Location: Chicago, Illinois
What came first for you, Buddhism or filmmaking? Definitely Buddhism. I’ve been interested in it since I was about 19 years old. Filmmaking is fairly new for me. The Retreat—a film about a meditator leading a retreat for the first time at his family home—was the first reasonably professional picture I made. That was only two, three years ago. I had looked online and found that there was a real dearth of “Buddhist” films. With The Retreat, I was trying, in my own small way, to remedy that.
How much of The Retreat is inspired by your own experience with meditation? I’ve always been interested in the contemplative life, the philosophical life, inclined to it in some way or another. What Alex, the main character, talks about in the film is definitely inspired by my personal experiences with meditation. And so are his problems with focusing on meditation too much, expecting that it—or Buddhism—will solve all his problems.
Part of what is captivating about The Retreat is how Alex’s attempt to live a life of simplicity proves full of contradiction. My dad saw the trailer and said jokingly, “That guy needs psychotherapy, doesn’t he?” Which means, what else is he supposed to do? He’s done this meditation; it hasn’t quite worked out for him—how else is he going to fix his problems? The film doesn’t give an answer; it just shows the problem with relying too much on meditation.
You’re now studying at the University of Chicago. Has approaching Buddhism and meditation from the academic standpoint changed your view or how you practice? It has changed quite a bit. I’ve found that as Buddhism is practiced in Thailand or the West, there’s a certain point at which food for the mind stops and you just have to rely on “experience” and your practice. With academia, however, that food for the mind continues. You’re always getting more and more. You can always delve into something deeper. But for me, the conflict is that there’s something about the very nature of academic writing and research that distances you from the practice and the beliefs, so you’re looking down on them. It’s hard to just look from the side.
Buddhism and meditation have done a lot for me, and the times in my life when I was more engaged with them—and when I say that, I mean into meditating very frequently and reading lots of books written by monks, inhabiting that thought world from the inside—I think I was happier. In Thailand I had some special mind altering-type of experiences, which really made me have a lot of faith in Buddhism and meditation. There was even a point when I thought about becoming a monk, because I saw it as a kind of education. I spent a few months at Wat Pah Nanachat in Thailand. There’s community and you feel very serene, but you’re also very bored. I spoke to the monk there and he said, “Well, yeah, of course you are. There’s nothing to do here. Of course it’s boring. It doesn’t really ever go away.”
I thought I’d like to get into academia because you don’t have to be bored—there are always things to stimulate your intellect or imagination. I hoped to be able to combine the kind of serenity, the kind of peacefulness that comes with practice with the stimulation that comes from academic study. I don’t know if that’s really working out or not. [Laughs.] But that was the idea.
At the moment I’m not interested in, say, being a monk or living a contemplative life. I don’t think I’m very well suited to it. But when I was living more or less like that, I was, as I said, maybe happier, not that I’m very unhappy now. And I have to take that into consideration. But when I look at a life like Alex’s philosophically, analytically, academically, whatever, it just seems like it’s missing too much. There’s more—there’s so much that the human animal needs for a full life, like relationships, intellectual stimulation, a sense of progress and purpose, that Alex, for example, is missing out on because he wanted to develop a kind of peacefulness and subtle awareness of himself and of his own consciousness. That is very worthwhile, but maybe it shouldn’t come at the cost of these other things, which are probably good for leading a full and rich human life. But I might be wrong.
Here in the United States, where there’s no strong monastic tradition, people are nonetheless trying to engage in serious Buddhist practice. So Alex’s dilemma should be familiar. Yes, and a lot of people have no interest in being celibate, for example. It’s just not something that Western culture values at all. If anything, we’re taught to be suspicious of it—you might think that somebody’s either a bit of a loser or repressing something.
At the moment I’m inclined to think that celibacy is about control, the want to have an absolute. When I was directing The Retreat, I told the actor who plays Alex, Samuel Orange, that it’s all about control. Alex has this thing about how everything has to be. If you’ve ever done a retreat, there is this kind of feeling that you’re really trying—you can’t help it—to control your own awareness. In Alex’s world, in his house, he can control his environment, make it very minimal. He can control himself; he can control his body. I know a lot of meditators will say you’re not doing that, or that you’re not supposed to be doing that, but I think that’s often how it ends up; it becomes about trying to control yourself and your emotions and your environment. Then, when Alex has all these people come into the house for a retreat, it’s something he can’t control, and that’s very difficult for him.
Do you think the goal of Buddhist practice is some kind of control, or self-mastery?Most meditation teachers will tell you that Buddhist practice is all about embracing the present and understanding emptiness and things like that. So it’s precisely supposed to not be about control. But I think that a lot of the time it does become about this.
I suppose it’s about balance. If you’re a monk or live a very directed life like Alex’s, you don’t have to worry about balancing your life so much. Your values, goals, and purposes are very clear. Right now I’m trying to find a balance that’s right for me. I’d be lying if I said it was easy.
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