Ritual Apparitions and a Buddhist Theory of Film

Ritual Apparitions and a Buddhist Theory of Film


In any case, good
evening and welcome. For those of you who don’t know
me, my name is Charles Stang. I’m the director
here at the Center. And I’m very pleased
welcome Professor Jessica Cho from Georgetown
University to the Center to deliver the annual Ahnkoon
lecture in Korean Buddhism. But before I introduce Professor
Cho and the lecture series, permit me a quick public
service announcement. Please turn off your
phone, or just silence it. So a very brief word
about the Ahnkook lecture in Korean Buddhism. This lecture is made
possible by a generous gift from the venerable Soo Bool
of the Ahnkook Zen Center in memory of the
venerable [INAUDIBLE].. Forgive me if I am
murdering those names. My Korean is rusty. And it’s a gift in support
of Korean Buddhism broadly defined. It was a gift in the
year 2006, I believe. And previous speakers
have included Professors Sung-bae Park
in 2012, Jin Park in 2014, and Donald Baker in 2016. I’d like to thank the
staff, the CSWR, who have made this event– as all events here– possible,
especially Corey O’Brien, the associate director,
and Ariella Ruth, the Center’s events coordinator. And a particular word of
thanks to my colleague Charles Hallisy, the Yehan Numada
senior lecturer in Buddhist literature here at HDS. Charlie is a member of the
Center’s advisory board. And since this is my first
year as the Center’s director, I turned to him
immediately for advice on whom to invite to
this annual lecture. It was Charlie who introduced me
to Professor Cho’s scholarship and who had the idea
to bend this lecture to the topic of film. So thank you, Charlie,
for your counsel. Finally, let me
introduce Professor Cho. Those of you know me know that
I favor brief introductions, because I’m sure you’re not here
to hear me speak about Korean Buddhism, but instead her. Professor Cho is Professor
of Buddhist Studies at Georgetown University. She works in the area of East
Asian Buddhism and culture, particularly through
non-canonical media like fiction, poetry, and film. Her courses include Introduction
to Buddhism, Buddhism and Film, Religion and Aesthetics, and
Buddhism and Christianity in the Secular World. In addition to a
number of articles, she has written two
books Embracing Illusion: Truth and Fiction in the
Dream of the Nine Clouds. And I think that’s 1996. And 2005, Everything
Yearned For Manhae’s Poems of Love and Longing. She received her BA in religious
studies from Brown University and her MA and PhD in religion
and history of religion from the University of Chicago. Professor Cho, we’re
delighted that you could join us this evening. We’re all looking
forward to your talk entitled Ritual Apparitions
and a Buddhist Theory of Film. Please join me in giving
her a warm welcome. [APPLAUSE] Well, thank you so
much for the invitation to give this year’s
Ahnkook lecture. So let me begin by saying
that when I was encouraged to speak on the topic
of Buddhism and film, on which I’ve
recently published, I decided this would be a good
opportunity for me to think about what’s next. So instead of recapitulating
my recent book, this is new material that
I’ve put together specifically for the purpose of this talk. And so it’s a work in progress. So hopefully, the ideas
aren’t half-baked. But they’re half-polished. So I look forward
to your responses to help me further my
thinking on this topic. So without further
ado, my objective here is to construct a
Buddhist theory of film that sees it as a religious medium. And I’m distinguishing
this task from that of determining what kind
of qualities and contents make for a Buddhist
movie, right. So the previous book
was really about movies that can be defined or
defended as being Buddhist. But now, I want
to make the point that not all films
function in Buddhist ways by virtue of its medium alone. And so for that reason,
we need explicit criteria for determining how and when
a movie is in fact Buddhist. A Buddhist theory of
film, on the other hand, considers the phenomenon
of film in the abstract– above and beyond any particular
movies and their content– to consider how cinema can
function religiously at all. And to give you a sense
of where I’m going, my punchline is that film
can be theorized as a ritual apparition in line with the
magical bodies spoken of and theorized in
Mahayana Buddhist texts. So that’s essentially
my argument. Now, I’m going to start
with a methodological aside. And I also get to
sort of show a picture of the book on Buddhism in film
that came out about a year ago. This book claims that films
can replicate and function like Buddhist rituals, whether
it’s in the mode of, say, enlivening Buddha images and
treating them as living beings or meditating on the aging
process or cultivating detached and sustained modes
of perception. All right, so that’s
the general argument of the book, which examines
films chapter by chapter. Now, one of the things that
I didn’t really address in the book, though, is– what kind of claim
is this when I say that films can function
as Buddhist ritual? Is it, for example,
descriptive and ethnographic? Well, no– I mean,
I didn’t bother to do historical research
or cultural research to see if in fact
Buddhists are treating film as a ritual medium and context. They may very well be. But I can’t make
that claim, because I haven’t done that kind of work. Is my project here
prescriptive and constructive? Am I recommending
that Buddhists ought to interact with film
in the mode of Buddhist religious ritual? Well, no– I mean,
I don’t see myself as being in a position to
make such a recommendation. I’m certainly not opposed to it. But I don’t see that
as my role here either. So in putting together this
Buddhist theory of film, it’s also an
opportunity for me to be very explicit about
what I am doing and what my mode
of scholarship is. And I don’t think there’s
a pat word for it. But I would describe it as
using Buddhist thought– which, in one sense, Buddhism
is the object of my study. But I’m using it to supply
the theory and interpretation for a cross-cultural phenomenon. And in this case, the
global phenomenon of film. And so what this entails is a
reversal of the usual epistemic subject-object
relationship, in which– you know, if Buddhism
is the object of study, you might use a Western theory
to unpack it and interpret it. Well, what I’m doing
instead is the reverse. I use Buddhist
thought and practice as the source of my theory. And I think it’s a way
of creating a process of self-reflexivity, where if
we get the theoretical materials from a different culture,
it’s an opportunity to reflect on some of our own sort of
axiomatic assumptions when we theorize– whether about our own cultural
artifacts or those of others. So essentially, what
interests me here is a Buddhist theory
of film entailing a general understanding of
what the phenomenon of cinema is universally. All right, why is
this interesting? Well, my work in thinking
is always comparative. And because Buddhist
thinking operates in an epistemic framework
that’s significantly different from our own
default traditions, I think that leads to
very different insights. And these insights can
