The Still Center of the Moving World

Into Great Silence
(Zeitgeist Films, 2006)
A Zen Life
(International Videoworks, 2006)

"As my prayer became more attentive and inward, I had less and less to say. I finally became completely silent. Prayer involves becoming silent, and being silent, and waiting until God is heard." - Soren Kierkegaard

Silence occupies an uneasy place in our culture. We crave the idea of silence, a sense of stillness and peace, but are also profoundly uncomfortable with it. We rush to fill it with small talk, or with music or television, as if silence itself is an unwelcome reminder of our existential loneliness. Silence contains mystery and ambiguity, and evades easy explanations. And it is no coincidence that so many religious traditions use contemplation as a way to experience God, or in non-theistic religions like Buddhism, to experience the freedom of awakening. Embracing silence is going deliberately into the unknown, facing questions of purpose and mortality that are comfortably masked by busyness, activity, and words. But is monastic life, or going off the grid, the only way to achieve stillness? Or are there ways to cultivate an inner silence and remain engaged with the messy, noisy world? Two recent documentaries address these questions-Philip Groning's Into Great Silence, and Michael Goldberg's A Zen Life. One explores the furthest extreme; complete renunciation, which Carthusian monks have practiced for centuries. The other shows how an individual, D.T. Suzuki, instrumental in bringing Japanese Zen Buddhism to the West, chose the non-monastic path, fully in and of this world.

Into Great Silence is filmed in the French Alps, where Groning spent six months in the Grande Chartreuse monastery. The result is an atypical documentary that unfolds the experience of being there without relying on description. There is no soundtrack, only quietly rustling robes, chanting, nature sounds, and chores. There are no interviews, though monks are shown, one by one, looking deeply into the camera. And there is no narrative, though certain characters become prominent, like a grizzled senior slowly completing his tasks, or a dark-skinned African initiate. Groning intersperses moments of tenderness and community-the human contact of embracing newcomers, or an unexpectedly playful scene during a winter walk. The monastery is austere, but seems full of life and joy, each individual entirely devoted to God, giving up one kind of freedom for what seems like another. With this one choice, existential questions are answered. There is an admittedly voyeuristic aspect to this intimate view, but the true pleasure of this film comes from experiencing this timeless place, existing only in the present moment. In its run at the Film Forum in New York, Into Great Silence drew large crowds and enlisted the help of a live monk to explain the great deal left unsaid. The surprising popularity, especially in type-A New York, suggests a yearning for stillness, even if only for three hours.

In the more straightforward, PBS-style documentary A Zen Life, filmmaker Michael Goldberg illustrates the life of D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966), a scholar and teacher of Zen Buddhism. Suzuki trained monastically using silent, inward meditation, and consciously chose the life of a lay practitioner, married, and devoted his life to writing and helping westerners experience a non-intellectual understanding of Zen. Suzuki saw Western thought as overly enamored with scientific studies, and continued to destroy any ideas his students had of using Zen as a commodity, something they could get to change their lives. Suzuki taught Zen as fundamentally ungraspable, an eternal negation; any cherished idea had to be destroyed, and any thought of accomplishment had to be abandoned. But as he lived between Japan and the United States, he understood the special amount of psychological discomfort these concepts caused in the West. The idea of finding the freedom of satori (awakening) within the form was, and continues to be, a balance. If there is too little freedom, form becomes dogmatic; too little form leads to relativism, an unlivable philosophy. His teachings were traditional but radical, and influenced many, including Jung, Fromm, Ginsberg, Merton, and Heidegger. And Suzuki's long life, explored through archival footage and interviews, exemplifies a path of both inner stillness and answering life's call.

Across vastly divergent traditions, from Quaker prayer meetings to Sufi devotional texts, the call to silent prayer or meditation allows for openness to the mystery of the divine, or simply to the way things are. Clearly, monastic life is not appealing for most, but as life outside becomes not only faster but louder, the choice to step in from the clamor is always a possibility.

Katje Richstatter is a fiction and culture writer whose work has appeared in the Utne Reader, Punk Planet, SOMA, the SF Bay Guardian, and Tikkun. She is on the editorial board for Turning Wheel, the magazine of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.