The Zen of Filmmaking: A Balance of Heart & Mind

by Xuan Vu © 2006


Chapter III: The Pre-Production Process


:: Initial Documentary Proposal
:: Cambridge Zen Center Residence Requirements
:: Fact Sheet on Nicholas Doolittle
:: Important Interview Excerpts
:: Fact Sheet on Tiffany Reed
:: Important Interview Excerpts

Initial Documentary Proposal

The initial proposal for my thesis project combined all of the elements of self-discovery and coming to terms with spirituality that were discussed in the first chapter. The following is a proposal that I submitted to Professor Mary Jane Doherty, a film professor in the College of Communications, in the fall semester of 2004:

Logline: A Vietnamese-American’s journey to find herself in the face of opposing cultural values by exploring the connections between Eastern philosophy and Western science.

It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure. – Einstein

Are Eastern philosophy and Western science compatible? As a second-generation Vietnamese-American, I have struggled with this question all of my life. Now, in my college years, I have embarked on a mission to bridge the gap between the two seemingly opposing worldviews. This is a film about that path to unification and my journey to self-discovery.

My first area of investigation—Eastern philosophy and quantum mechanics—was a result of my weakened faith in the Western values of scientific reason and materialism. Recently, parallels have been found between the theories of the new Western science—quantum physics—and the worldview of Eastern philosophy. As the host of the film, I will guide the viewer through the scientific concepts in layman’s terms and downplay the mystical or religious qualities of Eastern thought for persuasive purposes.

My second area of investigation—the Eastern concept of the mind and Western neuroscience—was a result of my curiosity to find out how my parents’ perception of the world differed from my friends’ perception of the world. This segment will show the similarities between the ancient Eastern view of the human mind and the new Western notion of the mind, reflecting the views of some neuroscientists who are now working with the Dalai Lama through the Mind & Life Institute. This segment will also deal with the Eastern concept of the self as compared to that of the West and show how more and more Westerners are now attracted to the practice of Buddhism as a way to mentally heal themselves.

My third area of investigation—an historical perspective of the relations between East and West—was a result of my quest to find out how the worldviews had come to be so opposed. This segment will reveal that the origins of Greek philosophy, which is the foundation of Western science, may very well come from the influence from India, meaning that at one point, they were not so opposed. This segment will also point out the fact that philosophy, science, religion, and even magic were considered inseparable modes of thought in the West until the Enlightenment period.

However, despite these intellectual arguments, I still did not feel as though my identity as a Vietnamese-American had been fully realized. That is when I took up the practice of Zen meditation and finally recognized that the emphasis I placed on myself was what was causing the struggle within me to begin with, which led me to the Buddhist concept of “no-self.” I found that East and West, philosophy and science, myself and others are ultimately all the same thing. No matter how convincing the intellectual debates over this issue, I was not fully satisfied, and neither should anyone be, until I found out for myself through practical experience, which everyone should try for themselves.(1)


Since these ideas had been ripening in my head for the past year-and-a-half, and I had acquired adequate research and knowledge on the topics, I figured I would solidify them into visual form for my thesis project. However, when I submitted this proposal to Professor Doherty, she made me realize that such abstract, theoretical ideas did not translate well into a visual medium. My story was lacking both a concrete story structure and a central character. My character as a host as well as the subject and vehicle through which these ideas would be conveyed would not work in a narrative documentary—the type of films Professor Doherty made, taught, and advocated. My initial approach was more in line with journalistic filmmaking, from which I was trying to steer away.

So I went back to the drawing board and began to look around at things in my life. At that time I was taking a class on Chinese Medicine, which covered a variety of Chinese healing practices; such as acupuncture, tai chi, qigong, and, of course, meditation. This class taught me the basic theory and worldview of Eastern thought, with particular emphasis on Taoist principles of the body and mind. The following is an excerpt from an essay that I wrote about my practical experience with meditation, which applies the Taoist elements I had learned to my analysis of the effects of meditation:

…I have always been plagued by stress and anxiety, which stem, in part, from the high expectations that I place upon myself to be the best daughter, student, and friend. My need to excel at these roles comes from the standards that I believe my parents and society expect of me. All throughout high school and the first few years of college, I attempted to diminish my stress level through physical exercise, either by running, weightlifting or practicing hatha yoga, but all to no avail.

