The Avatamsaka Sagely Monastery in Alberta, Canada, is as remarkable as it is unremarkable. And that sacred-yet-mundane quality is what Buddhist scholar and filmmaker Lina Verchery hoped to capture in her short film, In Ordinary Life.
The film, which is featured in Tricycle’s Buddhist Shorts Film Festival, follows the Chinese Buddhist practitioners of Avatamsaka Sagely Monastery as they go on a pilgrimage through the Canadian Rocky Mountains, where their school’s founder, Ven. Master Hsuan Hua (1918–1995), identified one of the summits as a sacred site. But by naming the film In Ordinary Life, Verchery draws our attention to the Buddhist notion that peak experiences, such as hiking a sacred mountain, are not actually different from everyday practice.
In addition to creating award-winning films, Verchery, a PhD candidate in Buddhist Studies at Harvard University, has also written critical analyses of Buddhism and film in academic journals. Drawing from her studies of film and aesthetic theory as well as Buddhism and monastic communities, her latest documentary subtly illustrates the banality and transcendence of spiritual practice while unfolding with a deliberate and meditative rhythm.
Tricycle spoke with Verchery about In Ordinary Life and what the medium of film can say about perception, reality, and the self.
What drew you to this project?
One of the things that this Buddhist community in Calgary does, which is very beautiful, is go on pilgrimage every year to the nearby Rocky Mountains. In China, there’s a long tradition of having sacred mountains associated with Buddhism, but this community brought that to the Rockies.
How did they determine that it was sacred?
The late founder, Ven. Hsuan Hua, who was a Zen master from northeastern China, spotted this mountain from a plane and had a vision. He told his followers, who ended up finding the mountain, and a worship community grew up around this site. Since then, lots of miracles and supernatural things have been reported there, and people have had remarkable experiences being in that environment.
But In Ordinary Life focuses on the daily rhythms, sights, and sounds of monastic life, though it does feature a trip through the mountains to show what Buddhist life looks like out in nature.
You have written about the intersection of Buddhism and critical film theory. What role does that play in how you approach making a film about Buddhism?
There are two ways of thinking about this. One is making films about Buddhism, and the other is making a Buddhist film. Although In Ordinary Life is about a Buddhist community, what I find most interesting is using Buddhist ideas in the form of the film—not just the content but the whole cinematic approach being inspired by an engagement with Buddhist ideas.
For example, the medium allows you to play with time in interesting ways. With a film, you have direct control over the duration and pacing of the shots. So you can instill a rhythm. Many films cut very quickly, but I aspire toward a meditative rhythm. We’re generally overstimulated today, and I think film gives us an opportunity to pause and take a longer time to look at things. That’s one way that a filmmaker can use the medium to engage Buddhist ideas about patience and attention.
The 12th-century Zen master Dogen has some interesting things to say about time in his essay Uji [Time-Being], which a few thinkers have noticed parallels the 20th-century Western philosophical system of phenomenology. Has that informed your approach to time in film?
Dogen and phenomenologists are both concerned with how our attention and engagement affects our experience of time. Of course, this all connects with issues about perception. Buddhism has always been preoccupied with teaching us how to pay attention. The great potential of film—and all of the arts, really—is that, if it is done well, it helps the audience pay attention in a way that shifts their assumptions about life and about reality, which can be a really transformative experience.
Most blockbusters use fast cuts and constant excitement to grab your attention. In a more patient, contemplative film, how do you keep the audience interested? Do they have to know in advance that they’re signing up for a meditative experience?
There are fundamentalist filmmakers on both sides of this question: fast-paced entertainment types like in Hollywood as well as the other extreme of art-house cinema dedicated to long, drawn-out films. A guiding ethos for my own work is try to dance between these two extremes. I don’t think either super fast-paced or long and boring films really speak to the audience.
