Khyentse Norbu, director and lama, on both sides of the lens
Films like Kundun, Little Buddha, and The Cup have shown that Buddhism has box-office appeal. Now, a new crop of features and documentaries is poised for theatrical release, fresh from the first International Buddhist Film Festival, held last November at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (see www.ibff.org). Coinciding with a major exhibit, “The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art” (see page 102), the festival was organized by the Buddhist Film Society, a Berkeley, California-based not-for-profit set up to increase awareness of the Buddhist experience.
Four thousand people came from around the world for the four-day, fourteen-film event. Among them was Dzongsar Khentsye Rinpoche, the Bhutanese lama and director known as Khyentse Norbu, whose first full-length film, The Cup (1999), was an international success. His second feature, Travellers and Magicians (2003), is the first movie ever shot in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s official language. It had its U.S. premiere at the festival, as did Words of My Perfect Teacher (2003), a documentary by Leslie Ann Patten that follows Khyentse Norbu from London to Bhutan. Asked what he had found most surprising or revealing about Patten’s film, Khyentse Norbu said, “I’m surprised how I still need to dent the bumper of vanity.”
Words of My Perfect Teacher is an often hilarious look at this remarkable lama through the eyes of three of his Western students: a Canadian computer scientist, a British tarot-card reader, and Patten herself, an award-winning American filmmaker now living in Canada. An enjoyable, multicontinent roller-coaster ride, the film offers an interesting commentary on the cultural, psychological, and, at times, spiritual divide between East and West. At one point, Khyentse Norbu comments:
When you don’t have obsessions, when you don’t have hang-ups, when you don’t have inhibitions, when you’re not afraid you’ll be breaking certain rules, when you’re not afraid you won’t fulfill somebody’s expectations, what more enlightenment do you want? That’s it.
The lama consistently lives up to this definition and not to his students’ expectations of him, often to their chagrin. There is irony in the film’s title, taken from Patrul Rinpoche’s classic nineteenth-century text. The theme is established early on with the filmmaker’s voice-over query: “What is he really thinking?” (Patten told the film festival audience that she had made the film to better understand her teacher and that he had let her make it so she would trust him more; it appears that neither happened.)
In the film Khyentse Norbu says, “The truth is so close it’s like our own eyelashes. It’s so close we can’t see it.” And so it is with his students’ relationship to him. In typical Western, analytical (and often neurotic) fashion they alternate between wondering about his intentions, his feelings toward them, and how he operates, and complaining to each other when he keeps them waiting or doesn’t return their phone calls.
What comes through clearly is that Khyentse Norbu practices what he preaches. He moves seamlessly and charmingly between conventions—donning Western clothes to attend a soccer match and wearing a straw fedora with his monk’s robes as he walks down Oxford Street in London—and has clearly transcended codependency. (In his sphere everyone is responsible for his own emotions, his own life, his own awakening.) That Khyentse Norbu is an attentive listener and compassionate teacher is best demonstrated in wonderful vignettes in a London flat, where he reveals some of his internal process as a teacher. The film could use more of those moments. Though the students provide most of the movie’s running narration, the perspective broadens as the film progresses. In one sequence, Bernardo Bertolucci describes Khyentse Norbu (who served as a consultant on Bertolucci’s Little Buddha) as “remarkable,” over footage of the lama on the set with Keanu Reeves. While his Western students obsess about his attentiveness toward them, Khyentse Norbu is revered without question on the other side of the world. When the three students travel with him to Bhutan, they seem nonplussed at seeing their teacher surrounded by devotees bowing deeply in respect. The Canadian student can’t resist a cynical aside: “Osama engenders this same commitment—and offers promises of heaven to his followers.”