be useful to us, again, beyond the confines of
Buddhist tradition itself. So I’m going to make
some generalizations here about different
epistemic frameworks– the Buddhist and the
Western philosophical ones. So in my preliminary survey
of Western philosophy of film, which is a literature
that I’ve started looking into, what I find is that it generally
skews to Western philosophy overall. Which prefers a referential
concept of reality as something that exists outside
of perceiving minds and their
representations of that world. So this framework is
really apparent in debates, for example, about
whether or not photographic and
cinematic images are identical with
the things that they depict or merely
representations of them in the manner of a painting. And so it’s interesting. I just came from the
Wim Wenders lecture. And he began his
comments by talking about his first
phase of filmmaking, where he was really,
really obsessed with how cinema can capture
material reality, the things of the external world. And this, yes, was very much
in the consciousness of– I think– early
theorizing about film. So I’ve read about
debates about, say– you have a cinematic image
of the Empire State Building, for example. Is this image an
instance of transparency similar to looking out your
window and seeing the Empire State Building, right? So this debate, which is
controversial– some people would say, I don’t see why
a painting isn’t like that as well. I’m not concerned about
the right or wrong answer here, but rather what
the debate assumes. Which is this baseline
philosophical category of objective reality, or
what is ontologically real, and film’s relationship to it. Another example of a kind of
debate that I’ve come across is the philosophical
problem known as the paradox of fiction,
which ponders why we have emotional responses to movies– you know, feature films– when we know that its stories
and characters are fictional. What interests me is not the
answers to these questions, but what these debates reveal
about the assumptions that give rise to them in the first place. So obviously I’m going to start
with a different epistemic framework. And specifically, that
would be the penchant of Buddhists to state that
what we take to be reality itself is a projection of mind
and ultimately an illusion. And that, therefore,
the images both inside of our own heads and outside– supposedly in the
objective world– equally exert a
tremendous power over us and has an ability
to entrance us. So this idea not only
affirms the equivalence between the experiences
generated, say, by art– and film in
particular, obviously– on the one hand, and
by life on the other. This epistemic
framework suggests the greater power of art to
produce religious effects. Now, I’m not going to
spend a lot of time defending this
idea, except to say that this is what my
work on literature– fiction and poetry in the
East Asian and Korean Buddhist contexts– have pretty much consisted of. And I’m not going to talk about
the specific sources, much of which have been Korean. So the fiction of
Kim [INAUDIBLE] or the poetry of Han
Yong-un, because Charlie told me that it’s OK if I
don’t speak specifically about the Korean materials. But then, Charlie just told
me earlier this afternoon that he’s known for lying. So maybe he was
lying about that. So this is the sort of source
materials I’ve looked at. And to summarize it– but not, of course
confining it to Korea– but the East Asian
Buddhist context. So in traditional
East Asian Buddhism, the affective experiences
generated by literature are seen as powerful forms of
religious insight and practice. And reflections on
fiction, for example, play on the Buddhist themes
of interchangeability between truth and
illusion and suggest that the life of
the imagination can be more powerful than ordinary
experiences in awakening people to the truth of illusion. So a consequential
difference that results from these different
epistemic frameworks can be seen in the
way Western traditions tend to segregate
art, including film, from the higher callings
of religion and philosophy. On the principle that,
while these art forms can represent and maybe
engage religious themes, it can never function
as religion itself– merely a representation. And I think in the case of the
Buddhist concept of illusion, we’re driving more towards an
identity between art forms, such as film and
religion itself. So an interesting
question being– can cinema itself be
understood as religion? Now, in order to test this
sort of comparative difference that I’ve generally
sketched out, it’s always a good idea to
try to look for examples that contradict the general thesis. And so one of the realms
I’ve been looking at is early French
phenomenology of film, which goes by the word filmologie. And it’s associated
with particularly Andre Bazin and his students
or followers, at least intellectually. Amedee Ayfre and Henri
Agel, whose thoughts were introduced to
American audiences by Paul Schrader, the
filmmaker and film theorist, in his book Transcendental
Style in Film– in which he focuses on the
director Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Brisson, and Carl Dreyer. This phenomenological
philosophical reflection on the spiritual
capabilities of film generally claims that cinema can
lead the viewer to the sacred. Not through an overtly
religious subject matter, but through particular
film styles. And the favored style is
documentary style realism with techniques
such as deep focus, long sustained shots,
close-ups of faces to capture subtle expressions. And the resulting
experience is thought to give the viewer access to
the ineffable and transcendent via the immediacy and intensity
of cinematic experience, which is recognized as possessing
the power to transform our perceptions of the world. Even though this book by
Schrader came out in the early ’70s– and I think has
just been reissued, from what I hear, with a new
introduction by Schrader. And Brisson, Ayfre,
and Agel– they were working primarily
in the ’40s and ’50s. And they got eclipsed by
the semiotic interpretation of film. I think this lineage of
thought is still with us today, as evidenced by this
more recent publication– 2016, Dreams, Doubt, and
Dread: the Spiritual in Film– which continues the earlier
legacy in its desire to go beyond overt religious
themes to address how film is, quote “a singularly
wonderful means of addressing our senses.” The essays– it’s a collection. It emphasizes the intense
emotional impact of cinema and its ability to open
up the imagination. And this
phenomenological approach wants to “shift contemporary
theological film engagement away from a simple
mode of analysis, in which theological
concepts are simply read into the film
itself, and to begin to let films speak for
themselves as profoundly spiritual experiences.” So that’s a direct quotation
from the introductory essay. So I’m suggesting that there are
some perhaps similarities here in this tradition of thought
to the theory of film that I’m presenting. But I’m going to
say it falls rather short for a couple of reasons. This tradition appears to
focus on the medium of film rather than on
religious content. So people like
Schrader and this idea of the transcendental
