Smile

This is a repost of sorts, parts of this piece culled from a couple of previous posts, prompted by Thursday’s Turner Classic Movies schedule. Every year in August TCM does Summer Under the Stars where they dedicate each 24-hour period of programming to one actor or actress. Yesterday, it was Charlie Chaplin, and boy, I needed him.

charlie_chaplindChaplin was one of the world’s greatest comedians, and yet, I rarely laugh during his films. I am, however, captivated by his sublime artistry and touched by his sensitivity – he was a genius. There is something about his Little Tramp character that to me is not only timeless, but very Buddhist.

Although I’ve tried and I’ve tried, I have not been able to find a connection between Charlie Chaplin and Buddhism. Well, except for the Cao Dai (“high place” or altar) sect of Vietnam that worships Charlie. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say they worship Chaplin, but they do revere him as a saint, and then Coadaism is not exactly Buddhism, it’s a monotheistic religion that James P. Harrison describes in The endless war: Vietnam’s struggle for independence as “claiming inspiration from all the great religious thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus Christ and Muhammad to Victor Hugo, and even Charlie Chaplin.”

Now, at one time Chaplin was about as close as you can get to sainthood while still breathing. From the late teens of the last century and into the 1930’s, he was arguably the most beloved man on the planet. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. He was all of them, packed into one baggy pair of pants. When he kicked a cop or tricked a bullying boss or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he did what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Because his films were silent, they transcended language. People the world over considered Charlie to be one of them. The upper classes could appreciate his artistry and use of pathos, while the lower classes could cheer him on. St. John Ervine, in a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, wrote, “Mr. Chaplin has conquered the world because he has remained of the world.”

While there may be no direct connection between Chaplin and Buddhism, he did have a connection to Gandhi. He was a great admirer of the Mahatma. The two met in London in 1931. Gandhi was staying at Kingsley Hall Community Centre, operated by Muriel Lester, a Christian pacifist. In her 1932 book Entertaining Gandhi, she relates this story in which it seems Gandhi was one of the very few people who had not heard of The Little Tramp:

Chaplin sitting next to Gandhi 1931

One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying ‘But he’s only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.’ The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name.

“‘But don’t you know that name, Bapu?’ I inquired, immensely intrigued. ‘No’ he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give.

‘Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.’”

Off-screen, Charlie was not all that saintly. He had his peccadilloes, so to speak, which I will not go into here. But on-screen, as the Little Tramp, he seemed to perfectly capture the essence of the human spirit. He once made the Buddha-like statement, “Loneliness is the theme of everyone.” Chaplin knew loneliness, he knew suffering. He grew up in a hard era – the end of the austere Victorian age – his father an alcoholic, his mother* mentally ill, Charlie and his half-brother Sydney labored in a workhouse and lived in a home for orphans and destitute children. Charlie Chaplin knew more suffering by age 10 than most of us have known our whole lives. He understood in the depth of his being that when someone makes a declaration of no surrender and sticks to it no matter what, amazing things can take place in that person’s life. That sentiment is superbly  expressed in the transcendent final scene of his last ‘silent’ film, Modern Times.

Usually, it’s not a good idea to show the final scene of a film, but in this case it may inspire any who have not yet seen the movie or experienced Charlie Chaplin to make an effort to do so. You probably know the background music, you’ll say or sing the words in your head as it plays, a song written by Chaplin . . .

One of the most enduring, and touching, images in film . . . the Little Tramp – and this time, he gets the girl – and they walk off together down that long, dusty road . . .

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking . . .

 – – – – – – – – – –

* A somewhat interesting aside: Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, had an adulterous affair with a man name Dryden and 3 years after Charlie was born, she gave birth to George Wheeler Dryden, who in 1938 became father to a certain Spencer Dryden, later the longest-serving drummer for the Jefferson Airplane.

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Top 5 Searches 2012

People find The Endless Further in a variety of ways. For instance, from Facebook, or from seeing it listed on another blog’s blogroll. Quite a few folks find me through online searches. As my fellow bloggers know, every blog and website has access to statistical reports on “traffic,” i.e. how many visitors you have each day, how many subscribe to your feed, etc. These stats also give you information about the keyword searches used to find your blog.

