Notes on making a Buddhist movie

May 1st  2010                                                

“IN SEARCH OF NIRVANA” is a film about intensive Buddhist meditation and my experience with it. You may think that having the opportunity to make a film about a big chunk of ones life, as I have had, is an amazing experience, and it is. Passing the contents of ones film through the filter of some very advanced Buddhist monks in Asia who spiritually spell check it for errors is more than daunting. “My experience is my experience and my experience only!” is a dictum that rings true in any inner narrative. As the Buddha said “ don’t believe me, don’t believe the holy books, don’t believe the monk on the hill, only when you yourself know from your own experience, will you really know”

How was I to know that my personal experience would turn out to be “ right out of the book” (a book most recently dictated 2500 years ago by the Buddha, but really an eternal story)?  How was I to know that my young mans quest to “find myself”, and then subsequently to “loose myself”, would be a small splinter of a universal dialogue that nature is always telling…..but it was.

I meditated for some years and I made a film. Neither was easy .I recommend meditating to everyone. I recommend making a film to no one. After meditating for a long time I was just happy that it was getting started. After making a film for a long time I was just happy it was over. As they say “be careful what you wish for”. And yet, each time I see this film, despite all the bits where I wish I had had a better camera, better light, hands that were not sweating in the 100 degree heat, more help, another chance to say something differently, despite all that, there is always a sense of the miraculous. The miracle that despite all the despites, some of the “feel of it”, some of the “real of it”, some of the living “sense of it” made it through onto the screen.

When I was a young man I got to practice meditation full time for five years in Buddhist monasteries with profoundly wise teachers. It was not planned, I just lucked into it. Many of the stories from that time would seem unbelievable in our culture but they all happened. Then I got very sick and had to come back. I spent a few more years in a western Buddhist center as I grew stronger and then, life, as we know it here in the west began again for me. But as it did the words of my revered teacher and friend “Seevali” from the film, rang in my ears just as fresh as when he had said them to me years before in an ancient kings garden in Sri Lanka, “you can go home, but you can never go back”.

“What would it be like to leave the world we know, the world of the expected, the world of our presumed progress, and just stop? Just stop until we could find where this movie of our life was being projected from; just stop until we could find out where we really are?

We grow up, we go to school, we get competent, we get married, we get successful, or not, we get recognized, or not, we get rich or poor, we get old for sure, we get sick, we die and……repeat. There had to be another part to it I thought, and there was .The other part, the most important part to me, is not a well-recognized value in our society. The part where you “undo the puzzle”, “meet your maker”, “escape the labyrinth “, “pin the tail on the donkey”, “go free or die trying”, the epic quest to just “ know yourself “, that’s the good part. And in a small way that is what my film is about. It is not about doing it just this way, or my way, or any preconceived way, but it is about doing it, and having the permission to do it, each in our own way. And it was that permission to go inward and look with all my might, that precious permission, given by example, that my teachers gave to me. So I made a film to record some of that journey, to honor my teachers, to leave to my kids, to pass on a “glimmer”, and to get past it. This is that film and it does those things for me.                                                                                                              

Many of us here on Cortes understand the value of periodically fasting and cleansing our physical bodies. Likewise going deeper in meditation requires fasting and cleansing our minds. By emptying out our mental content we allow ourselves an opportunity to see the world more clearly. The more clearly we see it the more deeply it informs us. The less “story” we create the more nature we perceive say the monks.  This film has very little fiction in it. It is stylistically limited to what the monks would consider truthful and not misleading. They care very much about the clear transmission of their teaching.        

Many films these days are attempting to entertain, seduce, distract or stimulate us into a trance for some 100 minutes or so. Their job is to take us out of ourselves for that amount of time. The explosions get bigger, the pace faster, the scenes “hotter”, all in order to keep us ” under”. It often feels like they are blowing up the cinema with us in it. Although I too enjoy some of that, but, just like too much sugar, I think that too much of it is not good for us. As a culture we watch so much media that I fear even our dreams are no longer  our own, as if they are piped into us at night from HBO. This film IN SEARCH OF NIRVANA is not like that. It takes attention to watch it and attention to follow it. There is some effort involved. It also hopefully has the power, under the right circumstances, to leave its audience a little more aware, a little more awake.                                                 

What we intend at the beginning of such a project is rarely exactly what we come out with in the end. This film is like that too. It was meant to show how insight meditation is practiced in Buddhist monasteries in Asia, and it does some of that. And yet it required more time, effort, money and patience than I possibly could have anticipated. And turned out differently than expected. On the way my main character withdrew and I had to write myself , last minute, into the story. Some deep interviews turned out to be untranslatable to film. For more than half the time I was doing camera, sound and interviewing solo and something would inevitably get missed. Making a film from Cortes island is a lot like playing hockey from the moon; it becomes more about travel time than rink time.  More money and more helpers would have captured more things. The familiar laments of all documentary filmmakers. And yet, a small miracle!

My friend-producer Jack who laughed when I said I would do it all on my Mac and mercifully introduced me to a patient editor. (You get to know your editor almost as well as you know your spouse.)  My editor, Ron, who used to edit “Hockey night in Canada” on live TV, who hit the editing controls like he was making slap shots, and to whom working on a meditation movie was a new experience. Help with making my own soundtrack, help with getting the colors right, running out of money, running out of money…Someone I met briefly thirty years ago in Asia offering a loan with the long gracious view of investing . And now, just like after building ones first house I now knew how I would make the next one . And yet just like my house, (if you have been to my house), this one is fun to live in now.             

In this film there are authentic wise teachers sharing deep things that most of us rarely get to listen to. There are images from places that are rare to go and sounds that are rare to hear. There are people who harbor no intention to deceive, being as honest as they can be about delicate and subtle things. There is the priceless ” feeling” of the great endeavor that is intensive meditation practice. There is lots of good stuff that gets better the more times you see it.                                                                                                    

Finally, there is the perception that in the face of our inevitable aging , our i-phone, i-mac, i-pod,  i-pad, i-whatever, all look a little silly if we have no idea who “ I” is.  “ I ” is growing older and fading out no matter what we do. Hopefully we wake in time to ask, “what’s up with that?”   In the east they say that no matter how deeply asleep we may be,  we will all “wake up to die”. My hunch is that waking earlier is better. This film is my little “shout” at that.           


John Preston                      

As published in Howl magazine #2

copyright 2010–2023 John F. Preston, Cortes Island, British Columbia