In 1946 Heidegger and the Chinese academic Paul Shih-yi Hsiao collaborated on a translation of the Tao Te Ching. Hsiao withdrew from the project after translating 8 of the 81 stanzas of the classic citing anxiety over Heidegger’s departures from the text. Carman and Van Norden remark that this was somewhat usual behaviour from Heidegger who felt little need for textually loyal interpretation of any texts. Heidegger, for his part, expressed exceptional love for and philosophical affiliation with D. T. Suzuki and said he felt this Zen theologian and philosopher captured the essence of his philosophy.
Considering these two different accounts we should be careful with mapping any sort of one-to-one relationship between existentialist thought and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Taoism but likewise we cannot ignore that parallels exist.
I also want to briefly discuss why I’m talking about Buddhism and Taoism together here. Principally this is because both Buddhism and Taoism are essential to an understanding of Monk Comes Down the Mountain. He Anxia, the protagonist, is a Taoist monk. His principal moral guides throughout this film are a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot and a Taoist recluse. Buddhism and Taoism are different but not necessarily opposed. They are different but non-contradictory and have had an influence over each other. Particularly you can see a Taoist influence on the writings of the Chán patriarchs such as via the focus on formlessness in the Flower Sermon. The Chán focus on the insufficiency of language to communicate the dharma largely echoes the Tao Te Ching when it says,
“The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”
Whether we look at the Buddhist sense of Dharma or teaching or the Taoist sense of tao or way of being we encounter this fundamental argument that the absolute thing being taught is not entirely communicable from within language – it’s insufficient. However the Flower Sermon is not a universal Buddhist text – it is, in fact, rather explicitly restricted to Chán and its successor Zen. Here it’s important to reflect on how Buddhism, in specific, is non-monolithic. Rather Buddhism has always been rather syncretic, responding to and interacting with local intellectual life. Chán is one of two principal schools of Buddhism that arose in China (along with Pure Land Buddhism) and both were in deep dialog with Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Folk Religion from the moment they arrived on the scene.
In the 2015 Chen Kaige film Monk Comes Down the Mountain this interrelated nature is brought front and center as it plots the journey of a junior Taoist monk who, after being asked to leave his monastery, goes on a search for teachers who include a doctor of Western medicine, a Buddhist abbot, a Taoist recluse and an opera star.
This is a strange film. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising as Chen has a history of writing and directing movies that make unusual choices. A strong prior example is the critically divisive 2005 fantasy film The Promise which contained stunning and irrealist costuming and set design to frame a story that remains focused on Chen’s perennial topics of sexual desire and its relationship to masculine friendship. These topics are present in Monk Comes Down the Mountain in spades but with an added twist of a focus on and exploration of the master-student dynamic that is central to the Chinese monastic experience and, via a transitory action from that monastic setting, martial arts fiction.
Some of the strangeness comes from a deeper-than-average formal adherence to wuxia structure. Wuxia novels were often quite episodic as a result of their golden age being dominated by newspaper serials. Each episode in a character’s story had to both fit into the overall arc and also be a cohesive tale about that character that could fit into the column inches available for it. But setting a wuxia story in Hangzhou in the 1930s is an interesting deviation since the mid-20th century period that marked the greatest output in the genre was also marked by a desire to look back into the pre-Republican past while most contemporary kung fu stories either followed this same trend or were set in the present. The period between the end of the Zhongshan Incident and the 1970s is at best a loose sketch with a small number of portrayals of Ip Man, Huo Yuanjia and his fictional pupil Chen Zhen standing in for the breadth of the jianghu during the early 20th century. In fact the premise of the Once Upon a Time in China films was largely that Wong Fei-hung‘s generation was the last blossoming of the age of martial arts heroes. But this movie does away with that and suggests, instead, that the heroes were all still there, secluded in temples, performing in operas and playing at gangster just as they had always done just somehow rendered almost invisible by modernity: just acrobats, monks and gangsters in the eyes of the world. Diminished.
In the world of this film no amount of neigong will protect a hero from a bullet in the back.
Another avenue for strangeness is the singular performance given by Wang Baoqing as the protagonist He Anxia. Wang characterizes his monk as a figure whose emotional map is dialed up to eleven. When he is happy (and he is a happy sort so this is often) he grins with his whole face, capers and laughs maniacally. When bored his whole body sinks into objects, his face droops, eyes almost shut. When angry He Anxia is outright and effectively homicidal in his wrath. Wang’s characterization of He seems to be hinting that being raised since infancy in a monastery has left He without normal emotional filters. He is unable to restrain these impulses of various passions because he never experienced enough to even realize he had them. This impulsivity extends into the script.
He’s first mentor upon leaving the temple is another former Taoist monk who abandoned the clergy and became a doctor out of lust. He was so desirous of a beautiful woman he encountered that he changed his whole life to be with her. He’s an older man though and so to support his desire he pays his younger brother, an apothecary, for aphrodisiacs. He isn’t aware his wife is having an affair with his younger brother but He Anxia spies on her while out on an errand and sees her in tryst with the younger brother; he confronts her, tells her she should tell her husband.
