Zen and the art of documentary film

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

It’s the second day of the new year and unseasonably warm outside Pole-Pole Higashi-Nakano, one of Tokyo’s few remaining art-house theaters. Husband-and-wife filmmakers Werner Penzel and Ayako Mogi take a seat in the morning sun, taking off their coats while marveling at the weather.

Penzel and Mogi’s 2016 documentary “Zen for Nothing” has just opened at this very theater and the couple have come to Pole-Pole to take part in a talk event. Before that, however, they are happy to sit down for a face-to-face chat.

“In order to properly talk about Zen, I need to do it in person,” Penzel says. “Not over email or Skype.”

It makes sense. A large part of Zen Buddhism is about being present in the moment, and already this interview — on a bench in the warm winter sun — is starting to feel like a meditation session. Even with the frequent JR trains rumbling by.

“People ask me what Zen is, and it’s a question I ask myself all the time,” Penzel says. Mogi looks at him, waiting for his words — she’s clearly intrigued by everything her partner thinks about this matter.

“OK,” Penzel resumes, “so the other day I was thinking about Zen and then I get the urge to go to the restroom. I did my business and then I flushed and came out. It was a little physical ritual, a process of detoxing that was necessary to existence. In a while I will do it again, and to me … this is what Zen is like.

“I can’t fully comprehend it or explain or define it. I only know that it is necessary.”

Mogi bursts into laughter and says she has a slightly different take.

“I don’t pretend to understand it either,” she says. “I know Zen as a series of sensations, or a certain mindset. I only became aware of those things after having spent a month at a Zen temple, away from family and work. If you ask me what Zen actually is … I’m at a loss for the right words. But I do know that there is no reward waiting at the end of the tunnel, in the form of salvation or enlightenment or anything like that. It’s more like encountering mu (nothingness).

“If there is a reward in Zen, it’s mu. And though I’m saying that, I’m not sure this is the correct interpretation. There’s just no short answer to this question.”

The long answer perhaps, is the couple’s film. “Zen For Nothing” traces the Zen experience at a temple called Antaiji in northern Hyogo Prefecture, with Penzel behind the camera and Mogi, a professional photographer, in charge of sound engineering. Antaiji is well known among Zen enthusiasts outside Japan — the abbot, Muho Noelke, is from Germany and was the principle disciple of the late Shinyu Miyaura, who died in 2002.

Penzel believes that Zen in Japan has become corrupt.

“It’s become a tourist trap, for people who go to temples to look at the monks and their beautiful robes and think they are experiencing Zen Buddhism,” he says. “There are very few real temples for that anymore, but what Antaiji proffers is genuine. There is real pain and solitude there. There are no short cuts. I know of some Zen enthusiasts from the West who come and claim they want to stay for three months. They last only three days.”

There’s no running narrative in “Zen for Nothing” apart from voice-over bullets of wisdom provided by Kodo Sawaki, a Zen teacher and Antaiji abbot who was active in the mid-20th century. The film also charts the journey of Swiss actress Sabine Timoteo, a longtime friend of Penzel’s, as she arrives at Antaiji for her first Zen experience.

“I asked Sabine if she was willing to come to Japan and be a part of this film,” Penzel says, adding that the experience, which included a zazen meditation session, was a first for Timoteo. “I needed someone like her, with no preconceptions about Japan or Zen, who could bring a fresh, clean slate.”

Timoteo, 42, did just that and, since she has been acting since she was 19, she was also able to assuage the nerves of those around her.

“When the others expressed their discomfort with the camera, Sabine would say about me, ‘Forget him, he doesn’t matter!’ And everyone would relax,” Penzel says.

Mogi adds: “In many ways, Sabine was a natural. She had been a ballet dancer so she knew how to discipline her body, and her posture was beautiful. The zazen was so hard and painful and so were the daily labors at Antaiji. But she stuck to that routine with her natural self-discipline and she took everything in stride. She had a very open mind and could communicate with everyone, from all over the world and all walks of life. Watching her I was so impressed, and learned something new about Zen through the way she interacted with it.”

The film’s camera is also there when Timoteo encounters a traditional Japanese squat toilet at Antaiji. She receives instructions by a fellow novice on how to use it, and she wastes no time getting down on her haunches on the floor, practicing in case she needs it later. The scene is both funny and endearing, setting the tone for the entire movie.

“There are always moments of hilarity in Zen,” Penzel says. “Ultimately, it’s a tool for letting you relax and see the funny side of life.”

Astonishingly, Timoteo falls into Antaiji’s routines fairly quickly. Wake-up time is 3:45 a.m. — no exceptions — and that is followed by two hours of zazen. Labor and menial tasks, plus more zazen make up the rest of the day.

Prior to embarking on the filmmaking process, Penzel and Mogi had both stayed in Antaiji as novices, though not at the same time.

“We were both going through a very rough patch in our lives,” Mogi says. “I myself was unraveling at the seams. And then we heard about Antaiji and Werner went there first for a month, and then came back and said, ‘You should go too.’ I was hesitant because of our two young daughters, but he said that they would be all right and encouraged me to go. So I did, and when I was actually immersed in the Antaiji experience, I felt more liberated than I had in many years.

“It was strange, because life there was so hard and it often felt like I was drowning, but I discovered that there is real freedom in suffering.”

Penzel agrees, affirming that temple life may look easy but it’s incredibly painful.

“But somewhere along the way I had a revelation,” he says. “I was no longer a slave of my own body. I could control it. It was a wonderful moment of epiphany. I felt like a great burden had been lifted from my shoulders and then, of course, the moment went away. So you see, you think you capture Zen … and then it’s gone.”

For more information on “Zen for Nothing,” visit www.silentvoice.or.jp/works/zenfornothing.