Films on Buddhist Themes

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Oct. 16/08:  Aired on PBS program, P.O.V.,  just a few weeks before the historic US election. Soldiers of Conscience (2007) Produced by Gary Weimberger and Catherine Ryan, with funding from sources as disparate as Joan Baez and the US military, this powerful documentary examines the the struggle of eight US soldiers coming to terms with the cruelty to, and the killing of, fellow human beings.  Ryan points out that, contrary to what many believe, war is not "part of human nature."   This is corroborated by studies showing that, without the indoctrination / training required to produce soldiers, 75% of people would not pull a trigger even if their own lives were being threatened.  The position of those who see the war in "Eye-rak" as a righteous endeavour is also presented sympathetically, although not as powerfully.

Oct 16 & 18/08:  On Doc Zone, on Canada's public network (CBC), The US vs Omar Khadr gives us a look at the cruel conditions of detainees inside the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where 22-year old Canadian citizen, Omar Khadr, is still being detained.  He was 16 years old at the time of his incarceration at the insistence of US military authorities.

"A detailed re-creation of the firefight in Afghanistan in July 2002 and interviews with eyewitnesses to the battle shows that the U.S. Government put out a demonstrably false version of what took place that day.  Some evidence that supported Omar's claims of innocence was systematically withheld from defense lawyers, while other exculpatory evidence was altered to make him look guilty.  There is new stunning evidence which shows that American soldiers were committing war crimes in the aftermath of the battle by "shooting the wounded," and that the victim was actually killed by "Friendly Fire."  His wounds and medical records indicate that he was hit with the blast of an American grenade that Omar could not have thrown.

Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism

 Review of Recalling a Buddha:  Memories of HH Karmapa XVI (Gregg Eller. Tendrel Films, 2006) 2 hours, 19 minutes.

The Karmapa is the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of the Kagyu denomination, the 3rd oldest of the 4 Tibetan Buddhist denominations.   In the 11th-century, the one who established the Karma Kagyu lineage received that designation posthumously because he gave solid proof that he was truly The Master of Karma.  By leaving behind written details of the circumstances of his next birth, he demonstrated the extraordinary ability of determining the future.  That unique quality is characteristic of all who bear the title, Karmapa.  He not merely incarnates from lifetime to subsequent lifetime, but he creates the circumstances whereby he appears in this world.  The instructions, which some might prefer to call a "prediction," direct his dharma heirs to the place and the family where he will next be born.

Other great masters, male and female, might embody the continuity of consciousness of a former master, but not to the same degree of precision as Karmapa.  Indeed, the designation of "incarnate master" (Tib. tulku) or "a living Buddha," the expression as rendered into English from Chinese, is common to all Tibetan (and some other) traditions now, but it took root only following the impact of the fact that the verified heir to the First Karmapa had been demonstrated.

To fully comprehend Gregg Eller's title for this work, which was released to honour the 25th anniversary of the 16th Karmapa's passing, you need to grasp fully the implications of my explanation.  The term "Buddha" is not being used merely as a figure of speech -- a metaphoric way of saying that subject of the film was an impressively wise and compassionate person, nor even in the way it is used in the  Chinese phrase. 

Karmapa XVI (1924-1981,) like all those who bore the title prior to him, embodied all the qualities and abilities of a Buddha.  Even while his physical body was being cremated, he continued to manifest these abilities.  To allay any doubt, here is a photo of the bone relic.

25 years ago, there were no digital media; no little cell phone cameras.  What visual recordings there are of the 16th Karmapa are very few.  There are probably quite a number of still photos, however it would have been virtually impossible to try and track them all  down.  A few of them are extraordinary, such as one in particular that was taken during the Ceremony of the Black Crown.  It mysteriously lacks a central figure -- it is as if we are looking through Karmapa's body, which appears only as a haze of light.  Similarly, there are some sound recordings of the voice of Karmapa that were made during the few teachings given in the West.  However, the only one I ever heard was not of good quality and we can hardly hear the voice of His Holiness, whose body was already in weakened physical condition. 

