By Swati Chopra
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 ascetic with a begging bowl. We have forgotten there were many great Buddhists who were not ascetics, like Ashoka or the courtesan Amrapali. You cannot really go to a kid these days and tell him to shave his head, go to a cave, and live like Milarepa. What I am personally trying to emphasis is that you can become a lawyer or doctor or anything else, and still achieve liberation.
Buddhism is also responding to challenges of modernity, in the environmental movement, science, psychology, sexuality, and so on. How do you respond to this new ‘engagement’ of Buddhism?
Buddhism emphasizes that the highest and the most important aspect is wisdom. Morality and ethics come later. Without wisdom, morality and ethics will only bind you more tightly in samsara. If you refrain from sex or other immoral acts but you have no wisdom, this will only increase your ego so that you become puritanical and egoistic. The Buddha said that this kind of morality is useless.
If we could apply and practice even two of the fundamental Buddhist views in the modern world, such as impermanence and interdependence, it is going to make a huge difference. For example, you will have to think twice before buying newspapers that are full of junk in any case, because of the felling of trees for making paper, and the larger impact this has on the environment. But most of this information is only at the intellectual level and when it comes to practice, our desire takes over.
Your lineage is unique in Tibetan Buddhism because it is non-sectarian. How are you carrying forward this tradition?
I have studied within the four Tibetan Buddhist schools and have received teachings from all of them. I aspire to receive teachings from the Theravada Buddhist tradition and Zen; I did learn a little bit but it was not enough.I have so much respect for Jainism and Hinduism.
In a recent teaching you emphasized that the Buddha started out as an ordinary human being. But traditional Buddhists believe the Buddha was born destined for enlightenment. Is your teaching an example of how Buddhism is re-evaluating itself?
The teaching you refer to is based on a question a monk asked the Buddha, about what we as followers should tell the rest of the world about the dharma.
See, Buddhism is kind of vast. The teaching you refer to is the way we should teach to new people, beginners. For more advanced practitioners, we say your mind is the Buddha. You have to discover it. To do this, you can surrender and take refuge in the reflection of this, which is Gautama Buddha. All these dialogs need to be said at different times and situations but sometimes they get quoted in various contexts. Such problems happen because the philosophy is quite complex.
You are closely connected with Bhutan. It has recently opened up to the world and there are all kinds of influences through TV, films, and so on. This is interesting because Bhutan is a functioning Buddhist society. How is it dealing with this change?
I don’t know so much, but Bhutan is landlocked between two of the most populated and fastest growing nations in the world – India and China. Bhutan can’t dream of remaining a Shangri-La forever. That’s for sure. Whether Bhutan is changing in an enlightened way, it is very hard to tell. I don’t think so, honestly. This is because the lure of materialism is so strong and it will take over. Having said that, Bhutanese are also quite spiritual, and this will remain for some time. I can’t say what will happen after two generations, though.
You mean they are spiritual or religious?
I ask this because it is an important distinction. I have seen many people in India who may be religious and follow the traditions their parents taught them, but will readily accept materialism and consumerism. To resist these, something stronger than religiosity is needed. Spirituality perhaps?
If India is succumbing, what chance does Bhutan have? (laughs)
Actually not. Indians are much better in resisting, I think. Religion and customs taught by parents sometimes don’t make sense to the young and are just a burden. But they are the containers for spirituality.
I’ll give you an example. I have been to China many times. China is growing very fast, and you can see this in cities like Chengdu and Beijing – they are now like cities in developed countries. But there is no soul, if I can use that language. Something is missing. Let’s say, in the big hotels they have statues but they are purely decoration. Now in India, or if you go to Bali, statues may be used for decorative purposes but they are also worshiped. If nothing else, they will put a flower or incense. It brings something, some kind of life.
I think communism in China has destroyed something vital, perhaps its spirit. People really don’t believe in say, karma or reincarnation, as automatically as Indians do. If you don’t believe in karma and have no concept of a life to follow this one, then why not rob a bank? As long as you are not caught by the police, you are free to do anything. Why should you obey rules and laws?
Well, there are societies where there is no concept of karma or reincarnation.
But they do have the concept of sin and believe in the value of goodness. If you have a perspective beyond this life, it always brings a deeper meaning to life and your actions.
I’ve heard that in China people are yearning for spirituality because they have been totally deprived of it for such a long time.
Yes, I have felt this. This is why I think there is a danger also, because all kinds of spiritual quacks can become successful in such an environment. It’s fine, it’s everywhere. The great thing about India is that you have people like J. Krishnamurti and Osho about whom a lot of people may be critical, but who have reasons and have done some amazing thinking. Their approach is well-reasoned and thought out. So if you are following them, you are at least on to a reasoned path, quite unlike the outlandish stuff you find elsewhere. Like this guru in Taiwan who recently said a UFO is going to land in Texas and will evacuate a few chosen believers!
So these days are you working on a new film or are you just being a Rinpoche?
I have a few ideas for film projects. Let’s see what happens.
Dzongsar Rinpoche is setting up Lodro Thaye, an institute for Buddhist study and practice, art and culture.
Contact Prashant Varma, Ph: (011) 25834625, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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