Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Buddhist film festival

From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon, went to three films and a talk in the Buddhist Film Festival held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in their Fed. Square facilities.

Friday afternoon, started with the Festval's opening film, The Dhamma Brothers, a fascinating look at the introduction of Vipassana meditation into a maximum security prison in (of all places) Alabama. The head of psychology in the Alabama prison system was looking for ways to calm prison populations and came across a gaol in India that had achieved some success with Vipassana mediation. Since there is a worldwide movement (including in Oz) he was able to find two experienced practitioners to run the 10-day course for him for about 40 inmates.

The film takes us through the operation of the course, reactions by inmates (who tell their stories, being upfront about their crimes), prison officers, the gaol Warder, etc. There was a lot of scepticism beforehand and rather more support otherwise. Of particular interest, many of the participants wanted to continue to practice and met once a week to do so.

But, this is Alabama. Various Christian chaplains complained that the course was “teaching Buddhism” and the meetings were banned. Then there was a change in administration and it was back on. While the personal stories were quite inspiring, I was intrigued by the public policy politics involved. Clearly, the director of psychology is both an open-minded and quietly persistent chap.

Given that one of the charities the film festival was funding was the Buddhist Council of Victoria’s prison visiting service, a very appropriate film to open the Festival with. (The Council organised the film festival, the second Buddhist film festival.)

The next film I saw, later that evening, was Meditate and Destroy, a film about young Noah Levine, who wrote the book Dharma Punx. His memoir of how a drug-taking, juvie-returning, graffiti artist found dharma. The film was exuberant fun, including some great use of Second Life™ animation for portraying past events in his life quite powerfully. Noah Levine now runs courses in juvenile detention centres plus courses for young addicts and former addicts.
Noah is the son of Buddhist author Stephen Levine, which made me very sceptical about Levine senior, given how angry and dysfunctional Noah’s adolescence was. As the film progressed, it became clear that he had not been raised by his father (his parents divorced when he was quite young). His mother, a little indirectly, took responsibility for “not being there” much for young Noah. Noah freely confessed that being a punk was a rebellion against a hippy father but it was also his father teaching him a meditation technique over the phone when he was “in Juvie” which Noah credits as being a key moment in his path out of what was clearly a very fraught situation. (It also turned out that his father had had similar drug-and-detention issues when he was young, which Noah had not known about.)

I was struck by how intense (as in lots of deaths) the punk scene was in Santa Cruz (not the pattern in Melbourne punkery) and how open and lively many of the people were in speaking about their experiences. Noah’s best friend turned out to be particular fun, giving Noah a fair bit of friendly shit on camera.

Saturday, went to a talk by the Abbott of the Braybrook temple, Senior Venerable Tic Phuoc Tan OAM entitled The Buddha Code (Dharma Talk) explaining the language of the gestures of Buddhist statues. I was, alas, a little sleepy so did not catch the whole thing. The (youngish) Abbott was, however, quite engaging, even if English was clearly not his first language. He mostly coped with the technology. So, right hand (sun) over left hand (moon) means meditation. Hand open and down means giving/charity. Hand grasping forefinger means wisdom. Hand touching ground means calling the Earth to witness (the Buddha’s enlightenment). Both hands with fingers steepled and intertwined means balancing contradictory forces. The lotus flower represents enlightenment coming out of the mud of the earth.

Usually, the thumb represents spirit, the forefinger fire, index finger air, ring finger water, little finger earth. So thumb with forefinger (fire) means passing the fire of knowledge. Thumb with index finger (air or nothingness) means enlightenment, thumb with ring finger (water or gentleness) means compassion. Doing so with hand down means offering these things. Postures also had meaning, but I did not retain them.

Sunday afternoon, saw The Devotion of Matthieu Ricard. Matthieu Ricard is the son of a French surrealist painter, Yahne le Toumelin, and well-known French philosopher, Jean-Francois Revel. I have just finished reading The Monk and the Philosopher, which was the main reason I wanted to see the film since I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The film was both about his life, particularly is very unexpected turning to Buddhism, and his current work. He is active as a translator for the Dalai Lama, in publishing books on or from Tibetan Buddhism, in being a test subject for neuro-cognition research (he has a Ph.D in molecular genetics) and in fundraising, and organising, for projects (mainly clinics and schools) in Tibet and Nepal as well as being an active photographer. He comes across as a very real, but happy, person living a worthy life with an excellent sense of humour.

I enjoyed the Festival. Having done a lot of reading and viewing, particularly just recently, on Islam, dealing with Buddhists and Buddhism is a considerable relief. It is not that Buddhism lacks a dark side, it certainly has that, it just that its central message is much more immediately useful and far less fraught. The tone is simply a lot lighter, one is dealing far more with happy people and open-handed compassion, rather than very patriarchal, very authoritarian, control with a whole lot of violence, and getting along with others, issues. Buddhist practitioners in prison seem inherently a lot more reassuring than Muslim outreach in prison.

At a more personal level, I found the Festival encouraged more self-examination about my own attachments and the problems thereof. A useful thing in itself.

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