style, they hate movies like The
Ten Commandments, right. It’s just kitschy. It’s Hollywood. It doesn’t truly
capture the spiritual that cinema is able to convey. But because it privileges a
particular style of filmmaking, that of realism,
I think it falls short of a comprehensive
account of cinema and focuses on film
techniques rather than on the medium itself. Its claimed that a
certain style of film leads to an experience of
the sacred is, I think, challenged by the
relativity of individual as well as
cross-cultural tastes. For example, I think some people
have found The Ten Commandments to be a very spiritual film. Or to take a more
recent example– what about Mel Gibson’s
The Passion of the Christ? I mean, that was
explicitly treated as a Christian religious ritual
in tandem with Bible study before going into
the movie theater. So you have the challenge
of the relativity of tastes. And also, the power
of cinema to move us is easily unpacked
by explanations other than a reference
to the sacred. So currently,
philosophers of film borrow from cognitive
science to talk about what they call
perceptual realism and the fact that the audio-visual
nature of film activates the same
cognitive-sensory cues as natural perceptions do. So physical responses, such as
jumping at a loud and sudden noise, being horrified
by images of the abject, or aroused by the
erotic are prompted whether sound and images
appear on the screen or in ordinary life. They also talk
about the function of mirror neurons and motor
and affective mimicry, which are also activated
by sensory inputs, regardless of where
they originate. This isn’t to say that the
resulting cinematic experience can’t be given a
religious meaning, or to argue for
cognitive reductionism. But my point is that
the ability of film to provoke intense
experiences is exactly what needs to be
theorized in a religious vein, rather than simply pointed
to as evidence of religion. All right, so let me
turn now to Buddhism and my notion of
ritual apparitions as providing a ready
explanation of what cinema is and what it does. Now, ritual apparitions
is my terminology. But it obviously
invokes the concept of nirmanakaya and sambhogakaya,
the manifestation bodies or the enjoyment or communal
bodies of the Buddha. In contrast to the
dharmakaya, which is the ever-abiding
but formless body, as articulated in Yogachara
Buddhist philosophy. And these are very
relevant concepts. But I’m drawing on a much
broader conceptual schema articulated by these words–
rddhi, pratiharya, abhijna, and many, many more– that generally has the meaning
of the marvelous, the magical, and transformations. Which is not just
within Buddhism, but generally in Indian
religious ritual contexts with its pervasive belief
that ascetic and meditative discipline naturally
results in these kinds of marvelous, miraculous powers. And I just pulled out
this term vikurvana because it has a sort of
narrower semantic range, the ability to assume multiple
forms, transforming the body, and also the power to produce
visions of Buddha fields in a small location. So these particular
ritual apparitions are going to be the focus
of my theorizing about film. I want to bring
the vocabulary here into the East Asian context. And the Chinese
term shenbian, which is a translation
of the notion of these magical transformations. And it can be translated as
miraculous transformations performed by a
Buddha or Bodhisattva for the sake of
edifying human beings. So the moksha– this kind
of liberating knowledge that is the function of
these magical manifestations. And this is why I use the
term ritual apparition. Because the point
of the apparition is to have this edifying
religious effect. It’s supposed to be liberating. So I’m going to talk about some
canonical sources, starting with the Avatamsaka
Sutra, where this concept of magical manifestations
is pervasive to the text. I’ve given the Chinese
and Korean version of the name of the text–
the Avatamsaka Sutra or the Huyananjing [INAUDIBLE]. And within the Avatamsaka,
I’m focused particularly on the Gandavyuha Sutra. And so if any of you are
familiar with the Avatamsaka, you know that it’s
a collection of– how many– 39
independent books that have been amassed
together as one sutra. And the Gandavyuha,
which is certainly the most well-known book of
the Avatamsaka, is a story. It’s a narrative. It tells the story of
Sudhana, the boy pilgrim who learns from 52 very
diverse enlightening beings or Bodhisattvas. And this is very interesting
in that fully 20 of these 52 enlightening beings
are women, which is very unusual, including
children both female and male. And many more are also
people of secular occupation. Not necessarily
monks or mendicants or brahmins, but people who
are householders, merchants, teachers, perfumers, a
sailor, a goldsmith– oh, and also a
prostitute, right. The idea being that
all manner of beings can function to liberate
and can function as your teacher or Bodhisattva. So Sudhana’s pilgrimage is
this narrative rendering of what the Gandavyuha describes
as the power of the 5,000 great enlightening beings
in the Buddha’s retinue who are able to manifest
in boundless bodies and appear in the world in any
physical form that they want. These Bodhisattvas
understand that humans can’t attain enlightenment
except by the support, the magic, the empowerment,
and the past vows of the enlightened. In other words, except by the
power of the Bodhisattvas’ propitious apparitions,
which are manifested by virtue of their
advanced practice and their vow to
liberate all beings. Although the Gandavyuha is
my primary textual source, I want to point out
that this idea of sort of propitious manifestations
of Bodhisattvas is a broad concept in the
Mahayana Buddhist world. And in the East Asian
context, the Lotus Sutra– chapter 25 that’s dedicated to
the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, or otherwise known as Guanyin,
or [KOREAN] in Korean– has been a primary way in which
this concept has disseminated culturally. Because this chapter talks about
how Avalokitesvara can manifest in 33 different
forms, straddling the categories of superhuman,
human, and mythical beings. The Surangama Sutra– which is
very important in the Chinese Chon, Son, Zen context– talks about the 32 different
manifestations of Guanyin, with the familiar emphasis
of the Bodhisattva appearing in the form that
is most propitious and useful for the
individual hearer. So if you’re a person who
has political ambitions, then Avalokitesvara will
appear as a magistrate to teach you the Dharma. Or if you tend to be more of
a studious, conceptual type of person, then the Bodhisattva
will appear as a scholar. So always conforming
to your needs. And I love this silkscreen
image from 10th century China from the Wu Yei
kingdom that pictures the 24 different
manifestations of Guanyin. And what is so fascinating
about this particular notion of manifestation is that– aside from various animals– it pictures the Bodhisattva
appearing as inanimate objects, including the foot of the Buddha
or the hand of the Buddha, even a stone Buddha image. Grass is listed. A bell, a pavilion,
a bridge, a stupa– so fascinating that it can just
be things, lifeless objects, as well as different