Most of the keywords and phrases are about what you’d expect: “buddha,” “samsara is nirvana,” “shantideva,” and so on. Some folks have found The Endless Further by searching for such things as “was bruce lee a Buddhist” (not a practicing Buddhist, but Buddha-dharma had a significant influence), and since I am a rather eclectic blogger, with searches like “who was known as the poet laureate of harlem” (Langston Hughes). I’ve blogged about Bruce Lee and Langston Hughes several times. Some searches are a bit off the wall, like “cape wrath deckhouse,” which results in a post I did about Hurricane Irene that contained the three words but not in succession. And a few are downright bizarre. Someone was searching for “naga sex scene.” Naga is the Indian word for serpent or dragon, and while I’ve mentioned nagas on occasion, I don’t recall anything about them having sex. Another strange one: “cortical gyrification meditation.” I don’t even know what that is, and frankly, I’m not sure I want to find out.

I thought it would be interesting (at least to me) to post the Top Five Keyword Searches that brought visitors to The Endless Further in 2012. Here they are:

No-self? Nah, Invisible Man.
No-self? Nah, Invisible Man.

A tie for Fifth Place with “taiji” and “invisible man.” Taiji or Tai Chi is an internal Chinese martial art and a form of exercise. I wrote about the Eights Truths of Tai Chi in 2011. When I Googled “invisible man,” I did not see The Endless Further come up in any results, not in the first 20 pages at any rate. There are a few posts where I have the word “invisible” contained in the text, but I suspect that most people landed on the blog from Google images, finding a post from Nov. 29, 2012 titled “No-self.”

Number 4 is “Lao tzu leadership.” When I searched this on Google, The Endless Further was the third listing with Dictators and Lao Tzu’s Principles for Leadership.

“Po chu-i” comes in at Number 3. Po Chu-i was one of the great classical Chinese poets. I blogged about him in The Chan Poetry of Po Chu-i.

Weighing in at Number 2 is “heart sutra chant.” Again, The Endless Further came up as the third result when I Googled this phrase. The short video in Chanting the Heart Sutra in English that I originally posted on YouTube has been viewed at least 4,067 times. I’ve seen it embedded on other blogs and websites, and I’ve gotten some good comments about it. It is gratifying to know that many people have enjoyed it and found it beneficial. The video appears at the end of this post.

And now, the Number 1 keyword search that brought folks to The Endless Further in 2012 is (drum roll) . . . “charlie chaplin”!

Charlies as "The Little Tramp."
Charlies as “The Little Tramp.”

I’ve mentioned Charlie Chaplin quite a few times, as he is a historical figure I greatly admire. Chaplin first appeared on film nearly 100 years ago, in Mack Sennet’s 1914 short Making A Living, and the Little Tramp character he created soon thereafter lives on today, a universal icon. His films have endured as well, the best of which were silent, and because they were silent they spoke a universal language. In a post about The Religious Sect That Worships Charlie Chaplin, I wrote,

From the late teens of the last century and into the 1920’s, he was arguably the most beloved man in the world. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. When he kicked a cop, tricked a bullying boss, or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he was doing what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually  left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Chaplin’s silent films were loved the world over because the title cards, which he used sparingly, could be easily translated into another language. Walt Disney based his most famous character, Mickey Mouse, a bit on Charlie. He once said, “I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could.” Film critic Leonard Maltin has said, “Shakespeare wrote great plays that we’re still watching all these years later. Charlie Chaplin made great comedies and they are still as funny today as they ever were.” I couldn’t agree more.

Here is my video of the Heart Sutra chanted in English:

May you have a joyful, peaceful, and productive 2013!

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Smiling Beyond Measure

It’s the first day of spring. Daylight savings time is back. Two good reasons to smile. Don’t you agree?

I often think about smiling. It doesn’t seem to come naturally to me. Maybe I am too self-conscious about it. I think I look goofy when I smile. Other people look attractive. So, while I may walk around with a serious look on my face, that doesn’t mean I am unhappy or unfriendly. No doubt I need to make an effort to smile more often.

I found something at the Bangkok Post that got me thinking about smiling: it’s a photography exhibition called “Happiness Beyond Measure” at an art gallery there, featuring the photography of Bhanuwat Jittivuthikarn, an emerging visual artist. The exhibit is described as “an impressive embodiment” of Jittivuthikarn’s philosophy of “showing a lighter side of humanity.”

Most of the pictures are portraits and many of the people in them are smiling. Like this woman:

"Old Tibetan in Saranarth, India 2010"

Jittivuthikarn, who is 28, is quoted in the article as saying, “The noble truths aren’t apparent only in 1,000-year-old temples or sacred Buddhist texts. True happiness lives on in the people who practise it.” Of his subjects, he says,

Their smiling faces show how they share their sense of joy with me, a stranger they just met. They teach me that compassion is the secret to survival in today’s world. They are a true sample of the men and women of Buddha, and we should learn from their attitude to life.”