She assumes he has told the doctor and comes clean only to learn that He Anxia, just as impulsively as when he’d chosen to follow her, has not told the doctor a thing. The doctor persuades her to break off the affair with her brother which she does but the brother gives her a poisoned aphrodisiac which kills her husband before resuming his affair with her.
The film is clear the wife doesn’t realize the medicine is tainted.
He Anxia murders them both, locking them together in a boat and sinking it to the bottom of West Lake. He watches the light fade in her eyes as she drowns and then flees to a Buddhist temple seeking some understanding of whether what he did is good or evil.
Later he is drugged by the son of a gangster who believes his father has murdered his own best student (he has) and who believes He Anxia has information (he does). The drug loosens He Anxia’s tongue and he tells the other man, “I want to fuck my master’s wife.”
Later in the film He Anxia comes into the orbit of Zhou Xiyu – a recluse who lives alone in an abandoned Taoist temple. It transpires that Zhou is the former martial brother of the pupil-killing gangster and He’s actions reveal to the gangster that his xiongdi is still alive. The gangster, played by the delightfully hammy legend of Hong Kong cinema Wah Yuen is obsessed with maintenance of the family line and the martial line in one. He has never forgiven his father for teaching Zhou a powerful martial art and not him and so he goes to beat the secret out of Zhou. He fails; Zhou is by far the stronger fighter. But after he leaves Zhou is shot in the back by an unknown assailant. He hovers at the border between life and death. He Anxia brings his new teacher to the same abbot whose advice he sought after killing his last teacher’s unfaithful wife and begs the abbot to aid his teacher with his passing. The teacher reveals he needs to see one man before he dies and the abbot reminds him he can see him in his heart. Zhou agrees and sees a man who is a stranger to the audience smiling beatifically down at him before dying.
This man is the opera star Boss Zha – who is revealed to be Zhou’s former lover. The two met as soldiers some years previously and Zhou saved Zha’s life during a beautiful scene in which they embrace on a bridge as shells explode around them. They retreated from the world together to practice kung fu and when they eventually departed vowed eternal loyalty. Zha finding justice for his lover’s death marks the conclusion of the final episode of the film and brings He Anxia’s story to its conclusion. The film ends by saying in a voice-over narrative, “Only by experiencing good and evil can you truly appreciate the way… The true heart can hold all things, the mountains, plains and rivers and an eternal cosmic universe.”
It’s really only in this moment that all this strangeness, this lumpy, uneven and deeply odd narrative of love and hate, loyalty and betrayal, selflessness and selfishness becomes clear. He Anxia’s moral development depends not just on a naïve man learning to do good things but rather of an empty vessel filling up with all the thickness of the world. He has to experience everything. And now we’re ready to talk a bit about Taoism, Buddhism and Existentialism.
In Return to Tipasa, Camus says, “In the difficult hour we are living, what else can I desire than to exclude nothing and to learn how to braid with white thread and black thread a single cord stretched to the breaking-point? In everything I have done or said up to now, I seem to recognize these two forces, even when they work at cross-purposes… But if one forgoes a part of what is, one must forgo being oneself; one must forgo living or loving otherwise than by proxy. “
The true heart can hold all things; learn how to braid with white thread and black tread a single cord stretched to the breaking point. There is an echo here. Taoism recognizes that the world is absurd. Certainly this film does. In a minor episode a beautiful young woman approaches He Anxia and tells him he is her savior. It transpires she has been unable to bear a child – the husband is probably to blame but nobody wants to admit that. She has been praying to Guanyin at the temple for a son and the goddess used to grant sons but in the last several years the goddess has stopped and nobody knows why.
On the strength of this chance encounter with a stranger He Anxia goes to the Abbot (the same one who guided him through his guilt over his murder, the same one who will later ease his teacher’s passing) and asks why the goddess has stopped granting sons.
The abbot tells him that during the tenure of the previous abbot the monastery allowed men to hide in a secret room beneath the temple to Guanyin. When women came there to pray for a son one of the men would bring her down and help her to conceive one. The abbot says he didn’t think this was appropriate decorum for temple and he locked the secret room. This is why the Goddess stopped answering those particular prayers.
He asks the abbot for the key and the abbot asks why. He says he wants to help a woman and the abbot says yes. He Anxia promises the woman never to see her again after helping her solve her heir-problem. It’s all absurd. The woman is a stranger. She comes to He Anxia by chance. She is the first (and in the film only) person he is physically intimate with. She leaves his life just as suddenly as she entered it and then she becomes an absence in his life.