personalities and individuals. So it’s no wonder that
this flexibility in form allows Guanyin to become a
native Chinese goddess starting about the 10th century,
who herself is depicted in multiple iconic forms,
like the white robed Guanyin or Guanyin with the fish basket. And in Tibet,
Avalokiteshvara is expressed in the personage of Tibetan
lamas of the Gelug and Karmapa lineages. And of course, the Dalai
Lamas are themselves supposed to be
historical manifestations of the Bodhisattva. So the soteriological
purpose of ritual apparitions lie in their ability to
take on such culturally localized, and therefore
efficacious, forms. So my point being that this
isn’t just an abstract idea. It’s been culturally enacted. But the kind of ritual
apparition that interests me the most for talking about
film is that of Buddha-Fields. So otherwise known as Pure Lands
in the longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra, the story is told of
how the Buddha Amitabha– in his former life
as Dharmakara– vowed to create a pure land
that would be accessed by all who called upon his name. And of course, in the history
of Pure Land Buddhism, I’m sure there have
been many people who have thought of the Western
Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha as an actual physical place
in which you can be reborn. But there is also plenty of
textual and other discourses that state that Buddha-Fields
are a projection of the imagination– in this case, of Dharmakara,
but also of the practitioner who wishes to be reborn there. The opening of the Lotus Sutra– so I’m just gathering
a few examples. Certainly not comprehensive. What’s narrated is
the Buddha going into a deep concentration. A beam of light being projected
from between his brows, which illuminates what is described
as the 18,000 worlds in the eastern direction. And according to various
translations of the Lotus Sutra, Maitreya Buddha
refers to this vision of the Buddha-Fields as
an auspicious portent, a rare apparition, a great
wonder, a powerful miracle– all based on the root
Sanskrit term nirma, meaning magical transformation. And of course, visions
of Buddha-Fields are a central element
in the Gandavyuha. And they are distinctive
for its emphasis on how they emanate from
projections of light coming from very confined
spaces, usually the hair pores of the Buddha
or the Bodhisattva’s his body. And just a little
technical detail– one of the Bodhisattvas that
Sudhana visits in his journey to enlightenment is
the goddess of Lumbini. And I think I can say her name– Sutejomandalaratisri. And in that visit, she explains
to Sudhana the 10 birth stages of the Bodhisattva and
identifies the seventh stage as the stage in which the
Bodhisattva can manifest in different bodily forms. And the ninth stage
is the point at which the Bodhisattva can project
these visions of Buddha-Fields. And in the context
of the Avatamsaka, the Buddha-Fields are
described over and over again as coextensive
with all phenomena and with the 10
directions of space, thus constituting the
famous image associated with the Avatamsaka, that of
the macrocosm and the microcosm. Which gets theorized
in Huayen Buddhism as the total non-obstruction
and mutual interpenetration of all phenomena. So I am hoping that just
this general outline of Huayen philosophy is
something familiar to you. But let me try to sum up some
of the more important aspects of these Buddha-Fields. First, it functions as a
visual analog to emptiness. The abstract
concept of emptiness is transformed into an
image of non-obstruction in which one can see
the entire universe, even in a particle of dust. So instead of affirming an
abstract and otherworldly realm of formlessness, an unimpeded
vision of all things function as– according to David
McMann in his book Empty Vision– the sensory
analog to emptiness. Second, this vision
collapses the eons of time normally required
to become a Buddha. The holographic
principle, in which every part contains the
whole within itself, removes the separation between
past, present, and future. And therefore, the distance
between samsara and nirvana, collapsing all of time
into the space of an image makes the totality of
possibilities always available, including the reality
of universal suchness. Finally, this vision
of Buddha-Fields is a projected image and
a deliberate illusion created for the sake of
liberating all beings. And I want to turn
to a different book of the Avatamsaka
Sutra, the fourth book, called The Formation
of the Worlds for some elaboration
in verse form. “All the various lands
there are filling space in the 10 directions sustained
by Buddha’s mystic power, appearing all places
so all can see. The lands, manifested
in a single atom, are all the occult power
of the original vow. According to the
various differences and inclination of mind, all can
be made in the midst of space.” So maybe you can see where
I’m going with all of this. Maybe not– so I’ll be
explicit at this point. I want to directly analogize
these magical apparitions in the form of Buddha-Fields
to cinema, OK– So Buddha as filmmaker. The insubstantiality of the
images on the cinematic screen parallels the mythic
space of Buddha-Fields, in which visions of infinite
Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are granted by the Buddha and
the power of his concentration via projections of light. The Gandavyuha emphasizes, one,
the magical and illusory nature of these– I think I’m a little bit behind. The Gandavyuha emphasizes
the magical illusory nature of these appearances,
just such as when Maitreya makes his
tower disappear with a snap of his finger. So going back to the
story of Sudhana, his penultimate visit is to
the future Buddha Maitreya. And Maitreya gives him
a lesson by creating a vision of what’s called
the Tower of Vairocana’s adornments. And this tower
symbolizes this macrocosm within the microcosm idea. Because when Sudhana
enters the tower, he sees a vast
landscape of more towers exactly like the
one that he entered. And the idea is that each
tower contains within itself the totality of that
landscape of towers, right. And so after he’s
sort of digested this lesson, what happens? Maitreya snaps his finger and
the tower entirely disappears, right. And he says– this is the
nature of things characterized by non-fixity. All things are stabilized
by the knowledge of enlightening beings. Thus, they are inherently
unreal and are like illusions, dreams, reflections. Another parallel–
visual paradox. The macrocosm within the
microcosm of the Buddha-Fields is limitless while
simultaneously occupying a limited space. Because film is something that
is seen, it exists in space. It takes up space. But unlike ordinary
objects, cinematic images exist within the bounded
space of a screen. In classic cinematic
experience, the space is surrounded by
darkness that blots out our normal visual field,
thereby attracting and guiding our attention. Now, of course, these days
we have portable screens, individual screens. And maybe very few
of us experience the classic cinematic
darkened theater experience. And that may detract
somewhat from it. But as we were discussing
earlier this afternoon, I don’t see any
evidence that the images on a two-dimensional
