Treeleaf Zen

Treeleaf Zen

Zen At The Movies

In transit, coming back from a retreat, so no netcast today …

Instead, a few jotted words on “Enlightenment”, and its various interpretations … doodlings on a train …

Let me use a “movie theater” parable for the point I wish to present here …

Imagine our lives are like being born into a movie show, watching a
story on a screen, which we do not realize is a fiction with actors and paper scenery,
just flickering light projected into an image before our eyes. Because we take the image as real, the movie deceives and imprisons us, and the scary scenes really are scary! That
is much the way that we human beings cannot see through this world, and
do not see how much (perhaps all) is created as a kind of illusion. This world we live in is a world of mental confusion, false categories and divisions, and thus “Delusion”


though Zen Practice occurs when we come to see clearly that the show is
just a show, and we see the wondrous timeless light (sweeping
“us” in too) that arises from some half-hidden projector beyond our view, and how the
story is largely written by us too (thus change the mind, and radically
change the movie script).

Almost all schools of Eastern Philosophy, Buddhism and Zen Buddhism (including Soto Zen and Jundo) are in full accord so far …

But here is where I think that there are very different views on what “Enlightenment” truly is …

some Eastern schools say that the point of “Enlightenment” is to merge
with the light, and completely leave the “false” movie behind. That is
not the Zen view (at least as far as any teachers, old or new, of whom I
know … and at least not during the period of our human


For some other Eastern schools (including some flavors of
Zen Buddhism), the emphasis is on somehow “GETTTING & STAYING AWAKE”, as if we are to
ALWAYS see that the movie is ALWAYS a lie, that we will not allow
ourselves to get suckered into the story EVER, because the false story
is somehow ALWAYS harmful in some way. The LIGHT is TRUE while the
movie is FALSE, so END OF STORY!

But our Soto Zen view is more this:

False or not, grab some popcorn, fall right into the story, go along with the game and savor the show! 8)
Let yourself get suckered in much or most of the time, for what is the
point of a movie if you don’t get pulled into it (what is the point of
life, if not to live life … with all the drama and comedy, tears and
smiles)? That is, HOWEVER, with the
proviso that we do not get suckered in TOO MUCH, and can remind
ourselves that it is “just a movie” as and when appropriate to do so
(for example, we refuse to buy into all the “greed anger and ignorance” themes in the film, and reject those parts.

Staring endlessly at the projector is not the point, and those brief “glimpses”
when we look back and see the light and the projector are useful, but
just a “point of reference” before we redirect our attention to
the story. When the movie gets too scary, we can remind ourselves that
it is “just a movie, the monster is not real“, and can reject the
“birth” and “death” part of the picture, experiencing the light when we
want). Back and forth, back and forth.


In this way, we see that the movie … although it is false “Delusion” … is ABSOLUTELY PRECIOUS AND TRUE TOO (and not merely “as a movie”, but as the point of the whole theater and production!)

 The purpose of a movie is not to recall constantly the projector and
light, but to experience the story. The story is JUST AS TRUE AS THE
LIGHT, and is the light realized! In fact, the purpose of the light
might actually be said to be the images on the screen, which are just
the light itself (for what is the meaning of naked light from a
projector if not the movie????) Thus, live life … it is TRUE … for
what else is the meaning of being alive? Every scene, camera angle and
line of dialogue is REALITY TOO, and JUST OUR LIVES TO BE LIVED!


wants to spend a whole wonderful movie that you paid $9 for if all you
will do the whole time is remember that it is a lie, or stare into the
projector, or criticize the plot????? 8)
In fact, FORGET THE LIGHT much of the time, because the point of the light is for you to experience the movie with the light (most of the time) forgotten!

Of course, during some of the “bad patches” (like getting divorced or sick or otherwise encountering suffering), it is perfectly fine practice to remember “this is just a movie, and we are characters in it“. But at other times, just grab a bunch of tissues and have a good cry through the sad story on the screen (and a frequent good laugh as well).


Comments read comments(7)
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Pamela B.

posted May 4, 2009 at 3:38 pm

I LOVE this, I have passed this on to two dear friends that I consider personal ‘gurus.’
Not only do I need to remind myslef that I am a character in this movie, I have to consistently tell myself that I am NOT the director!
Many thanks,
Pamela B.

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posted May 4, 2009 at 4:39 pm

There is a curious book by Jed McKenna called ‘Spiritual Enlightenment – the Damndest Thing’. McKenna presents a very similar analogy of the movie theater as above and it is his modern update of Plato’s cave story. These are perfect for the mind to relate to and understand the difference between how we see with the conditioned mind and how an awakened being sees with unconditioned mind. Jundo does it again for me with modern analogies.

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posted May 4, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Hi Pamela,

Not only do I need to remind myslef that I am a character in this movie, I have to consistently tell myself that I am NOT the director!

This is true, we must accept how the story goes moment by moment, which is not always how we would write it or how we would like. We must drop aversions to what we find distasteful, and attachments to what we find pleasant. Thus, we let the story unwind.
But, ya know, in our perspective too, the audience members are not passive, and the show and its viewers are one. In this unique theatre, as you change you mind, thoughts and emotions … and your volitional actions … you can actually redirect and rewrite large portions of the script.
Gassho, J

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my name

posted May 5, 2009 at 2:08 am

i don´t quite understand.
there´s this “movie”. and somewhere *outside* of this movie there´s someone who sits and watches this movie and has his popcorn. how did he get out of the movie?
and if he got outside the movie, who reminds himself of eating popcorn and not to get suckered in too much?
and who´s asking this? and who answers?

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posted May 5, 2009 at 8:34 am

‘Tis all one big show … the light, you, the screen, scenery and popcorn!
Get on with it! :-) Lights, camera, action!

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posted May 5, 2009 at 6:28 pm

Oddly enough, I just saw a movie called “Synecdoche, New York” which really illustrates this concept…there are millions of people in the world and none of them is an extra. each is the lead in his/her own story.

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Stuart Resnick

posted October 7, 2009 at 5:16 pm

> False or not, grab some popcorn, fall right into the story,
> go along with the game and savor the show!
In viewing the movie, we find nothing that will tell us its meaning or purpose. So we can/must make our own meaning, we decide what intention to bring to our moment-to-moment lives (our scenes in the movie).
Many different intentions are possible: savor the show; eat drink and be merry; enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. Different intentions bring different results, including more or less suffering for ourselves and others.
Quite possibly, the intention of savoring the show may at times bring less suffering than, say, the intention of amassing wealth or fame. But many/most Buddhist schools offer or advise a different intention. Rather than seeking to get good stuff or nice situations or good feelings for ourselves, we can cultivate the intention of helping others.
This “Bodhisattva” may not be necessary to see through illusion and percieve truth. But what then? What can we DO now? How do we use our perception of truth in ordinary life? Whether or not we cultivate a Bodhisattva intention (helping all beings) makes a profound difference.
“I vow to save all sentient beings from suffering” has a great virtue: it takes infinite time to accomplish, so we never have to worry about achieving our greatest goal, and facing the problem of making a new one.
On the perils of getting what you most want:
On Zen at the movies:

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