Carving the Divine

Today we were treated to a very special private viewing of a wonderful documentary movie yet to be released to the public, titled, “Carving the Divine.” The movie was written and produced by a young film maker from Japan, Yujiro Seki. For the past six years, Yujiro Seki has filmed, edited, and created this amazing film.

The film is about a group of artisans in Japan called “Būshi.” Būshi are wood carvers who create the wooden statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas for temples and altars in Japan. It is an art form and craft that is 1300 years old. This film depicts the traditional way that statues are carved from wood, but the movie is much more than just wood carving. The movie beautifully depicts the ancient “Master – Disciple” relationship, in which the master carver trains his students or disciples in the ancient art of wood carving in the traditional manner. The master carvers scold and admonish the young apprentices, challenging their dedication and inner fortitude. But they do so with care and compassion as well, knowing that in order for the apprentice to really master the art, they cannot go easy on them.

The movie made me think of how Buddhism as well, has been handed down for centuries in a similar manner. From master to disciple, not only the heart of the teachings, but the living “spirit” of the teachings has been transmitted in our Buddhist tradition. If it was just a matter of words and letters, then one master could just hand the disciple a text and that disciple could hand it down to the next generation. But the teachings are not just words and letters. The teachings are “living teachings” and the essence, the heart, the spirit of the teachings must be transmitted from master to disciple, from teacher to student, from one heart and mind to another’s heart and mind. That is the key and also the challenge.

I think that this is true in the tradition of the bushi, or wood carvers. The technique and skill of carving is essential, but at the same time, it is not just skill and technique alone. The heart, the spirit of the craftsman is the intangible component in that art as well. Does the disciple have the right spirit, the right heart, the right attitude to become a master carver? Do they have the dedication and commitment to endure long days of carving at the studio, and then at night to continue to carve their own creations until the wee hours of the morning?

Professor Shigaraki of Ryukoku University was one of the “masters” that I had the rare privilege of studying under. He could be gentle and encouraging, but he could also be harsh and severe as well. I remember one seminar class in which the first-year graduate students had to make a class presentation. (I was fortunately not asked to give one because of my inadequate level of Japanese.) At the first presentation, one of my first-year graduate student classmates gave what I thought was a decent presentation. Shigaraki-Sensei was very harsh and critical of the student’s presentation. He challenged the student’s understanding of what he had said and presented. “What do you mean by this statement and that statement,” Sensei asked. “Don’t just write a bunch of words. You have to understand and know what you are saying,” he challenged. Although I wasn’t the presenter, I think all of us first-year students took Sensei’s admonitions as if he were speaking directly to each of us. My poor classmate had nowhere to hide. If there were a hole in the floor that he could crawl into, I am sure he would have jumped in. I could barely keep from crying, and I wasn’t even the one doing the presentation.

Shinran Shonin, in his years of being a monk on Mt. Hiei, must have faced horrendous discipline and scoldings from the older and senior monks. How did he endure it all? However, when he met Honen Shonin, I think he was challenged in a different manner. I think he saw in a master for the first time, someone who lived with the real heart, the real spirit of the Nembutsu, and that was what drew him to stay and study with Honen. Now he had a role model that showed him what it means to live the Nembutsu. He saw for the first time the dynamic spirit of life expressed in a real human being. He saw in Honen, what was expressed in the mythical story of Bodhisattva Dharmakara in the Larger Sutra. Now the sutras came alive. The teachings came alive, and he was both inspired and challenged to find that same spirit of the Nembutsu within his own life.

I loved the movie, “Carving the Divine,” for what it showed about the ancient art of wood carving, but also for what it showed about the Master-Disciple relationship, something true for the arts and Buddhism as well. The art of wood carving has existed in Japan for 1300 years, but Buddhism has been transmitted in a similar manner for over 2500 years. Without that kind of transmission, we would not have received the teachings today.

I hope that Yujiro Seki succeeds in getting his movie shown to the greater world. It is a really wonderful movie that should be seen and appreciated.

Rev. Marvin Harada