“The Horse Thief” - Tian Zhuangzhuang (1986)

Tian Zhuangzhuang is one of the great Chinese filmmakers who were part of a cinematic renaissance known as the Fifth Generation film movement in China.  Why they all came together at that time in the 1980s is an artifact of history.  After the ravages of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the Beijing Film Institute reopened its doors and began taking new students in 1978.  Three of the new students who had been waiting for this opportunity were Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang, who not long after they were graduated in 1982 came to be regarded together as the leaders of the Fifth Generation movement.

Although Tian Zhuangzhuang is not as internationally well-known as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, he nevertheless well deserves your attention, too.  Tian’s most famous film is The Blue Kite (Lán Fengzhen, 1993), but perhaps his greatest film is one of his earliest outings – The Horse Thief (Dào Ma Zéi, 1986).  This film has a powerful, almost mystical, ambiance that evokes in us the austere, spiritually-infused consciousness of Tibetan peasants living in the remote highlands.  These peasant livestock herders lived in such severe conditions that they felt their constantly imperiled existences could only persist by the grace of the mountain god to whom they endlessly prayed.  And the feeling of living this way is expertly conveyed to us in the film, not so much by the performances of the characters (all whom are played by nonprofessional actors and actresses), but by the expressionistic evocation of the entire “world” (as consciously perceived) in which these people live.  And this is what seems to have stood out for a number of film critics who have seen the film [1,2,3,4,5,6]. 

Indeed, The Horse Thief has even been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the way it portrays to us an ultimately unfathomable and existentially threatening universe [7].  However, with respect to the protagonists in 2001, though, their hopes for survival (and hence their “faith”) were placed in scientific rationalism and technology; while for the protagonists in The Horse Thief, their faith was placed in the gods.  Anyway, perhaps it was something along these lines that inspired Martin Scorsese, who by the way seems to have seen thousands of films, to state that The Horse Thief was the best film he saw during the 1990s (he didn’t see the film upon its initial release in the 1980s) [8].  The Scorsese connection here is interesting to me, because I would say that the film that most closely reminds me of The Horse Thief is his own Taxi Driver (1976).  Both films effectively convey existential loneliness through the expressionistic presentation of an isolating and threatening world.

Note, however, that the atmosphere of loneliness in The Horse Thief is not conveyed via claustrophobic enclosure, as it might be in some films.  Quite the contrary, the wide open spaces of Tibet are presented in their breathtaking breadth via the superb wide-screen cinematography of Hou Yong and Zhao Fei.  And the humans shown here are mere insignificant and vulnerable little dots in this vast landscape.  The cinematography further enhances this impression of human vulnerability by having few medium shots and restricting itself mostly to long shots (many of which are of long duration) and closeups (many of which are shot from a low angle).

As the story of The Horse Thief unfolds, we see that the main character, Norbu, is going through something of a spiritual struggle.  He is devoutly religious, but at the same time he also looks after his loved ones by committing the sin of thievery.  The film withholds making any moral judgements about his behaviour, and the viewer may also have ambiguous feelings about him.  Instead of the film presenting polemical viewpoint, though, we see Norbu’s world from a more neutral external perspective, where alienation is constantly mediated by religious ritual and the wide dispersion of Tibetan prayer flags.  In fact since ritual is such a crucial and pervasive element to this narrative depiction, I will highlight the film’s extended and colourful presentations of religious ritual by the tag “RITUAL”.

The story of The Horse Thief, which was scripted by Zhang Rui, is presented in roughly five segments.  At the outset, the viewer is informed by a title that the film is set in 1923.  However, this initial titling was imposed on the filmmakers by the Chinese government in order to disconnect anything that happens in the story from the policies of the Chinese Community party.  Actually, what is shown could have taken place at any time over the previous hundred years or so.

1.  Norbu and Dolma
The film begins with Norbu (played by Rigzin Tseshang) and his colleague (whom I believe is called Nowre) sneaking up on some horses that have been tied up outside their owner’s tent and stealing them.   Later, Norbu is shown at home with his wife Doma (Jiji Dan) as they put their beloved two-year-old son Tashi to bed.  It is evident that Norbu and Dolma have a loving domestic household.  When Norbu subsequently goes out at night on another mission, Dolma is shown fervently praying alone to the gods for his safe return.