screen is any less riveting for the advances in technology. Within the two-dimensional
frame of a movie, moreover, there are
limitless possibilities for what can be seen. We can observe things
and go places that are otherwise inaccessible to us. And we can also see
things constructed from the pure imagination. And going back to the idea
of this collapsing of space and time that’s so important
in the Huayen tradition, this is what films
do as well within that two-dimensional space. It can play with space and time. It can dilate it. Or it can shorten it,
right, both time as well as our relation to space. So cinematic screens provide the
macrocosm within the microcosm wherein the past, present,
and future can be imaged in endless and ever-new ways. And so I turn my attention again
to book four of the Avatamsaka to pull out these verses. “All the vast lands are
like reflections, illusions, or flames. Nowhere is their origin seen. Nowhere they can go
or whence they came. Some are pure light beams
of unknowable origin. These arrays of all light
beams rest in empty space. Some are made of pure light
and also rest on light rays, embellished with
clouds of light where enlightening beings roam.” To me, that’s a perfect
description of cinema. And again, in the Avatamsaka,
the imagery of light– light being projected from
the body of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and the ritual
apparitions that they image is pervasive. So I want to talk about cinema
as the superlative ritual apparition– in contrast to traditional
Buddhist rituals. Now, there are physical,
three-dimensional temples that are supposed to be concrete
instantiations of Buddha-Fields made for ritual purposes,
such as the Temple Barabudur in Indonesia. And we know from the
images on Barabudur that the Gandavyuha is the
central text for this temple. But in comparison to
monuments made of stone, cinematic images are closer to
the insubstantial projections generated by Buddhas. Cinematic visions can be
projected at will at any time and at multiple
locations, but they can also instantly disappear. Aha, this is my little
neat visual trick. Just like Maitreya’s tower. When Sudhana asked Maitreya– where did that tower come
from, and where did it go? Maitreya answers– it does
not go or come at all. It is not abiding or
fixed in existence. It is not located in any place. So in contrast to monuments,
cinematic images are spectral. And again, so much closer to
the idea of a ritual apparition. And because of its
spectral nature, it is also vastly more
available as an experience than the Temple Borobudur is. Turning to another traditional
ritual instantiation of the idea of the macrocosm
within the microcosm– and this is my homage
to Korean Buddhism. I want to look at the
beopgye do of Uisang, who is the founder of
Korean Hwaeom Buddhism based on the Avatamsaka Sutra. So this image, which is
a version of a mandala, is comprised of 210 Chinese
characters broken up into a 30-verse poem. Which is Uisang, in his
own auto commentary, describes as [NON-ENGLISH]. But it’s also supposed
to be a condensation of the entire Avatamsaka Sutra. And you’re supposed to
travel through this maze, starting at the center, with
the character for dharma. Going in and out through
all four quadrants, and then ending back
up at the center with the character for Buddha. The idea being that
once you have traveled, you have attained buddhahood. So this is symbolic. It’s interesting to
me how, however, it’s been turned into a
processional beopgye do– beopgye do means a diagram
of the Dharmadhatu– on the grounds of the Jogyesa
Temple near Incheon in Seoul. This, to me, speaks to the
desire on the part of Buddhists to move beyond symbolism to
concrete experiences that take place in time. Again, much like film. Cinema creates experiences
of intense physicality in its sensory nature,
even while it is entirely spectral and insubstantial. So I want to talk about cinema
as superlative ritual practice. Perhaps one of the most
intense ritual experiences in the Buddhist world
are the visualizations performed by individuals
who generate their own mind movies in order to
instantiate, for example, the Pure Land of Amitabha. Such practitioners are guided
by textural instructions– perhaps actual images– and
aided by other ritual means, such as chanting, fasting, sleep
deprivation, which probably is conducive to having visions. I would say, again, cinema
is comparatively closer to the ritual apparition
of Buddha-Fields that are generated
by the Buddha, because these Buddha-Fields are
always for a collective body. So again, I’m suggesting– I see this as a
better ritual practice than the individual
visualization traditions. Furthermore, understanding the
comparatively new technology of film as a ritual
apparition helps to actualize the
Buddhist concept at an unprecedented level
of concrete practice, going beyond what has primarily
been narrated as a story. The Gandavyuha describes
Sudhana’s experiences and attempts to put images
of them into our heads. Cinema isn’t limited
to narration. It gives us a direct
experience of the story. Now, these points so
far may illuminate why it’s useful for
Buddhists to think of film as ritual apparitions. But maybe it’s not so
clear what non-Buddhists have to gain from
it, particularly if you don’t believe
that movies are granted by the compassionate
vows of Bodhisattvas and their magical power
to generate illusions. That may be the case. But I think this gives
short shrift to the Buddhist theory, which underscores the
point that these apparitions are, in fact, illusions. For this realization is the
main point of the ritual. And for a nice
summation of this, I’m going to draw
from an old article by Luis Gomez, the
Bodhisattva as Wonder Worker. Which is all about,
again, the Gandavyuha. And Gomez has this to
say about the wonder working of the Bodhisattvas. “His creations– though
conforming to the delusions of his audience– are presented in order
to reveal the true nature of the delusion,
unlike the magician who rests content with the
success of his deception.” OK, so final slide– knowledge of the
technology and industry by which cinema is generated
does not undermine this lesson. It actually magnifies the
point that what we see, hear, and feel through
cinema is completely and deliberately manufactured. This is the starting point in
our common knowledge of film, whereas it’s the ideal
culminating point of Buddhist practice. So for this reason, I think
film is a catapulting mechanism for Buddhism or
Buddhists who want to convey that our
perceptions of reality are also completely and
deliberately manufactured. Western epistemic context
generally, in contrast, are distracted by the holy
grail of referential realism and thus produces discourses
about the paradox of fiction. Which problematizes
the fact that people believe what they
see in the movies, even though they
know it’s not real. And so I think what
goes missing in making this a problem is a
marveling over the fact that this paradox of
the simultaneous falsity and reality of film is
exactly where its magic and religious power lies. Now, there is a way in which
current film theory, I think, converges with my
Buddhist one in that film theory tends to unmask
