Buddhism for Smarties

I caught Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy last night at my local Pointy-Head Movie House. (Friends left me on my own for this one. I have such wise friends.) There was a decent Monday night audience for this documentary, which had been a four-and-a-half hour series and has been re-edited to 134 minutes. It’s a loving portrait of the practices of Tibetan Buddhism – and not the historical survey that I must have been hoping for – and I’d have had to be better rested than I was not to experience the film as a desperate clutching to consciousness. (And not the pure and higher reality of the Buddha Amitabha. I mean staying awake. And I never snooze in front of a video display. (Almost.))

This is s-l-o-w. It makes Iranian cinema look manic. Great swatches of the film are simply shot records of monastic rituals that outsiders, including Tibetans not in the priestly castes, have likely never seen. It’s a wonderful ethnological and religious studies archive, but as a moving picture, well, not much moves. (The rather chubby chief priest of one of the monasteries endeared himself to me not only by sudden little smiles but also by evident difficulty in keeping his eyes open at times. I empathized.) As a primer on Buddhism it’ll be opaque to many people. The endless subtitled translations of the moaning chants began to blur together for me, and I’m someone with an interest in sacred scriptures. I’d have been very apprehensive, after about half an hour, if any of my Movie Night invitees had shown up.

And yet. When I walked out, I felt quite disoriented. Such devotion and unhurried deliberation do move me. This priestly caste, the institution of these specialists in spiritualilty, does strike me as a cultural phenomenon whose usefulness is fading, if not entirely abrogated by social evolution. But there is beauty there, and some of it is even apparent to a sleepy-headed Westerner like me.

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