As far as I know, just about the only Buddhist teacher who ever discusses smiling is Thich Nhat Hanh. Some Buddhists might be tempted to pooh-pooh talk about happiness or smiling, considering it too syrupy, new-agey, or whatever. What I think they fail to understand is that sometimes the deepest truths are found in the simplest of things. And what can be simpler than smiling?

If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love, those who live under the same roof. If we are happy, if we are peaceful, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace. Do we need to make a special effort to enjoy the beauty of the blue sky? Do we have to practice to be able to enjoy it? No, we just enjoy it. Each second, each minute of our lives can be like this. Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing. We don’t need to go to China to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to travel into the future to enjoy our breathing. We can be in touch with these things right now. It would be a pity if we are only aware of suffering . . .

If a child smiles, if an adult smiles, that is very important. If in our daily life we can smile, if we can be peaceful and happy, not only we, but everyone will profit from it. This is the most basic kind of peace work.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh

There are many benefits to smiling: it changes our mood for the better, boosts our immune system, relieves stress, and lowers blood pressure. Not to mention that studies have shown that smiling releases endorphins, natural pain killers, and serotonin.  I guess you could say, smiling gets you high.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that smiling is the act of a Bodhisattva. And we know that Bodhisattvas are pledged to relieve the suffering of all living beings. So why not smile? A simple thing, and even if it relieves someone’s suffering for only a few seconds, it is still relieving suffering.

Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about our “inner smile” too. I love his little verse:

Breathing in, I am happy.
Breathing out, I smile.
I am in the present moment.
It’s a wonderful moment.

Everything is inner, everything is inside of us. We need to tap into our inner power, our inner smile. When we do that we actually strengthen our inner resources and it has an effect on our immediate environment. When we are truly happy deep inside, we can find value in anything or anyone. Every day becomes a spring day regardless of the season. Each and every person has a right to be happy, but happiness often has to be won by fighting for it. One way to develop the kind of spirit that is never defeated by suffering is to smile.

I posted the lyrics to the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile” in this post some time back. Now, here is the final scene from one of Chaplin’s greatest films, in which his most famous musical composition debuted:

One of the most enduring, and touching, images in film . . . the Little Tramp walking off toward the horizon . . . this time with the girl . . . and smiling.

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The Religious Sect That Worships Charlie Chaplin

Maybe you saw Google’s video tribute to Charlie Chaplin on his 122th birthday yesterday. Maybe you know a little about him. Filmmaker, comic actor, composer, kicked out of the US for his left-wing sympathies, returned 20 years later to accept an Honorary Award at the Academy Awards where he received the longest standing ovation in Oscar history (lasting twelve minutes). Maybe you saw Robert Downey Jr.’s outstanding performance as Chaplin in the 1992 film directed by Richard Attenborough.

Cao Dai main temple

Betcha didn’t know that Chaplin was a religious icon. Yes, the Cao Dai sect of Vietnam, described as a “monotheistic religion”, worships the immortal Charlie Chaplin. In The endless war: Vietnam’s struggle for independence, James P. Harrison writes,

[The] Cao Dai (“high place” or altar) was a remarkable syncretic religion, claiming inspiration from all the great religious thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus Christ and Muhammad to Victor Hugo, and even Charlie Chaplin. Founded in 1919 and organized after 1925, it established a “Holy See” under its Grand Master at Tay Ninh, southwest of Saigon.

Okay, perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say they worship Chaplin, but they do revere him as a saint. And actually, at one time Chaplin was about as close as you can get to sainthood while still breathing. From the late teens of the last century and into the 1920’s, he was arguably the most beloved man in the world. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. When he kicked a cop or tricked a bullying boss or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he was doing what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually  left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Because his films were silent, they transcended language. People the world over considered Charlie to be one of them. St. John Ervine, in a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, wrote, “Mr. Chaplin has conquered the world because he has remained of the world.”

I don’t know if Chaplin had any interest in Buddhism, but I know he was a great admirer of Gandhi. The two met in London in 1931. Gandhi was staying at Kingsley Hall Community Centre, operated by Muriel Lester, a Christian pacifist. In her 1932 book Entertaining Gandhi, she relates this story in which it seems Gandhi was one of the very few people who had not heard of The Little Tramp:

One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying ‘But he’s only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.’ The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name.

“‘But don’t you know that name, Bapu?’ I inquired, immensely intrigued. ‘No’ he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give.

“Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.

It took me many years to learn how to appreciate Charlie Chaplin’s artistry. Watching silent movies is a different sort of filmgoing experience than watching “talkies.” I’d see a Chaplin movie and feel that it didn’t live up to the hype. Then I saw a three-part documentary, Unknown Chaplin, by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill (and narrated by the late James Mason), that shines a light on Chaplin’s filmmaking methods and techniques. Using rare footage and previously unseen outtakes, the documentary shows Chaplin rehearsing and experimenting, and reveals how he developed many of his gags. I got it after that.

For those who are unfamiliar with Charlie Chaplin and want to check him out, (in addition to the documentary) I recommend Modern Times, as it may be his most accessible work for us modern folk. Although it’s a comedy, it’s also a social protest film, a commentary on technology and economics that is just as relevant today as it was when he made the film in 1936. It’s also the film that debuted the classic song, written by Charlie, “Smile.”

Here is a clip from one of my favorite Chaplin shorts. It’s a gag you’ve seen many times before. I doubt Chaplin invented it just I doubt that anyone has ever done it better. Filmed in 1918, A Dog’s Life:

 

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The Art of Silence

Chaplin's classic roll dance from "The Gold Rush"

I was seventeen years old when I saw my first silent film. Previously, my only exposure had been the Fractured Flickers segment on The Bullwinkle Show. It was my third or fourth week at college, the occasion was a five-day film festival at a local theater, and the film was The Gold Rush by Charlie Chaplin.

Unfortunately, this occurred just two days after my first viewing of Citizen Kane, which, in the vernacular of the time, completely blew my mind. Two days after I watched the Chaplin film, I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, another mind-blower. Never before or since have any films affected me the way those two did. I couldn’t stop thinking about them for weeks. They changed forever what I looked for in films and how I enjoyed them.

The Gold Rush was primitive and cliché-ish in comparison. I did not give up on silents, however. Years later when I moved to Los Angeles where there were plenty of revival movie houses around, including one that showed only silent films, I tried to develop an appreciation. It took a while. A silent film is a different art form and they seem so antiquated and melodramatic. Well, they are. But one thing I’ve come to realize is that almost everything that’s done in movies now, were done in silent films first.

Silent films are highly stylized and it’s tempting to dismiss the acting performances because of the overacting. At the same time, directors in silent films had a tendency to hold their shots, keeping the camera on actors while reacting for an extended length of time, giving them the opportunity to convey a range of different, and sometimes very subtle, expressions. To appreciate these films you have to adjust your mind to a different pace, a different look, and understand that because it is storytelling based on pantomime, it has its drawbacks but also its advantages. If you can get past the overacting, the clichés, the lack of sound dialogue, a silent film can be a rewarding experience.

I bring all this up for two reasons. One is that earlier this week Turner Classic Movies, the world’s greatest cable channel, presented a number of silent films by the Thomas Edison studio, along with the early work of two other film pioneers, D.W. Griffith and Georges Melies. Some of these were the very first pieces of film ever made, lasting only a minute or less, such as The Kiss. So, I’ve got silent films on my mind.

A scene from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"

The second reason is that on Sunday night Turner Classic Movies, the world’s greatest cable channel (did I mention that already?), is giving everyone a chance to watch a newly restored version of Metropolis, the 1927 landmark film by Fritz Lang. Following this is a documentary about the discovery of a complete print at a film museum in Argentina. And, if that were not enough, another silent by Lang, Spies, and then, Lang’s classic tale of murder, M, the 1931 film that made a star of Peter Lorre.  A veritable festival of film fun.

I thought I would give a heads up  for any readers who are interested in this film, its director, or silent movies in general, and for anyone who has never cultivated an appreciation but think they might like to. Metropolis is a great introduction to this art form. If you are a sci-fi fan, this is practically a must-see. TCM describes Metropolis as “A futuristic look at the schism created in mankind as industrialization and technological advancement serves to alienate the humans from one another.” I watched it just a few years ago and I looked to tuning in Sunday to see it again and catch the 25 minutes of restored footage.

You can read more about Metropolis at Wikipedia and more about the discovery of the complete print here at Kino. The restored original version “debuted” earlier this year in Berlin, where it premiered in 1927, with showings at the Friedrichstadtpalast in Berlin, the Alte Oper in Frankfurt, on German TV, and at a public showing at the Brandenburg Gate.

Check your local listings for Sunday’s show time, and also in the vernacular we used back in the day, be there or be square.

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