Buddhism in Film—A Conversation with International Buddhist Film Festival Executive Director Gaetano Kazuo Maida

I recently found out that the Bay Area is one of the top centers of Buddhist activity in the United States. Before my call with Gaetano Kazuo Maida, the founder and executive director of the International Buddhist Film Festival, I was unaware of this remarkable fact.

“That makes sense, I suppose,” I said during our conversation. “With Ginsberg and Kesey and Watts moving through and settling in the area.”

Maida graciously schooled me. “Yes, and those guys are certainly cultural favorites, but you know, they were late to the party,” he said. “The Bay Area has been historically associated with a whole bunch of Buddhist firsts in the U.S. For instance, the first Buddhist Chinese temple—1853, San Francisco. The first Buddhist publication in English—the Buddhist Ray, 1887-1894, Santa Cruz. The first resident Buddhist priest—Japanese, 1899, San Francisco.”

The roots of Buddhism, in its many iterations, run deep in California, and this is part of what has kept Maida, originally from New York, here all these years, participating in and nourishing the flowering community built upon those roots.

Maida was not raised Buddhist. Most of his family members were activists, union workers and artists, whom he described as “stridently atheist, but wonderful and incredibly big-hearted people.” Art, anti-war sentiments and activism were his primary focus for the first part of his life. 

The door into spirituality came to him through books, in particular a book given to him by his father when he was 12 years old; Zorba the Greek—in fact a much more spiritual text than the movie conveys. He gave me a weekend assignment to read it.

The book, and subsequent musings it fostered, began to separate Maida from the culture he was raised in, calling him away from the life of an activist or an anti-war organizer—though he was still actively participating in these initiatives—and beckoning him into a world of voracious reading and a search for spirituality. In the 1960s, he left high school and the East Coast for early admission to UC Berkeley, though he instead chose to live in San Francisco where he assures me he had a wild time; playing in a band, starting a health food coop, working as assistant to Rolling Stone masthead photographer Robert Altman, and tending bar with a fake ID. Getting, he as he said, “the real education.”

Living in New York in the 1990s, Gaetano and a group of collaborators started the Tricycle Foundation. Established in 1990 as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, in 1991 Tricycle Foundation launched its first publication, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the first-ever magazine with intent to present a Buddhist perspective to Western readership. From its first edition, which was launched, Maida said, “on a wish and a prayer,” Tricycle has become the leading independent journal of Buddhism in the West, and remains non-affiliated with any one sect, lineage or reader, choosing instead to offer an expansive and inquisitive space for exploration into the teachings and wisdom of Buddhist practices.

Back in the Bay Area, Maida became the director of the International Buddhist Film Festival, which launched in 2000. Based in Oakland, IBFF co-presents this year with the California Film Institute and the Buddhist Film Foundation, bringing a selection of films to the Smith Rafael Theater that include not only those which were unable to show during 2020, but also several new films secured during the height of the pandemic. This three-day event includes nine premiere films from seven different countries, including the international premiere of Descending the Mountain, a film directed by award-winning, Amsterdam-based filmmaker Maartje Nevejan. Descending the Mountain follows a neuroscientist and a Zen master carrying out an experiment examining the nature of consciousness using psilocybin and meditation. Maartje Nevejan will be present for a Q and A after the film, led by former SF Chronicle religion-editor Don Lattin. Other guest speakers during the course of the festival include filmmakers and East Bay-based Tibetan Bön teacher Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche.

“In our 22nd year,” Maida said, “this is one of our strongest programs ever.”

I’ve always been drawn to the spiritual—Sirens of Titan was my Zorba the Greek, and, though raised peacefully Episcopalian, I am a joyfully unaffiliated spiritualist, following a sense of enthusiasm, in the etymological sense of the word—entheos; inspired by the God within. Neuroscience, psychology and religion all play a role in my seeking a spiritual life, and the more I research, the less I find myself spiritually associated with any one deity—some externalized human representation we call by a name—and the more I find the divine in daily life practices, cultivating wellness in the brain, the body and my own consciousness. My time studying Zen meditation, primarily at the Won Dharma Center in Claverak, N.Y., afforded an insight into Buddhism not as a religion, but rather as a collection of techniques for staying sane in the ongoing series of bizarre circumstances that constitute life. 

Maida expressed a similar understanding of the practice.

“Things change. And that’s part of the fundamental insight of the Buddhist tradition. You have to embrace impermanence, and it’s only from there that you can actually have a sane life,” he said. “And my impression—though there are those who would argue with me—is that Buddhism was never intended to be a religion. It was intended to be a set of tools; ways to use what you have—your body, your mind—to enable you to be, we’ll use the term ‘sane,’ in a world that is constantly changing, and from which you’re going to experience all of the afflictions of life.

“How do you deal with that? You have to have a mechanism that you’ve internalized that allows you to process and flow with all the change. Because that’s what it’s going to be. Everything is connected. Everything is impermanent. Everything is going to change. And Buddhism offers an opportunity, by helping to temper your reaction to all the ongoing drama. It gives you an opportunity to live a balanced, compassionate life.”

This is the same open-minded approach that Maida and the rest of the IBFF committee bring to selecting films for each year’s festival. Maida went into great detail about a Jim Jarmusch film they showed one year—also on my homework list—featuring Johnny Depp and rife with Buddhist undertones. “So many films have a Buddhist implication, which might not be considered ostensibly Buddhist films,” Maida said. Buddhism then, as I have come to understand it, is essentially another word for “life.”

The value of spiritual practice as a method of self-preservation becomes more evident than ever with each passing day in the era we live in. And, wild though the path may be, I am grateful that we’ve come far enough along this last series of unexpected changes to reach in-person viewing once again and that our ongoing quest for balance can find an iteration at the Smith Rafael Theater this weekend, for the 22nd year of the Buddhist International Film Festival.

The International Buddhist Film Festival takes place Thur–Sun, Dec. 9–12, at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. Find more information on the festival at buddhistfilmfoundation.org; and get tickets to the screenings at rafaelfilm.cafilm.org.
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