Directed by Khyentse Norbu
94 minutes, Rated G
Soccer, rather than the search for enlightenment, is the obsession among the sweet-faced young monks at the heart of The Cup, a new movie written and directed by Khyentse Norbu, a highly regarded Tibetan lama and son of Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. The film, the first feature ever shot on location in Bhutan, will be distributed by Fineline Features in the United States. It opened on January 28, 2000.
Although the idea of a serious lama with “indie cred” will strike many as good content for a dada play, The Cup is not an absurdity but a quiet pleasure. In terms of cinematography, the movie may not compete with other, more mainstream, Buddhist-oriented films, such as Scorcese’s Kundun or Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. It is not an epic, but its smallness may be its greatest appeal. It skillfully depicts a familiar drama in a distinctly unfamiliar setting. The Cup invites its audience into the cloistered but surprisingly entertaining world of the traditional Tibetan monastic community.
The Cup is Khyentse Norbu’s first feature length film. He has spent most of his life fulfilling his obligations as a major lineage holder in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in 1961, he was recognized at the age of seven as the incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892). Norbu entered a monastery in Sikkim at the age of twelve and continues to make lengthy meditation retreats each year. He serves as the throne holder of Dzongsar Monastery in Eastern Tibet, and the spiritual director of two meditation centers in East Bhutan and Sikkim, and two Buddhist philosophy colleges in India and East Bhutan. He has also set up several of his own Buddhist centers in Canada, Australia, Asia and Europe.
At nineteen, Norbu saw his first movie on video and became a man obsessed. He gained some production experience in his early thirties, helping to make Little Buddha as an apprentice to Bertolucci. In Bhutan, where, until recently, there had never been a single television set, the film industry is typically viewed as a kind of netherworld of wickedness. Indeed, the fact that a lama has made a movie continues to be a source of some controversy there, particularly because Norbu is the grandson of the late H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, one of the most revered Buddhist teachers of the twentieth century.
The movie’s content may not have increased the director’s popularity among conservative critics at home, depicting a side of monastic reality that will seem irreverent to some. The monks of The Cup engage in all kinds of behavior that would seem improper of a monastic community, even to the extent that they become involved in a brawl. As Norbu said recently, “Everyone thinks monks are pious and disciplined. But they forget that monks are human too. The monastic code is an ideal, a goal to be hit.”
The plot focuses on an intergenerational struggle, one that’s common to all families but, when played out within the context of a Tibetan monastery, takes on its own particular poignancy. The parents in this movie, represented by the higher lamas of the monastic community, watch powerlessly as their children are drawn to the magnet of pop culture. The young monks are taken, in particular, with magazines and television broadcasts devoted to soccer. They spend much of their time drawing graffiti about soccer, trading soccer flags, and, of course, playing soccer. What adds to the significance of the generation gap portrayed in The Cup is the fact that Tibetan Buddhist culture and religion, so closely intertwined, have been decimated inside Tibet.
In The Cup, Geko, the monastery’s disciplinarian, is troubled by his duties. At one point, after the Abbot asks him what the World Cup is, Geko replies:
“It’s two civilized nations fighting over a ball.”
“I assume you’re joking.”
“So there’s violence?”
“Is there sex?”
“And how do you know so much about this World Cup?”
. . . To which there is silence and an embarrassed smile from Geko.
The plot unfolds as two young boys enter the monastery, after surviving a dangerous escape from Tibet. Because conditions in Tibet had become so inhospitable to open Dharma practice under the Chinese occupation, the boys have been ordained as monks in exile. It is their parents’ hope that they will be able to study Buddhism. Soon after their arrival, however, they are caught up in the mischief of a young monk named Orgyen. Orgyen, who refers to his wall covered in photos of soccer stars as his “shrine,” leads a small group of monks on forbidden nighttime trips to a local Indian inn to watch soccer games on television. After various antics ensue, the boys eventually convince Geko and the monastery’s abbot, played by the monastery’s real abbot, Lama Chonjor, to allow them to rent a satellite dish and a TV to watch the World Cup.
The Cup is a film made on a very human scale. Its simple camera work and stately pace of edits and plot development are not likely to connect with a broad audience in America, nor are any major acting talents likely to emerge from the cast. But it is important that, for the first time, moviegoers in the United States will see a Tibetan story told from a Tibetan point of view. Norbu’s monks and monastery in The Cup are, appropriately, painted in small, careful strokes. The film works precisely because of its considerate attention to the delightful idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of an otherwise mysterious world.
And for those who may think filmmaking to be an odd or inappropriate medium for a lama’s teaching, Khyentse Norbu offers some instructive words: “Film has the potential of showing us who we are, too. The process of illusion is similar: the seduction of sound and image and our blank willingness to be manipulated like - how do you say it - lambs to the slaughter?”
Dimitri Ehrlich is a singer-songwriter whose most recent album, As Nervous As You (taintedrecords.com) explores Buddhist themes. He is also the author of Inside The Music: Conversations with Musicians about Spirituality, Creativity, and Consciousness.