When a peddler comes to their small village, Norbu spends some of his little cash to purchase a ceremonial quiver that will be used to hold some sacred arrows to be offered to the Mountain God in order to secure his blessing.  This is followed by a (RITUAL) sequence showing the  Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies offering obeisance to the Mountain God, who is referred to as “Triratna” [9]. 

Later they are informed that their village head’s father has died and that dozens of lamas have been summoned to pray to Triratna for the man’s blessing so that he will be reincarnated to the Elysium.  Norbu, of course, must attend this ceremony, which is presented in detail (RITUAL).  Then Norbu and Dolma go to the temple to turn the prayer wheels in order to pray to Triratna to wash away their own bad karma (RITUAL). 

So by the end of this segment, the viewer has been able to see that Norbu is devoted to his wife, his son, and his religion.  But he is also a thief.

2.  An Unforgivable Crime
Next we see some monks on horseback on a mountain path and guiding some pack animals loaded with gifts for the temple.  Norbu and his companion come upon them and stage a violent robbery of their possessions.  But when Norbu and Nowre come to a safe location after awhile and divide up the spoils, they show that they intend to give most of the stolen loot to the temple and keep only a relatively small amount for themselves.  In fact Norbu ultimately decides to give all of his portion to the temple in order to pray for his son Tashi’s welfare.

When Norbu returns home, there are more loving family scenes showing them bathing in the river, which for them also serves as a religious ablution. 

However, news of their theft gets back to the village, and Norbu is accused of an unforgivable crime – stealing the headman’s gifts to the temple.  This is deemed an insult to the god Triratna, and Norbu is banished from the clan and ordered to leave living in the plains.  Norbu humbly accepts his punishment and vows that he will never steal again (RITUAL).  He and his family go up to the hills to live in a tent, next to which they setup their small monument of homage-signalling prayer arrows that express their obeisance to the god (RITUAL).

3.  Tashi is Ill
Tashi comes down with some illness, and this a very serious matter.  Although it may not be well known to many readers, only about half of all children ever born in primitive societies throughout history have managed to survive to adulthood [10].  Dolma prays for Tashi to Triratna, and Norbu goes to the temple to painstakingly collect “holy water” drippings from the temple water spout (RITUAL).  Then Norbu goes to the temple to engage in more praying for Tashi (RITUAL).

But Tashi dies in the winter.  The intensely grieving Norbu and Dolma perform extended ceremonial rites for Tashi’s soul, which is shown in a brilliant and extended sequence of meditative dissolves that take up about three minutes of screen time (RITUAL).  This is followed by about five minutes of lavish temple burial ceremonies (RITUAL).

4.  The Livestock Plague
In the spring, Dolma gives birth to another son, and the couple have another child for their loving concern.  However, a new problem arises.  The region is hit with a devastating livestock plague that causes massive deaths, and herders are shown shovelling heaps of goats into mass, hastily dug graves.  There is a new fatalistic ambience that sweeps over the people.  The herders’ only alternative is to shepherd their herds to a new region.  Desperate for some livelihood, Norbu looks for menial work in a temple.  He is ultimately hired to participate in a ritual procession by carrying a plaster statue of a demon over to a river where, upon his placing the statue in the water, it is ceremonially stoned by the religious populace hoping for relief from the plague (RITUAL).

5.  Desperation
Still desperate to find some way to support his new baby, Norbu goes back to his village and asks his traditionalist grandmother if she thinks he can be forgiven and return to the clan.  She tells him that Dolma and the child can return, but for him, absolution is not possible.  So as winter sets in, Norbu sells his horse and kills a lamb for some food to eat.  Seeing that a snowstorm is coming, he tells Dolma to take the child and rush back down from the hills to live in the village. 

But Dolma doesn’t want to leave her husband.  She, like so many of these peasants, is still hoping for some kind of salvation from the god Triratna.  Then they see a lightning bolt strike their homemade prayer-arrow monument, setting it ablaze. For these devout people, this fire undoubtedly signals to them that Triratna has rejected them.

