Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

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Author of this essay:

Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(March 27, 2005)

A review of a Martial Arts film
by Ming Zhen Shakya

Ever since the Greeks invented the drama as a salute to heroic Dionysus, we've been dividing theatrical tributes into comedy and tragedy. A man, the protagonist, is confronted by a problem, the antagonist. If he prevails and overcomes the problem, we have comedy. If he succumbs to the problem, we've got tragedy.

In either case, we know that the people and props on the stage are imitations. What purports to be a medieval sword fight will not be fought with sharpened blades of steel. The men who announce that they are knights of the 13th century are a couple of guys who bus tables at a Howard Johnson's by day to pay for acting lessons. And they don't know anything about sword fighting. If they're in a movie, we see them insouciantly leap off a cliff that in reality is three feet high; and if the shot is long and we see them falling through space, we're looking at dressed-alike stunt men who will likely land on a big inflated cushion. We know the truth; but we must allow ourselves to be tricked into "suspending credulity" and to go along with the deception.

Ong Bak presents us with an unusual oxymoronic twist. Some years ago, Truman Capote pioneered "the non-fiction novel" when he wrote In Cold Blood; and the film of his book became "docudrama." Two drifters had murdered four people in a farmhouse in Kansas. Capote chronicled the crime, bringing life to the victims by fleshing out their portrayals with the imagined or recalled conversations and actions of their neighbors and, of course, their killers.

On one hand, Ong Bak is too real to be just drama. On the other hand, it's not a documentary. Maybe it is a drametary.

The Martial Arts have always been the fare of entertaining pretense. In the original Kung Fu television series, for example, David Carradine played the part of an Amerasian Buddhist monk, a meditator and an accomplished practitioner of the martial arts in a Chinese monastery. In real life, he was none of these things and could not even sit in lotus. He made no apologies and none was needed.

Actor Tony Jaa is a Thai Buddhist meditator and an adept in the Muay Thai School of Martial Arts. He plays Ting, a Thai Buddhist meditator and an adept in the Muay Thai School of Martial Arts. He doesn't have any stunt men, wire lifts, or computerized fakery. When we see Tony Jaa perform absolutely astonishing feats, we are seeing Tony Jaa perform them.

The opening sequence of the film prefaces the amazing realism.

In what is obviously a village custom, dozens of young men scramble up a huge tree in a contest to see which one can get a flag that flies from the top of the tree. If only one man were climbing the tree, the action would be dangerous enough; but a horde of men is climbing and every one of them is trying to reduce the competition by pulling or pushing everyone else off. When a contestant falls, there is no cushion under him. He hits the dirt and he hits it hard. The camera never leaves him from his first tottering moment until he splats on the ground.

One after another the men fall or are left gawking in glum admiration as Ting, flitting through the limbs like the monkey god Hanuman, himself, succeeds in snatching the flag.

However much the tree scene was choreographed and the climbers who fell expected that they'd be hitting the ground, the fact is that they climbed like monkeys and fell like human beings. The pain the camera registers is genuine.

It is reported that quite a few persons were injured during the filming of the movie. When animals are involved in a movie, we often see the disclaimer "No animals were injured during production" at the end. Sometimes we find that a little hard to believe. If such a disclaimer were made about human beings at the conclusion of Ong Bak, we wouldn't believe it at all.

The plot has elements that have a confounding mix of fact and fiction, a reversal of docudrama.

A city slicker named Don comes to Ting's village hoping to purchase an amulet that hangs around the neck of the statue of Ong Bak, the Buddha's temple effigy. Don is the agent of Khom Tuan, a crime-boss who deals in all manner of illegal activities from drugs to brutal, human-pitbull gambling; but it is his black market commerce in ancient Buddhist artworks that leads off the litany of his offenses.

When the Elder in charge of the temple refuses to sell the amulet and removes it for safe keeping, Don steals the head of Ong Bak which, we will learn, is not particularly valuable in the art market, but represents survival, itself, to the villagers.

