Documentary explores role of Tibetan Buddhism in western spiritual life

TORONTO (CP) – Some 30 minutes into John Halpern’s documentary film Refuge, one can’t help but feel drawn toward Tibetan Buddhism amid the numerous images of westerners embracing the faith in spiritually adrift North America.

That is, until the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of the ancient eastern practice, provides a frank piece of advice for Christians, Jews and Muslims flirting with Buddhism.

Stick with your own beliefs.

If you’re confused about the tradition in which you’ve been raised, he suggests, then you’re headed toward greater turmoil by jumping on the Buddhist bandwagon. It’s a message that the revered leader repeated to thousands in Vancouver this past weekend as he began his Canadian visit.

“He’s just saying ‘Be careful, don’t leave too soon, stay where you are, and come to Buddhism with some responsibility,’ ” said Halpern at a recent screening of his film in Toronto.

“If you’re OK being a Catholic, don’t think that there’s something better outside. There’s nothing better.”

Problematic, yet somewhat humorous, for the Dalai Lama are encounters with westerners who expect him to work some feat of magic or a miracle. With a wide grin in the film he characterizes such meetings as disastrous.

“There’s been a lot of that,” said the New York-based Halpern. “With nuns and lamas who have to deal with these spaced-out, melted down westerners. They’re coming to them with lots of problems.”

The film, which the NFB will screen free to the public on April 24 and 29 in Toronto to coincide with the Dalai Lama’s visit to the city, is meant to serve as a clarion call for westerners seeking answers in eastern philosophies.

“Go into this with your eyes open,” said Halpern of the Buddhist faith. “This is not a fix-all, hair tonic that’s going to make everything right again.”

Refuge tracks Tibetan Buddhism’s worldwide growth following the Dalai Lama’s flight from his homeland in 1959, with some 80,000 followers, in the face of Chinese occupation. In doing do, it tells the tale of Buddhist monks and nuns who took economic and political refuge in the West and the subsequent spiritual refuge westerners found in their teachings.

Film buffs will no doubt find testimonials from acclaimed filmmakers Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese and Bernardo Bertolucci – all of whom have turned their lenses toward Buddhism in their careers – of interest. But to serious Buddhist converts, Halpern’s work probably won’t add much to their understanding of Tibet’s spiritual legacy or political turmoil. The documentary serves more as a primer on the Dalai Lama and his adherents in the West, and not as a polemic.

Those seeking controversy will find it in the NFB co-produced What Remains of Us, which takes the dangerous step of talking to Tibetans within Tibet. In a land where possessing images of the Dalai Lama can land one in jail, the filmmakers smuggled in a brief, videotaped message from the spiritual leader, showed it to Tibetans, and filmed their reactions. What Remains of Us is scheduled to premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival on April 27.

Meanwhile, Vision TV will observe the Canadian visit by airing a number of programs on Tibetan Buddhism, including the homegrown documentaries Words of My Perfect Teacher by Lesley Ann Patten and The Dalai Lama: Behind the Smile by Jean-Pierre Paiement. The highlight of the cable channel’s programming will be an interview with the Dalai Lama, to be taped and broadcast on April 28.

The wealth of film and documentary material available on Tibet is hardly surprising – it’s rich terrain for storytelling. From one point of view, it’s the tale of an unjustly displaced people with a intensely spiritual history. To the Chinese government, it’s about an exiled separatist who mixes politics with religion on the international stage.

To that end, the planned meeting this Friday between Prime Minister Paul Martin and the Dalai Lama has been criticized by Beijing. Martin insists he’s meeting the man as spiritual leader, not a political one.

“He’s a political leader, that’s one of the reasons for touring the world,” said Halpern. But the Dalai Lama is also a teacher who has come to Canada at the request of his followers, said the filmmaker. “I think that there is the teaching and the politics, and these are two very distinct things in his mind.” And the core message of the teaching is a simple one.

“Tibetan Buddhism is saying ‘Be kind to yourself,’ ” said Halpern. “If you can forgive yourself, that’s the most generous, vigorous purification there is.”

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