With time running out, Norbu now realizes that he must break his vow and steal again in order to provide Dolma with a horse to ride to safety.  So Norbu, with Dolma’s help, goes out in the night, and they steal two horses.  With the angry stolen horse owners on their heels, Norbu hastily sends Dolma and the child off down the mountain, while he returns to fend off his pursuers.  But Norbu’s prospects for survival and salvation were dire indeed, as the closing shot indicates.


Although The Horse Thief may seem to have a relatively simple plot, the film has a gripping presence throughout.  This is due largely to the expertly crafted immersion of the viewer into Norbu’s spiritually-connected world, thanks in part to the cinematography by Hou Yong and Zhao Fei and the film editing by Jingzhong Li.  Also effective is the atmospheric and unobtrusive music of Qu Xiaosong, featuring native chanting along with haunting instrumental and vocal music.  And, of course, overseeing it all is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s masterful direction.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. Janet Maslin, “Film: 'The Horse Thief'”, The New York Times, (6 January 1988).   
  2. Dennis Schwartz, "HORSE THIEF (Dao ma zei): A truly amazing film that takes a western audience to mystical places they have never seen before.", Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, (1 May 2004).   
  3. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “The Horse Thief”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).    
  4. Martin Teller, “The Horse Thief”, Martin Teller's Movie Reviews,  (21 March 21 2013).   
  5. Kevin Jack Hagopian, “Horse Thief”, New York State Writers Institute, (n.d.).   
  6. Scarlet Cheng, “Daoma Zei - Film (Movie) Plot and Review”, Film Reference, (n.d.).  
  7. Peter Reiher, "horse.thief", Laboratory for Advanced Systems Research, (27 August 2002).   
  8. Roger Ebert, “Ebert & Scorsese: Best Films of the 1990s”, Roger Ebert’s Journal, (27 February 2000).   
  9. “Tri Ratna”, I believe, refers to the  Three Jewels (or Three Treasures) of Buddhism – “the Buddha, The Dharma (the Buddha's teachings) and the Sangha (the community of monks and nuns, or more generally the community of Buddhist practitioners)”.  However ordinary Tibetan Buddhist practise, as shown in this film, was infused with other traditional religions, too, such as Bon.  Here in this film these three Tibetan Buddhist jewels seem to be embodied in the holy personage of the Mountain God.
       See:
  10. Max Roser, “Mortality in the past – around half died as children”, Our World in Data, (11 June 2019).       

Tian Zhuangzhuang

Films of Tian Zhuangzhuang:

“Branches of the Tree” - Satyajit Ray (1990)

Satyajit Ray’s penultimate film, Branches of the Tree (Shakha Proshakha, 1990), coming just after his An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989) and just before Agantuk (The Stranger 1991), was one of the loose trilogy of films that he made after suffering a debilitating heart attack in 1983.  What unites the three films, the last two of which were based on Ray’s own stories [1], seems to be a somewhat sombre concern for the revelation of the true state of affairs among people, something that may have preoccupied Ray’s mind during his final years before his death in 1992 due to heart failure.  Looking over our lives over a long time, we all may tend to ask in the end what we stood for, who we were.  This perhaps was what was on Ray’s mind.
   
Branches of the Tree is a rather sophisticated concoction of these concerns, since they are spread across a number of principal characters who inquisitively interact with each other to cautiously reveal and discover themselves.  As such, the film does not involve so much some people changing over the course of the story in response to external events, but instead relatively unchanging personages discovering things about each other.  This revelatory structure, as well as the film’s not having the focus of a single protagonist (or team of protagonists), makes for a unique and thought-provoking kind of drama; and for these reasons Branches of the Tree has not been ranked very high among Ray’s films by critics and viewers.  Nevertheless, I would say that the film is a nuanced and well-crafted production, featuring excellent ensemble acting on the part of its cast members, and it well reflects Ray’s masterful cinematic talents.

The story of the film concerns a wealthy and now retired industrialist, Ananda Majumdar, and his four grownup sons, each of whom is a unique character and focus of attention.  One of the strengths of this film is that Ray fashions five distinctly different characters here, and the actors consistently remain true to these respective disparate characterizations throughout the story.

Early on in the film, Ananda suffers a serious heart attack during a civic ceremony celebrating his 70th birthday.  Three of Ananda’s sons are businessmen who live in towns some distance (several hours by train) away, and they dutifully rush to their now bedridden father’s home in order to express their filial concern.  The other son is mentally handicapped and has been living with the father, so now all four sons are in attendance at the paternal home.  The ensuing story mainly concerns the interactions of these people as they hopefully await for promising signs concerning Ananda’s health condition.