My anxiety issues, short temper and mood swings still manifested themselves in my daily interactions with others. I believe that a Chinese physician would diagnose me as having had a disharmony in my heart and lungs, the yin organs that correlate with two of the Seven Emotions: elation and sorrow or grief, which constitute a yin pattern.(2) My state of mind fluctuated between excesses of these two emotions on a daily basis, depending on whether or not I had lived up to the expectations placed upon me. The smallest accomplishment or the slightest setback was either cause for celebration or mental castigation. Over the years, the yin accumulated inside of me, to the point where the yang was not able to embrace the yin any longer.(3) Such an imbalance of their relationship in my mind was not adequately tempered by physical exercise.

When I discovered the healing benefits of meditation this semester, I came to the realization that the standards that I strove so hard to meet were simply my own creation, not universal forms or categories (a la Plato or Kant) that dominate the Western worldview. This sentiment echoes Eastern thought, which maintains that “[t]here is no notion of “normal” Yin-Yang—only the unique challenges and possibilities of each human life.”(4) To the Chinese, there is no need to conform to a standard since “norms” do not exist—only relationships, patterns and change. Since “[c]hange and transformation are the only constants,” I came to realize that there was no sense in getting overly excited or depressed over events that might or might not match what I want or expect to happen.(5) The one thing I can expect is the impermanence of situations and circumstances, and therefore I should not attach myself to ideas or things so readily and stubbornly.(6)


“Change is the only constant” has been my motto ever since. Although I did not know it at the time, my cultivation of a Taoist mindset in this class was to direct me straight to my interest in Zen. Both systems of thought have so many compatible principles and elements, such as this concept of impermanence, that to accept one is to embrace the other.(7) As I find out later in my journey, Zen had actually originated in China, where Buddhism and Taoism merged to form the Ch’an or Zen school.(8)

In addition to this academic influence, I had started taking a yoga class the previous semester for relaxation purposes, and due to the spiritual influence that my academic advisor had on me that semester, I continued taking the class the fall semester of my senior year and enrolled in a Zen meditation class as well. The instructors of both classes, Barbara Feldman and Mark Houghton, respectively, were affiliated with the Cambridge Zen Center (CZC) in Cambridge, MA, right across the B.U. Bridge. Out of curiosity and a desire to deepen my practice, I visited the Center on multiple occasions and befriended a few of the members, including my yoga instructor who lives at the Center, my meditation instructor, who turned out to be one of the school’s Zen Masters, and two younger individuals, Nicholas Doolittle and Tiffany Reed. As I practiced at the Zen Center more frequently and came to know the latter two better, I became more convinced of the effectiveness of this practice. The seeds of a film were taking root in my mind. I began to interview the two members and researched the topic of meditation in the context of psychological health. What follows is a summary of my findings.

>>back to top

 

Cambridge Zen Center Residence Requirements


Practice Points: Each resident of the Zen Center is required to complete 19 practice sessions for points. Each practice session equals one point. These sessions include bowing at 5:15am six out of seven days a week, chanting or sitting in the mornings or evenings, and attending the weekly dharma talk.

Work Period: Each resident is required to help clean the house every Saturday morning from 8:15-10:30am.

Communal Cooking: Each resident is required to either help cook one weeknight a week for an hour and a half or help clean after meals twice a week for 45 minutes each.

>>back to top

 

Fact Sheet: Nicholas Doolittle

Age: 23-years-old in the film

CZC Residence: two years at the start of filming

Practice Experience: five-and-a-half to six years, but seriously practicing for three years; up to three hours per day

Religious Background: no official religion during childhood; parents were Unitarian Universalists and generally spiritual individuals

Occupation: graduated from Wheaton College in 2003 with a degree in computer science and minor in psychology; currently working for Synapse as research analyst

Ethnic Background: European ancestry, Caucasian-American

Personality: shy, quiet, and independent person who likes to keep to himself

Reasons for Initial Interest in Zen:
• family friend held the first spiritual conversation with him at age 17
• started with a weeklong retreat at the Providence Zen Center (PZC)

Prior Engagement with Buddhism Before CZC:
• founded the Zen meditation group at Wheaton College
• practiced with girlfriend at the PZC during college years

>>back to top

 

Important Interview Excerpts: (9)

Q: Why have you chosen to live at the Zen Center?

A: I found work at my current job right around the corner from the Zen Center at the same time and was also recommended to this place by the PZC.

