An Uncommon Lama: Shambhala Sun on Dzongsar Khyentse

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Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Not Your Ordinary LamaHes an important Buddhist teacher and an award-winning filmmaker. Hes a rebel, and hes also an impassioned defender of traditional dharma.A L S O I N T H I S I S S U E :

Thich Nhat HanhA practical approach to peace

Jonathan SchellThe Unconquerable World and the critical choice we face

Alice WalkerSpontaneous poems and drawings

Diana MukpoThe wife of the late Chgyam Trungpa continues the fascinating Uncommon Lama: story of their life togetherDZONGSAR KHYENTSE RINPOCHE0

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Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche directing on the set of Travellers & Magicians in Bhutan.





is both an important Tibetan lama and an award-

winning filmmaker. Some see him as a rebel, but hes also an impassioned defender of Buddhist teachings. N OAJONES

writes from the set of his new lm, Travellers & Magicians.

from Bangkok landed at Bhutans airport last fall with some very precious cargo. In addition to 578 solid-gold biscuits hidden in the shoes of several international smugglers seated in back, a number of professional lmmakers were on board, ready to make Travellers & Magicians, a Bhutanese road movie directed by the only known reincarnate lama-cumauteur, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. The crew was greeted at the airport and taken to a nearby guest house, while the Royal Bhutan Police swooped in and arrested the smugglers. The incident would seem a mere coincidencea bit of color had the investigation not put Paros airport customs ofce at a standstill. Travellers & Magicians production company, Prayer Flag Pictures, was expecting shipments containing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lmmaking equipment, and only a fraction of the boxes had arrived. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche had asked Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpochewho acted as the menacing Gekko in Rinpoches rst lm, The Cupto do several mos, or divinations, during pre-production. One of these mos had established September 29 as the most auspicious date for cameras to begin rolling. Another predicted that the lm would face one major obstacle. But which of the many obstacles arising was the one? Only a few days before the crew arrived in Paro, the key grip and unit manager were racing around old Delhi inD RU K A I R F L I G H T K B 1 2 1SHAMBHALA SUN

Photo by Claudia Bahls 2003 Prayer Flag Pictures




a rickshaw on a critical search for fog machines, fans, dimmers, skimmers, sun guns, dollies and all the necessary lighting equipment after the deal with a Calcutta company had fallen through at the last minute. The hired equipment was now making a thousand-mile drive from Delhi to Phuntsholing through the perils of Bihar State, famous for bandits and bad roads. And as if that werent enough, on the day the last ight carrying Prayer Flag Picture crew members landed in Paro, the rain began. It was an insistent storm. The director of photography, Alan Kozlowski, and the lms two producers, Mal Watson and Raymond Steiner, came back from a scouting mission looking sodden, shocked and worried. All the props were missing. The camp wasnt ready. It didnt match pre-production maps. So the impending move from Paro up to base camp was stalled, and the crew was left to acclimate to the altitude while Watson and Steiner huddled with rst assistant director Dean Steiner to assess the ramications of the delays. All three had worked together on The Cup, a lm with half the budget and a quarter the obstacles, Watson said later. When the huddle broke, call sheets were scrapped. Moods were tense. Over dinner, someone gloomily pointed out that it was an El Nio year. It was easy to imagine that this lm would never get made. And where was the mastermind of all this chaos? Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, a.k.a. Khyentse Norbu, vajra master and veteran of the international-lm-festival circuit, was overseeing a puja (ceremony) conducted by yogis at his retreat home in Paro. While the monks hypnotic drumming and chanting poured from the shrine room, Rinpoche tweaked his script and coached the talent. Sitting in his video library among his favorite filmsNatural Born Killers, Kurosawa classics, Iranian new waveRinpoche insisted he was not breaking conventions of his centuries-old lineage. His reputation for outrageousness and irreverence, he says, is exaggerated. I am not unconventional at all. In fact my biggest worry is that I am too conventional, he said. Between ethics, morality and wisdom, Buddhism has always put more emphasis on wisdom. Wisdom surpasses behavior. Some of the more conservative generations might raise their eyebrows at what I do and what I say. But what they have forgotten is that their so-called right thing to do and their revered traditions were once upon a time very modern and progressive. I could dye my hair pink and wear high-heeled shoes, but thats not being unconventional at all. Thats just a sign of frustration. Rinpoche had invited the principal cast members, all Bhutanese, all rst-time actors, for a rehearsal weekend at his home. The house is within walking distance of Paro Taksang, where Padmasambhava manifested his wrathful form, Dorje Troll, and where ten centuries later Chgyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote his famous liturgy, The Sadhana of30 SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2003

