Nhat Hanh has published forty books in English translation. That constitutes a
nice backlist, but there is still another sixty-some untranslated titles for
his publisher to dip into. Clearly, Nhat Hanh is prolific, but his body of work
is truly impressive considering his work ethic is tempered by his practice of
mindfulness—a conscious embrace of the present moment. Although health concerns
have finally slowed down the ninety-year-old teacher, Max Pugh & Marc J.
Francis documented the Thien (Zen) Buddhist monk at the peak of his powers, as
he interacts with the students and fellow monastics of his Plum Village spiritual
community in Walk with Me (trailer here), which screens
during this year’s SXSW.
Hanh first rose to prominence advocating a peaceful resolution to the Vietnam
War, but when the war did indeed end, he was exiled from his country until
2005, which probably tells you everything you need to know about the so-called
Peace Movement’s assumptions. Yet, one could argue his influence has been far greater
than if he had remained in his homeland, as has been the case for the great
teachers of Tibetan Buddhism.
& Francis manage to capture a sense of what attracts both the monastics and
the visitors to Plum Village (near Dordogne, which also has a large British
expat community). Obviously, the tranquil vibe starts with Nhat Hanh himself,
but a sense of mindfulness permeates the place. We see it in practice when the
entire community stops in mid-stride and mid-sentence whenever bells chime, to
re-focus on the moment. It is also impossible to miss the beauty of their
services, especially those involving performances by Sister Trai Nghiem and her
fellow musical monastics. Many visitors are literally moved to tears by their
sounds and probably a lot of audience members will be right there with them.
unlike the still spritely Dalai Lama, it is hard to draw a bead on Nhat Hanh’s
personality, beyond his superhuman sereneness. Benedict Cumberbatch (who might replace
Richard Gere as the go-to narrator for Buddhist-themed documentaries) reads
excerpts from Fragrant Palm Leaves with
all do sensitivity, but his syrupy voice reinforces our distance from the
ostensive subject. Instead, Pugh & Francis apparently opt to show how the
teacher is reflected in the disciple. Again, Walk with Me will sneak up and coldcock viewers with the depth of
feeling experienced by an American monastic reuniting with the nursing
home-bound father she rarely has an opportunity to visit.
Mindfulness really is the key to Walk with Me. It is a somewhat uneven
film, but the high points are arrestingly beautiful. So, you had better pay attention,
because you would not want to miss those moments when they happen. Highly
recommended for spiritual audiences of all faiths, Walk with Me screens again this morning (3/13) and Wednesday (3/15),
during SXSW ’17.
Labels: Benedict Cumberbatch, Buddhism on film, Documentary, SXSW '17, Thich Nhat Hanh