Because so much revolves around the characterizations of the four sons and their families, I will  first give brief outlines of them.
  • Ananda Majumdar (played by Ajit Banerjee) is the wealthy 70-year-old industrialist and father of four sons.  He is the principled and highly honoured pillar of his community – in fact, his community has been renamed after him – and he is a steadfast upholder of the virtues of honesty and diligence.  His wife passed away about twenty years ago, and he now lives basically alone (with a servant) at home with two people who are mentally handicapped and offer almost no opportunities for meaningful interaction – his senile 93-year-old father and his brain-damaged second son, Proshanto.
     
  • Proshanto (played by longtime Ray favourite, Soumitra Chatterjee) is Ananda’s second son, whose promising career (Ananda considered him to be the smartest of his four sons) was ruined by a motor vehicle accident while he was studying in London many years ago.  Now he sits alone most of the time in his room listening to Bach-composed classical music records.  He never looks people in the eye, and he seems almost completely unable to communicate.  But there are indications over the course of the story that he may be more aware of what is said in his company than is first suggested.  So he is our quasi-mute witness to what transpires.
     
  • Probodh (Haradhan Banerjee, another veteran of many Ray films) is the eldest son and seems to be in his late forties.  He is a very successful businessman; but although he is generally outwardly amiable, he seems inwardly cynical and unsympathetic.  For example, he thinks that his harmless brother Proshanto should be shipped off to an insane asylum.  Probodh is accompanied on this trip by his admiring wife Uma (Lily Chakravarty).
     
  • Probir (Deepankar Dey) is the third son and a financial businessman.  Unlike his upright eldest brother, the fortyish Probir is an openly sinful hedonist, addicted to alcohol, gambling, and extra-marital affairs.  He excuses himself for these things by jovially and openly admitting his wrongdoings – he feels that he is at least honest about himself.  He also attributes his inherent greed to what he supposedly learned from his father, but in his own case more honestly confessed.  Probir is accompanied on this trip by his comely wife, Tapti (Mamata Shankar), and his young (about 6-8 years old) son, Dingo (Soham Chakraborty).
     
  • Protap (Ranjit Mallick) is the unmarried youngest son.  Now thirty-four, he has been working for a decade at a cushy advertising job that his father had arranged for him.  But the pervasive dishonesty and corruption of his own business colleagues has led him, unbeknownst to his family, to recently resign from his position and take up an acting position in professional theater.  
The story of this family is told in about four stages.

1.  Ananda and Proshanto at Home
The film begins by showing Ananda Majumdar living at home with his mentally disabled son Proshanto.  As Ananda soothingly and somewhat rhetorically talks to his almost mute son, who never looks him in the eye and only responds with occasional single-word, ejaculations, we get the impression that Proshanto has always been Ananda’s favourite son.  At one point Ananda  reminds his son of his two fundamental mottos for life:
  • “Work is worship”
  • “Honesty is the best policy”
But later at a celebratory civic party for Ananda’s 70th birthday, where the community leaders express their appreciation for his many contributions he has made to the town that has been named after him, he suffers a serious heart attack.  Ananda is taken home for extended medical care; and upon hearing about his condition, the other three sons make arrangements to come to their father’s side.

2.  Three Sons Arrive
The other three sons arrive with their families from distant locations for a stay in Ananda’s home, and they inquire with the doctor about their bedridden father’s condition.  When they learn from the doctor that Ananda’s longer-term prospects won’t be known for three weeks, Probodh and Probir express their vexation to each other over the fact that they will have to take more time out from their busy lives than they had anticipated.  They want to know what is the minimum required for them to do their duty.  Thus, for them, their own private concerns are seen to take some precedence over familial compassion. 

Because of Ananda’s renown, an out-of-town newspaperman comes to write a story about him, and Probodh recites to him his father’s many professional and humanitarian accomplishments.  In particular, he tells him, his father was famous for his honesty.