Ting, a candidate for ordination in Buddhist Orders, is fully prepared to renounce violence, promising his master that he will not use the martial arts discipline he has devoted himself to. But he is not yet ordained. That event has been forestalled by the theft of the statue's head which must be restored if there is to be peace and prosperity in the village.

Seeking the assistance of George, a former friend who left village life for the excitement of loan sharks, card sharps, and blood baths, Ting begins his mission in the tenderloin district of Bangkok.

There follows one dazzling display of acrobatics after another. Running, Tony Jaa does a skidding split with lowered head to slide under a moving truck. While tumbling with speed and dexterity that make the floor exercises of Olympic gymnasts look static and clumsy, he dives through the center of a thick coil of barbed wire that is being carried by two construction workers. He scampers across the heads and shoulders of pedestrians. He somersaults off two storey buildings and we watch him (knowing that there are no special effects assisting the performance) land nimbly on his feet. He casually leaps over cars and any obstacle we might expect to find in a open-air street market.

In the fight scenes his hands are literally the Vajramushti (Lightning Fist) of Muay Thai. All his limbs - hands, arms, head, feet, legs, and especially knees and elbows - are weapons that he uses with unparalleled speed and grace. Choreographed or not, it is the real McCoy of body movement. Baryshnikov was choreographed, too, but that did not diminish his performance.

A jaded eye would wonder if a Buddhist monk could possibly know the martial arts. The answer is, sure. The arts have long been a monastic discipline. But this well? At several places the camera's angle and speed may enhance the performance, but the point is that it does not fabricate it. This kid is really doing what he is doing. The speed and fearlessness he displays are the goal of every martial arts' master. This kind of automatic, anticipatory reflex-action is the "zone of subliminal response" acquired in the mastery of egoless meditation.

For car-chase aficionados, there are swarms of tuk-tuks, three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, that pursue the hero through the spacious streets of affluent Bangkok. It's a relief to get out of the underworld and see the alabaster hotels and palm lined avenues. Yes, the exponentially increased action of the buzzing bee tuk-tuks is seriously "over-the-top" as are the Fight Club contests between martial artists. But this is an action movie - not My Dinner With Andre (thank God).

Regrettably, the manner in which the actors speak is jolting to our ears. Subtitled, the film allows us to hear Thai spoken in lines delivered in tones that are harsh without being expressive. People say "Good Morning! How are you today?" in the same way we'd expect to hear a Captain order his men to fire at will upon the enemy. Chitchat is barked and everybody shouts pleasantries.

If Jaa has acting talent, the part doesn't allow him much of an opportunity to show it. He portrays a character who seems to be an orphan - so there is no tender mom-and-dad farewell. He is a disciplined acolyte in a celibate order so there is no Thornbirds conflict, no priestly wrestling with sexual temptation to occasion any "method acting" nuance. This isn't a movie about tormented thoughts and feelings. The character Jaa plays is single-minded in his dedication to the task he has undertaken. In real life we know that this is precisely the "one-pointed" concentration of purpose that made him the martial artist he is. For Jaa this role is no acting stretch. He plays a man he already is.

Someday Tony Jaa may venture into emotionally deep movies. Until he does, we need to reserve judgment about his acting ability. It is sufficient that he stands up when the director says "Action" and, accordingly, springs into "action."

As to the martial arts' aspect of the film, technically, we can recognize the same animal names and use of feet and legs that we find in Kalaripayattu, the ancient and probably original martial art from nearby India, which, going eastward spread through the Indo China peninsula and then into China and finally Japan. Going westward, it spread to South Africa and then to Brazil. The emphasis upon leg movement is retained in Kalaripayattu and in the Thai and Brazilian variants.

As to the drama's subtext; we can reduce the film to its obvious core meaning. That which specifically images the divine is sacred, and it is made even more precious when it has been blessed with the worshipful breaths of generations of our ancestors. Prayers cluster invisibly around it, imbuing it with the greater meanings of hopes fulfilled and griefs consoled. It is the focal point of our ethical resolve and the compass needle of our journey through life. There is no mystery about why we all instinctively act in a religious cause in ways that even patriotism and filial love cannot approximate. The spirit within us is our glory and our refuge; and however much we outwardly fail, suffer, and taint ourselves with evil, within ourselves this spirit alone remains pure and unsullied. Sometimes it is all we have, but when we come to realize that, we know that this knowledge is sufficient to make us incredibly rich and powerful. We serve the Spirit's external image - not for its intrinsic value - but because our service is integral to our faith and our gratitude.

