From an Atheist
To a Chan Practitioner
I have a distrust for anyone telling me what I want to hear. Within my vocation, filmmaking, many young artists are ruined by art schools, and while there are a handful of exceptions, the majority of these schools teach: “You are a volcano of creativity, let it flow and your genius will reveal itself.”
Anyone who has made a living doing creative work knows it’s the ceaseless demands of craft that creates beauty; it is in fact devotion to craftsmanship that liberates the subconscious mind and allows for true creativity to emerge. A slavish devotion to craft isn’t a good sales pitch, and instead institutions prefer to make their money selling platitudes about creative freedom to those who want to avoid the boring demands of the “square” pursuits.
The actual “creative process” I believe it’s called, the process all of us blue collar workers must undertake if we hope to meet deadlines, involves focusing your mind at the task and not allowing anything to distract you. The “task” is the demands and limitations imposed by craft. In this way the work is like making a shoe. If a shoe falls apart after a client puts it on, you can’t defend it with words like “but it was the most creative shoe ever built!” The absence of craft renders any idea – no matter how brilliant – inaccessible to others.
Meditation is in vogue in my homeland of Southern California. Many have heard about the scientific benefits: sharpened focus, reduced stress, and improved mood. I, like most of my peers, took to it as a way to gain an edge in the workplace. We’re very competitive and as in all over-subscribed professions, only undeniable skillfulness will keep us employed and allow for advancement.
My first experience trying meditation was the “mindfulness” brand that has overtaken much of the mainstream media in the U.S. The instructions for “mindfulness” were vague and changed with each of the revolving set of instructors: Some will say focus on your breath, others say clear your mind over and over, and others will instruct you to focus your complete attention on minutiae in the environment such as ambient noise, the sensation of the floor, etc. The only consistent instructions were those for requesting donations, always at least $15, with reminders both at the beginning and end of the class. From these practices I did derive some improvement in my focus and mood, but consistent practice led to a quick plateau that none of the revolving set of “educators” had any real insight in helping me with.
Chan meditation, on the other hand, is another story. Right from the start, the instructions were simple: Sit in the full lotus posture for as long as you can stand it, preferably one hour each day. The full lotus, for the uninitiated, is a posture that involves sitting on the ground with your legs folded, left foot on right hip, right foot on left hip. It makes your legs look like a pretzel. A few people are able to embrace this posture on the first attempt, others will need to practice and stretch daily for months to attain it, but one thing is true for everyone: The longer you sit in the posture, the more discomfort you experience.
Discomfort is a mild term for what is essentially pain. The posture limits circulation in your lower extremities, and around fifty-minutes in, pain in the legs, hips, ankles and waist is difficult to endure. Its practitioners will tell you, this is a crucial point you must not unbuckle your legs: It’s when the pain is at a high point and your mad mind starts speaking up. “Stop!” “This is crazy!” “Let’s do something else,” “Let’s take a break and have coffee.” This is the mad mind or “quit talk.” But the key to the practice is in learning to ignore this quit talk, and face the pain. This practice is a very efficient way to sharpen your concentration. The concept of earning concentration power spoke to me, as it aligns with my view that only hard work and consistent work can produce results. After a few weeks of serious practice I experienced far more progress and improvement to my mental health than I ever achieved with “mindfulness.”
As a filmmaker, this was a crucial time for me–I had just accepted the task of writing, directing, and editing short films and videos for a couple of different companies. While the photography aspect of filmmaking is a group effort, the writing and editing work is solitary, and takes many weeks. Without the camaraderie and support of co-workers, I would be working with my own worst enemy, me. Soon after embarking on this new project, the mad mind started speaking to me. “This isn’t fair! You don’t have enough support!” “Ask for more money before you strain yourself” “You’re being taken advantage of.” This time, however, there was a strange difference: I felt I was unusually detached from these voices, and recognized my afflictions of grief, fear, and anger. Instead, I recognized it as the quit talk I so often faced during my Chan practice. And in so doing, I appreciated my new abilities to not yield to this pain.
Throughout the project, my newly refined concentration didn’t fail me – The finished films were a success, and bigger better job offers were materializing.
Like many of my peers in California, I was a self-professed atheist. Except that while I held that belief, I found that I no longer applied it to my life. I would always jokingly refer to karma as a consequence to my actions, and without really thinking about the karmic laws, I applied the laws of cause and effect to my actions. Converting to Buddhism was a natural step for me, I’ve always felt affinity with Buddhism, and the pursuit of enlightenment seemed to me a practical and wise thing to do. In March 2019 I took refuge with Master YongHua at Lu Mountain Temple in Rosemead, California.
Master YongHua regularly lectures on Buddhism and meditation around the world. He invited me to sit in on a meditation Q&A session he recently gave at Google’s Mountain View headquarters (http://tinyurl.com/y4tokjop). An engineer asked about the distinction between Chan meditation and “mindfulness.” Master asked the engineers to define “mindfulness.” “Whatever you do, you do without distraction, fully in the moment” answered the engineer. “To me, that’s called concentration, no need to call it mindfulness” replied Master. He continued, “Mindfulness is a concept that is poorly translated and taught. It comes from texts that more accurately translate to ‘proper thought’” Proper thought is a Buddhist concept that was beyond the scope of the lecture.
I have always admired people who can assess others quickly. It’s a quality I have improved through the years, and I’ve become quite good at discerning someone’s background from the many “tells.” Body language, speech, clothes, etc. While words can be deceiving, the human body never lies. In particular, my favorite indication of discomfort in an individual is the attempt to soothe oneself by scratching the face or neck, and tightening of the lips. Another “tell” is people tend to point their feet toward the person they are most interested in. Or, if someone is pointing their feet toward the door, she seriously wants out of the room. I’ve become quite good at these little tells, and in fact, I would be lying if I said they didn’t give me a certain satisfaction.
“Low level teachers can only teach you what they know… high level teachers can teach you exactly what you need to hear to make progress” Shana Han, one of the Master’s disciples, pointed out to me. Traveling with a Buddhist master is quite an amazing experience.
Master often observes fine details and teaches you without you even knowing it. One time I had the pleasure of visiting a temple in San Francisco with him and a few other disciples. We were greeted by the residents, a rather laid back cheerful monk, and a vigilant, eagle-eyed nun. After a brief conversation, the nun excused herself while the cheerful monk chatted away with us for hours. On our way out, Master observed, “The nun observes everything. After a few minutes with us, she knew we weren’t worth her time.” I thought, “This nun must be someone special to have sized us up so quickly.” Master continued, “That’s low level behavior. It’s a waste of energy to evaluate and judge everything. Be laid back and conserve your energy. When there is a problem – use all your energy to solve it.”
This wasn’t what I wanted to hear; I instinctively knew it must be quite true and indeed, something I needed to hear in order to advance. Master is always teaching. Of the cheerful, laid back monk, Master concluded, “His level is astoundingly high…. much higher than the nun. He doesn’t waste his energy judging us because we’re not a problem for him. He could go anywhere in the world, and people would build a temple for him.” And I too hope to build my future, in a new laid back way.
1. Visiting a temple in Seoul, South Korea
2. Rem first time in full lotus posture
3. Rem on set with talent of new Comedy series
Rem Scobell is an American film director, screenwriter, and film editor in Los Angeles, California. His latest work can be viewed on firstname.lastname@example.org, national commercial campaigns and in film festivals across the country.