Peak Experience

By Graham Coleman

tibet-a-buddhist-trilogy-kenji-mizoguchi-1.jpgTibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, 1979

Film and the expression of meaning in Tibetan Buddhism

Tibet: a Buddhist Trilogy was first released in 1979. One of the most remarkable documentaries made about the place, in all senses, of belief within an individual, a community and a people, it is now available on DVD. Here, director Graham Coleman reflects on the making of the film alongside a short synopsis of its narrative:

In making the Trilogy, we were searching for an immediacy, intimacy and unobtrusiveness, which had been so masterfully achieved in such classic documentaries as Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and the films of Fred Wiseman. We were trying to allow the Tibetan way of life to speak directly to the audience. At the same time, as a film-maker, I had always admired the cinematic skills of Kenji Mizoguchi and, whilst I knew that I could never achieve such artistry, his visual style was a constant inspiration. Above all, we hoped that the film would draw the audience into the spirit of the Tibetan way of life, into its light-heartedness, openness and quietly powerful awareness of the sacred.

tibet-a-buddhist-trilogy-kenji-mizoguchi-2.jpgTibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, 1979

The origins of this project probably go back to my childhood. I was brought up in Luxor, the capital of ancient Egypt, where my father worked as an artist for an archaeological expedition. I had always wondered what kind of a society had created such vibrant, monumental temples and elegant, deeply peaceful art. Driven by this curiosity, I set out for India in 1974 and after travelling along the Himalaya from Kalimpong in the east, I settled in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama was in exile. The Dalai Lama was living a simple life at the top of the hill above the cottage where I lived. Luckily, in those days he had time to meet with wandering travellers such as me. He was immensely kind and during one of our meetings I told him of my grand ambition to make a film about the Tibetan way of life, the contemplative and sacred arts skills of the monasteries, and the Tibetan Buddhist way of helping the dying. He said that if I managed to organise everything, he would participate and help.

tibet-a-buddhist-trilogy-kenji-mizoguchi-3.jpgTibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, 1979

Not long after returning to England a friend introduced me to Sogyal Rinpoche, a young, exuberant lama, who had just arrived in England. A few days later I went to see Sogyal in north London and told him of my plans to make a film. He immediately offered to travel to India and to introduce me to the leading Tibetan masters of the time including: Dudjom Rinpoche, Sakya Trizin and the Karmapa. Then, one morning over breakfast, I told David Lascelles, a university friend with whom I was sharing a cottage in Somerset, about the planned visit to India with Sogyal. David was just starting a film production company and he suggested that this could be one of its first projects. So it wasn’t long before David, Sogyal and I left together for India and after further meetings with the Dalai Lama and meetings with many of the great Tibetan masters, now re-settled in India, Nepal and Sikkim, the plans were made for the making of the film which came to be known as Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy.

A great disappointment upon the release of the film in 1979 was the preference by the cinemas to show parts I & III of the Trilogy in one two hour screening and part II on the following day in a second two hour screening. The audience never had the opportunity to see the film as it was intended. Now, our newly digitally restored, re-cut Trilogy runs in a single two hour fourteen minute screening. It was truly a joy to see the audiences at the re-mastered Trilogy’s recent London premiere experiencing the film’s unfolding journey in the right order. Even for me, who has seen the film so many times, it was a moving experience. 

tibet-a-buddhist-trilogy-kenji-mizoguchi-4.jpgTibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, 1979

The Dalai Lama, the Monasteries and the People 

Filmed in the Dalai Lama’s residence in Dharamsala, North India, and in the re-built Sera Monastery, the second largest monastery of the old Tibet, this opening part of the Trilogy observes the Dalai Lama in his dual role as Head of State and spiritual teacher. The film interweaves this personal portrait with an intimately observed exploration of the ways in which the inner knowledge of Tibetan Buddhist culture is developed in the monasteries, through vigorous debate and solitary meditation, and communicated in to the lay community.

tibet-a-buddhist-trilogy-kenji-mizoguchi-5.jpgTibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, 1979

Radiating the Fruit of Truth

With extraordinary authenticity, Part II of the Trilogy journeys deep into the mystical inner world of monastic life. Set in the ancient village of Boudha, Nepal and the isolated mountain caves of the yogis, the film follows the lamas of the Phulwary Sakya Monastery through their contemplative retreats, the building of an intricate cosmogram, and the performance of an ancient protective ritual known as ‘A Beautiful Ornament’. Through the ritual invocation of the female deity Tara, the malevolent forces that might bring harm to the society are invited and magically transformed. With a subtitled commentary based on the teachings of the great 20th century master Dudjom Rinpoche, the essence of tantric Buddhism is powerfully revealed.

tibet-a-buddhist-trilogy-kenji-mizoguchi-6.jpgTibet: A Buddhist Trilogy, 1979

The Fields of the Senses

Set in the majestic mountain landscape of Ladakh, Part III is a meditation on impermanence and the relationship between the mind, body and environment. It follows the monks and farmers through a day, ending with an unflinching depiction of the monastery’s moving ritual response to a death in the community. As in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the departed is guided through the dream-like intermediate state between death and birth.

Visit, from which these texts are taken.