Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

Unbelievable Reveals Our Unspoken Beliefs

‘Inspired by true events, Unbelievable follows investigations of sexual assault and includes depictions of sexual violence. Viewer discretion is advised.” I have of course seen warnings like this before, but seldom if ever have I felt they were used more deservingly. Unbelievable is at times painful to watch—especially in the first of its eight episodes. It is also riveting, unsettling, and illuminating. In its journey through a purgatory of sexualized violence and its aftermath, we are guided by the compassion, determination, bravery, and intelligence of its three remarkable main characters to its just and redemptive conclusion.

Based on the Pulitzer-winning reporting of T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong, Unbelievable employs a narrative strategy of telling two alternating stories that as viewers we watch being gradually braided together, even as the protagonists in each story remain, until the final chapter, unaware of the existence of the other. Both storylines examine the consequences of socially pervasive misogyny, especially as it takes the form of violence against women and how that violence is handled in the criminal justice system. Watching the series, I was reminded of something Martin Scorsese said years ago about his film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: That in its portrayal of the baked-in cruelty of the society’s enforcement of its norms, the film was more violent than his bloody gangster movies. The violence in Unbelievable is at times overt, specifically in its depiction of rape, but also, and no less significantly, in its showing of the ways social attitudes conspire to deny, undermine, and reverse blame when women are victims of sexualized violence.

The series opens in Washington state with a young woman, 18-year-old Marie, sitting wrapped in a blanket, shaken and traumatized. A police officer soon enters her room, and asks her to recount the rape she had just reported. As Marie (bravely portrayed by Kaitlyn Dever) speaks, we see, through her eyes, flashbacks of the brutal attack. No sooner does she finish her account than two detectives assigned to the case show up, and they in turn ask that she go over the events once more. Again, there are flashbacks. We thus see the trauma alive in her present moment of telling and retelling her story. The police—all men—are concerned and sympathetic, but they have little if any grasp of the fragility of Marie’s state of mind or of just how difficult it is to relive the rape in each retelling.

Still from Netflix’s Unbelievable

The detectives then bring Marie down to their precinct, where she must repeat her account yet again. Then she must tell it once more at her medical exam. Then she must put it down in writing. The testing, while necessary, is invasive and coldly efficient. The questioning of the detectives as they probe Marie for several minor inconsistencies is increasingly invasive as well. And with each telling, Marie’s affect becomes more and more detached.

We have by now learned that Marie had for years, since being removed from her severely abusive family, been bounced around the foster care system. For the previous six months she had for the first time been living on her own. She is young, she is poor, she is emotionally immature, and she is a woman without family support. All of which conspire to leave her weak and vulnerable in the criminal justice system.

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Safety in Duality

In a dialogue where the Buddha listed the duties of teachers to their students (DN 31), the final and most prominent item on the list was this: that the teacher provide the student with protection in all directions. Of course, this didn’t mean that teachers were duty-bound to follow their students around with shields to ward off potential dangers. Instead, it meant that teachers should provide their students with knowledge that the students could use to protect themselves in every situation. And in a dialogue where the Buddha criticized some teachers of other sects for leaving their students unprotected (AN 3:62), he made clear that protective knowledge was expressed in terms of a duality: clearly seeing the difference between what should and shouldn’t be done.

That’s right: a duality. For all the dualities the Buddha avoided, this was one he adhered to consistently in his role as a responsible teacher.

The need for this kind of protective knowledge is based on the Buddha’s analysis of how we shape our experience. Instead of being a passive recipient of the results of past kamma (karma), we’re proactive: Through our desires—expressed in acts of attention, perception, and intention—we take the input of the senses, which comes from past kamma, and shape it into a present-moment experience. For example, we don’t just passively register the sight of an apple as it occurs. If we’re already looking for food, then by the time we’re aware of the apple, we’ve already decided whether we want to eat it or not. If we’re not looking for food, the apple hardly registers at all because we have our eye out for something else.

The problem is that we’re often ignorant of what we’re doing, so we shape things unskillfully and suffer as a result. And when we suffer, we react in two ways. The first reaction is bewilderment: “Where does this suffering come from?” The second is a search: “Is there anyone who knows a way out of this suffering?” The search explains why people go looking for teachers in the first place. The bewilderment explains why we can easily look to the wrong people for help.

So we need two sorts of protection: protection against ourselves, to overcome our ignorance of what we’re doing; and protection against teachers—and this can include anyone who offers advice, even well-meaning friends and acquaintances—who might wittingly or unwittingly do us harm.

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Directors on the Diaspora

It’s easy to be moved by reports of the growing number of refugees displaced by political, religious, and environmental instability. And even easier, after the initial feelings of shock or sympathy subside, to move onto the next news story, or tune out altogether.

Filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Sonam Tenzing have devoted their careers to bringing unsettling narratives to light and encouraging the public to reckon with their complexities. The directors’ partnership began in 1985 through a shared love for the California Bay Area’s art cinema houses, radical student movements of the 60s and 70s, and a graduate thesis project documenting a rural Sikh community in Northern California. They are now married and live with their two children in Dharamsala, where they co-founded the Dharamsala International Film Festival in 2012 to enable and support the work of independent filmmakers in the Indian Himalayas.