Q: What has your experience at the CZC been like so far?

A: I don’t like the politics and bureaucracy…Living in a commune is a little like heaven because a lot of everyday living is taken care of. The work is divided evenly, so is more efficient…I like living with others who are serious in their practice and supportive of each others’ practice. It’s a healthy community. People do thrive with community. In Buddhism, there are the Three Jewels: the Buddha, dharma, and sangha [practicing community]. It’s relatively inexpensive to live here, but challenging to adapt to the schedule…though I have no problem with meeting the points system now…I view living here as sort of like a transitional stage between college and the real-world. I feel the need to move out at some point to experience what the real world is really like.

Q: Of the different practices, which is your favorite?

A: Sitting meditation…I can only do standing bows, not full bows, because of bad knees and a bad back…I prefer individual meditation over communal sitting…I feel less self-conscious that way and more comfortable because there is no need for the formal posture.

Q: How has meditation influenced your life?

A: There have been many positive effects. I find myself engaging in more introspective thinking versus thinking about things that affect me externally…There’s not much stress [in my life] besides friends and other people. There’s none from work or meeting expectations. I no longer suffer from mild depression, which is prevalent on my father’s side of the family…I’m still struggling with trying to adjust my personality to fit in with others, but I can detach from this struggle more easily now…I am more resilient and can more easily deal with emotions that come up during meditation now because of my dedicated practice…I have realized that emotions are a by-product of suffering, which comes from attachment…I now know I need to identify more with the world, think less dualistically and break down attachments, transforming the experience of my emotions. By doing so, the world becomes less hostile to you.

Q: Do you consider Zen to be a religion or philosophy?

A: It’s neither; it’s just truth…There are the Ten Precepts, which shows its emphasis on morality, but then there are also the Four Noble Truths, which is simply a description of reality.

Q: What is the goal of meditation for you?

A: Before it was Enlightenment, but now I’ve realized that there are only Enlightened moments, not Enlightened people…I meditate to be immediately aware of my experience of suffering in order to work with my anger and sadness. I don’t know where it will go, so there is no major ambition for the future.

Q: What are your thoughts on American Zen practice vs. Eastern monastic practice?

A: We need to integrate both realms in America…I read somewhere about this graph metaphor. If you think of your life in terms of a graph, where the vertical axis is your spiritual progress and internal experience and the horizontal axis is your external realm of experience, you can either have a tent or a square, depending on what you focus on…If you just focus on one, then the other side might come to haunt you someday…like sex for monks or feelings of isolation or social awkwardness might come forward…If you don’t welcome every aspect of who you are, you might breed unease and self-consciousness. I’d rather approach life in an integrative way.

>>back to top

 

Fact Sheet: Tiffany Reed

Age: 36-years-old

CZC Residence: six months at the start of filming

Practice Experience: seven years, but only formally practicing for two

Religious Background: no official religion during childhood, but has always been spiritually inclined

Occupation: graduate student studying at Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian Universalist minister

Ethnic Background: Caucasian-American

Personality: athlete with youthful and energetic spirit

Reasons for Initial Interest in Zen:
• period of reflection during her mid-twenties, which she called “stopping and taking a look”
• disillusionment with rapid pace of life in America
• She felt that the way she was using her energy was not very constructive or productive.
• She felt consumed by self-centeredness and spiritual emptiness (“spiritually deplete”).

Engagement with Buddhism Outside of CZC:
• intellectual pursuit of Buddhism due to need for integration of practical experience with academic studies
• academic studies of Buddhism led to more formal practice

>>back to top

 

Important Interview Excerpts: (10)

Q: Why have you chosen to live at the Zen Center?

A: It was the need for community…It’s about being a part of something…The collective energy is much stronger than individual energy…Like Andrzej says (Andrzej Stec, CZC abbot), it’s like a bucket of tomatoes that you put into water: When you put them all in together, they peel faster…your growth is faster…Spirituality is very closely related to sports because it’s training. It’s a practice…just as it’s much more fun to work out with a friend…When you belong to a spiritual community, the ups and downs are less, and there’s a continuity of your human experience.

Q: What are your thoughts on Eastern Buddhism vs. Western Christianity?

