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Zen - Movie about Dogen

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Dharma Content Rating: 2.8/5 (64 Ratings)

Zen Dogen.jpg

Movie has English Subtitles, but seems only available from Japanese Amazon.


A new movie based on the life of Japanese Zen Master Dogen (19 January 1200 – 22 September 1253).

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Japan Times, Friday, Jan. 16, 2009 By MARK SCHILLING

....Banmei Takahashi's "Zen" is that rare serious film about this form of Buddhism, which has had a huge cultural influence but is little understood — let alone practiced — by ordinary Japanese. Perhaps it's a sign that, after decades of a single-minded focus on materialism, the culture is returning to its spiritual roots; or that one Baby Boomer director (Takahashi is 60) is getting religious in his old age.

"Zen" focuses on the life of Dogen, the 13th-century monk who founded one of the main Zen sects, Soto-shu. This is an unusual choice, since Dogen was an unflamboyant type who devoted his life to the practice of peaceful (if purposeful) meditation, not the showier varieties of miracle-working found in the usual religious biopic. It is also an inspired one, since Dogen was a fearless spiritual seeker and brilliant writer whose deeds and words still engage. The film is generally faithful to what is known of his life, from the early deaths of his parents to his travels in China and his difficulties with the religious powers-that-be in Japan. ...

....The story starts when Dogen, a boy of 8, is at his mother's death bed and takes to heart her final request: Find a way to escape human suffering. Soon after, we see him, now a young monk (Kantaro Nakamura), trudging through the Chinese outback in search of a true master. He finds him in Ju-ching (Zheng Tanyong), an elderly Zen priest who urges him to "cast off body and mind" through zazen, which he finally succeeds in doing after hearing another monk scolded for dozing. The sharp words jolt him into his own Awakening.

Following his enlightenment (shown in a whimsically animated shot of Dogen sitting on a cartoon lotus, soaring blissfully into space), he returns to Kyoto, where he soon attracts a small, devoted band of followers, including Ji-uen (Ryushin Tei), a Chinese monk he befriended at Ju-ching's temple. He also attracts the unfriendly attention of the monks of Kyoto's Hiezan, a Buddhist center for centuries, who label him a heretic and chase him out of town. Fortunately, he finds a powerful protector in a local magistrate, Hatano Yoshishige (Masanobu Katsumura).

He also renews his acquaintance with Orin (Yuki Uchida), a woman he saved from a sword-wielding samurai as a child and who has since turned to prostitution to feed her baby. Orin is attracted to not just Dogen himself, but his tolerant philosophy of Buddhism, in which even a fallen woman can receive Zen training. Dogen resists her invitation to her futon, though she herself is later tempted by a handsome young monk (Kengo Kora) who serves as the temple cook.

His biggest test comes when the frazzled Shogun (Tatsuya Fujiwara) asks Dogen to deliver him from the ghosts of dead warriors who haunt him, but is enraged by Dogen's seemingly simple-minded solution: Just sit, without goals, seeing things as they truly are.

The film offers an eloquent explanation of Dogen's Zen, using his own pithy words, as well as an ideal exemplar in Nakamura, a young kabuki actor who has the right Zen-master look and attitude, but without a trace of more-enlightened-than-thou smugness. Also quite good is Yuya Uchida as Orin, who is both likably natural as a prostitute and touchingly dedicated as an aspiring nun....

Last night I watched Zen, the new Japanese movie about Dogen Zenji's life and work.


It has recently been released on DVD with English subtitles. The movie itself is quite good, despite some pretty ham acting and woeful special effects, especially the depiction of Dogen's enlightment when he shoots straight into the heavens on a computer generated lotus flower. But all this can be forgiven as it's still a good movie. It charts Dogen's life from the death of his mother to his death sitting in a zendo in his most famous temple in Japan, Eiheiji, which still exists today.

The movie selects a series of famous quotes and events which build a picture of the teachings of the man. This is what makes the movie so good. It's not all about the man, to the detriment of his teachings. The core teachings are laid out and are even more inspirational in the context of the movie. I'm not sure if this is available on Amazon outside of Japan, but it's available from Amazon Japan. It's region 2 so if you want to watch it in the US or other places, you'll need to watch it on your PC.[1]

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