Nathaniel Dorsky: religion, Buddhism and film
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This dissertation examines the life, films, and manuscript, Devotional Cinema, of American Buddhist experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky (1943-present). Dorsky’s work shifts the point of intersection between religion and film from the ability of movies to immortalize subjects, engage with eternal themes, or provide experiences of transcendence to the immanence of the materials of film, and by extension the contingency and impermanence of our lives. His approach has developed religious meaning in keeping with particular Buddhist teachings and meditation practices by opening up possibilities of how films might do religion, revealing the ways the study of religion and film can become a means of expanding and refining our vision of religion itself. Dorsky’s life intersects with a variety of significant institutions, leaders, and communities of American Buddhism and avant-garde film from the 1950s to the present. His story illustrates a history between religion and film unique in its fluidity, hybridity, and symbiosis: he has studied Buddhism with Asian Buddhist emissaries like Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who engaged in and wrote about filmmaking as a mode of Buddhist knowledge; he is among a collection of American avant-garde filmmakers who experimented with Buddhist ideas and practices in their lives and work; and has been a friend and follower of Stan Brakhage, a leader of a particular lineage of 1960s avant-garde film, who voiced religious devotion to film itself. By situating Dorky within American Buddhism and avant-garde film, I consider the religious depth underlying his work, challenge definitions of authenticity present within Buddhist and religious studies, and examine the intensity and diversity of religious aspirations among filmmakers and enthusiasts. Doing so encourages a reading of Devotional Cinema and Dorsky’s films that highlights the physicality and temporality of film in religious understanding, emphasizing the worldly, material, diverse, contingent, and impermanent dimensions of both.