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Projecting Tibet

Screenwriter Melissa Mathison speaks with the Dalai Lama about getting the script of Kundun rightMelissa Mathison

Kundun, a feature film depicting the Fourteenth Dalai Lama's early life and the events leading up to his escape from Chinese-occupied Tibet, is due for release this Christmas from Touchstone Pictures. It was shot in Morocco last fall by Martin Scorsese with an all-Tibetan cast. Writer Melissa Mathison first interviewed the Dalai Lama in 1991. Several months later, in April 1992, she traveled to India, where she discussed the first draft of the script with His Holiness. The following are excerpts from their conversation.


Mathison: We are now fifteen minutes into the movie. People have watched this boy and they need to hear the words, “This is the Dalai Lama.” So I used the scene in the tent with all the grandeur for the announcement. One other point is that in order to obtain emotional continuity between the person who’s playing the Dalai Lama and the audience, we stay with the Dalai Lama. We never go away to the auspicious assembly for the events but we stay always with the Dalai Lama, with the boy. So, even if this is not the first announcement or the most dramatic announcement, we’ve overdramatized the moment. And your parents will hear the announcement at the same time as the audience.

Dalai Lama: At the assembly, it can be stated that the Regent declared, “We are very grateful that we found the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Now we are happy.” That kind of statement.

Mathison: May we introduce the Oracle in these dramatic circumstances?

Dalai Lama: Sometimes the Oracle became so filled with emotion that he made a prostration in front of me. We can put the Oracle prostrated in front of that small boy. That we can do.

Mathison: In this way we explain to the audience what the Oracle thinks is important.

Dalai Lama: This is not untrue, not incorrect. At that time, one famous great scholar was very much educated about the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. So when the Dalai Lama came to that tent, and the Regent was there and the Oracle, he especially went there to observe. Then he saw me and stated that now he was completely relieved of all his concern, that the Dalai Lama was the true one.

Mathison: This was the old monk with the doubt in his eyes.

Dalai Lama: Yes, that’s right.

Mathison: And we can see him again after we meet the Oracle and see that he looks satisfied or relieved and moved emotionally. So this is a big piece of work we’ve just done. And that last moment is the mother and the father reacting to the fact that their son is the Dalai Lama. We need to show how they react. We can do it all in one scene. In their faces we must see that they did not realize who their son was believed to be. Maybe that’s a little overstated; they must have hoped and felt that he was the incarnation. But now it’s done.

Dalai Lama: Maybe my parents had a peculiar experience. Because unlike other smaller lamas who were recognized, here their youngest son has now become the Dalai Lama and is completely surrounded by these officials who show great reverence.

Mathison: It was a complicated reaction. That’s good. That’s what movies are all about, complication.

Dalai Lama: A foreign dignitary, an Englishman, was there. Politically, this is very important.

Mathison: So you see that Tibet has relations independently with foreigners?

Dalai Lama: Yes. So I would like to indicate that the Englishman and the Chinese are in the same category of foreign dignitaries.

Mathison (reading from script): "We hear the sound of a great Tibetan horn. We hear peals of childish laughter and we find ourselves in the Potala. We see Lobsang and his little brother, Lhamo, soon to be recognized as the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The duo skid, slide, and skate down the endless slippery hallways in this huge labyrinthine monastery. Three monks scurry behind the boys, trying to keep the young incarnate from slipping out of their sight. They shout in large stage whispers. The boys skid to a stop in front of a large hall. Lhamo enters the great hall. The great hall in the Potala is the seat of the Tibetan government. These monastery walls are hung with beautiful old thangkas, embroidered silk hangings, depicting the life of Milarepa, an ancient spiritual master and poet. Inside the halls sit the high lamas, a cabinet of four members, officers of the government, two laymen and two monks, two prime ministers and the Regent. The Regent, Reting Rinpoche, a young man and himself the incarnation of the former Regent, bows to the young Dalai Lama as the boy runs into the room. Lhamo slows, walks to the table standing in front of the Regent and takes his place in the center of the room. The Regent hands the four-year-old boy the state seals. He shows the boy how to lift the first heavy golden seal and bring it down on the parchment. The second silver seal the boy can handle by himself. The document is stamped with the seals of the Tibetan government. The occupants of the room bow. This is the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s first official act.

"Interior—the private rooms of the Dalai Lama. Reting sits cross-legged on the floor in this dusty, dark, cold room. These are simple rooms decorated with deity scrolls and Buddhist artifacts. Behind Reting is an altar holding offerings, a small butter lamp, and a statue of the Buddha. The only other piece of furniture in the room is a bed, a large wooden box filled with cushions, draped with red curtains. Reting is speaking. We notice that he seems to have a continually blocked nose. He seems a bit distant, dreamy, but not cruel or stern. He is lighthearted."