All this is to say that we are deeply indebted to Greg Eller for having undertaken this  difficult and complex task.  Not only did he manage to persuade people to share whatever materials they had, but there must also have been some refusals that were ungracious and frustrating.  The interviews required extensive and undoubtedly exhausting travel compounded by bureaucratic hassles.

Also, the teaching and retreat schedules of those willing to recall their memories of the 16th Karmapa for us -- Their Eminences Tai Situ, Gyaltap and Shamar. and the great lamas Thrangu Rinpoche and Tenga Tulku Rinpoche, not to mention Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Traleg Rinpoche, Ponlop Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Khandro Rinpoche, are never very permitting of unscheduled time for extended interviews. 

Among the others who kindly participated were Ani Tenzin Palmo (notable for having been the second Western woman to receive monastic vows from the 16th Karmapa,) Gene Smith (founder of the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center "who single-handedly spearheaded the preservation of thousands of Tibetan texts") and Ngodrup T. Burkhar (a noted Tibetan-English translator of the 17th Karmapa,) Tendzin Parsons, Dr. Mitchell Levy (who attended HH during his final illness,) Dr. Judith Lieff (who shares memories of the relationship between Chogyam Trungpa R. and HH) and the American preferring to be known as He Who Stands Alone, who tells us about the 16th Karmapa's establishment of KTD, seat of the Karma Kagyu in America.

Certain post-production aspects of this video record lack finesse.  I did not enjoy the slow pace of the breathy feminine voice-over.  It was especially discordant where the topic at hand is the brutality of the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  A more serious and forceful expression would certainly have been more appropriate.  Also, the choice of incidental music I found particularly unsuitable, even grating.  Here also I would prefer something more powerful, perhaps a traditional Khampa (east Tibetan) melody.  Nevertheless and  especially given the constraints of budget and time, such flaws as these are relatively unimportant. 

Recalling a Buddha leaves people who never had the experience of being in the presence of the 16th Karmapa, whether they are Buddhist or not, with feelings of regret.  And those whose karma afforded them a brief glimpse of HH during the confusion and complexity of the 1970s (eminently represented in the film by a hip radio announcement of the Black Crown Ceremony) will find in this DVD the answers to some of their questions about the significance of what they witnessed nearly 30 years ago.   All viewers will be happy to know that, in response to their desire, as a result of their devotion, and motivated by the the needs of all sentient beings who are bound in a cycle of suffering, this Buddha has already been successfully recalled.  He is manifest in the world again in the form of HH the 17th  Karmapa.


  • Milarepa: Revenge, the movie (Neten Chokling, 2004.)

  • Himalaya: Generational struggle among traders of the Dolpo region.

  • The Saltmen of Tibet: Fascinating reportage of what was likely the last salt caravan from the lake known as Heart of Karmapa.

  • Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy (re-release) :   "A must see for Buddhist practitioners of all schools" Peter Oyloe, CYN  "Unprecedented insight into the ancient protection ritual A Beautiful Ornament." "A meditative film experience" Sophia Conroy.

  • Vajra Sky Over Tibet 


  • 25 Mar 2005, "Such sweet sorrow: Wisconsin Film Festival brings latest news from Tibet," by Kent Williams for Isthmus

    What Remains of Us, Tibet: Land of Snows, Roof of the World, our last lost horizon.  Has any country ever cast such a powerful spell over us?  The terrain alone is enough to make an armchair tourist’s mouth water — snow-capped mountains, juniper forests, fields of barley.  Then there are the Tibetans themselves, a profoundly spiritual people who, when they’re not sipping yak-butter tea, are clasping their hands together in prayer.  Or so it seems in our movie-fed imaginations, where Buddhist monks in saffron robes smile at the camera on their path to enlightenment. Anyone who’s been following the news for the last 50 years or so knows that the situation in Tibet is actually quite different.  Since "liberating" the country in 1950, China has systematically destroyed a culture that was once the envy of the world. Tibet is literally being wiped off the map.

