This is a dramatic reconstruction of the Life of the great Japanese monk Dogen who flourished in Japan in the 13th century and introduced Soto Zen Buddhism from China.
It appears from the film that Buddhism was in a very corrupt state in Japan in the 13th century, with drinking and whoring common in the Sangha.
To find out what the Buddha had really taught Dogen traveled to China, where he met the master Ju-ching, whose teaching was to have a life-long effect of the young monk:
the practice of Zen is to have the mind and the body fall away, this falling away is the path out of ignorance and vice
Almost upon meeting the master he received face-to-face transmission at the Tien-tung-shan temple and given the transmission of the Dharma.
Another big influence on him at that time was the Kitchen Master at the Ayu-wan-shan kuang-li Zen Temple, in whose honour the Kitchen Master Instructions were later written.
After returning to Japan in 1227, he wrote his first major work, which brought him some notoriety, and not a little persecution from the established sects.
Even though he moved some way from Kyoto to avoid persecution, the temple he founded there was eventually burned down and he was forced to retire to an even more remote location, at Eheiji in the Echizen mountains.
On his way he was joined by the monk who was to become his main Dharma heir, Ejo, and members of other sects who were looking for a more pure form of the teaching.
In the film there is a sub-story about a young girl called Orin whose life Dogen saves before he leaves for China, and meets again as a young woman, who has fallen in with a cripple, who forces her to prostitute herself for an income.
Later, in a remake of the Kisāgotamī story, she looses her child to illness, and begs Dogen to restore him for her. He tells her to fetch a bean from a house where no one ever died, but of course there is no such house.
Orin follows Dogen to Eheiji, and a young Kitchen Master falls in love with her, and disrobes. On his death-bed Dogen gives permission for her to ordain when he has passed away.
Later in the film Dogen is called to Kamakura to meet the Shogun who is tormented by the spirits of those he has killed on the battlefield, Dogen gives his Zen teaching: “Zazen is to see the water in the vast ocean,” and the Shogun offers to establish him in a monastery he will build for him in Kamakura, but Dogen refuses and returns to the mountins.
Not long afterwards we see him on his death-bed at the young age of 54, appointing his successors and giving his final teaching before passing away. At the funeral we see legions of monks attending, who are presumably meant to represent all his Dharma heirs over the centuries since that time.
The main outline of the story presented in the film seems to be fairly accurate, but some details, like Orin’s story appear to be added for dramatic effect, and I am unsure whether they really form a part of his life-story.
There is little effort made to really convey what his teaching was, but then this is dramatic biography, not a documentary as such, and we cannot really expect any more.
The film appears to have been transferred from celluloid to digital and the colours are very washed out, it is somewhat blurry, and there is a overall gloomy effect about it as presented here, which I don’t think was intended in the original.
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