by Larry Smith
This past Sunday morning, while most Bahamians were squirming in their pews as angry preachers yelled fire and brimstone, I decided to watch a two-hour feature documentary, presented by the Bahamas International Film Festival, about a cheerful, soft-spoken man called Tenzin Gyatso.
Of course, that is not his real name. He was named Lhamo Thondup at birth, but if If you are a Tibetan Buddhist his true, true name is Gendun Drup - the first Dalai Lama, who was born in 1351. Tenzin is said to be Gendun's 14th reincarnation. As such, he is the world's most famous Buddhist monk, the spiritual leader of six million Tibetans, and a celebrated Nobel peace prize winner.
He was enthroned as the Dalai Lama in 1950 at the age of 15, and fled Tibet nine years later when the Chinese communists took over the country. He now lives in the Himalayan mountains on the Indian side of the border, and was the first Dalai Lama ever to travel to the West. He became a popular figure in the 1980s.
The film - called Dalai Lama Renaissance - was produced in America by the Wakan Foundation for the Arts and narrated by actor Harrison Ford. Although it won the best documentary award at the Monaco Film Festival recently, as well as more than a dozen prizes at other festivals, it didn't attract much of an audience here.
Renaissance records some of the brainstorming at a 1999 conference hosted by the Dalai Lama dubbed the Synthesis Dialogue. It was the first of several such meetings among Western scholars organised by Brother Wayne Teasdale, a Benedictine monk who died three years ago. Teasdale was a pioneer of the interfaith movement and a close friend of Tenzin Gyatso.
The conference invited 40 of the West’s "leading-edge thinkers" to the Dalai Lama's residence at Dharamsala to discuss the world’s problems. According to David Mueller, the film's American co-producer who was on hand to answer questions at Sunday's screening in the Atlantis Theatre, what transpired was captured by an 18-person, 5-camera crew on more than 140 hours of tape.
"It took us a few years to put it all together," he said. "We gave a copy to the Dalai Lama's office recently and assume it was well received, but he told us he doesn't watch films about himself."
Renaissance was edited as a cinematic documentary and captures the culture and scenery of India, as well as some authentic Tibetan dance, music and rituals. Reviewers have described it as "fascinating, ravishingly beautiful and sonically soothing."
All of that is certainly true, but the film is not as "transforming" as enlightenment-seekers have claimed. Many of the conference participants were religious ecumenists with a deep interest in Buddhism, which most Bahamians would regard as paganism if they took the trouble to think about it at all. And there was a lot of puerile "transformative" jargon in the film, similar to this convoluted account of the conference:
"The primary goal was to create a living laboratory in which participants could examine for themselves the process by which human awareness is expanded. The process design called for participants to refine these polarities among their colleagues in each field and then to engage with other disciplines. We were a band of pilgrims in the classic sense, humbled and revealed by the long, hard road we traveled."
Some of the participants came from such esoteric groups as the California Institute of Integral Studies, the World Congress of Faiths, the Positive Future's Network, the State of the World Forum, the Centre for Visionary Leadership, the Institute for Noetic Studies and the Foundation for Conscious Evolution. And there were a couple of well-known quantum physicists thrown in for good measure.
But the star attraction was His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who describe himself as "a simple monk", but who has become a world-renowned figure. He is, of course, a follower of Siddhārtha Gautama - an Indian aristocrat who gave up everything 2500 years ago to become a spiritual teacher known as the Buddha.
Frankly, I have never really understood what Buddhism is all about, but I do know that Buddhists don't persecute others or conduct holy wars, which puts them pretty high up the spiritual ladder in my estimation. Many view Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion because its chief tenets are: to lead a moral life, to be mindful and aware of thoughts and actions, and to develop wisdom and understanding.
Here is a representative description from the Dalai Lama himself: "This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness...With realization of one's own potential and self-confidence in one's ability, one can build a better world."
Tenzin's Nobel prize was awarded for his plan to achieve self-governance for Tibet in a peaceful association with China, which considers the country a province. He has staunchly resisted all attempts to resolve this issue through violence. In fact, he attributes his worldwide popularity to the Chinese: "If they had treated the Tibetans like real brothers, then the Dalai Lama might not be so popular. All the credit goes to the Chinese."
But in a 1990s interview, the Dalai Lama's own brother worried that the Buddhist approach of non-violence in the Independence struggle has been a mistake. "It worked for Gandhi, but Gandhi was dealing with the British," he said. "At least they had a conscience. The Chinese have only contempt."
Renaissance presents an interesting portrait of this peaceful, and some say child-like, man who offers gems of wisdom like this in the film: "Humanity is topmost. Often, we suggest the opposite. Everybody thinks my nation first, my religion first. Humanity comes next - that's the problem."
Renaissance is one of 83 films from 26 different countries being showcased by the Bahamas International Film Festival this week at several locations in Nassau. They include 54 features, of which several are world or international premieres and nearly all are being seen for the first time in the Bahamas.