The film's director, Prachya Pinkaew, succeeds marvelously in lifting the film from its action genre in four poignant scenes.

The first is in Ting's solitary demonstration of the martial arts' "forms" of Muay Thai. The young acolyte, vowed to poverty, performs his routines before the statue of The Buddha in precisely the same way that Barnaby the Juggler performed his routine before the statue of The Virgin Mary. He has no money. He has nothing else to offer her as a gift to the Christ Child. Ting has no money. He has only his dedication to the Buddha. For years of endless hours of arduous practice - the injuries, the fatigue, the sweat, and the renunciation of worldly pleasures - he has labored to perfect this expression of gratitude. Each time that he practiced he was saying "My efforts today are my way of saying Thank You." At the conclusion of the demonstration his master asks whether he is willing to cast aside the fruits of his labor and to cease practicing the art he has perfected, he agrees without a second thought. All he has been asked to do is to stop saying "Thank you" in this manner. There will be other ways in which he can express his gratitude. Again, each time that he practiced, his daily goal was his gift; and in giving without the expectation of reward, without condition or contract, he, himself, entered the zone of perfection.

In a second revelatory scene, Crime boss Khom Tuan has hidden his collection of ancient Buddha statues from official view by submerging them in a river. Ting, as a result of one of the wild acrobatic flight scenes, plunges into the water and suddenly the action stops. The material world vanishes and we descend into a spiritual realm of unconscious wonder. In a scene that is lyrical and mysteriously transcendental, the awestruck monk navigates the Buddha Field, the Bodhimandala, passing silently through the serene mind, the hemispheres of the World Sage.

In another scene of stunning impact, the villainous Khom Tuan, the victim of an undisclosed infirmity, has had a tracheotomy and requires the assistance of a mechanical device, an artificial larynx, to speak. His voice has an otherworldly rasp. Usually, he has a scarf around his neck; but when he smokes he removes the scarf and draws on the cigarette by holding it up to the aperture in his throat; and we watch in the sad knowledge that medical literature does record cases of cigarette smokers who despite such invasive surgery cannot give up their habit and do, in fact, persist in smoking through a hole in their throats. Visually, the scene is a dirge to the addictive finality of evil. It is a startling moment which, assuming that the actor who plays Khom Tuan is in fact so afflicted, adds much to the strange reality of the film.

The fourth extraordinary moment occurs in the final scene. Ting has restored the head of Ong Bak and village life has peacefully resumed. In his Ordination Ceremony's procession, Ting, head shaved and clerically garbed, sits bareback atop a decorated elephant as the joyful villagers accompany him to the little temple. He sits astride the great lumbering beast so naturally, and the scene is so seemingly authentic, that we forget all the knockdown, shoot 'em out action that came before. We're in another movie. Even the cinematic style changes and bears no resemblance to the former one. The young monk's obvious composure atop the elephant is explained by Tony Jaa's childhood - in which he helped his father who raised and trained these animals.

So there we have it. We have no doubt about Tony Jaa's martial arts' abilities. He is nothing short of sensational. Not since Marlowe, when James Garner witnessed the rhetorical finesse of Bruce Lee's office demolition, has anyone shown such wide-eyed wonderment at a demonstration of martial arts' skill as we who sit in the darkened theater, watching this young artist from Thailand.

It's a fun movie with a lovely subtext and some great direction. Aside from its entertainment value, it reminds us that in an unguarded moment we can lose our faith, but if we do, we must quest for its return for we cannot survive without it. Anyone who has felt that inspiring need knows the ardor of this young monk. Of course he will prevail because it is unthinkable that he could fail. If he failed all that we believe is false.

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