the potential ideological manipulations of film. I’m willing to call this an
anemic version of the Buddhist theory, because Buddhists
too constantly warn us against the deceptions
of our own mind movies. But modern film theory I
call anemic to the degree that it doesn’t get past the
fear of cinematic deceptions to appreciate what these
very deceptions reveal and enable in the realm of
human experience itself. And I think one thing
that is clearly enabled are salutory experiences as
evaluated from the Buddhist point of view. Say, take the concept
of kusala, right, versus akusala–
experiences that are wholesome and skillful. So a way in which cinema is
a superlative ritual practice is how it encourages, for
example, the cultivation of intentionality. Because we know cinematic
experience is constructed, we can critique it. On the other hand,
because we palpably experience the miracle
of cinematic apparitions, it can cultivate awareness–
and for that reason, possibly purposiveness
about how we choose to have our
imaginations exercised. OK, and as a final
word, I want to go back to the neat separation I made
between a Buddhist theory of film and a Buddhist movie. I do hold to the disclaimer
that the medium of cinema itself doesn’t make all
movies Buddhist. But a theory usually wants
to be universally applicable. And so any theory
worth its salt should be capable of addressing
any instance of cinema or filmmaking. I don’t think that necessarily
makes every movie Buddhist. But we might kind of edge
or creep in that direction. And theories also
impact our thinking. And once an idea is
out there, then I think it can become
the lens through which all cinematic experiences
are understood and evaluated, whether it is in the wholesome
or unwholesome direction. So with that, I’ll conclude. Thank you for your
attention and patience. And I’m hoping
that there is time for comments and questions. So please, ask away. [APPLAUSE] Yeah, Charlie. Thanks so much, Fran. One of the things that came
to my mind listening to you is kind of this tradition of the
history of religions’ interest in cinema that Eliade had. [INAUDIBLE] modern man, but
experience something archaic. The idea of this
was, for Eliade, that in the ritual
experience, the person lost awareness of themselves and
entered into this [INAUDIBLE].. Yes. For Eliade, the analogies were– I’m not aware of myself
watching a movie. I’m entering into the
world of the movie. And my own world that I’m
actually in is disappearing. That’s right. When I’m in there,
the key notion notion is the film viewer
loses awareness of themselves [INAUDIBLE]. The key notion is that
the film viewer gains– she has greater awareness
of the means of perception. So that contrast, for me, then
raises this other question about the nature of the
theory that he proposed. So it is a theory to
be tested empirically. Right, right. Because some theories
are that way. And some theories are– they’re not to be tested. They’re assumed to be, in
some fundamental sense, false. But their falsity
reveals something that’s true in the phenomenon. [INAUDIBLE] So the theory is premised
on an as-if quality. Right, right. Your theory, which is it? Well, maybe there’s
an alternative here option, which is what I
was trying to allude to with my final comment. Theories are not isolated
from what they describe. I don’t think they should be. So it’s true– my
theory is not describing probably the vast majority
of the experiences or the consciousness that people
have when they watch films. I think it is a lot more
like what Eliade described. And to me, therefore,
it’s a ritual space. Because you’re leaving
ordinary time and space and entering another realm
and having an experience. And the traditional
cinematic setup, to me, is very much like a
ritual being enacted. But my idea is that, once you
articulate this as-if theory, then is it not the case
that the experience– your experience of
watching movies– will change to this one of
greater self-reflexivity that might not have
been there before? So it’s an activist theory. But I’ve kind of lost track
of what your other option was. You were talking
about describing actual historical
reality versus– Let me ask sort of
a question about how to think about what happens to
us in, say, a movie theater. Not about like,
[INAUDIBLE] movie. Right, right. The relationship of what’s
happening in the movie theater to what’s outside
the movie theater. And for Eliade the
theory was a premise on– they are different in kind. And when you come
out of the theater, you’re blinking in the light. And all of a sudden, you
say– oh, it’s only 2:00. I had forgotten what
time of day it was. It’s daylight. The other– what
I would think is your theory– is that they’re
not different in kind. That’s right. So when I come out
of the movie theater, my sense of– my
self-reflexivity over how I perceive the world
is transformed by– Exactly. Now, I’m aware. I’m constantly manufacturing. That’s right. Thank you. I mean, perfectly stated. And it is the role of
the theory to trigger that change in experience
is all I would add to it. Because if you think
about it, I mean, anyone who really
thinks about the movies really thinks about their
experience in watching one. If you sustain the
meditation long enough, I mean, it has to strike
anyone as completely paradoxical and inexplicable. And the fact that we
talk about these images and fictional events no
differently from our own life experiences– there is something mind
bogglingly strange about it. So this is the kind of
consciousness or awareness that I think needs to be fostered,
which I think in more academic traditional thinking about
film and film theory doesn’t. I don’t see such a sensitivity
or a marveling at that fact. I see suspicion of it. Although I think there
are glimmers in some of these early French
theorists, as we were talking about earlier today. Charlie was talking
about Deleuze. Another figure prior to
Deleuze, Edgar Morin. I mean, cinema made such
an impact on philosophers in the early 20th century. Because they
recognize that there’s something about this experience
which is unprecedented, right, that there’s
a power to it. And people talked– likened
it to myth and dream, fantasy, and so forth. But I think the
interpretive directions just went in this more sort of– oh, I don’t know– the
material, the semiotic, the psychoanalytical directions. And so that sense of wonder
has been somewhat lost. I guess where I’m still
trying to think this through is– what the cinema you’re
assuming, or you’re describing, it seems to me you’re speaking
to a certain mode of cinema that perhaps has
fundamentally changed today. And I feel like
so much of what’s happening in cinema
today is actually about meditating on the illusion
of [INAUDIBLE] of narrative, oftentimes for really
explicit political purposes. And I think that– So I guess what I’m
trying to understand– I feel like this idea of
a Buddhist theory of film, perhaps it would work
better if it was actually focused on, I think,
universalizing cinema. I’m still having
trouble with that. I think about early cinema. And I think about its connection
actually to the church. And I think about
the religiosity of the early cinematic image
and the ways in which actually the church itself was
