Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Stringing Tea: The Monk Who Said No

[This is part of a series of postings about my recent tea-buying expedition in Japan. Click here to see the other installments.]

What I most admired about the artistic approach taken by the film crew—and the producers back in Germany—was their desire to explore green tea not merely as a beverage but as a key element of Japanese culture.

In fact, the documentary's theme was that through green tea, you could understand every aspect of Japanese culture.

The director, Ilka—here is a clip of the English version of one of her documentaries—was herself keenly interested in the role of green tea in Japanese Buddhism. She had done plenty of research before coming to Japan and had learned that the Buddhism–green tea link began over a thousand years ago in China, after monks discovered that drinking green tea kept them alert and focused during marathon meditation sessions.

I myself knew a bit about monks and green tea. After all, our company's namesake is a Japanese monk who was one of the first to bring green tea to Japan from China. But I hadn't heard of tea's use in meditation.

So when our van finally finished snaking up the long and winding mountain road to Shogoji Temple (聖護寺), that was the second question we asked the gracious monks who greeted us. (The first being Where's the bathroom?)


Unfortunately for our intrepid director, none of the monks we interviewed would definitively state that the tradition was being strictly continued today. Some monks did drink green tea while meditating, but others drank black tea. Some drank coffee. Some even drank—gentle reader, are you sitting down?—instant coffee. It was, you know, a personal choice.

(I have more bad news for the traditionalists: The monks all had cellphones, too—although there was no reception on the mountaintop.)

In fact, our smooth-headed friends would not even state on camera that the monks of yore actually did drink green tea for its stimulative properties. The closest we got to this confession—after much prodding—was getting one monk to confirm that yes, he had heard the theory—the theory, mind you—that Chinese monks had begun imbibing green tea to keep them focused during long hours of meditation.

"But does he personally—and his fellow monks—still drink green tea for that very same reason? Ask him," implored Ilka.

All the other monks whom we had previously asked this question—and we had asked them all—were too polite to come right out with a negative answer. So instead we received replies like Well, I wouldn't really say that or Not me personally, but others do, I'm sure.

But this monk was different: Tall, solidly built, and with a steely-eyed, quietly tough attitude to match, he clearly would not be one to mince words. When I finished translating the director's question, he paused briefly, with furrowed brow, then boomed out his reply: a deep, resounding "NEVER!"

The crew and I almost fell over laughing. Ilka naturally did not share our laughter but instead turned away, one hand pensively stroking her chin, with a look that resembled resignation and . . . something else.

That "something else" could have been the seeds of an idea—perhaps common in the filmmaking world—that would let her get the last laugh.

Months after I had returned home, a small, stiff envelope arrived in the mail: my DVD copy of the show. While viewing the program that night—cup of celebratory tea in hand—I noticed a highly amusing and creative edit: Our nay-saying monk's words had been deftly edited so that he seemed to be saying simply that "monks drink green tea to stay alert and focused during meditation."

Sneaky? Yes. But hey, that’s show business.

But I, too, have a confession to make: After our temple visit, I also engaged in some creative editing.

First a little backstory.

Whenever we interviewed someone for the documentary, we had to ask that person to sign a standard release form that Arte Network was required to have on file in order to broadcast the footage of that person.

(Because of the TV show's international scope, the law did allow the form to be filled out and signed in the interviewee's native language, as long as someone then wrote a few summarizing notes in German or English across the top of the page. This comes into play later in our story.)

Consequently, if the film crew forgot to get a signed release from an interviewee, or if the signed form was lost after filming, Arte would be legally unable to broadcast footage of that person.

But that’s exactly what I did after we filmed at the Shogoji Temple—I lost the bloody permission forms for the two monks we interviewed (including Dr. No).

More specifically, my brother-in-law—at whose place I was staying when in Aso—burned them along with the rest of the trash after dumping the forms into the dust bin along with the rest of the clutter on the kitchen table. After he told me, over the phone, about his trash collection and burning procedure, and that he had just implemented it the previous day, I knew that’s what had happened.

A chill ran down my spine when I got off the phone. The temple was at least 2 hours away, 4 hours round trip—4 hours I knew I could never squeeze out of our already air-tight schedule.

Panic began to set in.

Hold on a second, I told myself. Think, man. Think!

Then it occurred to me: The monks had signed the forms; it's just that those forms were no more. As far as the monks were concerned, their permission was still in effect. That wouldn’t change even if I, say, gave the director a “substitute” form written by someone else—and in a language unintelligible to the director.

So, I had my brother-in-law fill out two new forms, using whatever details I could remember and making up the rest.

("Place of birth? How about those islands Japan and Korea are always fighting over? Yes!" This was done over sake, you understand.)

The upshot: Ilka got her signed forms, and the monk interviews stayed in the film, with no one the wiser.

Sneaky? Yes. But hey, that’s show business.

—Mellow Monk

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