3.  Revelations
When Protap and his brother Probir’s wife Tapti have a chance to meet alone, we learn that the two of them have long been familial best friends.  In fact although she never exceeds the bounds of propriety, it is clear that Tapti is in love with her brother-in-law.  Protap confesses to her that the brooding attitude he has been displaying since his arrival is because he quit his high-standing business job one month ago due to the rampant dishonesty and bribe-taking he observed among his colleagues.  They have unashamedly told him that his father’s honesty is no longer possible in today’s India.  So he has decided to become a theater actor, a profession that is considered to have an unacceptably low standing among people of his class.  For her part, Tapti tells her soul-mate about her dysfunctional marriage to a husband who is a compulsive gambler and alcoholic.

Later, they all, except for the near-comatose and bedridden Ananda, get together for a family dinner.  At the table the conversation takes a nasty turn when Probir’s openly corrupt life becomes a subject of discussion.  Probodh criticizes his younger brother, but Probir unashamedly defends himself.  He says that there are two kinds of money – white money and black money.  White money is money earned by honest means, while black money is earned via corrupt means, such as embezzlement and bribes.  He says that these days black money is necessary and the only way to go in business and in life.  He also says that Probodh, whom he knows engages in illegal income tax evasion, is just as corrupt as he is.  Upon hearing this, the seemingly inattentive Proshanto explodes in anger and begins compulsively pounding his fist on the dinner table.

The next morning in their room, Probodh confesses his wrongdoings to his wife but says that dishonesty is standard practice in today’s world.  Ananda’s days of honesty are finished, he tells her.

A little later Ananda urges his attending relatives to relax and go out together on a picnic, which they, except for Proshanto, agree to do.  This picnic scene features an excellent display of coordinated ensemble-acting cinematography, and it shows Ray’s continued mastery in this regard.  The brothers and their wives all nervously try to amuse each other, but the unspoken issue of honesty and integrity is still just beneath the surface.  Finally and amidst this jocularity, Probir taunts the still-brooding and unsociable Protap to reveal what is bothering him.  Protap tells them all what he had earlier confessed only to Tapti – that he has resigned from his prestigious business job and entered the dubious field of theater acting because of the pervasive dishonesty infecting the business world.

4.  Departure Day
After a couple of weeks, Ananda’s condition seems to have stabilized, and his sons and their families make arrangements to return to their own lives.  Just before the adults are about to collectively bid farewell to Ananda, however, the young Dilgo sneaks into his grandfather’s room and wants to tell him what he has learned on his visit.  Among the things he has learned, Dilgo innocently tells him, is that there are two types of money – honest money and dishonest money – and that his father and older uncle have dishonest money.  Ananda instantly understands what this means and is crestfallen.  His dreams of having raised an honourable family are shattered.  
 
After the visitors have all respectfully taken their leave, the grieving Ananda calls Proshanto to his bedside.  On this occasion Proshanto shows empathetic concern, and he finally looks his father directly in the eye.  As the film closes, Ananda reaches out to him and tells him, “you are my everything”.

Branches of the Tree is a grim tale about what mark we make as we pass through this complex and imperfect world.  The facts that Ray, himself, was about the same age as Ananda in this story and that he, himself, was suffering like Ananda from the effects of a serious heart attack suggest to us that the content of this film reflects some of Ray’s own most personal considerations. 

Here, Ananda’s four sons, his branches, represent different positions one might take with respect to the corrupting temptations one might encounter along the way.  In the background is the disturbing image of Ananda’s dementia-addled 93-year old father.  If this is the image of our inevitable deterioration, then we may well be concerned about leaving something more meaningful behind before we go.  So these are the positions concerning dishonesty that were assumed by Ananda’s four sons:
  • Embracing itProbir made no bones about his corrupt life and openly embraced dishonesty.  But at least he was honest about that.
       
  • Making compromises with itProbodh made judicious and surreptitious compromises with corruption.  He played the game of respectability, but he was even less honest than Probir was.
     
  • Running away. Protap sought to run away from corruption.  But this will probably prove to be more difficult than he imagines.
     
  • Innocence. Proshanto is basically innocent, but we feel he wants to be good.  And his final engaging look with his father even suggests that he might be getting a little better.  In any case, Proshanto is his father’s only hope.
All in all, this is a thoughtful tale about different postures towards honesty and integrity, and Ray gave it a subtly dramatic rendering.
½

Notes:
  1. Hari Narayan, “A Ray that reflects on itself”, Thread, The Hindu, (2 May 2016).   

