The Zen of Filmmaking: A Balance of Heart & Mind

by Xuan Vu © 2006

Chapter VII: The Final Cut

The finalizing process took another six months of editing sequences, sound lock, picture lock, rough cuts, screenings, and finally final cut in December of 2005. It took such an amount of time for the post-production phase to end because I needed to incorporate the new developments that occurred for myself and my subjects after my time spent in a monastery in Taiwan in the summer of 2005.

After the spring semester of filming and editing, I handed in a rough cut of the thesis film and headed off for another summer of traveling abroad. I returned to Vietnam for another family trip, this time with my brother and my two uncles. Our three and a half weeks there were spent in five different regions of the country: Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City), Nha Trang (a beach town), Dalat (a mountain region), Phu Quoc (a resort island), and Ha Long Bay (a destination for boat cruises). Since it was my brother’s first visit to Vietnam (and only my second), I took this unique opportunity to document our time there. His initial resistance and negative attitude towards the trip provided the perfect catalyst for a story to take place. Sure enough, by the end of the third week, my brother had learned to adapt himself to the weather, environment, and people, and was enjoying himself. At the end of the trip, he even said that he wouldn’t mind coming back next summer. I captured the entire story arc on my mini-DV handicam, the footage of which I edited into a short ethnographic film the following fall semester in Professor Doherty’s Narrative Documentary Practicum class.

From Vietnam, I went directly to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, for the Humanistic Buddhist Monastic Life Program (HBMLP), a program in which 40 students from the U.S. and Canada learned about the history, philosophy, and way of life of Buddhist monastics living in the temple of Fo Guang Shan, through daily classroom lectures as well as through participation in the many rituals, ceremonies, and activities of the monastery. Founded in 1967, Fo Guang Shan has now become an international organization that strives to fulfill Venerable Founding Master Hsing Yun’s Four Directives: “(1) to nurture talent through education, (2) to propagate the Dharma through culture, (3) to benefit society through charity, [and] (4) to purify people's minds through cultivation.”(1) Though I was initially hesitant about the temple’s mission to “spread the dharma and Humanistic Buddhism” in an almost proselytic manner, as well as its seeming opulence as evidenced by its size and wealth, this experience proved to be the most powerful confirmation of my spiritual path in Buddhism.

The most important lesson I learned was the teaching of the pure mind, not in its abstract theory of Enlightenment, but the actual realization of the beauty and nature of things that defy categorization and distinctions. In the four weeks that we spent in the monastery, we were required to live as the monastics did: We wore uniforms, ate vegetarian food, abstained from sexual activities, meditated, chanted, practiced tai chi, and followed a strict time schedule. Perhaps the first eye-opening encounter I had was in befriending a student from McGill University. This student and I had much in common in terms of interests, practice experience, energy level, and commitment. He and I became inseparable within the first week.

Then came the first Monday that we were allowed time off from the rigorous schedule, when we were free to wear our civilian clothing, leave the temple grounds, and go sight-seeing. This occasion was when I realized how superficial the distinctions in our ordinary human minds really are. As my friend emerged from his room wearing all black clothing, it dawned on me that I had no idea what his past was, what social role he played in society, what his hobbies and tastes were. Had I met him just then, I would have definitely assumed that we had nothing in common whatsoever and never would have thought to talk to him, never mind befriend him. Seeing his affiliation with the dark, depressive nature of the gothic scene through his choice of clothing made me realize how readily we attach certain stereotypes and roles to people on the mere basis of what they wear. At that moment, I understood what is meant in Buddhism by the fact that reality does not come in the categories that we tend to think.

The second revelation occurred to me the night before we ended a weeklong retreat, the first of its kind for me. After having spent five days in frustration and anger at myself for my inability to stay focused and get the most out of such a wonderful opportunity to practice, my body and mind, which were both painfully numb and rigid, gave out. In their place was left a calm, relaxed, fully alert awareness of everything around me. I gazed up briefly at the row of students sitting at the opposite end of the meditation hall and was suddenly filled with an overwhelming sense of love, appreciation, and awe for the beauty that exuded from each individual. I breathed in a feeling of warmth, care, and security. As I breathed out, I felt as though I had known these people my entire life and lifetimes before. This experience was a release on so many levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I learned the power of community, of what the Buddhists call the “Third Refuge:” the sangha.

My third powerful experience took place the day following the end of the retreat, when we students were required to present the projects that we had been working on during our time there. My project was a short eight-minute sightseeing video tour of the monastery, which I worked on at Fo Guang Shan’s Television Center. I researched the different sites of the enormous and wealthy temple and wrote a script that included both a voiceover narration and ideas of visuals for each site to accompany the narration. I recorded my voiceover in a sound booth and oversaw the editing process of the video.

Having spent approximately three hours per day for two-and-a-half weeks in the TV Center, I had experienced the modern, technologically advanced side of the temple. When other students began to present their projects, I realized how much my experience differed from those of others. Some students spent their project time taking pictures of wildlife in the temple. Others recorded temple sounds (such as bells, wooden fishes, drums, chanting, etc.). Still others spent their time learning calligraphy, kung fu, cooking vegetarian dishes, and playing traditional instruments. They shared their personal experiences and showed me a glimpse of the miniature lifetime that they had lived during their month in the monastery. Even with the same schedule, clothes, and external stimulation, we all managed to take something from the program that was genuinely us.

The one presentation that struck me most intensely was the experience of one student who worked in the kitchen, helping with the preparation of meals. He described the experience in such vivid detail and poetic words that he transported me right into his shoes, so that I was able to see the two huge vats of white rice soaking in water, feel the smooth grains glide through my fingers, hear the wonderfully soothing swishing sound of the water, and smell the fresh aroma of steamed vegetables. Upon hearing this beautiful account, my mind and heart were moved beyond words, and tears of appreciation and contentment streamed down my cheeks. For the next week, I was bombarded by the unending beauty in people and things. For that short amount of time, I caught a glimpse of emptiness in nature.

These amazing, life-altering experiences motivated me to continue such a lifestyle, and so, after a month back in America, I moved into the Cambridge Zen Center. I have been living here for over half a year now and have no intention of leaving anytime soon. My decision to become a CZC member and resident was one of the final things left to incorporate in my thesis film during the fall semester of 2005. In fact, that is the final note on which the film ends. Having had minimal yet participatory presence in the film, I figured that such an escalation in my commitment would be a positive close to the film.

I also needed to address the recent developments with Tiffany and Nick, which were quite ironic given the initial premise of the film: that Tiffany would become increasingly integrated into the community and that Nick would move out of the Center to finally join the “real world.” I could not have asked for a more dramatic ending: Due to the difficulty that she had in maintaining her schoolwork and practice commitments, Tiffany decided to move into one of the apartments next door, where the practice requirements are less demanding; while Nick decided against moving out and is enjoying his residence at the Center now more than ever. I guess that’s what they call “the magic of filmmaking.” And I guess that’s what they mean by “The universe works in mysterious ways.” Whatever forces are at work, whether it be God, the Tao, energy, karma, or one’s own mind, I now trust in the beauty and nature of the universe and can honestly say that it is okay to not know.

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(1) “Humanistic Buddhism.” Fo Guang Shan Temple of Toronto. 11 Jan 2006 <>.

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