Instead, the real creativity comes in going back and forth between giving to your audience and asking of them. Sometimes you hold them in suspense and force them to pay attention, whereas at other moments you give them something, you reveal something. The filmmaker Paul Schrader (First Reformed, Taxi Driver) describes it as “leaning away from” or “leaning toward” the audience throughout the film.
That waltz of revealing and pulling back is important for creative work as well as for the rest of our lives—conversations, relationships, and so on. The alternation between distance and intimacy characterizes and animates every aspect of life.
Is Buddhism primarily an academic interest for you, or are you also a practitioner?
I often say that I’m not Buddhist, but I’m also not not Buddhist. It’s not the tradition that I grew up in, but at the same time, I have dedicated my life to not only the academic study of Buddhism but also to the study of Buddhists themselves. I have spent long periods of time with monastics and religious virtuosos who train very intensively, and practicing Buddhism with them has had a transformative impact on my own life.
So for me, there’s a fluidity between the academic study of Buddhism and how it impacts me personally on the most profound level. Buddhism is such a rich topic that if you don’t allow some of its insights to impact your life, you’re missing out on the greatest thing it has to offer.
Your writings on film reference Western aesthetic philosophy, which has historically tended to prioritize pure logic over perception (although that has shifted in the 20th century). Buddhist philosophy, on the other hand, is more likely to appeal to direct experience. Do you find it hard to translate those Buddhist ideas into a Western academic context?
One of the things you touched on is that in 20th-century Western philosophy, especially in continental philosophy, there has been a movement toward experience. We see this in [the American pragmatist] William James (1842–1910) and phenomenology [introduced in German philosopher Edmund Husserl’s 1913 work, Ideas], which turns toward the body and the senses.
Of course, there’s a strong analytic tradition in Western philosophy, but you find the same thing in the Buddhist world, where there is a ton of material that’s highly analytical and concerned with logic, in addition to philosophical literature more concerned with the body and sensory experience.
I tend to think that these two approaches—the highly cerebral ways of thinking and the embodied or experienced-based philosophies—are two poles that you find in every tradition, whether Eastern or Western. Part of being human is that we’re always alternating between our mental faculties and our bodily faculties.
On a personal level, my academic work is very cerebral, and one reason I love filmmaking is that it lets me tap into other modes of knowing. There are aesthetic modes of knowing that appeal to how we engage the world through our senses. We learn through both reasoning and sensing, so it’s important to engage both modes whenever you’re trying to study a subject.
In your essay “Blindness, Blinking and Boredom: Seeing and Being in Buddhism and Film” (from the journal Religions), you wrote about the eye that can’t see itself, or the idea that it’s difficult to observe ourselves experiencing a particular experience. How does that tie in to the intersection of Buddhism and filmmaking?
Now there’s a question. The contemporary Japanese Buddhist philosopher Keiji Nishitani (1900–1990) remarked on the irony that the eye sees everything around itself but can’t see itself. There’s an insight in this that taps into a perennial part of the human condition, which is that we’re so good at perceiving things and yet the thing that is most close at hand, most intimate—our very own selves—is often the hardest to perceive. The whole experience of being human involves trying to both be in the world while being aware of ourselves in the world, which is tremendously difficult to do. Of course, Buddhism has a lot to say about how to build those faculties of self-perception and self-awareness.
This idea plays out in filmmaking because film serves, in a sense, as a window into reality. When watching a film, we often feel immersed in a world, and yet, because it is mediated, film also provides the opportunity to remind the viewer that that world is a construct, that they are watching a movie. There are subtle ways that a filmmaker can turn the viewer’s attention toward the medium itself. Those moments when we remember we are watching a film, after having been totally engrossed in the story, are like moments when we regain a kind of self-awareness. I think we all have had that experience of snapping back to reality after being 100% engaged in what you’re watching or reading.
Likewise, we often go around totally engrossed in our lives without really taking the time to be self-aware. Then every once in a while, something will happen that suddenly makes you pull back and consider the bigger perspective. Film can provide a way of training that skill of gaining awareness and perspective.
