The films I have chosen to watch for my analysis are: The Lion’s Roar, Tulku, The Unmistaken Child, Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation. Each of these films was very enjoyable to watch. I have only watched a few films pertaining to Buddhism in past classes, so this experience of finding documentaries and videos about Tibetan Buddhism was very exciting. I went into watching all of these films with a clear mind and not knowing what to expect. After a brief summary of each film, I will be discussing some of the things I learned that I felt I could not have learned through text, in turn expressing the power of film, and my evaluation of the structural aspects of the films and how they either helped or hindered the work overall.
The Lion’s Roar chronicles the life of the 16th Karmapa. The Karmapa is the oldest lineage of tulkus or reincarnated lamas. A Karmapa is the one who manifests enlightened activity and points out the great highway the Buddhas have followed to become enlightened. They have taken a vow to help others, which in turn means they have chosen to be reborn again and again. The 16th Karmapa visits the West, and later dies of cancer in Illinois, and his Western physician speaks of his unwavering kindness. His remains are sent back to the Rumtek monastery, where the funerary ceremonies are held. The former students of the 16th Karmapa then wait to read the letter left by him with instructions to aid them in finding and training the 17th Karmapa. Through watching this film, I had the chance to see how Westerners practice amongst a Tibetan Buddhist figure. I watched how the Western practitioners welcomed the Karmapa, and I was able to see two worlds collide. A specific line from the film stood out for me; “Once you have created something, it is something to decay.” I know this is a simple and general idea that we have discussed in class and is found in many Buddhist texts and readings, but through being able to watch how the life of the Karmapa was so valued by people in the east and the west, and then to witness the Western physician’s perspective on his death and then those at Rumtek, it helped clarify this statement even more. The Western view was expressed by the Karmapa’s physician in the United States. The Karmapa was a very special being that had worked to this moment of his passing. Through watching this film, I was able to see the west collide with the east, which is something that I cannot witness through a book. I think the structural aspects of the film such as the music and the narration helped the film. Without the narration, I felt I wouldn’t have understood the content and information of the film as well. The narrator helped describe the scene happening and explained the basic ideas and facts being portrayed.
Tulku is a documentary about five Western men, who in their childhoods were discovered and identified as tulkus. A tulku is a reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist master and high-ranking lama. Gesar Mukpo, an identified Western tulku himself, interviews each of the tulkus. Each tulku has different stories and outlooks on their experiences. The tulkus are from places such as Canada, San Francisco and Amsterdam. Tulku contains information that is most beneficially communicated through film rather than text. Through having Mukpo interview each of the Western tulkus and being able to watch it, was an experience that cannot occur through reading the interviews. There is a great deal of emotion in this film. Even though some chose to continue the path and study within the monastery, it does not mean they felt like it was the right decision. When each tulku is describing their situation and how they felt, the emotion, whether it was of happiness or discontent, was very apparent and added a different spectrum to their story that you cannot simply read. There is also a great deal of discussion between Mukpo and the other tulkus, which is much easier to express through film. The quality of this film was clear and professional. The music and audio again exuded professionalism and made the film flow. I found this film had me engaged as if I was watching a film in a theatre.
The Unmistaken Child is about Tenzin Gopa, the student of Lama Konchog, being given the responsibility to find the reincarnation of his master after his passing. This documentary shows Tenzin Gopa’s quest to find the definite reincarnation of the lama in the Tsum Valley. After a very long journey, Tenzin Gopa finds a young child from a small village, Phuntsok Rinpoche, who is deemed as the definite reincarnation of Lama Konchog. I find that each time I have learned or read about the reincarnation process, selection, and enthronement within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, it is a step-by-step list of the actions taken throughout the process. This allowed me to see inside the process and see the perspective of the person whose responsibility it is to find the reincarnated being. There were many scenes where Tenzin breaks down and expresses what he is feeling throughout his journey. Tenzin describes how he was scared about losing the lama, and then his new fear of “being the main person” and not trusting his feelings because he is “not a Buddha and the ordinary cannot judge and see the inner being.” Tenzin visits Lama Konchog’s old retreat where they had first met and he breaks down. The viewer also gets to see the relationship and attachment between Tenzin Gopa and the young child. This attachment is shown through body language, affection, and the physical emotion of the figures, and could not be shown through text. This film does not have a narrative voice-over. At first I found this shocking and I was nervous that I would not understand the premise of the documentary as well. There was text at the beginning giving key facts about who the lama was and his relationship with Tenzin. This was all you really needed to know, as the story simply unfolded easily without narration. In this film’s case, the text at the beginning acted as the narration. I was very surprised that narration was not needed at all, as through Tenzin telling his own stories, gave the exact information one needed to follow his quest. This film is my favorite documentary of them all. I felt I truly got an inside view of a very important process within Tibetan Buddhism. I felt as though I was on the journey with Tenzin, which allowed me to absorb more information than ever.
Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy contains three parts and acts as three separate films. “Part I: The Dalai Lama, The Monasteries and the People”, was filmed in the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala. The first part of the trilogy observes the Dalai Lama in his role as Head of State and spiritual teacher. The film portrays the ways in which the inner knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist culture is developed in monasteries through intense debate and solitary meditation, and how it is communicated in the lay community. “Part II: Radiating the Fruit of Truth,” looks deep into the mystical world of monastic life. The film shows the lamas of a monastery in the village of Boudha, Nepal and the isolated mountain caves of the yogis, on retreat, building a cosmogram, and performing an ancient ritual called “Beautiful Ornament.” Through this ritual, it summons the wicked forces that might bring harm to the society and they are magically changed. “Part III: The Fields of the Senses” is set in Ladakh. Meditation on impermanence and the relationship between the mind, body and environment is highlighted. The monastery’s ritual for a death in the community is shown. I have always read about texts such as the Vinaya outlining the rules of monastic life. I have never gotten to view or learn about how the monastery works as a community, and how this community can help develop both culture and practice. In this case, film allows one to see how the monks interact together, rather than the rules they are supposed to follow. In Part III, there is a subtitled commentary based on the teachings of master Dudjom Rinpoche. I felt that this along with the footage allowed for the intent of their actions to be revealed to the viewer, making it clearer and also somewhat easier to understand.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: A Way of Life shows us three different figures dealing with death. One has already passed and we are shown how the Book of the Dead is used with funerary purpose, the second is learning about the book of the dead and the ideas within as he himself copes with death, and the third, a Buddhist who’s name is Stangin, is of very old age and has accepted death, feels he has fulfilled everything in his life and is simply waiting for it to come. The process of the use of the Book of the Dead is seen used in the home of the deceased by a Buddhist monk picked by the family, and read every 49 days. This film allowed me to see how this ancient text is used both in the East and in the West. I have always enjoyed learning about the “Bardo Thodol” and was fascinated with its use in a Western hospice. I felt that I could relate to the ritual more, as the Tibetan funerary process is completely foreign to me. This is something that cannot be portrayed through text. Leaonard Cohen is the narrator within this documentary, and I felt he spoke clearly and slowly. This was helpful during the scenes in which the monk is in the home of a deceased in a small village, as I needed a clear explanation. I found that he was a bit frustrating during the scenes of the Western hospice, as I wished to hear the figures speak more about their emotions to see the affects of the use of the “Bardo Thodol” in the West. The quality of the filming was very good and clear. The shifting between locations was very easy to follow, allowing the information to be easily communicated.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation is the companion film of the previous documentary mentioned. In this film, a monk reads the scripture of the “Bardo Thodol,” also known as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” to a dying man in a nearby village. He describes the intermediate state, or the bardo experience, and helps guide him into his next rebirth. This documentary showed the step-by-step process found in many texts and books of the use of the “Bardo Thodol” and the funerary process. This film took the information found in texts and brought it to life. As the monk is performing the process, added visuals act out the spirit along the journey to rebirth. This was helpful in portraying what actually happens to the spirit. The use of visuals aids the viewer in truly understanding what is happening to the deceased. Although this is helpful, I found that it made the film look a bit unprofessional. This is just an opinion. It was a bit confusing as the subject matter, information and footage felt very professional, and yet the added visuals felt as though they were cartoons. The narrative voice-over was very helpful in this film, as it helped outline the step-by-step process of the funerary process.
Overall, I feel as though through watching each of these films, I have noticed that film allows the emotional aspect of Tibetan Buddhist practices to be conveyed. Film changes the entire learning process. It allows the use of visuals mixed with narration to help give a text basis as well as a visual example of the information being learned. This was a great experience, as I am more of a visual learner.