#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 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) three 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 fable “Travellers and Magicians,” the first film ever made in Bhutan; and 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.) 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. And he has published three books: WHAT MAKES YOU (NOT) A BUDDHIST (Shambhala, 2008), NOT FOR HAPPINESS: A Guide to the So-Called Preliminary Practices (Shambhala, 2012) and THE GURU DRINKS BOURBON? (Shambhala, 2016). The first book is about basic assumptions; the second’s about the ngrondo,
the beginning practices, that, he emphasizes, are of permanent value and are not to be rushed through; the third is about the opportunities and challenges and pitfalls of working with a spiritual teacher. 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. 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. “Vara” is doing the U.S. festival circuit, but the preview dance number online (not in the film, alas)—with the psychedelic tuk-tuk and the nightlit luster of Krishna and his maidens—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?