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Vancouver Co-op Radio Interview with Michael Goldberg (November 2006)
Michael Goldberg is a Vancouver video-pioneer who initiated the idea of a video exchange library - the Video In, and now lives in Tokyo. He just made a film featured in the Vancouver International Film Festival, "A ZEN LIFE - D. T. Suzuki." Farah Nazarali is a yoga instructor and freelance writer based in Vancouver.
On Life and Death
Farah: One of the things that struck me is how D.T. Suzuki talks about life and death.
Michael: The peace of mind that D.T. Suzuki talks about, or the fact that life and death are one and the same, is a principal theme towards the end of the documentary. I think this has to do with one's own death. For me grieving - funerals and ceremony and everything that's left on earth - are not for the departed, but for those of us who are still here. We deal with the grief. The person who dies (if it's not sudden and unexpected) may be sad to leave their loved ones behind. But "peace of mind" has to do with facing one's own death, with understanding and dealing with one's own death. D.T.Suzuki lived every moment fully up to the very moment he died; he lived through his death very peacefully and fully.
Farah: In the film, his devoted assistant said in an interview that there was no demarcation between his life and his death. This struck me - that he lived fully.
Michael: There is a doctor in the documentary called Shigeaki Hinohara who's now 94. He was D.T. Suzuki's physician the last eight or nine years of his life. It was he who first told me that D.T. Suzuki died very peacefully and - as you pointed out - he died the way he lived. He lived his principles to the fullest up to the moment he died, and no one knew when he died. You couldn't tell when he stopped breathing and passed away. It was so smooth.
Mihoko Okamura - who was his assistant and is a Buddhist - had a totally different take on it, which she tries to explain at the end of the video. For her, he was dead when he was alive, and he was alive when he was dead. It is a philosophical thing, not a physical thing.
I hope that when I face my own death, I will have learned something very deep from this. I have been working on the documentary for four years, and have learned a lot from all the wonderful people whom I interviewed. I hope it will be deep and lasting, and that I will have truly understood something.
On the Appeal of Zen in the West
Farah: Yoga has become very popular here in Vancouver, and here in the West. In fact, various forms of Eastern spirituality and philosophy appeal to Western people. In your opinion, why is this so?
Michael: D.T. Suzuki was asked the same question. Suzuki was born in 1870, soon after the Darwinian revolution. Science became "almighty" and people doubted religions, spirituality, and mysticism. Suzuki once said, "in science, timelessness has no meaning." It has nothing to measure. Even in those days, there was a need felt in the West for something that was lacking in our culture.
When Suzuki was asked why the West has become interested in Zen, he responded, "in the West, perhaps there is too much emphasis on science." We had strayed away from the spiritual path, and we felt a need for that. Or rather, those who feel they have a need for it can find a lot in the East, where spiritual thinking is very deep, and comes from many, many eons ago.
While he felt that Buddhism had something to offer the West, Dr. Suzuki was not a missionary. He didn't proselytize. He wanted people to understand and accept Eastern philosophy, mysticism, way of thinking, way of living. He also said: "There is no East; there is no West.
On the Practice of Zen
Farah: One of the things that we are interested in on the radio show Drishti Point is stories of transformation. What was your experience in the process of making the film?
Michael: That's a difficult question. In Zen and in other Buddhist traditions, they use the word "awakening" or "enlightenment" (there are various Japanese and Chinese terms for that). But people who are enlightened or who have gone through an enlightenment experience don't talk about it. And I say, honestly, I have no pretensions as to having become enlightened.
I've not done Zazen; I don't have a regular practice. In Suzuki's mind, Zazen (sitting in a ritualistic way) wasn't necessary. That was what he used to say. A lot of people thought that because he was not promoting Zazen, he wasn't interested in it. Yet meditation was part of his daily life. But in fact, he felt that in the early days of Zen Buddhism, all of the practices we have now didn't exist. The koans (Zen riddles which have no logical answer) weren't codified. We now have thousands of these koans which have been written up in books that students and monks study, and you have to "pass your koans." All these didn't exist. Actually, those koans were based on the specific relationship between a sensei (teacher) and a disciple. It was something the master said that related directly to that disciple's needs at that time that brought them a kensho - their first enlightenment experience.
There's a great story - that didn't make it into the documentary - which D. T. Suzuki gave in his lectures a few times. There once was a Zen master whose apprentice wasn't yet enlightened. The master called out to him (I'll use the term deshi - which meant apprentice - because I don't remember their names): "Deshi!" And the apprentice replied, as was expected of him: "Hai!" (which means "yes"). The master dismissed him: "Oh, nothing; nothing." As he was leaving, the master called out to him again: "Deshi!" The apprentice answered "Hai!" and the master again said, "oh nothing, nothing." A third time, the master called out "Deshi!" and at that point he had his first enlightenment experience - it's nothing!
Farah: There's so much in the simplicity of Zen which I think appeals to me personally.
Michael: There's a lot of humor too. In Buddhism and religions in general, there's not a lot of humor. Zen Buddhism, within the Buddhist community, is the most humorous of all. They have so much discipline going through it, that once they get through they're really free.
Farah: In your opinion, what does Zen have to offer the average person who lives here in Vancouver?
Michael: Suzuki's attitude was that whatever path you choose, it is like climbing a mountain. Whichever side you start from, you can still reach the summit. He felt positive about Christianity, and often explained Buddhist terms to the West using Christian analogies. He also loved Christian mystics.
Getting back to the "practice," D.T. Suzuki's attitude was that people have different personalities, and depending on your personal leaning or direction, you have a lot of choices - yoga for example, Zen Buddhism is another. And within yoga or within Zen there are different practices, different ways of doing things. I think it would be great if people could somehow find - through a process of learning - which one is most appropriate for them. The answer to your question why should people study Zen is: if they feel attracted to it, they should; and if they feel attracted to something else, that's fine too.
For information about the documentary "A Zen Life" visit www.azenlife-film.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Farah Nazarali is a freelance writer based in Vancouver. She can be reached through her website at: www.thesmilingyogi.com
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