praised [INAUDIBLE].. And the ways in which
cinematic illusionism was, from the very
beginning, linked to the idea of something sacred
and going back [INAUDIBLE].. But I think where we are today
is so fundamentally different. I see so many films that
turn in on themselves, that consume themselves,
that destroy themselves in ways that force us to
think differently about– what it is the image
itself [INAUDIBLE] as Buddha as a filmmaker. And you said the
lights, the projections. And then I’m thinking– OK, what’s the image? I mean, I guess I
want to understand. I’m just hungry to see
this theory applied. And I want to see to
which object, right. What are we going to
see when we step out? What are we going to experience
that’s perhaps different that speaks to cinema today? And not necessarily cinema
of the classical era, of theatrical film,
and of the time when the cinema theater itself
was indeed a communal space [INAUDIBLE]. Right, right. I’m just trying to think
about this on all these levels to give it some
historical adaptation. Good, good– I mean, that
would be a very useful thing. Although what you
describe as cinema today I don’t see as falling outside
of my theoretical structure. In fact, I think it’s
very much in line with it. I mean, it makes sense to me
that maybe initially there’s a fixation of the idea
of cinematic images as objectively portraying
the world as it is, because it’s mechanically
produced and dependent on what is actually out
there in the world, independent of
human manipulations. And then, the
meditations have advanced to the stage where there is this
direct self-reflexive querying of the honesty or
the objectivity or the purpose of
this, of cinema. That seems to me like it’s
going exactly in the direction that I want the theory,
as well, to enable. But your point of
recognizing different phases of cinematic context
and discourse I think is a very important one. I think the idea I’m grappling
with is cinematic illusionism. And I feel like that’s something
that cinema has grappled with from the very beginning. [INAUDIBLE] So and I feel like the
myth of cinematic realism and of this myth of paradox,
right, of people [INAUDIBLE] foundational myth
power of cinema. Cinema itself has grappled
with the contradiction from the very beginning. And so I guess it’s
that contradiction that I’m looking for to find
somewhere within this theory. A contradiction– oh, OK. So this idea that, yes, so this
naive realism or myth of it can exist alongside this
self-reflexive, self-conscious rupture with reality. And maybe, in fact, they’re
two sides of the same coin. I think so. Because I experience that every
time when I watch a movie. That simultaneous– I know
that this is manufactured. And yet my experience
of it is not diminished for that knowledge. So it’s interesting
to me that you’ve had this tradition of
talking about, yes– who were the brothers who
did the train arriving? Yeah, the Lumiere
brothers– and yes, this fable, this legend about
how people ran away because it was so realistic. I see in that this meditation,
this self-reflexivity about the medium itself,
which is holding in tension this sort of unavoidable
experience of this kind of sense of the real. Yeah, Charlie? So actually, [INAUDIBLE]. I have a reaction
and a question. The reaction will take a little
bit longer to articulate. It feels to me as
if you have used Western philosophical
approaches to films as something of a [INAUDIBLE]. Yeah, and I’m willing to admit
that that’s how it has begun. And I need to, of course,
make it more than just a foil. Because I am interested
in substantive resonances. But just getting my
toes wet at this point. So I’ll be briefer in my
reaction to what Mark said, which is that– I’m not up to speed on Western
philosophical theories of film. But one of my teachers
was Stanley Cavell. And I think The World Viewed
is 1972 or something like that. And there, you’re
right that it’s taken as if that
he’s looking at film through Western
epistemological categories. But it’s not driven by a desire
to land at some sort of naive realism and establish
the objective world, or the world objectively,
and then measure the distance that
representations have to that. But it’s a much more
sophisticated, in his case, account of how we treat
the problem of skepticism. And I say treat deliberately,
because he regarded it as a kind of condition that
needed constant therapy. So anyway, that’s
all to say that if– I think Cavell doesn’t
fit your [INAUDIBLE],, and that’s in 1972. I can imagine that
things are more sophisticated in the subsequent. That is to say, it’s
hard for me to think that Western philosophical
treatments of film fail to be sophisticated about
epistemology when [INAUDIBLE].. So do you want to react
to that, and then I’ll pose the question? Well, just briefly– I think there is a lot in
the philosophical thinking. I’ve been looking primarily
at explicit conversations about religion and film, or
the spiritual and film, which is a smaller subset. And I do feel like
there is more resource in the philosophical
meditations that’s not concerned about the
category of religion, per se. So that’s where I
think more can be said. But go ahead with your– So I want to take up your
proposal, which is the Buddhist theory question for film. Just a question that
came out of that. I think you put it
nicely, or maybe it was a quote of
someone else here, but– the delusions
presented in and through film are there [INAUDIBLE]. Right, right. [INAUDIBLE] This narrative for the sequence
of images work on this theory. How is it that, by sitting for
an hour or two hours, three hours– how does a sequence
of delusions work to initiate you
into the realization that everything is an illusion? I guess a simple way to
put this question is– how important is the
narrative to your theory? It’s very important. Because my work has been on
fiction, right, on literature. So particularly fiction
that is designed to capture the emotions– the emotional
engagement, the interest. So in the Tale of Genji
there’s a discourse right in the middle of
that novel, which is described as the
world’s first novel written by a woman about affairs
of the heart, right. Which is why it’s lasted
all these centuries. Whereas all the writings–
the political writings of the men of the
same era– no one is really all that interested
in, except for the specialists. Where she says– this
kind of narrative is true. It’s true because of its ability
to engage us, right, and give us an experience of what the
characters were going through and to capture our imagination–
and all of those things that we credit
literature for doing. And so sometimes,
I think– well, how is film or cinema
on a different level? Well, as an audio-visual
sensory experience, it is very much on
a different level. And I think with film you can
do more than just tell stories. I mean, you can
have different kind of cinematic experiences,
which in fact defy the norms of storytelling. So I’ve explored
those kinds of films too as kind of cultivating
this ritually, this ability to perceive
experiences and perhaps the world more
generally in the absence of conceptual constructions
and meaning making. So that’s something. I mean, I think that would
