Monday, September 10, 2007
Movie review: 10 Questions for the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama is 72 years old; he appears to be 50-something. Must be the yak butter. (And clean living.)
Documentarist Rick Ray was lured to India on false pretenses.
He'd been hired to produce a travel video, and had agreed to tackle the low-paying project only because he was promised an interview with an individual he'd come to both admire and revere: the Dalai Lama.
Unfortunately, upon arrival he discovered that the agreement was built on a false premise: no provision for such an interview had been pursued by his employers. Regardless, caprice intervened - divinely or otherwise.
His Indian driver and tour guide knew how to get a message to the spiritual leader: via email. That's right, his driver actually had the Dalai Lama's email address, and a short time after making contact Rick received a reply from the monks in Dharamsala (headquarters of the government of Tibet in exile) who monitor the Lama's missives while he's off meditating or traveling to Oslo to accept his Nobel Peace Prize or some such. Rick's request for a private audience had been granted: in a month's time, Rick would have 45 minutes to pose ten questions to one of the most enlightened individuals on the planet.
Proviso: according to his personal assistant, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has little patience for triviality and he has a finely-honed ability to sniff out the insincere. So Rick decided to spend the four weeks prior to his audience immersing himself in things spiritual, journeying to a high Himalayan monastery, all the while soaking up the essence of the place and its people while cogitating over the questions he would pose to the great man. His passage through upper India is punctuated by brightly-colored prayer flags and yaks and the sun-baked faces of villagers who appear to have taken on the countenance of their deeply-furrowed homeland. What he encounters in the monastery of his destination is an intensity of calmness that seems to emanate from the walls, to be absorbed by the people abiding within them.
The monks spend upwards of a month etching the most intricate of mandalas into colorful sand - then abandon their sculpture intentionally to the waters of a neighboring stream, in demonstration of the impermanence of all things.
For his part, the Dalai Lama considers himself only a simple monk and makes no claims to divinity, though by titular definition he is the reincarnation of the Avalokiteśvara (compassionate) Buddha. Since emerging onto the world political scene following China's invasion and takeover of his country (which began in 1950), the D.L. has exerted a singular fascination on world leaders and people in general, becoming a sort of "rock star of peace," as Rick puts it. The Lama's interests include quantum physics and neuroscience; he's an avid tinkerer (dismantling watches and cars to see how they work) and something of a prankster, disrupting solemn religious ceremonies and grand political observances with his infectious laughter and intentional divergence from script.
Before China took over, Tibet was a country in cultural stasis, a beautiful and austere desert highland sparsely populated by nomadic tribesmen and ruled over by a succession of spiritual/temporal leaders. Tibet possessed no mineral wealth, no coastline to engender trade, no natural resources of value to anyone - except for its vast emptiness, which to the exploding population of China proved too tempting to resist. The majestic Potala Palace at Lhasa, traditional home of the Dalai Lama, is now fronted by a go-cart track; the city itself serves as kind of a theme park for vacationing Chinese, and the immigrant residents now outnumber the natives. China's communist regime has worked for 40 years to systematically dismantle the essences of Tibetan identity, resulting in what the Lama refers to as a "cultural genocide."
Rick's film incorporates miraculously-preserved historical footage showing the 1939 pilgrimage of the young Tenzin Gyatso - newly-revealed as the 14th Dalai Lama - from his home in Tibet's Amdo province to the seat of government in Lhasa. It also provides glimpses of the exiled leader's visits to the West, where he has rubbed elbows with presidents, popes and pedagogues - along with legions of "ordinary" people, whom he approaches eagerly and engages in personal conversation, much to the consternation of his hosts and handlers. According to filmmaker Ray, the Lama's greatest strength lies in is his ability to be fully present when he's interacting with the people he meets.
The Dalai Lama's answers to Rick Ray's arduously thought-out and carefully-crafted questions are as simple as the man himself claims to be, and all the more compelling for their simplicity. Key are the concepts of contentment, self-discipline, religious tolerance, the overcoming of hate and other negative emotions (through "more festivals and picnics"), the ability to admit when one is wrong, and the practice of altruism.
A leader, he says, should be an example of patience and wisdom for his own people. Ouch.
WISDOM FOR THE AGE.: "I don't admire your weapons. I admire your principles: democracy, liberty, freedom." - Dalai Lama, during a visit to the U.S.
VIEW FROM AFAR: "No matter where you come from or how poor you think you are, India changes your perspective forever." - Rick Ray
KARMA: "Destruction of your enemy is also destruction of yourself." - Dalai Lama, who nevertheless holds that self-defense is an allowable response to violence.