PRINCESS MONONOKE, Hayao Miyazaki, 1997

The Zen of Hayao Miyazaki

Zen is a science of spiritual investigation.  The practitioner strives for a clear and direct understanding of self and world through a rigorous process of meditative calming and intuitive reflection.  The Zen way (known within the tradition as the Ox path) is to observe the mind, following thought to the root of consciousness; unravelling one’s Karma in order to arrive at a clear view of being.  Here, the term Karma is relieved of its controversial metaphysical implications of past and future lives, it is simply the chain of causality that gives rise to the self; it is our conditioning.  All that ride the Ox path home arrive at the same realisation; the delusion of self is shattered, and an awareness of the unity of being arises.  Selfishness dissolves, the suffering of the world is felt as one’s own, as intimately as the deepest secret, and compassion arises spontaneously and without bounds.  If you were to go now and meditate, you would hear the whisper of this realisation from the very beginning.  You try and clear the mind of wondering thoughts yet you find that despite your best efforts the mind remains ferociously busy; you can barely count ten breaths without being ridden out by some fantasy or distraction.  So if you (the conscious self with which you identify) are trying not to think, where are the thoughts coming from? And if the self is not the originator of thought, then what is? Could it be just another thought? If so then who am I?  You are hooked, and have begun down the Ox path.  But don’t take my word for it, this is not a doctrine, it is a method, with the past experience of other practitioners to serve as guide and inspiration; go and try it for your-self.

So what does any of this have to do with the filmmaker Miyazaki?  It is in his expression of this ethic of indiscriminate compassion that we find Miyazaki’s Zen bones.  This worldview is manifested throughout his work, whether intentionally is of little concern, because either way it demonstrates how deeply ingrained this attitude is within Japanese culture.  He conveys and evokes this compassion through a blurring of ethical boundaries, nothing is ever clear cut, because under Miyazaki, much as with Shakespeare, all characters are sympathised with, and the audience’s values are brought into question more so than the characters’.  In Princess Mononoke, even the destructive human presence in the forest is not as easy to hate as we might like, as the mistress of the iron works is revealed to be a philanthropist, taking in lepers and brothel girls and giving them a better life.  Miyazaki also embodies the Zen principle of self-realisation in his method; a crucial aspect of Zen being its resistance to dogmatism; what the Zen student learns he learns for himself.  He achieves this by drawing out our cruel and judgemental tendencies, then shocking us into a realisation of their presence with his sympathy.  At crucial ‘satori’ points in the narrative, where the demise of the perceived villain is at hand, Miyazaki has his protagonist show extraordinary compassion.  For example in Howl’s Moving Castle when Sophie takes pity on the Witch of the Waste, who has brought a life of great suffering down upon her, not only sparing her life but taking her into her home.  In this moment, as we are touched by their compassion, we become acutely aware of our damning judgement, we perceive something shared, and begin to question ourselves.  Perhaps what we initially took to be a sense of justice is in fact a heartless, unimaginative and short sighted view of human potential for change and redemption.  In Princess Mononoke this compassion is made manifest by the protagonist Ashitaka’s constant and selfless struggle to protect both the humans of Iron town and the creatures of the forest.  When we witness this, however briefly, a similar potential in ourselves is stirred, a wonder arises; a wonder at the love which drives him; we wish to see the world as he does, be in the world with that same love.  It is in this inspiration to act that Miyazaki’s work becomes great moral art; as a beautiful expression and cultivation of compassion.

Sam Robinson