Sartre situates nothingness in absence. In Being and Nothingness he brings forth the example of a friend to be met at a restaurant. “I say, ‘he is not here.’ Is there an intuition of Pierre’s absence, or does negation enter in only with judgment? At first sight it seems absurd to speak here of intuition since to be exact there could not be an intuition of nothing and since the absence of Pierre is this nothing. Popular consciousness, however, bears witness to this intuition. Do we not say, for example, ‘I suddenly saw that he was not there.'” Sartre says that the absence of his friend is marked as an aspect in the fleeting faces of all those people who are not Pierre. Being is composed of all these absences marked by the sudden and shocking intrusion of presence when the absence is negated. “the negative judgment is conditioned and supported by non-being.” For Sartre, these early pages of Being and Nothingness are built around the argument that the being of a thing is ontologically primary. That our ability to assign appearances and essences to a being depend first on the presence of the being which is composed of an infinite series of all appearances and dis-appearances of it. The nothingness that marks the absence of a being is also part of that being.
It is bottomless; the very progenitor of all things in the world. In it all sharpness is blunted, All tangles untied, All glare tempered, All dust smoothed. It is like a deep pool that never dries. Was it too the child of something else? We cannot tell. But as a substanceless image it existed before the ancestor.
The Tao Te Ching interprets the Tao as an empty vessel, an uncarved block, a void to be filled. The Way is a being that contains within it all its own nothingnesses; it is, in fact, a nothingness from which all things emerge. For the Tao Te Ching this aspect of being fruiting out of nothingness isn’t merely an ontological process whereby our understanding of what an object is not is a unified part of our understanding of what an object is. Instead it’s a metaphysical nothingness that gives birth to all things. Nothingness is within all things because all things arose from nothingness.
There’s a sense, in the phenomenological existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre that the presence of other objects to a being is an intrinsically shocking thing, almost hostile. But at the same time a subject cannot help but encounter other beings. We are within the world. This is Dasein – this sense that to exist is to be tossed about in a maelstrom of becoming and of appearances. In Nausea, Roquentin describes sitting under a Chestnut tree and says, “I was in the park just now. The roots of the chestnut tree were sunk in the ground just under my bench. I couldn’t remember it was a root any more. The words had vanished and with them the significance of things, their methods of use, and the feeble points of reference which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, stooping forward, head bowed, alone in front of this black, knotty mass, entirely beastly, which frightened me.” This direct encounter with the being of the other shocks him but at the same time it digs into the ground against which the word, “tree” or the description of the root, “black,” rests. There is this rupture of the tree being too much, too solid. But being-in-the-world is inescapable. We are not cartesian mind-imps observing everything through a screen. We are buffeted about by being and the vicissitudes of life. Language fails Roquentin in the face of a true encounter with the tree. As Zhuangzi says, “those who understand, do not say. Those who say do not understand.”
This idea – that language creates a barrier to an encounter with the real – remains the point where Heidegger breaks from Taoism and from Ch’an. Both of these older ontologies look at the inability of language to capture the paradoxes and contradictions of being in the world and say that language is the problem; an object must be taken in whole and no words can carry enough meaning to communicate even the smallest object in its entirety. Heidegger, instead, ties himself in knots attempting to describe these phenomenological problems.
Sartre gets closer at times and more distant to this anti-linguistic frame. In Nausea, under the Chestnut Tree, he captures the inability of language to describe being in a true sense. “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” as Laozi puts it. But even then he returns to the complex formulae of phenomenology in a vain attempt to describe the eternal Tao.
Monk Comes Down the Mountain is a story about the absurd and paradoxical nature of life. Its character, in his wild irrealist mood swings and strange, twisting, life story lives a life every bit as absurd of that of Roquentin, refusing to write his book in a coastal town that doesn’t exist. But being a Taoist work, Monk Comes Down the Mountain understands that the only way to truly and fundamentally apprehend being in all its paradox is to take it all in, to recognize the completeness of being and of the failure of language, even filmic language, to represent it in its wholeness. Recognizing its insufficiency to the task the film, instead of tying itself down in a complex phenomenology, allows its story to drift to metaphor and parable that is purposefully inadequate but is beautiful and strange nonetheless.
Heidegger failed to translate the Tao Te Ching and for all he tried to insert himself into the lineage of Zen he failed at that task too. No nazi can understand the sermon present in a smile and a plucked flower. Nausea fails too and so does Monk Comes Down the Mountain. Nothing can represent being; no work of art can present an essence to being in all its thickness. The essence is contained within the object of being along with its absence. It is but a part of a far greater whole. But where Heidegger’s Dasein gestures in the direction of the field, and where Nausea brushes against its surface, Monk Comes down the Mountain capers and dances, flashes a manic grin and throws itself about in acrobatic maneuvers. Camus said we need to braid with white and black thread stretched taught to the point of breaking and so must the Monk but even this misses the mark. He Anxia doesn’t braid with white and black thread; he is the white and black thread. His heart contains an eternal cosmic universe.