In 2011, Franco-British documentarian Max Pugh was asked by an elder monk to make a film about Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching tour of the United States and Canada. Pugh, whose younger brother had become a Buddhist monk studying with Thich Nhat Hanh, teamed up with codirector Marc J. Francis to follow the popular Vietnamese master as he and his monastics visited various towns and cities in North America before returning to their home base, Plum Village, in the southwest of France. The result is the gentle, meditative, and poetic Walk with Me, which is having its New York premiere at the Rubin Museum. In agreeing to the film, Thich Nhat Hanh, who was born in Vietnam in 1926, conveyed that he did not want to be the focus of the narrative; instead, Pugh and Francis, who also served as producers, editors, and cinematographers, concentrate on a group of monastics who, as the tour continues, perform rituals, chant, get their hair cut off, and go about their daily duties. There are no labels identifying anyone by name, no text telling viewers the date or location, no talking heads discussing Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, or his teachings. Every once in a while they break away from the fly-on-the-wall narrative to present voice-over recitations by Benedict Cumberbatch, reading from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Fragrant Palm Leaves journals from the 1960s as the camera sets its sights on scenes from nature, from snow rushing past trees to shimmering reflections on a lake. “At first, it seemed like a passing cloud, but after several hours I began to feel my body turning to smoke and floating away,” Cumberbatch says as clouds slowly make their way across the moon. “I became a faint wisp of a cloud. I had always thought of myself as a solid entity, and suddenly I saw that I am not solid at all. I saw that the entity I had taken to be me was really a fabrication. My true nature, I realized, was much more real, both uglier and more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.”
The film works best when Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, is present and when his words are read by Cumberbatch, offering an enveloping warmth and solace. As the master, who was exiled from his home country by both sides because of his opposition to the Vietnam War, ventures through natural settings, often wearing his brown knit cap, his eyes take in everything around him, zeroing in on the present moment, experiencing a constant state of mindfulness. It’s not nearly as interesting when it shows the monastics — Sister An Nghiem, Sister Dang Nghiem, Brother Phap Huu, Brother Phap Linh, Brother Phap Dung, Brother Phap De, Brother Phap Sieu, and Sister Dinh Nghiem — interacting with prisoners, discussing why they became monks, tracing their personal history, and meeting up with long-lost friends or visiting with relatives. The film concludes with a glorious sunset, as one day ends and another one is ready to begin. Shortly after filming was completed, Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a debilitating stroke, in November 2014, but his mindfulness programs and humanitarian foundation continue. Walk with Me is screening at the Rubin August 18-26, with all three shows on August 19 featuring some combination of group meditation (in conjunction with the sound installation “Le Corps Sonore”), a monastic encounter, and/or a Q&A with Francis, Pugh, and some of the monks from the film. In addition, on August 19 at 10:00 am, there will be a free pop-up, monastic-led group meditation in Union Square Park that will also be livestreamed here.