    An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have lost their lives to the Chinese occupation; meanwhile, millions of Han Chinese have moved in and taken over. Today, Tibetans aren’t allowed to fly their flag. They aren’t allowed to display pictures of the Dalai Lama, who’s spent the last 46 years in self-imposed exile. They aren’t even allowed to say "I am a Tibetan" without risk of imprisonment or worse.  Not for nothing have these legendarily peaceful people been called "the baby seals of the human rights movement." As such, they’ve garnered a fair amount of attention in the West, thanks in part to such simpatico celebrities as Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys. But the occasional Free Tibet bumper sticker, the odd remark by Gere at the Oscars, does not a movement make, and most of us remain woefully ignorant of what it’s like to live in Tibet today.

    Short of buying a plane ticket and checking the place out, perhaps the best way to get a good look at what’s going on over there is through movies, and the Wisconsin Film Festival, which begins next Thursday, has put together a very interesting slate of documentaries and features. Here are short reviews of nearly all of them.

    Wheel of Time: You can take the Tibetan out of Tibet, but you can’t take the Tibet out of the Tibetan.  That’s the message I received from Werner Herzog’s meditative documentary, which offers a behind-the-scenes account of one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred rituals. The Kalachakra Initiation, during which monks are ordained, is a days-long ceremony that draws adherents from all over the world. And it culminates with the destruction of one of those elaborate sand mandalas, a symbol for the impermanence of all things. That Tibetan Buddhism itself might not last forever seems unlikely when you witness the religious fervor on display, including a prostrating monk who’s spent 3½ years getting to the event held in 2002 near the Dalai Lama’s home in India. And by "getting to the event," I mean taking a step, then lying down on his stomach, then getting up and taking another step, then lying down on his stomach again, then getting up, ad infinitum.  If that doesn’t clarify your thoughts, nothing will.

    We’re No Monks: As the title to this first feature film by USC Film School grad Pema Dhondup indicates, not every Tibetan is a Buddhist monk. And of those Tibetans who’ve grown up in exile, crammed into the Indian city of McLeod Ganj, Tibet itself appears to be losing its hold. "Praying for all sentient beings is outdated," says one of the young men in Dhondup’s film.  Bored, restless and more than a little confused about what to do with their lives, these societal outcasts will look utterly familiar to anyone who’s gone through a rebellious phase. But they have the added frustration of dealing with an authoritarian cop who wants to handle the Tibetan-youth problem before there’s actually a problem. Somehow, this leads to a plot to kidnap a Chinese diplomat in Delhi, and although Dhondup doesn’t try to show us how refugees can turn into terrorists, he does warn us that, with nothing to lose, an entire generation of Tibetans may forswear the Dalai Lama’s "middle path" for something more extreme.

    Daughters of Everest:  Meanwhile, back in Nepal, a group of Tibetan women were reaching the height of achievement — specifically, Mount Everest, the scaling of which requires equal parts luck, skill and sheer determination.  Sherpa men have long helped Westerners get to the top of the world’s tallest mountain; Sir Edmund Hilary might not have made it without one. But until quite recently, no Sherpa woman had reached the summit and lived to tell about it. Now that’s changed, thanks to the four women featured in this moving documentary by Sapana Sakya and Ramyata Limpu. Drawn from various walks of life, they took on the challenge of climbing Everest not "because it’s there" but because they wanted to increase their prospects in a country that’s not exactly teeming with them. And a challenge it was, as the four-woman team became a three-woman team, then . . . well, I don’t want to spoil the suspense. But kudos to Sakya and Limpu for capturing this historic expedition on film.

    Travellers and Magicians: After Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun, we’re used to exploring this exotic part of the world vicariously, through Western eyes.  But an indigenous cinema has been emerging in the region, led by Khyentse Norbu, whose 2000 film, The Cup, used the sport of soccer to show us that Tibetan Buddhist monks don’t just sit around chanting all day.  An incarnate lama himself, Norbu uses an ancient system of divination to decide everything from who will play which role to where to put the camera, and the result is a simple yet subtly poetic style. His new work, Travellers and Magicians, the first feature shot entirely in Bhutan, presents some of the most gorgeous vistas ever put on film. Ironically, the movie’s about a guy who would prefer a change of scenery. Bored out of his mind and dreaming of life in the fast lane, a government officer in a remote mountain village sets off for America, armed only with a boombox and an I?NY T-shirt.

