Dr. Suzuki first lived in the United States from 1897 to 1908. In 1911 he married an American, Beatrice Lane, who helped him with his work until her death in 1939. After the War he traveled and taught extensively in the United States and Europe. Of note is a series of very popular open lectures he gave at Columbia University. Many renowned Western philosophers, artists, and psychologists were affected by his writings and friendship, including Carl Jung and Erich Fromm, Christmas Humphries, Father Thomas Merton, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Dr. Albert Stunkard, Alan Watts, Richard De Martino, Robert Aitken, John Cage, Alan Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder.
Gary Snyder calls D.T. Suzuki "probably the most culturally significant Japanese person in international terms, in all of history."
Along with Gary Snyder, there are exclusive interviews of many people respected in their own right who knew D.T. Suzuki in person, including his secretary Mihoko Okamura, and rare footage of Thomas Merton, John Cage, Erich Fromm, and Suzuki himself.
There have been few people capable of bridging the logic of Americans and Europeans and the Eastern approach to life as well as he. Indeed, one of the goals of Zen is to transcend dichotomies. The main purpose of this documentary is to "bring D.T. Suzuki alive," and serve to motivate people in the West and Japan to know themselves better while respecting one another. Daisetz Suzuki's message is all the more important now, in light of contemporary conflicts stemming from divergent ways of thinking.
You can purchase A Zen Life from Amazon or rent it on Netflix.
Zen: The Best of Alan Watts
Here is the synopsis from the website listed above:
“A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except [thoughts], so he loses touch with reality and lives in a world of illusions.
“By thought I mean the chattering inside the skull; perpetual and compulsive repetition of words, of calculations, and symbols going on inside the head.
“For as a result of confusing the real world of nature with mere signs, such as money, stocks and bonds, title deeds, and so forth, [we are destroying nature]. This is a disaster. Time to wake up.”
Alan Watts (1915-1973), who held both a master's degree in theology and a doctorate of divinity, is best known as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism in particular, and Indian and Chinese philosophy in general.
He authored more than 20 excellent books on the philosophy and psychology of religion, and lectured extensively, leaving behind a vast audio archive. With characteristic lucidity and humor Watts unravels the most obscure ontological and epistemological knots with the greatest of ease.
You can purchase Zen: The Best of Alan Watts from Amazon or watch it on YouTube.
Into Great Silence (Die Grosse Stille)
Here is the synopsis from the official English website:
Nestled deep in the postcard-perfect French Alps, the Grande Chartreuse is considered one of the world’s most ascetic monasteries. In 1984, German filmmaker Philip Gröning wrote to the Carthusian order for permission to make a documentary about them. They said they would get back to him. Sixteen years later, they were ready. Gröning, sans crew or artificial lighting, lived in the monks’ quarters for six months—filming their daily prayers, tasks, rituals and rare outdoor excursions. This transcendent, closely observed film seeks to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict one—it has no score, no voiceover and no archival footage. What remains is stunningly elemental: time, space and light. One of the most mesmerizing and poetic chronicles of spirituality ever created, INTO GREAT SILENCE dissolves the border between screen and audience with a total immersion into the hush of monastic life. More meditation than documentary, it’s a rare, transformative theatrical experience for all.
Here is the synopsis from the official German website:
The Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of the legendary Carthusian Order, is based in the French Alps. Into Great Silence will be the first film ever about life inside the Grande Chartreuse.
Silence. Repetition. Rhythm. The film is an austere, next to silent meditation on monastic life in a very pure form. No music except the chants in the monastery, no interviews, no commentaries, no extra material.
Changing of time, seasons, and the ever repeated elements of the day, of the prayer. A film to become a monastery, rather than depict one. A film about awareness, absolute presence, and the life of men who [devote] their [lives] to God in the purest form. Contemplation. An object in time.
You can purchase Into Great Silence from Amazon or rent it on Netflix.