Friday, March 15: This week I watched a 2002 German film called Enlightenment Guaranteed. The film is an amusing yet thought-provoking story about two German brothers who go to Tokyo in search of enlightenment amidst a series of mishaps and tribulations. I loved this film not only because I could relate to the brothers’ experiences as foreigners in Japan (I recognized my own experiences in Korea!), but also because it gave me food for thought on my spiritual journey.
Uwe is a kitchen designer with 4 screaming children and a wife, Petra, who he continually berates. At work, he tells a couple of his clients that arguments usually start in the kitchen because most kitchens are poorly designed and too small. He tells them a kitchen has to make you happy, that you should be able to think clearly while chopping onions or cabbage. The act of chopping, he says, can be aerobics for the soul.
In an argument in Uwe’s house that begins in the kitchen, Petra is busy cleaning up a puddle of cold milk that her child knocked to the floor because it wasn’t warmed. Uwe comes in and says, sarcastically, that he’s not surprised; after all, the child likes his milk warm: “Look, Mama made a mess. People learn from experience. That’s what makes us human. In theory, at least.”
Later that evening, when Uwe returns home from work, he finds his wife and children are gone. There’s a note on the kitchen floor from Petra: “I’m learning from experience that you will never change.”
Uwe calls his brother, Gustav, who studies Zen Buddhism and works as a Feng Shui consultant. He spends time in meditation each day and applies Zen principles in his daily life. Gustav is packing for a trip to Tokyo; he plans to stay several weeks at the Sojij Monastery in Monzen. Uwe begs Gustav to take him along to Tokyo: “Don’t leave me alone! I’ll kill myself,” he cries and pleads with his brother in a drunken stupor. “I won’t bother you! I’ll carry your bags!” Earnest Gustav agrees reluctantly to take Uwe along, even though he wants to do the journey alone.
So begins the “enlightenment” of Gustav and Uwe. Throughout their travels, Gustav reads wise Buddhist truths from a book about Zen. When the brothers arrive in Tokyo, every Japanese person on the streets is talking on a mobile phone. The city is an assault on the senses.
In the hotel, Gustav uses a compass to determine the optimal direction to lie in his bed, and Uwe measures his bed like he measures his kitchen cabinets. As they leave their hotel to go out for dinner and drinks in Tokyo, Uwe says, “Can we leave our passports in the room?” Gustav says, “Of course. Nobody steals in Japan.”
After dinner, they head to a bar. Gustav, who is worried about getting lost in Tokyo, warns Uwe that they should use neon flashing signs to remember their location: KAWASAKI and EPSOM. At the bar, they order 3 drinks and the bill shockingly comes to $600. When they head back out to the street, they can’t find their landmark signs. By this time, Uwe’s money is “finito” due to the outrageous bar bill, and Gustav has only 5,000 yen ($52). They can’t remember the name of their hotel, but Gustav has a business card he picked up from the hotel desk. He gives it to a woman taxi driver and they start driving for what seems like a long distance, further than they walked. When the driver finally stops, they say, “This is the hotel??” The driver says “Otel??? Otel??” like she’s not sure she understands. They get out of the taxi, and they see a hospital across the street: “Maybe she thought we were saying “hospital.” By this time, they are down to 1,000 yen, and they decide to go to an ATM for more money. The machine is flashing Japanese instructions and then eats Uwe’s card. Gustav inserts his card, and the same thing happens. Now they have no money, no means of getting any, and no idea where they are.
Now, with nothing left, Gustav reads from his Zen book: “Become homeless. Feel good in your own skin. In misery is bliss.” With the small change they have left, they go to a casino, hoping to win the jackpot. Of course they lose all their money in the slot machines.
As it turns into the wee morning hours, Gustav reads: “Have patience every day of your life.” Exhausted, they stop in a small park lined with cardboard boxes, and they each crawl into one to sleep for the night. As they prepare to sleep, Gustav says, “I don’t think it’s all that bad.” Uwe says, “In the last hour I only thought of Petra and the kids 17 times. What do you mean it’s not all that bad here? Is this more of your Zen bull****?”
In the morning, they wake up and Gustav swears, “No more cardboard boxes!” They go to a department store where they find tents for sale, and Uwe steals a bright yellow tent by putting it under his jacket. As they are crossing a huge and crowded crosswalk, they get separated.
Uwe has been filming their experience on his video camera and as he wanders alone through the streets of Tokyo, he says to the camera, “I feel like I’m on some strange planet.” While Gustav wanders alone, trying to reassure himself, he reads in his Zen book: “The melon knows not the cold wind of morning. Alone on the ice, a cheerful cormorant.” Gustav steals a meal from a sushi conveyor belt. Uwe goes to a palm reader who reads his palm in Japanese; he films her reading.
