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Sticking to a here-and-now path

05 January 2018

Stephen Brown sees a film about Buddhism

Shaven: a still from Walk with Me

Shaven: a still from Walk with Me

MY OVERALL reaction to Walk with Me (Cert. PG), a film about Buddhist monks, was one of déjà vu. How similar are the habits (clothing, as well as practices) and outlook to the Christian religious communities that we have watched on screen in recent years (in Into Great Silence, No Greater Love, etc.).

Their commonality indicates a spiritual path well-trodden by many leading faith groups. Walk with Me considers the work of the Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers at Plum Village, deep in south-west France. Opening credits tell us Nhat Hanh was exiled from his native Vietnam in 1966 after efforts to effect peace between North and South.

Perhaps, like the mindfulness that he teaches about living in the present, the film says little about his past: for instance, his association with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, and with Martin Luther King. Intellectual exposition of Buddhism or mindfulness is scant; nor the particular significance of bells, tea, chants, etc. Instead, audiences are treated to a meditation on a community developing a profound sense of here and now for themselves and the world.

This is punctuated by the sonorous tones of Benedict Cumberbatch reciting from one of Nhat Hanh’s books. “How can we live if were changeless?” we are asked while gazing at scudding clouds. We are forever becoming who we truly are. An impressive number of paying guests want to discover this. Others come to join the order. Postulants undergo a ritual in which their hair is removed. This is never explained, but presumably denotes humility and cleansing, as is also practised in Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Islamic circles. Simplicity may be key to what Nhat Hanh calls Engaged Buddhism, but it is one that embraces use of modern facilities such as electric razors, bikes, and laptops.

The latter part of Walk with Me is primarily set in the United States, which a few community members visit during a teaching tour. For some, it is a return home. A monk meets his family, re-reading a journal that he had kept in his youth, full of materialistic aspirations. It reminded me of the question: how do you make God laugh? Answer: tell him your plans.

Walk with Me is a film to be grateful for because of what it sets off in ourselves. Start with the title, which got me thinking of Albert Camus’s notion that we journey together. He said “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

Engaged Buddhism recognises that we are soul-mates. Living in the here and now strongly echoes elements of the Sermon on the Mount, not to mention T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. When Nhat Hanh berates humanity’s desperate efforts to “find” things, I am put in mind of e e cummings’s poetry. And so on. Thus did the film’s method of proceeding lead me into meditations of my own; and perhaps it will do so for others. It is an invitation to taste and see how gracious the world is in which live and move and have our being.

On current release.

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