A: They’re not opposites…Andrzej calls American Buddhism “urban Zen”…Buddhism adapts to whatever culture it comes to. My experience of Buddhism now is perfect for what I need, in that it still allows me to be in my material world of the American culture. I don’t have to go sit on a mountaintop…Retreats aren’t five years long…It suits the way the world operates around me…I believe that Americans, with their freedom and liberalism, have a “quick fix” view of Zen, whereas Easterners view it as a disciplined practice, which is where I believe true freedom comes, as well as strict doctrines.

Q: How has Zen meditation influenced your life?

A: It shifts the way I operate…There are what I call “God shots” or moments of “clear thinking…It allows me to be different in the world…It changes my habitual experiences or responses to the world, which is really exciting…I see changes so much in other people through the way I view the world, so if I see changes in other people, it’s because I’m changing. People are a reflection of my own experience…What needs to change in my high external go-go-go energy, or karmic energy, is its focus, and that’s what’s changing, which is not necessarily what the world sees, but I see…I think, in the long run, that I’ll get so focused on being present with it that [my] change will come so much for other people, but I won’t even be worried about whether they see it or not anymore.

Q: What kinds of feelings are conjured up during meditation?

A: Insecurity, guilt, elatedness, anger, resistance...Opposite extreme emotions, but just emotions.

Q: Of the different practices, which is your favorite?

A: Bowing…It gets me physically into my practice…I bow for myself, for others, in gratitude…Chanting gets into my emotions…I have the awareness of bringing myself down or up from different energy states through spiritual practice as compared to those who smoke or take pills…I hated having to be attached to reading the chants and having to do them twice a day, but then I went to a weeklong retreat at the Providence Zen Center and sat next to a monk who changed my perception of chanting…I have in my head what I call “the committee” or “mental chatter”: You’re always talking, especially in your head, and having opinions.

Q: What practice did you start with?

A: Yoga. I started with it because I had always been an active person or athlete, and then I began Zen because I needed to stop physical activity in order to focus on just being still…It’s all about the breath.

Q: What is your daily schedule like?

A: I wake up at 5:00AM and stay up, instead of what Kathy calls “waking your heart/mind up twice” (Kathy Park, CZC director). I used to go to bed at 9:30PM…I can go out with friends until 10-11PM now…I had much difficulty adapting to the schedule and keeping track of points during the first three-month trial period…There was the stress of change and my needing to hold onto the points structure because of my competitive nature…I have difficulty in integrating daily chores into my academic schedule.

Q: Do you consider Zen to be a religion or philosophy?

A: I study it academically as a religion, and I see it as a philosophy also, but it’s moreover a way of life.

Q: What is the goal of meditation for you?

A: I now recognize that my energetic approach to life was not the problem; it was accepting or being in harmony with my high energy…I was like a Tasmanian Devil. Now my energy goes downward and hones into a focus, not outward all over the place... I want to serve and support others…When I first began, I wanted to reach Enlightenment.

Q: What is your image of God?

A: A feminine, yin-yang form of energy…I have a problem with the Christian, patriarchal Scriptures and mindset.

>>back to top

 

(1) Vu, Xuan. Documentary proposal. 9 Nov. 2004.
(2) Kaptchuk, Ted J. The Web That Has No Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine. Contemporary Books: Chicago, IL, 2000. 158.
(3) According to Kaptchuk, “the Yin unable to embrace the Yang” means that “there is insufficient Water to control the normal Fire, and the normal Yang gets out of control.” I have reversed the phrase here to mean the opposite without knowing if that can be an actual condition. This self-diagnosis is also partly based on my physical symptoms: when I am elated, my heart races very fast, and I feel as though a ball of energy flares up inside of me, indicating a yang pattern. However, this only lasts in very short spurts, and I don’t feel this way quite as often as I do when I am disappointed with myself, when my whole body becomes lethargic and my mind unmotivated. I think that years of this condition has led to an excess of this yin energy and caused my yang to retreat further and further back. Ibid. 226.
(4) Ibid. 19.
(5) Ibid. 173.
(6) Vu, Xuan. “Healing Myself.” Unpublished essay. Boston University. 26 Nov. 2004.
(7) The similarities between Taoism and Buddhism are too numerous and complex to list and discuss here. The topic of Taoism is also too vast to delve into, and therefore falls outside the scope of this paper.
(8) A more detailed description of the history of Zen will be given in Chapter IV.
(9) Doolittle, Nicholas. Personal interview. 8 Jan. 2005.
(10) Reed, Tiffany. Personal Interview. 30 Dec. 2004.

>>back to top