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98: MULTI-MEDIA MONK

May 25, 2014

#98:  MULTI-MEDIA MONK.  Things change, as the Buddha noticed.  Vajrayana Buddhism—the Buddhism of Tibet and the Himalayan cultural region—lingered for long years in the West under the reputation of being a superstitious decadence, almost a corruption, of Buddhist teaching.  With the ongoing political disasters in Tibet having produced a new and visible diaspora of Vajrayana teachers, this has reversed itself.  An entire library of Tibetan literature has suddenly appeared in translations and fresh editions; several commercial and university presses are engaged in vast projects of translation and rescue. On the internet innumerable websites are reproducing obscure corners of Buddhist literature, and there are literally thousands of hours of recorded teachings and talks.  Where once was desert is now floodtide.

      Witness Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, third reincarnation in a nineteenth century Bhutanese lineage.  He keeps a busy international schedule of teachings, hours of which are retrievable on youtube; in 2003 the documentary Words of My Perfect Teacher was made about him by Lesley Ann Patten (the title is a riff on the great work of the nineteenth century writer Jamgon Kongtrul, who worked with Khyentse’s spiritual ancestor).  He has made (as Khyentse Norbu) four movies:  the incomparably charming comedy The Cup, which is one of my all-time favorite movies, set among the refugee Tibetan monastic community; the comic tale Travellers and Magicians, the first film ever made in Bhutan; a film on Indian dance, Vara: A Blessing (when, at the end of  Vara, the heroine, played by Shahana Goswami, sees Krishna pass by in the form of a young boy in festival costume and says farewell to her dream with a rueful look, it’s a moment worthy of Satyajit Ray, the great Indian filmmaker, to whom the movie is dedicated) and Hema Hema: Sing Me A Song While I Wait, a drama about retribution and anonymity, performed almost entirely in masks.   Several websites follow his teaching and charitable work:  Khyentse Foundation and Siddhartha’s Intent, which are teaching sites; Lotus Outreach, which works for the protection of women and children at risk; and the amazing 84000.co, which, true to the scholastic traditions of the Vajrayana, is a mammoth project of translation.

        He has published five books, all published by Shambhala:  What Makes You (Not) A Buddhist, about basic assumptions; Not For Happiness: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices, about the ngrondo, the beginning practices, that, he emphasizes, are of permanent value and are not to be rushed through; The Guru Drinks Bourbon?, about the opportunities, challenges and pitfalls of working with a spiritual teacher; Best Foot Forward: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Sacred Sites of the Buddha, more of a spiritual than travelling guide for the traditional Buddhist pilgrimage route; and Living Is Dying: How to Prepare for Death, Dying and Beyond, a collection of teachings and texts, which can also be found free online at the Siddhartha’s Intent website.   A bit like Chogyam Trungpa, Khyentse has an unnerving x-ray vision for all those little tricks of the ego you hope you’re going to get by with (you’re not).  He nails you; he spotlights the corners you hoped to leave dark; and then he throws open door after door for your practice.  His language is more popular than scholarly; he aims, it seems to me, at the intelligent lay reader, but assumes as well that you are serious about Buddhist practice.  And in contrast to so many in the new flow of books about Buddhism, which often sound like so much regurgitation of standard material, Khyentse has an audible writer’s voice.  Of the current Buddhist teachers, he’s one of the ones I find most convincing and helpful.

       For the movies, both The Cup and Travellers and Magicians can be got hold of fairly easily.  He wrote the script for a charming short fable, Finding Manjushri, which you can watch on youtube.  Hema Hema can be found on Vimeo; Vara can be rented on Amazon Prime.  There is one more full-length film listed on IMDB, Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache (any takeoff on the old Japrisot thriller The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun, I wonder?), but I haven’t been able to locate any info on where it might be available to be seen.  The preview for Vara (not in the film, alas) is a dance number you can see on youtube—with the psychedelic tuk-tuk and the nightlit luster of Krishna and his maidens, it suggests that, in addition to a Buddhist teacher of singular penetration and compassion, we may have a filmmaker loopy in love with Indian dance. How lucky could we get?

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