What techniques do you use to turn the viewer’s attention toward the medium and, in turn, toward themselves?
One of the things that I really love about filmmaking is the power of editing and playing with duration and juxtaposition. For example, early in the film, there is a celebration of the Buddha’s birthday in which people ritually bathe the Buddha by pouring little cups of water over a statue of the baby Buddha, and we hear a nun talk about how birth and death are interconnected. Then the film cuts from image of the baby Buddha in this beautiful temple to a corpse in a coffin. The footage is from a funeral for one of the parishioners, who died from a sudden heart attack while I was filming. I think the juxtaposition is very shocking—it’s always shocking to see a dead body—and it jolts the audience into an awareness of birth and death as a way to shift their attention to a bigger perspective.
Another example is the very last sequence in the film. It ends with a series of jump cuts, which are frowned upon in conventional editing because they are very jarring. They have an uncanny effect that plays with the viewers’ perception of time. In contrast to continuity editing, where you can see the flow of time, jump cuts don’t logically follow one after the other.
One reason I decided to use this editing technique is that it draws our attention to the boundary between the uncanny and the utterly ordinary. This contrast between the extraordinary and the ordinary is, for me, one of the main themes of the film. The film has taken us from birth to death along this epic pilgrimage in the Rocky mountains, but then in the very last shot, we’re right back at the temple, where a nun is arranging incense on the altar. It’s a totally banal activity, and yet in many ways, that’s what it’s all about. According to Buddhism, there really is no distinction between the grandiose things in life—birth, death, and great peak experiences like pilgrimage—and the minute details of mundane existence. That’s one of the main themes of In Ordinary Life.
In “Blindness, Blinking and Boredom,” you also discuss the postmodern concept of hyperreality, which refers to when we cannot distinguish between reality and simulations. When making a documentary, the issue of hyperreality is more than an abstraction because you have to decide how to represent a real event. What can documentary say or not say about what is real in the world?
I think this touches on one of the great intersections between film and Buddhism, which is this whole question of illusion and “reality.” The popular understanding is that documentary films are “real” and fiction films are not real—they’re stories. But if you do any work on a documentary film, you quickly realize that even this account of so-called real life is highly mediated and dependent on the choices you make as a filmmaker—the decisions about what to shoot, what not to shoot, what to include, what not to include, how you shape the story, and so on.
But just because a documentary is a curated story—which is in a sense an illusion—does that mean it’s not true? Buddhism has a lot to say about the nature of reality. One of the first principles is that all the things we see around us are, in a sense, illusory. But if all of these perceptions are just illusory and empty, does it mean that they don’t matter? Buddhism tells us that no, they matter very much because there’s truth in illusion. That’s what film and documentaries do—they use illusory means to point us to something true. That’s the magic of it.
When making this film, were there any times when you decided to make something more real or more idealized?
It’s not even a matter of picking out certain passages in the film, because every single decision, from the moment that you show up with the camera, is all a way of saying, “This is what I, Lina, find interesting at this moment.” It is all mediated through my perception, my subjective encounter with the whole thing.
I really embrace that idea of owning your subjective perception, because even though it is subjective, mediated, and illusory in a certain sense, those subjective visions can also provide deeply rewarding perspectives on the world. I certainly enjoy other people’s films and the way they allow me to see through their eyes. After a while, you can get so sick of always seeing the world through your own eyes that seeing it through someone else’s can be an incredible gift.
A broader ethical imperative that underlies all of this is the tremendously important exercise of trying to inhabit, even if it’s just for a moment, the perspective of somebody else. It trains our imaginative capacity to see the world that way. And that’s what we do when we watch films, read novels, study other cultures or religions, and so on. We’re expanding what we’re able to see. And even if we ultimately return to our original perspective, the act of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is the first step toward compassion.