“Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche” - Neten Chokling (2010)

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), one of the most revered Tibetan (Himalayan) Buddhist lamas of the 20th century, is the subject of the documentary film Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (2010).  The film is a professional and well-crafted biography of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who was a master of the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and an outstanding scholar, poet, and teacher.  He was, like the Dalai Lama, one of the few masters to be bestowed the honorific “His Holiness”, and he eventually rose to become the head of the Nyingma school, which is the oldest of the four main schools of Himalayan Buddhism [1].

One of the interesting features of this film is the degree to which Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist lamas and dedicated practitioners were key contributors to its production.  The film was directed and co-scripted by Neten Chokling, aka the Fourth Neten Chokling Rinpoche (note that ‘Rinpoche’ is an honorific in the Tibetan language and is not a surname).  Chokling is, besides being a filmmaker (cf. Milarepa, 2006), an important lama from Bhutan who was officially recognized at an early age as the reincarnation of an eminent earlier Buddhist lama [2,3,4].

Chokling’s filmmaking skills were honed by working with another lama/filmmaker, Khyentse Norbu (aka Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche), on the latter’s films The Cup (1999) and Travelers and Magicians (2003). In addition, one of Neten Chokling’s Buddhist teachers was Orgyen Topgyal Rinpoche, who is another important Himalayan Buddhist lama and filmmaker (cf. his The Life of Milarepa [5]) and who happens to be (by religious certification that he is a reincarnation of an earlier family member) another major lama in the Neten Chokling Rinpoche family line.  Both Khyentse Norbu and Orgyen Tobgyal were disciples of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and they appear here in Brilliant Moon and reminisce about their beloved master’s unmatchable virtues.

One of Brilliant Moon’s cinematographers (along with Vivian Kurz) was Matthieu Ricard, a Frenchman who, after completing his Ph.D. in molecular genetics, converted to Himalayan Buddhism and adopted the life of a Buddhist monk, becoming a close student of  Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and an assistant to the Dalai Lama.  He has, nevertheless, continued his activities as  well-known writer, photographer, and filmmaker (in 1995 Ricard directed his own documentary about Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Journey to Enlightenment).  Moreover, as a result of a famous MRI brain-scan study conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, he has since been accorded the popular designation as the “world’s happiest person” [6,7,8].

The film producer of Brilliant Moon was the lama Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, who is Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s grandson and who is now the abbot of the Shechen Monastery in Nepal, which is one of the six primary or "mother" monasteries of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.

Brilliant Moon is narrated by two well-known figures of American popular culture, the actor Richard Gere and the singer Lou Reed.  Both Gere and Reed embraced Tibetan Buddhism years ago, and Gere, in particular, has been a frequent visitor of the Dalai Lama and a public advocate of Tibetan independence.  However, despite the potential pop-culture fanfare opportunities of having Gere (cf., for example, Chicago, 2002) and Reed (the lead singer of The Velvet Underground, cf. “Walk on the Wild Side”, 1970) onboard, their participation is not hyped in this film, and their names only appear modestly in the credits.

Brilliant Moon’s account of the life of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche is presented more or less linearly in ten named chapters.  In the early phases of his life, for which there is basically no historical photographic evidence, Chokling presents things vividly by using animated images.  This works well and confers a fabular feeling to the presentation that befits the legendary lama.

1. The Son
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was born in 1910 in Denhok Valley in the Kham region of Eastern Tibet.  As a young boy, he suffered a serious injury by stumbling into a cauldron of boiling soup and was bedridden and depressed for months.  At this point the melancholy boy decided to enter the monastic life, and his health gradually improved. 

2.  The Monk
At the age of 14, he went to study at the Shechen monastery, one of the six principal monasteries of the Nyingma school of Himalayan Buddhism.  There he came under the tutelage of Shechen Gyaltsaab Rinpoche, a famous lama who passed onto him many sacred teachings before Gyaltsaab passed away 2 years later. 

3.  The Hermit
Then at the age of 15, Dilgo Khyentse entered into a long meditation retreat, hiding away alone in caves in Eastern Tibet for the next thirteen years and constantly meditating and carrying out ritual practices.

4.  The Yogi
At 28 Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche came out of his meditation hermitage and more directly under the tutelage of his spiritual lama master, Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro.  Though Dilgo Khyentse wanted to continue his life in solitary meditation, Khyentse Chokyi Lodro urged the young man to go out into the world and spread the teachings he had learned to others.  So Dilgo Khyentse began traveling about Tibet and spreading his spiritual message. 

However, the gradual takeover of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China beginning in 1950, which led to the 1959 Tibetan uprising, caused severe disturbances in Tibetan life.  So in 1959, like the Dalai Lama had done earlier in the same year, Dilgo Khyentse had to flee Tibet.  After a long and dangerous trip, he found refuge in Bhutan.

5.  The Refugee
As a refugee, Dilgo Khyentse was welcomed by the king and royal family of Bhutan.  Dilgo Khyentse had two daughters, the younger of whom died while studying in India during this period.  His older daughter gave birth in 1967 to a son, Shechen Rabjam, who is the producer of this film.

6.  The Teacher
Over the years, Dilgo Khyentse had over sixty masters from the four main schools of Himalayan Buddhism give him instruction on the sacred teachings.  As a result, he adopted a nonsectarian perspective that, through his own teachings, helped to unify the Himalayan Buddhist community.  He then went on to spread these teachings across the wide region and gave instruction to many existing and future masters.  For example, the Dalai Lama regarded Dilgo Khyentse as his principal teacher of the Nyingma tradition and of the Dzogchen tradition.  And in 1980 he founded the Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery in Nepal.

7.  Return Home
In 1985 with the ruling Chinese authorities having relaxed their restrictions on visiting Tibet, Dilgo Khyentse was able to return to his homeland.  There he continued his work on restoring devastated monasteries.

8.  Completion
Finally, after Dudjom Rinpoche’s death in 1987, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche became the head of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism.  But even as an old man, he tirelessly continued his holy work until his death in 1991.  By that time his writings had amounted to more than 10,000 pages.  He was also involved in the preservation and publication of more then 300 volumes of sacred Buddhist texts.

9.  The Yangsi
After Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s death and following Himalayan Buddhist tradition, there was a search for his religiously certified reincarnation.  In due course a young boy born in 1993 was identified as such and given the name Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche.

10.  The West

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche first traveled to Europe and the US in the 1970s, and he made some more trips thereafter.  These visits helped spread his holy teachings to a Western audience.

Overall, Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche is a well-crafted work, with the excellent mixture of smoothly-edited archival material that is combined with the aforementioned atmospheric animation work covering the master’s early years. I also liked the music composed by Joel Diamond.  But I particularly liked the inclusion on the soundtrack of Mia Doi Todd’s moody song “River of Life/The Yes Song”.  Those are tones that resonate in my memory whenever I think of this fine film.

  1. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is effectively the head of another of the four schools – the Gelug school.
  2. Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, “The Neten Chokling incarnation line”, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, (1983). 
  3. “Neten Chokling”, Wikipedia, (10 March 2018).  
  4. “Neten Chokling Rinpoche”, The Rigpa Shedra Wiki, (28 March 2018).    
  5. The nine linked chapters of The Life of Milarepa can be found on Youtube here:
  6. Alyson Shontell, “A 69-year-old monk who scientists call the 'world's happiest man' says the secret to being happy takes just 15 minutes per day”, Business Insider Australia (25 December 2016).   
  7. Robert Chalmers, “Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr Happy”, The Independent, (18 February 2007).       
  8. Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill,  Little, Brown and Company, (2007).

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