Saturday, December 27, 2014

Virtue of Foolishness: Gutoku Tora-san

There’s a lot for me to process after my three-week stay in Japan – two weeks of training at the Higashi Honganji head temple and one week travelling with my brother’s family. What I want to write now is about the two movies I watched on the flight back to the U.S. Their contrast could be a metaphor for where Jodo Shinshu stands in the midst of Western Buddhism.

During my dinner, I watched the 2003 Tom Cruise movie “The Last Samurai.” I often refer to that movie when I lecture on Manshi Kiyozawa and the Meiji Era, admitting that I’ve only seen bits of it on TV. So I was glad to finally have a chance to watch it.

It’s an absorbing film to watch but the story reminded me of the old TV miniseries “Shogun” with Richard Chamberlain. In the movie there was protest against the rising military-industrial complex with the samurai representing the more compassionate way of life. As embodied by Ken Watanabe’s character Katsumoto, the ideal samurai is an alluring hero, devoted to Zen serenity and disciplined code of honor.

After I slept some, I wanted to see the Tora-san movie before the flight ended. Some might dismiss the long-running series of Tora-san movies as lightweight slapstick comedies, but I always felt the ones I’ve seen were each well-crafted and somehow there’s a serious spirituality informing the formulaic plots.


The film I watched was the 1982 “Tora-san the Expert” (see poster above). Early on in the film, Tora-san attends a Buddhist funeral. When Tora-san is invited to offer incense, he ceremoniously whips out his scrunched up koden (condolence money) envelope and kneels down in a strict gassho (palms together) pose. Then instead of reaching into the granulated incense holder section of the oblong container before the altar, he mistakenly puts his fingers in the section with the burning incense. With a yelp of pain, he tosses up the burning incense grains he had pinched and they fall down into the neckline of the priest. The priest then yells in pain and a bustle of people are trying to help him by pulling off the layers of his formal robes, stripping him down to his underwear.

That scene is exactly what Jodo Shinshu teaches us – that we are bonbu, foolish ordinary beings, who pompously try to look wise and moral but end up screwing things up for ourselves and others. Yet as much trouble Tora-san gets himself into and causes for others, in the end he is embraced by everyone’s love, by the many lives (Amitayus) around him, particularly embodied by his sister Sakura, who is the bodhisattva Kannon in an apron and slacks.

Those of us brought up in the West are like the Tom Cruise character in “The Last Samurai” when we are drawn to the exotic surface of Buddhism. “Yes, this is calmness, this is the honorable way to follow,” we think and dream of being the gallant warrior conquering all our defilements and attaining a “good death.” But as the Tom Cruise movie and all other depictions of samurais show, the way of the warrior is really about glorifying one’s self and one’s tribe and putting down everyone else.

In the Tora-san movies, despite the slapstick roughhousing and flying insults, the plots are really about getting people together. No one is violently assaulted out of spite or for revenge. Instead there’s the comedy of come-uppance – I can’t help identifying with the priest in that hilarious scene. He covers himself up with shiny robes of authority but suddenly stung by the burning grains of suffering, he’s hopping around with his shabby real self exposed.

You don’t have to be Japanese to enjoy the Tora-san movies but I can see those movies won’t appeal to Westerners who’d rather see Japan as a samurai culture. (Ironically the director of the Tora-san series, Yoji Yamada, won international acclaim with his samurai films.) But Tora-san movies show the down-to-earth and caring aspects of modern-day Japan, just as Jodo Shinshu brings us a get-real Buddhism, not a package of attractive but unattainable fantasies.