The Sweet Requiem, their drama many years in the making, gives renewed saliency to the Tibetan refugee crisis by focusing on Dolkar, a Tibetan woman in her mid-twenties who, at the age of eight, fled Tibet with her father. Years later, the stable life she has built for herself in Delhi is disrupted when she crosses paths with a man from her past, an encounter that unleashes a torrent of traumatic childhood memories.

The Sweet Requiem, reviewed in Tricycle’s Winter 2019 issue, is available for subscribers to watch this month on Tricycle Film Club up until January 4, 2020 at midnight.

Tricycle spoke with Sarin and Tenzing about the political dimensions of their work, some of the Buddhist concepts that influenced them, and the cinematic hurdles that came up on set.

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A White Rose for Myanmar

The Buddha was unequivocal in his opposition to anger, hatred, and violence. When a soldier asked him if he would go to heaven if he died fighting for a noble cause, the Buddha reluctantly told him the opposite: he would be reborn in a realm of suffering as a result of dying with a murderous mind. Let your lovingkindness for all creatures be without exception, he taught; if you conceive a thought of hatred—even for bandits sawing off your limbs—you would not be doing my bidding.

Yet international observers have been horrified to see what appears to be silence or even support from the Myanmar’s sanghas as the Buddhist-majority nation commits what the UN has identified as genocide against the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority. Around one million Rohingya now live in Bangladesh after fleeing a series of brutal state-coordinated attacks in 2016 and 2017, which included murder, gang-rape, and the burning down of hundreds of villages. Meanwhile, Buddhist monks in Myanmar have attended nationalist rallies and called for aggressive action against Muslims and other minorities, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Buddhist State Counsellor and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for her pro-democracy work, has stated that she will defend the government against charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Recent events suggest, however, that the support of violent ethno-nationalism in the sangha is not the whole picture: Winds of hope continue to blow as Buddhists, both inside and outside the monastic community, have been leading acts of resistance in the country.

Demonstrators, led by lay peace activist Thet Swe Win and Burmese monk Sayadaw Seindita, have begun handing out white roses to Muslims in Myanmar as an act of solidarity. Swe Win and U Seindita were inspired to begin the campaign after hearing reports of nationalists surrounding mosques in the country to threaten worshippers during Ramadan. The symbol of the rose is an homage to the clandestine German White Rose movement, which resisted the Third Reich (and many of whose members were executed).

Speaking of the movement’s roots in Buddhist teaching, Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a young activist, told Tricycle, “The Buddha clearly taught non-attachment to one’s ethnic or religious identity . . . All of my activism comes from there—from my Buddhism.”

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O Bodhi Tree, O Bodhi Tree

December is a month of holidays, or as a popular song goes, “the most wonderful time of the year.” I tend to agree with this sentiment as I enter into the spirit of the season and experience the brilliant sights and sounds. It is a wonderful time, especially if we remember to celebrate with feelings of peace and good will, banish our harsh judgments and foolish prejudices, and remind ourselves of our interrelatedness with other people, sentient beings, and the natural environment that surrounds us.

In the United States, the most common celebrations are, of course, Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. But in the Japanese Buddhist tradition, we also observe Bodhi Day. On December 8, we recognize the day, 2,500 years ago, when the historical Buddha attained enlightenment. As he sat under a Bodhi tree, reaching down with his finger touching the earth, he awakened to an awesome awareness that everything in the entire universe is connected and removed himself from all the forms of anger, greed, and desire that cause suffering—and thus attained a state of perfect wisdom and compassion. It’s a good day to remember to adopt the tenets of the eightfold path in our daily lives and to feel gratitude for Shakyamuni and Amida Buddha’s compassion.

There is, however, a part of Bodhi Day that is a little sad for me because in order to attain enlightenment Shakyamuni had to essentially “kill” himself by negating all of his perceived truths. However, he experienced a “rebirth,” becoming the Buddha and understanding the universal truth of the dharma—the four noble truths and eightfold path. This is referred to as the turning of the wheel.

December is also a month of traditions and customs and gathering with family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. When I was growing up, my parents operated a business in Hawaii, and at this time of year, my father always made a point to reduce his debts and to make courtesy calls to all the people who made our family business possible. I remember as a little boy I would accompany him on these visits, sometimes to places quite distant from our house, and we would get home very late. But regardless of the time and distance involved, these year-end calls were important to my father. It was deeply meaningful for him formally to say thank you for their help and patronage during the past year, and to reflect on the possibility, working together, of a better year to come.

I think of these visits when I reflect upon another element of this season, which is the custom of giving and receiving gifts. Exchanging gifts is a way of sharing our joy and expressing appreciation and affection to those who are close to us. But what if we don’t have the resources to buy presents? Does it mean that we cannot give anything? Absolutely not! I often forget that the most meaningful gifts are those with no monetary value at all.

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