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Mind: the gap

Documentary takes us into the home of Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhát Hanh – and leaves a big hole at the centre of his story

04 January, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Thich Nhát Hanh in Walk With Me

Directed by Marc J Francis and Max Pugh
Certificate PG

MINDFULNESS has become mainstream. It’s up there with a bottle of Holland and Barratt’s cod liver oil as a self-improvement “thing”­. Swathes of business consultants and lifestyle gurus try to flog their own version of this form of meditation, while the number of publications that say they can teach you such tricks of self-brain-petting seem to be pretty infinite.

This well-meaning documentary takes us to the home of Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhát Hanh, who to many in the West is the public face of mindfulness. He has sold tons of books, been on Oprah and his mantras are avidly sucked up by big hitters in Silicon Valley, politics and business.

Apparently he’s a big deal.

We learn he left Vietnam in the 1960s after an unsuccessful attempt to barter a peace deal in a country wracked by war. He headed to France and there continued to practise Buddhism, setting up a monastery that has grown in size and popularity. We are told, in a rather round-about way (I garnered this information through the accompanying press production notes rather than watching the film) that the monastery’s inhabitants have given up all their “material” possessions to practise the art of meditation – or what is known in more trendy modern parlance as mindfulness.

This offers a fascinating premise for a great documentary – an access-all-areas look at a practice that’s become extremely popular in the UK, and for those who subscribe to it, it has offered a new way of considering how they live their lives.

Or, at least, you would think so: sadly, for all the efforts of directors Francis and Pugh, there does feel as if there is a big hole at the centre of the story.

As well as having a good subject, parts of the film are fairly nice to look at if not exactly breathtaking.

Its major failing is the fact it does not truly enlighten. We learn next to nothing about the actual practices that the monks at this interesting place undergo, except to watch them pray and meditate – but there is little explanation via Benedict Cumberbatch’s voiceover as to why or how. We learn little about the practicalities of living such a life – how do they pay for their food and heating? How do they divvy up the chores?

Who buys the loo roll?

The story would be much more satisfying if there were fewer scenes of people in the middle distance sitting up trees and making points to each other too far from ear shot for us to know if they are discussing what was on the TV the night before or the fleeting irrelevance of human existence, and more on what it means to be a Buddhist monk, living in rural France, in the 21st century.


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