“Walk With Me,” a documentary describing the monastic world of Plum Village in southwest France, comes to the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center for one night, Thursday, Nov. 2. In this quiet tribute to Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhát Hanh, viewers can observe his practices and those of his followers.
The Vietnamese monk and peace activist was exiled for his support of nonviolence in the mid-’60s during the Vietnam War. While in the U.S., he met with Martin Luther King Jr. and urged him to denounce the war. A receptive King nominated Nhát Hanh for the 1967 Nobel Peace Prize, although none was awarded that year.
Nhát Hanh subsequently traveled to France, where he helped found Plum Village as a Buddhist monastery run by his Unified Buddhist Church. He has also started monasteries and dharma centers in California, Vermont, Mississippi, and New York. He is responsible for introducing the practice of mindfulness, the mental state of awareness of the present, in the U.S.
“Walk With Me” does not include much biographical information about Nhát Hanh; instead it immerses the viewer in the daily lives of the monks and nuns who live at Plum Village, and the retreats held for laypersons. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch narrates excerpts from Nhát Hanh’s journal, “Fragrant Palm Leaves.”
Filming over three years, co-directors Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis interweave images of sunrises and flowers, wildlife and insects, with shots of the village’s monks walking through leafless trees in winter and later in warm weather. The directors rely extensively on close-ups of the faces of monks, nuns, and those on retreats.
Many shots of meal preparation and eating illustrate an important part of the monastery’s daily activities. The camera follows as monks and nuns have their heads shaved, a representation of religious devotion. Bells initiate the ritual of stopping all activities and briefly remaining silent. “It’s all about coming back to the present, because we often find ourselves on autopilot,” viewers are told.
“Suffering is the compost, the food of awakening,” Cumberbatch narrates. “Flowers are the symbol of enlightenment. You have to have suffering to be awakened.” One nun explains that the first precept of monastery practice is that you cannot have sexual intercourse. Another precept is the vow to have no personal possessions.
The directors flesh out the lives of the monastery inhabitants with photos of their families and occasional visits to relatives, as well as trips outside the monastery to cities. One nun confesses to feeling bored occasionally by the simple, pared-down life she leads at the monastery.
Now 91, Nhát Hanh leads his disciples on walks and appears in front of admiring audiences. He suffered a stroke in 2014 and does not speak, except in earlier, pre-stroke scenes. In one such scene, a little girl explains that her dog died and she doesn’t know how not to be sad. Nhát Hanh describes a cloud that disappears and advises her it is still alive, only in a new form.
“Walk With Me” is an illustration of a way of life more than a narrative. It evokes a world unlike almost any other, and it is one we all can learn from.
Information and tickets for this and other Film Center and Capawock Theater screenings are available at mvfilmsociety.com.