Gustav ends up in a metro station singing Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive!” in German. While singing, a German girl approaches him to put money in his hat, and he latches on to her: “You speak German!!??” As she takes him by train to her home, where she lives with a Japanese man, Gustav looks out the train window and sees the yellow tent beside the track. The brothers are reunited and go to Anica’s house, where she gives them a place to sleep and the ability to work in a German Oktoberfest house to earn a little money. As she speaks some Japanese, she translates Uwe’s palm reading from the video: “Clear lines, strong feelings. Recently you’ve had problems in your love life. I see a separation from your wife.” Uwe says, “Separation or divorce??” She says, “I see a hope line that points to the light.” Uwe ponders the meaning of this.
gravel raked by monks into a pattern in Kyoto, Japan
Finally, they are on their way to the Buddhist monastery in Monzen. On the train, Uwe reads: “Meditation is the way to enlightenment.” Gustav says, “Yes, you just sit there and let your thoughts come and go.”
Uwe continues reading: “We must see through the illusion that there is a separate self. We practice to remove this divide. Not until the moment we and the object become one do we truly see our lives. You don’t reach enlightenment. It’s the absence of something. You’re after something your entire life, some goal. Enlightenment is giving it up.”
The Golden Temple, Kyoto, Japan
At the monastery, they get into the Zen Buddhist monks’ routine. They wake every morning at 4. They meditate and chant for hours. They clean floors. They clean windows. They sweep the ground outdoors. They sit and contemplate nature. Over and over, the routine is repeated day in and day out. Finally, at the end of their stay, each of them goes to talk to a wise monk about their problems.
Uwe tells the monk about his hatred for his wife for leaving him. The monk tells him: “See all other people as if they were you. Just like you. If you want to hate, then really hate. Don’t eat. Don’t sleep. Hate, hate, hate. The hate will go away by itself. You will see that hate won’t get you anywhere.”
Gustav, who is continually messing up at the monastery, falling down while scrubbing floors or falling asleep during meditation, asks the monk about his fears of getting lost and of making mistakes. The monk tells him: “Mistakes are a fact of life. That can’t be changed. Everyone makes them. Your true nature is what counts. Not the rest. If you’re afraid of spilling a cup of tea, your fear keeps you from noticing how warm the cup feels in your hand and how good it smells. Because you’re so busy trying not to spill it.”
I love the messages in this movie. The movie is all about stripping down to the bare essentials, about learning what’s important. I couldn’t help but think of myself when I went to Greece this summer and my suitcase was lost for 2 days. At least I had money, my camera, and a place to sleep, but I was disappointed and irritated and worried. I don’t know how I would have done had the suitcase never appeared, but I didn’t like the inconvenience one bit. However, I didn’t sit in my hotel sulking; neither did I sit on the phone all day berating Egypt Air. I went out to explore the streets of Athens and to see the Acropolis. I enjoyed some heavenly meals accompanied by wine. Neither did Gustav and Uwe like their situation, and many times one or the other of them threatened to give up, go the German embassy, and go home. They continually reminded each other: “Never give up!” And they didn’t.
Bamboo Forest, Kyoto, Japan
In the year I lived in Korea, I lived in a small one room apartment, much like a dorm room with a small kitchen, after having lived in nice brick 2- or 3-story Colonials in Virgina for most of my life. I had to pare down and lower my expectations considerably. When I taught at the elementary school in Seongju, I had a 1 1/2 hour commute each way,which included walking for 20 minutes, riding two unheated buses and sitting in an unheated, filthy bus station for 20 minutes. The school was not heated in winter or cooled in summer. Many days in winter, I was cold all day, huddled in my winter coat next to a heat lamp I bought for my classroom. As hard as it was, I kept telling myself, “This won’t last forever. I just need to make it though.” And I did. However, it was difficult and I didn’t accept it easily. Often I would have to remind myself to just let it go. Sometimes I was successful; often I wasn’t.
I have other challenges in Oman, different from in Korea, but challenges nonetheless. My dear friend Mario has told me in the past that he sees me as generally content. My first year here, I WAS content, more so than this year, mainly because of the deterioration in my job. But slowly, I have learned to be content when I’m outside of work, despite the heat, the lack of greenery, the ultra-traditional culture. I’m still working on the art of letting go. Practice. Patience.
I have this strange recurring vision of myself, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in waking visions. I see myself walking down a path, and when I look down at my feet, I see my feet moving steadily forward under a monk’s robes. Strange. Maybe I’m being called to spend some time in a monastery. I know there is still a lot for me to learn. I believe, if I keep practicing, I will find the way to let go. Slowly. Slowly.