“Journey to Enlightenment” - Matthieu Ricard (1995)

Journey to Enlightenment (aka The Spirit of Tibet) is a documentary film directed, filmed,  photographed, and co-scripted by Matthieu Ricard that portrays the life of one of the most revered lamas of Tibetan (or “Himalayan”) Buddhism, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991).  (Note that the term “Rinpoche” means “precious one” in the Tibetan language and is an honorific among Tibetan Buddhists.)  Khyentse Rinpoche was an outstanding scholar, teacher, and tireless promoter of Tibetan Buddhism, and, in particular, he was a master of the Vajrayana (Tantric) tradition.  But perhaps an even more significant feature of Khyentse Rinpoche was his polymathic mastery of all four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism – Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug  – which, in combination with his nonsectarian nature, helped him in his efforts to bring about a restoration and greater unification of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  This was especially important in the wake of the devastation associated with and subsequent to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1949.

This excellent film about Khyentse Rinpoche’s life can be compared to another, subsequent film about the same master, Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (2010), which I have reviewed earlier [1].  Indeed, there is some significant overlap in connection with the production of these two films that are separated by fifteen years.  The producer for both films was Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, who is Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s grandson and is the abbot of the Shechen Tennyi Daryeling Monasteries in Tibet and Nepal.  Both films were narrated by famous actor (and converted Tibetan Buddhist) Richard Gere (Days of Heaven, 1978; Chicago, 2002).  Vivian Kurz was a co-producer of Journey to Enlightenment and a co-editor Brilliant Moon.  And Journey to Enlightenment’s director, Matthieu Ricard, who was Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s disciple and personal assistant during the last fourteen years of the master’s life, both co-edited and appeared in person in the later film.  But despite this overlap, there are some distinguishing features about these two films that make them different and both worthy of your viewing.

First, I should mention that the release of the film Journey to Enlightenment was accompanied by the publication at about the same time of the book Journey to Enlightenment: The Life and World of Khyentse Rinpoche, Spiritual Teacher from Tibet (1996) by Matthieu Ricard and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche [2].  This large-format book, which features Matthieu Ricard’s stunning and sweeping photography, also includes descriptive text from Matthieu Ricard and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche that has been translated by the Padmakara Translation Group [3] and also has additional commentary by the 14th Dalai Lama.  (This book was republished in 2001 as The Spirit of Tibet: The Life and World of Khyentse Rinpoche, Spiritual Teacher [4].)  Many of Ricard’s picturesque photographs from the book are included in this film.  However, the book features more details about Khyentse Rinpoche’s life and experiences than the film, including more personal commentary from Khyentse Rinpoche, himself, and so it offers a complementary and rewarding view of the lama.  Consequently I strongly recommend that you have both experiences – read the book and see the film.

Matthieu Ricard, the creator of both the book and the film, is a very interesting personage in his own right.  Born in 1946 into an intellectual French family – his father,  Jean-François Revel, was a well-known French philosopher and his mother, Yahne Le Toumelin, was a famous French abstractionist painter – Ricard studied for a Ph.D. degree in molecular genetics at the Pasteur Institute under Nobel Laureate François Jacob, which he completed in 1972.  But although his family upbringing had been centered around Western rationalism, Ricard had developed an interest in Buddhism when he visited India in 1967, and after completing his PhD thesis in 1972, he renounced his promising scientific career and moved to India in order to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk.  There he went on long and intense meditation retreats and studied under a number of masters of Tibetan Buddhism.  Ricard’s initial guru was Kangyur Rinpoche, after whose death in 1975, Ricard came under the tutelage of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.  And over the last fourteen years of Khyentse Rinpoche’s life (1978-1991), Ricard was that master’s principal disciple and close personal associate. 

Ricard’s earlier total withdrawal and disappearance from Western culture began to lessen, however, with his appointment in 1989 to be the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama – and, further, with the publication of his book and the release of his film about Khyentse Rinpoche.  Later, in 1997, Ricard assented to engage in an extended discussion about East-West philosophical disparities with his father, the philosopher Jean-François Revel, an account of which was later published as The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (1999) [5].  This book is fascinating, because although Revel (a rationalist atheist) and Ricard (a spiritual practitioner) hold contrasting views about the spiritual, they both make considerable effort to fathom and empathize with the opposing view.  In particular, of course, Ricard’s serious training and experience in natural scientific theory and practice enables him to see the overall world from an inclusive perspective.

