Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dalai Lama Awakens Ireland in Spiritual Documentary

Near the westerly most tip of Beara Peninsula in County Cork, perhaps twenty minutes from where I live, a stunning snow white structure thrusts out over the wild Atlantic. The structure, Dzogchen Beara, is a Tibetan Buddhist Retreat Center. People from all over the world travel here for many reasons: to heal, perhaps. To study Buddhism. To meditate. Or simply for rest and renewal. You don't have to be a practicing Buddhist to attend for in keeping with the tenants of tolerance and compassion that is at its heart, the Retreat Center welcomes everyone. And occasionally they welcome people to watch a film.

Two days ago I was welcomed, along with perhaps fifty others, to watch a screening of Dalai Lama Awakening.  This two-hour director's cut documentary follows a group of Western deep thinkers as they participate in a Synthesis conference held in India. The mission of the conference is to collaborate and brainstorm in hopes of solving the world's problems. And because they have convinced the Dalai Lama himself to provide a bit of insight and direction, they are also convinced that the end result will be successful and perhaps mind-blowing. Needless to say, it doesn't exactly turn out that way.

Los Angeles-based, Ohio-born director Khashyar Darvich traveled by boat and bus from Scotland to Beara to attend the screening as part of a nine city Ireland-wide tour. Welcoming the Beara audience, he explained: "It took me fifteen years to realize this cinematic dream. And of all the places I've screened this film (and the film has been screened globally) Dzogchen Beara is the most stunning." He could have been stretching the truth but I doubt it. The Retreat Center is located in one of the most beautiful regions of Ireland: its vistas fantastical, its mission as divine as the views from its meditation rooms. Where else could be spiritually more appropriate to screen a spiritual film about spiritual journeys than Dzogchen Beara?

Because at the core of this documentary, Darvich is telling the tale of a spiritual journey. In it we come to know perhaps ten people. Most are Americans. Most are experts within their fields. And most have no idea what they are doing. We meet astronomers and engineers, biologists, writers and spiritualists. Men and women of high intellect and awesome vanity. We watch as they come together to fuse their brain power and solve the world's problems. Working with an American facilitator and the organizer of the conference, they go on the attack with a Ten Point plan that would be more comfortable in the hallowed business halls of GE than in the frantic streets of India. But hey, what the heck. That's what Western thinkers do, after all. And of course, they don't stand a chance. They end up arguing like old women. They worry about how much (or little) time they might enjoy in face-to-face meetings with the Dalai Lama.  They promise to listen to each other, then spend most of the time talking and little time considering. In short, it's rather like watching a train wreck in progress.

Darvich is aware of this bent toward self-destruction, and tracks the participants as they roar toward possible meltdown. He showcases this conflict with a series of inter-cuts that are visually compelling, inspiring and thought-provoking. We see these experts talking about global problem solving. Yet just yards from where they sit, Darvich allows us to visit local people and we see their fight for clean water and survival and wonder why the experts don't just dig a well?

The experts tell us about practicing compassion but with words not actions. And Darvich contrasts that with an interview with the Dalai Lama and his simple advice that people can find happiness by giving of themselves. We wonder why the experts don't get up, walk a few hundred yards, and buy some clothes for the naked kids running through waste ground?

We meet an American woman, another expert, as she decides to promote Tibetan independence by banishing her Chinese K-Mart bought shoes to the hinterlands, yet at the final hour is unable to part with them. Darvich contrasts her indecision with the words of the Dalai Lama who suggests that any form of action against the Chinese on behalf of Tibet, including simple acts of boycott, would not be compassionate, could result in more harm than good, and should be carefully considered.

And we wonder why the experts don't learn from the great Master and like the Dalai Lama laugh a little more and argue a little less. We wonder why these serious deep thinkers can't distill their often terse, overly intellectual, and always self-indulgent language down to the flowing simplicity of the Teacher who is so willing to teach. But will they listen? Probably not because they're too busy listening to themselves intellectualizing about intellectualizing.

Prior to the start of the film, Darvich warned us that we could well find ourselves reflected in a mirror and haunted by the experts' inexpert thoughts, emotions, and defects of character. He also told us that we would find ourselves thinking back on this story for some time to come. For me, both predictions came true.

I found myself identifying more with the Buddhist Monks, wishing that I was a practitioner of the same sort of silence and simplicity. I found myself embarrassed by the Americans and Westerners, and the egos that they tossed into battle like intellectually directionless missiles. I found hope in the uplifting, practical and no-nonsense words of the Dalai Lama. I felt scorn at the flowery prose used by the Westerners and their overuse  of "compassion" and "meditation" as they attempted to explain the inexplicable. Many sounded like Los Angeles poseurs, so stilted and stereotypical was their flower-power language.

This is a film about the journey of a group disabled by the very intellectual bigotry that they use to define themselves, and the realization that their efforts are useless without one simple and profound focus. To quote the Dalai Lama, "The true hero is one who conquers his own anger and hatred." By the end of the film, our group of experts is confounded by how little they have achieved because of the confrontational anger that impeded their journeys. We feel sorry for them. We feel sorrier for those who have learned nothing. But we find joy for some because a few have seen the light. These experts, their egos punctured, have realized that engaging in intellectual combat by using ego as a weapon has little place in practical global problem solving. They are humbled by the experience and what little they have accomplished. And the audience is left hoping that at least some of these idiots, no matter how smart, might actually move on to achieve a thing or two.

One final note: the film is narrated by Mr. Indiana Jones himself, Harrison Ford. Darvich states that Ford talked his talk for not a single red cent, in support of the Dalai Lama. Hats off to Harrison for contributing to this worthwhile venture.

Darvich has put together a compelling, slow-burning documentary that only hits you on the way home. At two hours, this director's cut may have been a bit long, and even 15 minutes of editing would lend better focus to the story he is telling. But it made me think and continues to do so as I consider the joyful laughter of the Dalai Lama. And I contemplate his simple message that the human condition boils down to a journey for happiness. And I think:

It's a journey that I want to explore.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0 stars. Recommended Viewing
For more information:
A Survivor's Guide to Living in Ireland 2014 Kindle Edition Available Now
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