This year has seen the passing of the great Vietnamese Zen teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hanh, widely known as Thây, who died at his home temple in Hue, Vietnam, at age 96. Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967, his 1976 book The Miracle of Mindfulness led the way to a new landscape of meditation, and many of his subsequent books have become classic guides to Buddhist philosophy and practice. To honor his extraordinary contributions to the language of Buddhism as well as to peace and reconciliation work around the world, we have assembled a film tribute to him.
This year we present ten films: five recent feature films along with a special selection of five films in tribute to the late Thich Nhat Hanh.
Descending the Mountain
Director: Maartje Nevejan
78 min., Netherlands, English, and German with English subtitles
An alternate title for this film could be Meditation and Mushrooms, which would perfectly suit this fascinating and delightful documentary. Zen teacher Vajna Palmers enlists a neuroscientist in Switzerland to introduce Zen students to psilocybin mushrooms in (legal) research on the so-called “hard” question: What is consciousness? With science usually coming at mind (at least the brain) from the outside, and meditation coming at mind from the inside, a renewed interest in entheogens (psychedelics) and new legal paths for research, make this a very timely and provocative film. Filmed on location at Sekimonji (Rock Gate Temple), Mt. Rigi, Switzerland.
Director: Everardo Gonzales
77 min., Mexico, English, and other languages with English subtitles
A simple man, Yongdzin Lopon Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, is recognized as one of the great living masters of the ancient Bön tradition; he is the head teacher, or Lopon. At Tristen Norbutse Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, families leave their children to begin their education in what’s considered the fifth and earliest school of Tibetan Buddhism. Through the ensemble account of several Bön practitioners from diverse countries and cultures, Lopon delves into the reasons for the personal search for spirituality, and the ways in which this practice is integrated into Western culture. Filmed on location in Nepal, Poland, Mexico, France, and Finland, and featuring Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.
Buster Williams: Bass to Infinity
Director: Adam Kahan
90 min., USA, English
“I’m not interested in playing what I already know. I want to discover something new every time I pick up my bass.” Jazz bassist Buster Williams has played with everyone, from Sarah Vaughan to Miles Davis, Nancy Wilson, Art Blakey, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and on. Herbie Hancock credits him with introducing him to Buddhism, which enabled him to overcome his drug addiction. A sincere master is lovingly profiled here, living a creative life with remarkable friends, making great music.
The Mountain Path
Director: Edward Burger
93 min., USA, English, and Mandarin with English subtitles
Filmmaker Edward Burger, inspired by the book The Road to Heaven—Encounters with Chinese Hermits, by Bill Porter, left his life in the U.S. and lived in China for over twelve years, one of the few foreigners to have lived and studied with the hermits of the Zhongnan Mountains. The Mountain Path recounts his personal journey, including finding his teacher and entering into the world of these dedicated recluses. Amid spectacular landscapes, we witness the practical everyday challenges of mountain solitude, and the hermits share precious teachings on life, death and the journey within.
Director: Paul McLay
91 min., Russia, Tibetan with English subtitles
A young Tibetan boy is sent to a Buddhist monastery in India, and despite all the camaraderie, he is homesick. His compassionate teacher finds a way to engage him in a game that suggests a solution. This pint-sized hero’s journey within the confines of a monastery offers insight and surprise. Beautifully filmed on location in India.
Director: Gaetano Kazuo Maida
90 min., USA, English
Thây is encountered in depth in his dharma talks. This rarely screened film of a talk he gave to an overflow crowd of over 3500 people at Berkeley Community Theater in California includes an introduction by Joanna Macy, famed Buddhist activist in the Deep Ecology movement, and features original music by Betsy Rose based on Thây’s teachings.
Walk with Me
Director: Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis
94 min., UK, English
The New York Times called this film, “Cooling to the mind and soothing to the spirit,” and the voicing of Thây’s words by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch supports the calm pace. Three years in the making, the film is centered on life in Plum Village, and follows a number of the monks and nuns as they engage with projects and people in different parts of the world.
Director: Wouter Verhoeven
60 min., The Netherlands, English
Dear Earth follows activists in the Extinction Rebellion movement in the UK. Non-violent civil disobedience is at the heart of Extinction Rebellion’s strategy to fight for change. Some Extinction Rebellion activists have been trained in mindfulness and peaceful activism in Plum Village, France, and meditation and non-violence are their tools for engaging with the challenges of the climate emergency in public demonstrations that often result in confrontation and arrest.
Peace Is Every Step
Director: Gaetano Kazuo Maida
52 min., USA, English
This was the first film profile of Thây, photographed from 1990-1995 in Plum Village, at several retreats around the U.S., and at a demonstration in Washington, D.C. against the first Gulf War, and it features footage from Thây’s own film documenting the work of his School of Youth for Social Service in Vietnam during the war there. Rare intimate interviews with Thây and his close colleague Sister Chân Không offer insights into their work and unique collaboration. Narrated by Ben Kingsley and featuring the solo piano of Bill Evans.
My Life Is My Message
Director: George Schouten
60 min min., Netherlands, English
Thây encouraged reconcilation work among all parties to conflicts, from the level of family to that of international relations. This film documents a retreat for Palestinian and Israeli participants at Plum Village, and features Thây and Sister Chân Không leading groups through a difficult but healing process.
Featuring Matthieu Ricard
Featuring Jack Kornfield
Featuring Sharon Salzberg
Featuring Kaira Jewel Lingo
Featuring Craig Hamilton
Featuring Roshi Joan Halifax
Featuring The Heart Sutra
Kanho Yakushiji is a 43-year-old Rinzai Zen priest, currently deputy chief priest of the Kaizenji Temple in Imabari City, Japan. He grew up loving music and formed a band in his 20s because he didn’t want to inherit his father’s temple, as is traditional. He eventually ordained as a priest but he continued with music, and has released five solo albums and toured Japan, China and Taiwan, his head shaved, playing guitar, dressed in his priest robe. The three well-produced shorts included here present his versions of the Heart Sutra, performed in concert and at one of the 88 temples on his home island of Shikoku. This southern Japanese island is known for the pilgrimage practice of visiting all 88 temples, in honor of Shikoku native Kobo Daishi, a remarkable 9th c. Japanese Buddhist figure also known as Kukai.
Featuring Joanna Macy
Joanna Macy discusses her ongoing journey in the field of despair and empowerment work. Her experience began as a fear of the deep concern she felt for her planet and for the world, and a belief that she needed to suppress these feelings.
As her work evolved, she developed a clear understanding that despair is not something to fear or hide, but a gift that provides us with the ability to confront injustices and lead others to transform their despair into compassionate action.
Featuring Robert Thurman
Many good Gurus/Lamas/Roshis/Masters are teaching many good students. Occasionally there are misunderstandings between the teacher and student, or flawed teachers who domineer students instead of serving them, or flawed students who worship teachers instead of understanding the teachings.
Buddha taught The Four Reliances: rely on teaching not teacher, on meanings not words, on definitive not interpretable meanings, and on experiential wisdom not on superficial knowledge.
Featuring Sylvia Boorstein
The Buddha instructed his son, Rahula to ''reflect before, during, and after every action on whether your motivation is the desire to end suffering for yourself and all beings.''
This implies that either your intention is so solidly grounded in your understanding of dukkha, inherent suffering in life, that you cannot misstep without your moral compass sounding an alarm or else you act very, very slowly.
Featuring Jan Willis
Jan Willis offers an analysis of our recent experiences with the Covid pandemic and the systemic racism that was laid bare as a result of it. She traces the outlines of US history, and offers us possible solutions as suggested by both Buddhist thought and by the ideals and vision of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Featuring Qalvy Grainzvolt
Stories of suffering abound in both Buddhist scripture and humanity’s narrative. During this pandemic, the in-between spaces of the suffering of illness and the ideal of wellness may be fertile soil for awakening “Buddha moments.”
Drawing from experience as a chaplain and psychotherapist, and from experiencing Covid-19 himself, Shinnyo-en priest Qalvy Grainzvolt explores research and Buddhist stories to suggest ways we can nourish seeds of awakening amidst the fluidity of wellness in our daily living.
Featuring Lama Tsultrim Allione
Lama Tsultrim teaches an innovative technique for turning your inner enemies into friends. Feeding our demons rather than fighting them contradicts the conventional approach of fighting against whatever assails us. But it turns out to be a remarkably effective path to inner integration.
Our demons are within us, energies we experience every day, such as fear, illness, depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship difficulties, and addiction. Anything that drains our energy and blocks us from being completely awake is a demon. Join Lama Tsultrim as she shows us how we can turn these demons into friends.