Dalai Lama: How did you know?

Mathison: You told me.

[Lhamo, now age five or six, is on the road to Lhasa to take his place at the Potala as the Dalai Lama. The caravan is camped for the night.]

Mathison: "Interior—tent. Night. Lhamo is very still as a monk carefully finishes cutting the boy’s hair."

Dalai Lama: Probably my hair was cut short.

Mathison: "The monk is cutting his hair. And the monk says, 'Do you go homeless?' The boy looks at the monk and repeats his short memorization. 'Yes, I go homeless.' Lhamo is now wearing the maroon robes of a monk."

Dalai Lama: No, still in yellow.

Mathison: So the yellow robe you wear would be just like Tibetan clothes.

Dalai Lama: Yes, that’s right.

Mathison: What I wanted to show here was the monks beginning to try to teach you to repeat, saying memorizations. And I saw that little phrase somewhere, “Do you go homeless?” And I thought it was quite a beautiful phrase, so I used it. And it may be totally incorrect. But I wanted the monk who was cutting your hair to give you a little saying that you have to repeat back. Can you think of some little phrase that would be better than that?

Dalai Lama: “I take refuge in the Three Jewels.”

Mathison: Is there another line after that? I think to help understand the process of memorization, we should have a prayer that has more than one phrase so that the monk would say the first phrase, and then the boy would say the second phrase. And they would build. We would then understand that this was a process of memorization without having to talk about it. But whatever the prayer is, when the hair is finished: "Lhamo stands and looks at the older men around him and calmly says, 'I want my mama.' Lhamo runs to the tent flap and pulls it open, and standing outside the tent is a bodyguard, a huge, burly man."

Dalai Lama: Monk bodyguard.

Mathison: Okay, monk bodyguard. "Wearing sheepskins and a fur hat."

Dalai Lama: No sheepskins. Monk’s clothes.

Mathison: Okay. "He turns to the boy. In one hand he holds a sword."

Dalai Lama: No sword. Big stick.

Mathison: This is the man with one eye.

Dalai Lama: No, not one eye. On one eye he has a big bump.

Mathison: Okay. A fearsome-looking man. "He turns to the boy. He bows to the boy." Would he bow to you if you were only a candidate?

Dalai Lama: Yes. This incident happened on a one-day journey from Lhasa.

[1950: the Dalai Lama, now fourteen years old, is informed of the Chinese invasion by the Lord Chamberlain.]

Mathison: “The governor reports a raid on the Tibetan radio by Chinese soldiers. General Thuthang is dead. We have one report that the Chinese have entered Tibet in six locations.”

Dalai Lama: The Indians used the words “line of actual control.” That means not the real border. The border is further east. The Chinese in the first invasion already took some area. And then in this case it’s very clear. In 1912, the Tibetan army pushes the Chinese army quite deeply into eastern Tibet. Then, in the 1920s, the Chinese army comes and push. Then, the local people consider they are the subjects of Tibetan government. But then the Chinese controlled. They continue fighting there. One British missionary came as a mediator. That was considered temporarily the border. So the Chinese invasion entered beyond that actual control area, not the real border.

Mathison: This information on the border and the control is very important for the rest of the piece. Could we create a scene where the general explains to you a little of this information?

Dalai Lama: Actually, when the officers met with me there was no exchange of words.

Mathison: This would be good to see. Maybe after the meeting, after they’re all taking their leave, you call the officer back and say: I want to know what the situation is. But it could be done with things, like when you play with toy soldiers. A strategy. It could be very educational for the audience.

Dalai Lama: That’s fine, yes.

Mathison: This information about the strength of the Tibetan army should come earlier. This happened on May 1950 and the actual invasion came in October 1950.

Dalai Lama: The important thing is that the Chinese entered Tibet on six occasions across the actual control line, not the border.

Mathison: I think we can make that clear in a previous scene with the officer, and then when the invasion happens, we’ll understand. So let’s skip down to the Dalai Lama’s room. "Interior—Dalai Lama’s room. Dusk. The boy sits alone, a small table beside him piled high with Buddhist texts. Incense smoke curls. His Holiness is meditating before the thangka. His eyes are closed, his palms lay gently open on his knees. He is quiet and still."

Dalai Lama: Meditating means the basic Buddhist practice. So a thangka of the Buddha.

Mathison: The Buddha of Compassion?

Dalai Lama: Buddha.

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