    He doesn’t get very far, meeting up with an apple seller, a rice-paper maker and his daughter, plus a monk who tells a once-upon-a-time story that takes up fully half of the movie. If every journey begins with a single step, Travellers and Magicians proves that it’s all you really need to feel like you’ve been somewhere.

    What Remains of Us:  I wasn’t able to get a copy of Delamu, a documentary from Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang that follows a caravan of pack-mules as it winds its way along the Tea Horse Road, an ancient route through China, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and India. This time, the mules are carrying construction materials for a road that could wipe out a way of life that reaches back thousands of years. And speaking of ways of life being wiped out, I was able to see What Remains of Us, a documentary that manages to be both heart-breaking and heart-warming. Bearing a videotaped message from the Dalai Lama, a woman of Tibetan origin named Kalsang Dolma, who’d grown up in Montreal, went to Tibet for the first time and surreptitiously played the tape for various groups of people, most of whom hadn’t seen or heard the Dalai Lama in years, if ever. The response, invariably, is a mixture of extreme joy and extreme sorrow.

    "Nobody trusts anybody," one of them says, reinforcing the idea that Tibet has become "the biggest prison in the world." But the Dalai Lama’s message is one of hope — of continuing to press for Tibet’s freedom and of holding on to the Tibetan way of life whether there’s a free Tibet or not. Wise or naïve? Who knows? But what’s so valuable about these films is that they show us how complex Tibet’s situation is and how simply it could be resolved if the path to enlightenment weren’t cluttered with stones.

More, and More About, Movies on the Tibetan Experience

  • What Remains of Us (also released in French.)
    • April 8/05, "Dalai Lama Direct" a review by Guy Dixon for The Globe and Mail:

      What Remains of Us ****½  Directed and written by François Prévost and Hugo Latulippe

      Between 1996 and 2004, Canadian filmmakers François Prévost and Hugo Latulippe, along with Kalsang Dolma, who is from a Tibetan refugee family, smuggled a small video player into Tibet and privately played an exclusive message from the Dalai Lama to Tibetans in their homes, nomadic tents and monasteries.

      That act alone bears almost indescribable weight.

      Tibetans have been cut off from the Dalai Lama since China took over the Buddhist kingdom in 1950. They aren't allowed to publicly worship the spiritual-national leader -- or at best, their worship is treated as something to be closely monitored and repressed when necessary. Watching a tape of the Dalai Lama risks imprisonment. Even selling his picture on the streets of Lhasa,  the capital city,  is forbidden.

      Imagine then, under this oppression, the elation of suddenly seeing him talking directly to you on videotape. Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhists wouldn't look the Dalai Lama in the eye, so strong is their reverence for him as a divine being on the Earth. But here, on tape, he is simply talking to his fellow Tibetans with a message of hope.

      For many, viewing the five-minute tape was the first time they had ever seen him. What Remains of Us,  in turn,  watches the Tibetans watching the Dalai Lama. All listen intently, often with their hands together in prayer. Some prostrate themselves in front of the tiny digital player. Some bow to it at the end of the message. Afterward, many are moved beyond words, their voices filled with elation and sadness. It's difficult to imagine anyone not being moved to the core by these scenes.

      And just as the Dalai Lama's message is only minutes long, the filmmakers give the impression that they have only 76 minutes to convince us,  the viewers,  to save Tibet.

      As Dolma says halfway through the film, many Tibetans feel that they lost their country because they didn't pray enough. But perhaps they lost their country because all they did was pray, she adds. That's the true perspective of the film: It wants to do something more than just reflect on the situation. At times, it can't help revealing a simmering anger.

