Tuesday, January 29, 2013

"Words of My Perfect Teacher": Film Review

How can you trust a reincarnated lama, a teacher as an assassin, ready to cut down your ego? What if this same enlightened one dismisses his calling: sometimes, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche admits, due to cultural insensitivity, hypocrisy, and weariness: "I hate my profession," as it never lets him depart the spotlight. Lesley Ann Patten's 2003 Canadian documentary follows him to Munich for an England-Germany World Cup qualifying match, among adoring disciples in European cities, and the same in his native Bhutan. 

In between, waiting for the Rinpoche to contact her, she must cool her heels. Despite the declared lack of a budget, somehow she winds up to spend the interim in L.A. There, Gesar Mukpo (son of the "crazy wisdom" counterculture ambassador of Vayrayana Buddhism from Tibet to the West, Chogyam Trungpa), confesses his lack of ambition along the Middle Path. Played off against his indolence--which may be as studied a pose as his father's notoriously provocative stances--we compare Steven Seagal, Hollywood's representative of one proclaiming himself an incarnate "tulku."

Patten leaves these two figures juxtaposed but in suspension, as we judge their integrity. Whether she does this for the main guru remains open to debate. As his follower, she seems to have let her film continue on in a happenstance manner, which may show her willingness to trust in her teacher's aleatory qualities, or her naivete that the results will produce a tightly edited, consistently produced film. She narrates portions, but she does not emanate a strong, compelling presence on camera or in her voiceover. Some of this feels hesitant or half-finished. Over a conventional length of a hundred minutes this wears down a less enraptured viewer. The music can distract, annoy, or intrude; scenes may belabor the obvious. She takes along to Bhutan in the wake of 9/11 a subdued, hesitant Louise from London and a sly, cocky Luc from Vancouver as disciples of  Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.

I liked the Rinpoche's aside to Louise about how her search for "the right one" sums up suffering and our plight. But this, for instance, comes after many minutes with a sluggish pace, anodyne music, and a lackluster scene-setting. The half-hour concluding the film, set in Bhutan, generated the most interest: you get to see the vertiginous, iconic Taktsang "Tiger's Nest" monastery, too.

What lies beneath the surface of the guru-student relationship key to Vajrayana does not emerge often. He's an "assassin," aiming at one's ego; he confounds timetables and expectations as many dharma-teachers do. He informs us that he's a "bridge" and that ultimately, the seeker must find in the self the nature of the teaching. (A twenty five-minute added interview allows the Rinpoche to elaborate: the buddha-dharma "nature of mind" is not external in a guru but revealed as the same in the disciple, and then, no separate guide is needed.)  

Yet, the intensity of belief in the guide that students, Western and Eastern, demonstrate makes one from a distance wonder about the internal direction and the external motivation. Only hints emerge about this nexus what the Rinpoche calls in the bonus footage the "karmic debt" which must be paid by his Western students. We get his reflections more in that portion than in the truncated feature itself, where we don't hear enough from the students he captivates. His message intrigues--and he expounds his side of the relationship in the added footage--but why it does needed Patten's articulation in this main documentary itself. Luc and Louise don't take their onscreen opportunity to open up--Luc is challenged to do so, but his evasions appear very odd, while Louise's passivity leaves us little wiser.

A breakthrough briefly happens once. Luc and Louise watch the Rinpoche walk among crowds in his native land bowing down for blessings. I wondered how Westerners so enchanted by this sight might critique a Pope or preacher among similarly worshipful congregants. Then, we hear Louise and Luc carry on an appropriate if edited conversation attempting to raise a similar issue, if comparing instead the devotion of those sworn to follow Osama bin Laden into terrorism. Too little of this necessary admission of the students' side of the guru exchange leaves parts of this superficial and frustrating. The Rinpoche in the interview notes the Western predilection for skeptical inquiry which can overshadow or limit the practice of teachings, and the cessation of questioning, so I may plead guilty.

I found this film after learning that the object of the filmmakers' affection is a name I'd encountered in two what I thought were separate guises. See: Travellers and Magicians (feature film directed by Khyentse Norbu, 2003; reviewed by me Nov. 2012). Under his Buddhist name, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, he wrote the lively introduction (Apr. 2009 review) "What Makes You 'Not' a Buddhist"

(This to Amazon US 12-12-12. P.S. Film website. With dodgy English and Chinese subtitles, on YouTube)

No comments: