By Swati Chopra November 2005 Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche is a renowned teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who has directed two critically acclaimed films. His two roles take off from one another. His films convey Dharma insights, and his spiritual practice takes on the challenge of filmmaking. I have been intrigued by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche from the time I came across an article in an American Buddhist magazine written on the sets of his film in Bhutan. The article was about Rinpoche’s filmmaking style, obstacles the venture faced as the first film to be shot in Bhutan, divinations that determined the commencement of shooting schedules, and how dharma practice and insights formed the backdrop for all of this. The magazine’s cover showed him in swimming gear, goggles perched atop his head, which further tweaked my interest in this oddball of a Rinpoche. Much later, I watched his first film, The Cup, a lyrical and elegantly simple film about young Tibetan monks in a monastery who are gripped by soccer fever. Again the curious bumping together of worlds, of modernity and tradition, was in evidence, much like the Rinpoche’s own life and persona. For he is not only ‘a born filmmaker’ to quote The New York Times, but also a ‘reborn’ Rinpoche, an important incarnate lama in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Born in 1961, he was recognized at age seven as the third incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, a non-sectarian saint and scholar of Tibet. He is also the son of contemporary Buddhist master Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, and grandson of both, Tantric yogi Lama Sonam Zangpo and Dudjom Rinpoche. Today, Dzongsar Rinpoche is emerging as a widely-respected and followed teacher of the younger generation of Tibetan masters. He manages to balance the artist’s life with his spiritual role and practice, and his creativity is as much evident in his teaching style, which is at once irreverent and wise, as in his films. Through his teaching and to an extent his filmmaking, he continues to interpret the Buddha’s dharma in new ways to meet the challenges of our times. Excerpts from an interview conducted in New Delhi: I am going to start with the most obvious question – why filmmaking?Goodness, I haven’t been asked this question for a long time. I don’t even remember what my answer was! Hmmm… Films came very late in my life. Growing up in a rural area in Bhutan, I didn’t have any access to films. I probably saw moving pictures on a screen for the first time when I was a teenager, at a train station in India. It was one of Bollywood’s ‘dancing films’. Then I went to London to study. There at the National Film Theater, which has an amazing collection of world cinema, I saw films by Satyajit Ray, Ozu, and other masters. I began to feel this strong urge to make films myself. Then I met Bernardo Bertolucci who was making Little Buddha at the time. This is how films came to my life. How do you find the balance between being a revered Rinpoche, and an artist who is creating in the modern medium of film?Actually, there is no difference at all. I am sure there are some conservative Tibetans who might think it is funny or strange for me to be making films. But this has a lot to do with their notion that films have to do with sex and violence, and are unwholesome. You can’t really blame them because the only access they have is to films like that. They don’t look at film as an art, but as commercially driven entertainment. Generally, nothing much has changed for me, partly because I am not an avid or big-time filmmaker. I do it whenever I can. I mean, I just made two feature films (The Cup and Ravellers and Magicians. The latter revolves around the adventures of a young man from rural Bhutan eager to get to the US). That is not a lot, and so I didn’t need to change much in my life. You strictly follow the cycles of retreats and teachings, and so on.Yes, the Rinpoche’s job is very much there. But the balance I was talking about also has to do with the struggle between the old and the modern, something I felt you were trying to explore in your film, The Cup.As a follower of the dharma taught by the Buddha, I feel nothing needs to change at all. Buddhism is really like science. Its teachings, such as the one that says all compound phenomena are impermanent, were taught 2,500 years ago. But they haven’t changed. It’s not as if something has become permanent! So if I am thinking strictly of Buddhism, it has always been progressive and modern, up-to-date thinking. There is no struggle. But then there is a container of Buddhism, which may be Tibetan culture or other eastern culture, which emphasizes morality, ethics, code of conduct, and so on. Of course in this, there is some struggle between the old and the modern. How do you deal with this struggle?Sometimes by just being