      As a result, the film's dogmatic qualities threaten to get in the way of its raw power. The only Chinese shown are inept-looking soldiers or classless tourists taking snapshots of holy sites or, in one incredible scene, dancing in a blaring disco while praying Tibetans prostrate themselves outside in the dark. The only counterbalancing view comes from the Dalai Lama's own words when he notes that many Chinese are ignorant of Tibetans' suffering because of official propaganda.

      But the evidence of suffering is inescapable: There's the transformation of Lhasa into a kind of maximum-security city, with a sprawling prison camp which, if it were anywhere else in the world, would likely spark widespread condemnation by other world powers.

      Or there are the 1.2 million Tibetans -- one in five -- who have gone missing and are believed to have been killed during the occupation. There's also the Dalai Lama's own telegram to the United Nations sent in 1950, describing the genocide and policies of sterilization inflicted on Tibetans by Mao's army.

      In addition, the film shows footage from 1988 of the brutal suppression of a demonstration of monks. And there's barely time left to touch on the widespread destruction of sacred sites and Buddhist texts by the Chinese and the environmental destruction and deforestation of the land.

      Perhaps worst of all is the anguish and lost hope among people who so devoutly cling to Buddhist tenants of compassion,  impermanence and non-violence.

      Beyond all this, the filmmakers still manage to capture the beauty of Tibet with the crystalline clarity of digital video. They do this not on a grand scale,  although there are incredible shots of majestic mountain peaks,  many of which are considered sacred in Tibet. Mostly, they do it with intimate close-ups. Because the Tibetans knowingly risk prosecution by agreeing to being filmed,  the camera doesn't step back enough to reveal much about their locations or other identifying details,  apart from their faces.

      When the documentary was originally shown last year,  special arrangements were made to monitor audiences,  particularly during large film festival screenings,  and to search bags,  in an effort to prevent anyone from bringing in a video camera to record the film. That level of security has since calmed. The filmmakers have apparently stayed in contact with some of the Tibetans and no problems have been reported. The security has softened to the point of simply keeping tabs on the audience and,  at times,  warning people at the door about the security concerns.

      What the filmmakers have done,  however,  goes beyond these controversies,  or even traditional filmmaking criteria. Just the act of getting the Dalai Lama's message to Tibetans earns them the highest praise. The fact that they also managed to relay the reactions and emotions of the Tibetans back to us seems,  in its small way,  miraculous.


Other Films on Buddhist Themes

  • Are you wondering whether your teacher really cares about you or not? I recommend Words of My Perfect Teacher, about the student-mentor relationship in the Vajrayana.


  • Enlightenment Guaranteed (German/English s-t)  Two brothers visit a Japanese Zen monastery for a month.


  • La Vallee (The Valley Obscured by Clouds) Barbet Schroeder, 1972.  

Reviewer M. Wilmington: "It's the quest itself -- not the goal -- that is everything."  

At one point, Hermine relates to Viviane, who was overcome by jealousy, an anecdote to show that genuine love is never secret:  

Eshun was a beautiful nun who was participating in a course of study at a Zen monastery along with 20 monks.   One evening she receives a note from one of the monks in which he expresses his love for her and requests an assignation.  The next morning after the teachings, just before the sangha is about to leave the hall, she stands, looks at him and says, "If you really love me, then come and embrace me right now, here, in front of everyone." ~ Muju (13th C) Shaseki-shu (Collection of Stone and Sand.) 

In case you doubt the Buddhist relevance, at the end of the film, one of the women is wearing a Tibetan hat and you would swear the scene was taking place in the foothills of the Himalayas instead of in New Guinea.

  • A Chinese Ghost Story, III (1991):  This, the 3rd in a series by Tsui Hark, comprises themes and characters of the first 2 but it takes place 100 years after the first (1987) story.  Now the victim is a young Buddhist monk.   

This is not the animated film.  Try to get a DVD version because the VHS version is of very poor quality.  Mandarin/Cantonese and English subtitles.

  • Kwaidan (1965) especially the 2nd tale concerning Hoichi the Earless.


  • Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001) Animation.  Attachment through confusion, fear, anger, and greed.
  • The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001) starring Nicole Kidman. Absolute and relative truth.


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