I escaped yesterday and went to an afternoon showing of Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, a new digitally remastered version of a film made in 1977 among Tibetan communities in India, Nepal and Ladakh. An afternoon in another world of colour, space, sonority, desert, devotion, of wide skies and small, dark monastery chambers.
Nearly twenty years ago. Here was a chubbier, more mortal Dalai Lama. Here were ancient rhythms of monks’ horns and voices and ancient work chants of labourers hoeing. Faces of plain, naked beauty, sometimes with tears in their eyes as they sang – or was it just the incense, the biting wind? The painful knowledge that this was then, that these communities must be much changed by now. But also that Tibetan Buddhism has since touched hearts and minds around the world, and, seeing those rows upon rows of monks’ faces, that women are now a little more visible in the structures of devotion. The light, the colours look like my photos after I’ve clicked on ‘sharper’, ‘saturate’ and ‘glow’. Women working in the fields in tall hats, weird silhouettes against the sun. And then I remember: women in Wales, where I think my family comes from, used to wear tall hats. Remember: just about the same time this was shot, I worked in fields with Portuguese women, their hard trilby hats tied on over headscarves. Such a little time ago, back then when I was young. It ends with a death ritual, brutally tender. The old man’s tiny body stretchered to an open, rocky place. The body turning to ash in daring close-up, and we seem to see blood flowing in the flames.
Sat for two-and-a-half hours immobile, just breathing, with a lump in my throat.
Thank you, Jean. I always avoid films & books about Tibet -- I guess I'm afraid I'll encounter something that will put me off my practice? -- but that's a powerful recommendation. Maybe I'll look for it.
Kenju, yes I think so, absolutely - objectively, most Tibetans probably aren't especially beautiful, but their beliefs and practices give them a light from within, which often grows brighter with age. I went to the celebrations of the London Tibetan community for the Dalai Lama's 70th birthday this year. I sat behind a tiny, bent old woman and when she turned around I almost gasped out loud she was so beautiful: huge limpid eyes and doll-like bow lips in a radiant smile on this ancient little person.
I'm quite in love with anything Tibetan too, but it could be because the culture is uprooted, doesn't really exist anymore as an actual locus, and so is already in the realm of nostalgia. I've found it to be the most advanced/best/most complete/encompassing spiritual system, but from afar, I've been initiated, but only at a beginning level. Perhaps I like best what I imagine about it, from my readings, from my meditations. And the sacred objects, bells, mantra boxes for jewelry, even the photographs are sacred objects. The real, everyday practice as a Buddhist monk could be very rule-oriented and prescriptive and not all that different from any other religion, I don't know. That's why perhaps I prefer to approach Tibetan Buddhism through its philosophy, its nostalgia, its enlightened women, its magical tantric practices...