Coming to a Peaceful and Restful State of Mind Coming to a Peaceful and Restful State of Mind Coming to a Peaceful and Restful State of Mind

Coming to a Peaceful and Restful State of Mind

Mathias Woo Interview
  • The Heart Sutra and Bach; meditation and technology, they are seemingly unrelated to each other. Yet they are integrated into Bach is Heart Sutra, an Art Tech theatre installation of the Zuni Innovation Lab. As Mathias Woo, the project’s chief curator and art director , puts it, “The understanding of Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form can be adopted in our daily life as a way of perceiving everything.”

    This is how Mathias Woo described his work: “Theatre is a space in which experiences are felt holistically. Immersive experiences are built upon wholeness, meaning audio and visual elements must be fused together. In recent years, at Zuni Innovation Lab we have been developing and experimenting with a theatre server-base system to combine sound, lighting, projection, and tracking technology together, like an iPhone with all functions in one.”

  • Mathias recalls listening to Bach’s music when he was reading an exposition on The Heart Sutra by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh more than ten years ago. “That particular afternoon I was reading The Heart Sutra at home while listening to Bach’s music. The scriptural texts and the musical notes seemed to blend together. It was because of that afternoon, I came to realise that Heart Sutra is Bach; and Bach is Heart Sutra.”

    Bach is known as the Father of Classical Music. More than half of his prolific legacy is religious music. Mathias explained: “Bach’s music has this internal, very meditative quality. His music seem to be very well-structured, but at times also undulating . When Bach’s music is juxtaposed with The Heart Sutra that talks about personal cultivation, and the relationship between an individual and the world, etc, there is a basic commonality.”

    Having realised that “Bach is The Heart Sutra”, Mathias Woo collaborated with Korean cellist Lee Yoohong and Hong Kong pianist KaJeng Wong in staging Bach is Heart Sutra respectively in 2009 and 2018. Last year when Hong Kong was hit by social movements and the pandemic , he presented Bach is Heart Sutra with advanced theatre technology for the first time in the Studio Theatre of Hong Kong Cultural Centre. In 2021, it is presented again in a much richer way. What has driven him must be his deep reflection about the social phenomenon of Hong Kong and his belief in the power of The Heart Sutra to transform the heart of people. He said: “The current social development really needs to be attuned to religion and art. Many problems simply cannot be dealt with by political or administrative measures at all, because many issues are related to how we perceive things. We must therefore find some new ways to touch people’s hearts.”

  • Mathias Woo hopes that Bach is Heart Sutra will give the audience a holistic experience. After the theatre performance and other related events, the audience can continue their participation through online workshops in which they can explore the relationship between their body and breath, understand more about their body and mind whilst reliving the experience they had at the theatre.
    At a time when social movements and pandemics have drastically affected Hong Kong, Mathias calls for everyone to find inner peace: “The coordinated use of eyes and hands in hand-copying scriptures allows the participants to enter the here-and-now and experience moments of inner peace, whilst they come to know more about their own selves.” He said hand-copying scriptures is much better for one’s health and emotions than constantly swiping a smartphone. The information on the phone often brings anxiety and exposes the emotions to manipulation . It is so difficult to tell if message contain true or false information since news items are too often written from an absolute position, not from an open perspective. “News nowadays is not that of Form is Emptiness, instead it’s more like Form is purely Form.” He said: “The understanding of Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form can be adopted to our daily life as a way of perceiving everything. The Heart Sutra does not mean that there is no standar d in anything, it’s just that the standard can be affected by a multitude of factors.”
    As a pioneer in cross-disciplinary multimedia theatre, Mathias Woo uses a theatre server-base system to combine sound, lighting, projection, and tracking technology to create an immersive theatre for participants to experience physically and mentally. “We should remember that we are the user of technology, not the other way round.” He said that whilst most people use technology for sensory stimulation, he keeps wondering how to connect technology with Buddhist teachings. He cited an example of acoustics, which has the pervasive power that absorbs our mind. “Guanyin (觀音bodhisattva), means to perceive sounds not only with ears. The presence of sound is related to space. Again this is about Form is Emptiness; Emptiness is Form.”

    Bach is Heart Sutra opens an opportunity for the audience to participate and interact, not merely as a passive audience watching the performers on stage. The Heart Sutra, which can be recited within two minutes, has been divided into nine parts using the concept of The Chinese Nine-nine Multiplication Table. These nine parts are accompanied by nine pieces of music to enhance the audience’s memory. Mathias particularly wants to emphasize that the audience will be reciting, rather than chanting, The Heart Sutra. He explains that chanting may bring focus on the tunes which drive the ups and downs of emotions, whereas recitation often brings calmness to the mind. He hopes that this arrangement can help participants to recite The Heart Sutra by heart. He said, “Books are pieces of external objects, whereas recitation from memory is a process of imprinting the text in our heart.” Education in the past, Mathias said, put a lot of training on building memory. Yet nowadays, as information can e asily be found on the Internet, education no longer focuses on memory. However, he said, “one’s thinking ability and emotions are greatly affected by one’s scope of memory. As a result, the mode of thinking for most young people nowadays has become shallow , characterised by jumpy racing thoughts, rather than deeper delving.”

  • The 70-min long recitation will be conducted in different languages, Chinese, Tibetan and English, with a variety of sounds. “Different sounds create a distinct sense of spatial dimension. It will be interesting to find out what kind of experience everyone has during the process.” Mathias Woo said: “I always want to go beyond telling stories of art, of life, and do something that has nothing to do with stories.” Mathias does not aim to focus on emotional consumption, as most programmes on the media do: “I want to offer an alternative. It is not my aim to make you cry or laugh, but I do want my works to create an impact on you.”

    It is well-known from previous media coverage that Mathias Woo is often reported to be full of anger and dissatisfactions with society. However, he appears now gentle and wise. “The concepts of Engaged Buddhism taught by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh helps me build up new perspectives to viewing life,” he said. To him, the Western approach is to look for absolute answers, but Buddhism stresses that there are hundreds of thousands of different solutions. Since every single person is a different entity, so no absolute solutions can fit all. He said that after pondering for a long time, he came up with this answer: “Inner peace is more important than outer freedom.” He explained that inner peace enables you to be master of your own, whereas the pursuit of outer freedom generates craving for more and more freedom, and there is no end to it.

    He recommended that primary school students read Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Mindfulness Essentials, a book series including: How to Eat, How to Sit, How to Love, etc. Regardless of religion, he said, reading these books would create a good impact on everyone , empowering us to have the competence to make our choices, instead of blindly following the mainstream values of society in the pursuit of more “likes”, more money, more success, etc, as a result making us feeling low and inferior unnecessarily. Mathias believes that The Heart Sutra is a concept that can be continuously developed, and it can be presented in different forms to a growing audience, including outreaching to schools. He said: “My wish is to create chances for more people to come into contact with The Heart Sutra and let this fresh contact become a start to their understanding of the Buddhist teachings.”

    Original article: Buddhist Compassion
    Translation: Moyung Yuk-lin

  • Mathias Woo Arts Tech Theatre Installation: Bach is Heart Sutra

    Immersive Theatre               Walking Meditation
    2021.4.23-24 (Fri-Sat)              2021.5.8-15 (Sat-Sat)
    Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre    Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

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