Natural-Born Filmmaker

A brief chat with lama Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche

Robert Coe

© Manuel Rodriguez

Bhutanese lama Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche is a natural-born filmmaker. Self-educated in London cinemas, he served as an advisor to Bernardo Bertolucci during the making of Little Buddha (1993), then wrote and directed several shorts before making his first feature film, The Cup in 1999, a dramatic comedy about a group of young Bhutanese monks attempting to hook up a satellite dish so that they can watch World Cup soccer. The Cup was awarded the People’s Choice runner-up prize at the Toronto Film Festival and won a One Future Award in Munich.

Born in 1961, Khyentse Norbu is formally known as H.E. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, following his recognition at the age of seven as the incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820—1892), one of the greatest Tibetan lamas of the last century. He currently supervises his traditional seat, Dzongar Monastery, and retreat centers in Eastern Tibet, as well as new colleges in India and Bhutan. He has also established centers in Australia, North America, and Asia.

I spoke with Khyentse Norbu in January, shortly before a New York showing of his latest feature, Travellers and Magicians (2003), a contemporary Bhutanese road picture with a second, more ancient fable embedded within it.
—Robert Coe

It surprises a lot of people that a Buddhist lama is making films.
People are puzzled both in the East and in the West about me, a Buddhist, making films. In the West the question is always, “Why is a Buddhist making films?” In the West, religion always has to do with morality and ethics. That’s the backbone of Western religion: you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Buddhism does not emphasize morality and ethics. Buddhism emphasizes wisdom. For me, Buddhism is a science. I can be a scientist. I can make films. I see no contradiction.

Perhaps what’s puzzling to people is that you’re making films that aren’t expressly “Buddhist” films. You once said that you do not even claim your films are “spiritual.”
Maybe Travellers and Magicians is more spiritual than The Cup.

But why are you hesitant to claim that these films are spiritual?
I’m just saying that I don’t want to claim that I am doing any service for the dharma community at the moment. I might in the future, but very unlikely.

You once said you wanted to make a film about the Buddha.
First I have to meet a really stupid, rich, crazy person who would throw me $150 million, because I don’t want to have Brad Pitt as the Buddha—which means, who would buy the picture?

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