obnoxious, sometimes by closing one eye! You see, I think I should follow Buddhism, not Tibetan’ism’. Tibetanism will change because it is a culture, and cultures change, but the science of Buddhism will never change. As long as I am not contradicting Buddhism, I shouldn’t really care whether the culture is being disrupted or not. Because perhaps the so-called valued Tibetan tradition that we are trying so hard to preserve today may have seen its last progressive thinking some 500 years ago! I read somewhere that for you filmmaking is like using poison in a medicinal way. What are you trying to cure?This idea has to do with Tantric Buddhism where we believe in using emotion as a means to counter emotion. Many great tantric masters have said that if a thorn gets embedded in your flesh, you need another thorn to take it out. Any other antidote will not work. Human beings have all kinds of poisons, like wanting to be praised, not wanting to be criticized, wanting to gain, not wanting to lose, and so on. Sometimes it is easier to be in a monastery or a cave and think about all these things because there is no challenge. So it is possible that your spiritual growth is not strong. Whereas if you are in Los Angeles, where there is a lot of criticism or praise or attention, you are face-to-face with a challenge and there is much more opportunity to think about whether I am really after the praise, or afraid of criticism, or of being ignored, all of that. You have compared filmmaking with a thangka painting.This is just to justify my work! (laughs). I guess what I was trying to say was that it is not as if Buddhism forbids idols or paintings, like Islam. Although the Buddha himself said that those who see him as a form, who hear him as a sound, are in the wrong, but that is at the ultimate level. In order to express that level, Buddhism for centuries has the tradition of using all kinds of statues, paintings, sand mandalas, and so on. There is no reason why film cannot be one of these mediums. Thangkas are used as meditation aids as well. Do you mean film can be a means for centering the mind?I think so. I’ve always had this desire to make a film on the life of the Buddha. If I can do it properly, I am sure it will inspire a lot of people. And even a glimpse of inspiration to one human being that conveys a message of peace, love and compassion, will make the film worth it. But it looks like I am already behind. I’ve heard that Shekhar Kapur is already making a film on the Buddha, with Brad Pitt as Siddhartha and Aishwarya Rai as Yashodhara. I would any day watch your film. I hope you won’t abandon this idea.Well, let’s see. I am writing the script in Tibetan. We can talk about it. It is based on the true story of a Tibetan monk who was imprisoned for 21 years in a Chinese prison camp. The prison was in a temple, and during his imprisonment, his only solace was looking at wall paintings that were about the life of the Buddha. I thought I could juxtapose the two lives, of the prisoner and Siddhartha. Here is a Tibetan monk who is trying to escape from Chinese prison and Siddhartha who also felt he was in a kind of prison. Of course, to make all this happen I need a financier who would not mind throwing away about $ 40 million that will not be made back at all. You are fulfilling the role of a reincarnate Rinpoche as well as teaching in the West, something a lot of Tibetan teachers are now doing. What is it like teaching Buddhism to a contemporary Western udience?Generally speaking, modern society, especially in the West, appreciates reasoning. Buddhism has always emphasised reasoning, logic and also does not believe in an almighty decider God. However, Buddhism comes from a society – Tibetan or Indian or Japanese – and the first thing people see when they encounter it is the Tibetan or the Indian aspect, and that is unfortunate because it creates a theistic or religious impression. Modern minds want to be objective, not spiritual, not superstitious, so this creates a bit of trouble. But the fact remains that people are becoming attracted to Buddhism.I think the idea of individual liberation appeals to them; sort of ‘you are your own boss’. The reasoning aspect is a strong attraction, not only for Westerners but for modern minds everywhere in the world. Do you think there is a ‘new Buddhism’ now, because though the teachings are what the Buddha gave 2,500 years ago, their contexts are changing?We have to do this, and it is okay. Of course there is a challenge through the older generation, and the way they teach and practise. As long as the main philosophy of Buddhism remains intact, everything else can go. How do you manage to achieve this in your own teaching?For one, whenever we talk of Buddhist practitioners from the past, we talk about models such as the Buddha himself, or Sariputra or Milarepa, and the idea conveyed is of a barefoot asc
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