Mahamudra. Designed by producer Mal Watson (whos also Rinpoches architect), the Japanese-influenced oasis is a departure from traditional Bhutanese homes. A sign warns passersby not to enter its boundaries out of respect for a halfdozen three-year retreatants who live on the land. Few people are allowed within these gates. That day we entered the sacrosanct premises, I felt I had entered a Zen garden, recalls Tshewang Dendup, the lms key protagonist. We sat on straw mats, the monks served us tea, there was a gentle dog under the pine trees. Rinpoche sat amongst us, talking about lm as an art, the fourth wall, French directors and Japanese art lms. I knew then that this experience was indeed going to be a mix of the modern and traditional. This get-together was necessary not only to make sure the actors knew their lines, but to dissolve the uneasiness most Bhutanese feel in the presence of such a high lama. Though Deki Yangzom, the beautiful temptress of the lm, describes her religious conviction as being halfway between hard-core and someone who doesnt even believe, she felt overwhelmed that rst weekend. I was raised in a religious household, and Rinpoches portrait was always on the shrine, she says. Being Bhutanese and Buddhist, you grow up with his name. The very thought that he will be so close, that he will have to deal with you, was too much. But Rinpoche made us feel at ease. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche conceived Travellers & Magicians as two intertwined stories, a modern-day road movie and a timeless, magical tale. The dialogue is delivered entirely in Dzongkha, Bhutans ofcial national language. The lm sets out to illustrate that high drama, obscurations and suffering exist even in one of the planets last Shangri-las, the only remaining Vajrayana kingdom. Intersecting themes and two parallel charactersDondup, played by Tehewang Dendup, and Tashi, played by Lhakpa Dorjiare woven together with the help of a story-telling monk. Both protagonists are on journeysone sends himself, the other is sent unwillingly. It is essentially a grass is always greener tale, says Rinpoche. He began developing the script during the shooting of The Cup, but rewrites continued for three yearsin retreat, on trains, at cafes, between teachings, even undercover as he sat on a throne in the midst of a puja. in a land that has never seen a production of such proportion in all its history generated a storm of activity that shook the country from top to bottom. The current ran from the royal palace to the sleepiest of villages. But the storm needed a calm eye, and that was Rinpoche in Paro. When asked if he was worried four days before Orgyen Tobgyals start date with no lm, no cameras, no props, no sign of an end to the rain, the director answered, Im a little concerned about the last line. The last line? But what about the rain? What about theMAKING A FILM

Photo by Catherine Ryan 2003 Prayer Flag Pictures

Photos by Claudia Bahls 2003 Prayer Flag Pictures

Above: Dzongsar Khyentse performing a puja (ceremony) on the rst day of shooting in Chelela, Bhutan. Middle, right: movie poster showing the rst shot, lmed just after the puja. And other moments on the set of Travellers & Magicians.




Extracts from digital negatives 2003 Prayer Flag Pictures

Frames from Travellers & Magicians.32 SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2003

shipments stuck in Bangkok? He glanced out at the drizzle as if noticing for the rst time. The rain? Oh, Im not at all worried about that, he said brightly. For a moment all the obstacles seemed to evaporate. Maybe it would be all right after all. How could you doubt one of Buddhisms most venerated lamas? Even if he had never been recognized as an incarnation of the great Tibetan Buddhist master Jamyang Khyentse Chki Lodr (1894-1959), Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche would still hold a place in one of Bhutans most noble families as the son of contemporary Buddhist master Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, and grandson of both tantric yogi Lama Sonam Zangpo and His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche. He has also been recognized as a promising lmmaker after