be much harder to pull off. Although I guess
more modernist novels attempt to foil or go
against the conventions of storytelling. So it just seems to me that
the level of possibilities, however, is greater. So going back to the
macrocosm and the microcosm. What you can stage or enable
in that two-dimensional space is just utterly mind
boggling, right. And I think that is part
of its magical nature. Yeah? I have a question about the– for lack of a better
word– something that is revolving around
the notion of taste. So I really enjoyed your talk. I really enjoyed your book. And you bring up
different sort of examples of the kind of
project that you’re doing relative to specific
films in each chapter. And all of these films are– I really view– masterpieces. But I want to ask you
about [INAUDIBLE].. What do you do when
you watch a bad film? Right– I think it’s very
instructive watching bad films, yeah. This is actually what
I want to hear about, because part of your
theory is deploying ideas from Huayen Buddhism. And when I think of
Huayen, one of the things that comes to my
mind is my fieldwork for my dissertation, which
is with a community that takes Huayen to be their
really central preoccupation. And people think
about it all the time. I was in the field
when there was this terrorist attack in Paris. So everyone was
talking about that. And one of the people
I was speaking with– we were talking about this
kind of problem, terrorism. And he said that, for him,
this is [NON-ENGLISH] adorns the dharma realm. So there’s a capaciousness
in the theory whereby both the good and the bad are
subject to a kind of greater order. So I’m wondering what you
think about bad movies. And is there something
you [INAUDIBLE]?? I’m trying to acutally just
constructually in terms of [NON-ENGLISH] it has this
capacity to bring in extreme [INAUDIBLE], right? Exactly– you can
learn from a prostitute to become liberated, right. Nothing is beyond the pale. Yeah, yeah– so this gets back
to that kind of liminal space between defining a Buddhist
movie, which presumably is a movie that works
toward skillfulness, right. Wholesomeness– that it helps
you advance on the path. Versus a theory– a
Buddhist theory of film– that is capacious in the
same way that Huayen is. That can look at all
instances of cinema– including bad movies,
including movies that perhaps we are concerned
with in terms of what its social effects or
effects on individuals in terms of sexual
behavior or social norms, so on and so forth. With the consciousness of
the power of these images, then that too becomes
fodder for reflection on the power of such
constructions, that might have over us. Or our reflection on why the
movies are bad and undesirable, I think, is part of
the same process. So I mean, it’s good to say– that’s a bad movie,
because to me the way it depicts people
and relationships and life in general
is unbelievable. I mean, whatever the
criticism might be. But I also, at the
same time, hesitate to create something like a
Buddhist movie rating system. You know, like B for
definitely Buddhist and F for not Buddhist. Because I think the point
is, in the Huayen world, even the bad stuff– if you are aware of
it appropriately– can become good stuff. [INAUDIBLE] Sure, sure, yeah, yeah– and if you talk
about the effects. I’m not willing to say that
certain kinds of movies are inherently bad from the
perspective of the Buddhist project, if you will. I mean, yes, I was
getting pushback from some of my graduate
students on the same issue. You know– are there
certain movies that are just simply unacceptable? I’m not willing to say
that, because I think the nature of the
experience is not inherent in the film
or the work itself, but in the meeting between
the audience and the work. And the principle
of skillfulness entails no sort of absolute
definition or determination of what is useful
and what is not. So I think bad movies,
for different reasons, could be very useful. Yes? I may be repeating some of the
questions in slightly different form that others have raised. But I’m really puzzled. And I don’t mean this
in an adversarial sense. But I’m just wondering what
the value of this theory is. For committed Buddhists,
we don’t need– I think– to go to the
cinema to experience the kind of realization
that you’re talking about. We can look at this room. We can look at you. Maybe you’re an illusion. We can think this way by
contemplating almost anything. And for the non-Buddhists
and also for the Buddhists– it seems to me that
thinking about film or experiencing film in the
way that you have described, the skillfulness, actually
detracts from the enjoyment and pleasure and the actual
philosophical enlightenment of a great film. In the same way that
one could approach, say, Shakespeare or
literature or anything with that kind of
Buddhist skillfulness and subvert what is actually
a great artistic pleasure. Well, how does it subvert it? Can I ask you for some
elaboration on that? Because of this level of
reflecting on the medium? I think the ultimate purpose
of the film, the recognition, I guess, of the illusory
character of existence. It seems to me there
are many great values to a beautiful piece of
literature, a great film that can enhance our lives– That’s exactly the point. –that your theory
actually subverts. Maybe I’m misunderstanding
your theory. But it seems to me that I– Yeah, yeah– I mean,
I suppose it’s along the lines of the complaint
that taking apart Shakespeare from whatever academic
interpretive angle just ruins Shakespeare, right. If you’re considering
all of the other sort of extraneous
elements and variables that went into creating
a Shakespearean play. Would it be something
along those lines– that you’ve just got to enjoy
the phenomenon for itself as it is rather than disenchanting
it with a theory? Perhaps, but I think maybe going
back to the original question that you asked, it has to
do with the appreciation of a falsity, if you will. But the falsity is enhancing. That is, it’s humanizing. Yes, yes. That it enlightens
us, in many ways. Right. So I don’t really want to
depart from that falsity. I want to revel in it. I want to enjoy it. I guess that’s what I think. Yeah, yeah– and I
don’t think any amount of theorizing in any vein
will take away that capacity to enjoy and revel
in the illusion. The ultimate purpose seems
to be quite the opposite– to recognize that
this is a falsity. Whereas I would like
to say that the falsity that you’re
suggesting could also be a great truth, a great
humanistic [INAUDIBLE].. I don’t see that, in
a sense, as false. Well, let me say that
what I want to do is export that vision of the
of falsity of film to our lives itself, or themselves. So it’s not to detract from
the experience of cinema, but rather to enhance
the experience of the falsity of
life in the way that we enjoy watching a movie. I see these two
things [INAUDIBLE].. Yeah, yeah– Can I suggest, perhaps
seeing as both of you are going to be at the dinner
afterwards, that we continue [INAUDIBLE]. I’m afraid we’ve gone over the
time scheduled, which is always a good sign [INAUDIBLE]. So thank you again
very much [INAUDIBLE].. Thank you, all of you. [APPLAUSE]

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