In addition Ricard’s subsequent willingness in 2000 to participate in a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) study of the neurobiological basis of happiness that was conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience has brought him additional international renown.  In that study, Ricard’s observed brain scans in the neurological areas of the brain associated with happiness were “off the chart” and led to him being given the popular designation as the “world’s happiest person” [6,7,8].  Since then the “scientifically-certified”-as-happy Ricard has gone on to publish a number of well-received books concerning meditation, happiness, and overall spiritual fulfillment [9,10,11,12].

As I mentioned, a distinguishing feature of Journey to Enlightenment, in comparison to the later Brilliant Moon, is the former film’s vivid evocation of the pervasive and passionate nature of Tibetan Buddhist spirituality.  While Brilliant Moon tends to focus on the personage of Khyentse Rinpoche, Journey to Enlightenment seems to have a wider compass, covering the amazing fervor of the wider Tibetan Society’s spiritual life.
 
Journey to Enlightenment begins with a brief account of the early history of Buddhism in Tibet.  Padmasambhava was a renowned Indian Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.  He also initiated the construction of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet in Samye.  Because of this, Padmasambhava is seen by Tibetans as a second incarnation of the Buddha, the first incarnation of whom, Siddhartha Gautama, lived more than 2500 years ago and who is said to have predicted his reincarnation. 

Since the time of Padmasambhava, the Buddhist values of nonviolence, tolerance, and respect for the environment have permeated the Tibetan culture.  One key aspect of Tibetan Buddhism that is brought up here is the importance of having a personal engagement with one’s lama.  One cannot achieve enlightenment just by reading documents and scriptures, one must also have personal encounters with a lama that will help one on one’s path.  And one must take the initiative, oneself – ss the Buddha is said to have stated:
“I have shown you the methods that lead to liberation.  But you should know that liberation depends on yourself"
Thus, in terms of what I refer to as “interactionism” in some of my earlier essays, I would say that Tibetan Buddhism beneficently adopts an “interactionist” orientation to the world rather than the “objectivist” orientation that is common to modern secular rationalism [13].  Interestingly, and likely associated with this consideration, the subject of this film, Khyentse Rinpoche, had four accomplished Buddhist filmmakers who have made films that visually evoke interactionism:
After this general Buddhist introduction of the film, Khyentse Rinpoche is then introduced, and it is pointed out that he was one of the Dalai Lama’s main gurus.  This is a clear and important reflection of Khyentse Rinpoche’s eccumenism, since the Dalai Lama is the leader of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, and Khyentse Rinpoche went on to become the leader of another one of Tibetan Buddhism’s four main schools, the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism (1987-1991).

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was born in 1910 into a wealthy family in eastern Tibet.  But at the age  13, he left home to go on an extended meditative retreat.  For the next fifteen years he meditated mostly alone in caves.  His main teacher initially was Shechen Gyaltsap Rinpoche (1871–1926), who formally proclaimed him to be the reincarnation of Khyentse Rinpoche, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892).  After Shechen Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s death, Dilgo Khyentse came under the tutelage of his second main teacher, Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (1893-1959), who convinced his young disciple to abandon his commitment to spend his entire life in solitary meditation and to go out into the world and spread the Buddhist teachings.  From this time on Dilgo Khyentse devoted himself to assisting everyone he encountered along the path to spiritual enlightenment.

However, in 1949 the Chinese Communist government invaded Tibet initiating what amounted to a human and culture genocide of horrific proportions.  Over the ensuing years, which include the depredations associated with the Cultural Revolution, one million Tibetans were killed or died of starvation, about one-sixth of the Tibetan population [14].  And many more Tibetans were subjected to torture and long periods of confinement.  In addition, almost all of the 6,000 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed, and almost all of the sacred documents were burned.  As the Chinese military was closing in on taking full control of Tibet in 1959, the Dalai Lama and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche were separately able to flee Tibet, along with about 100,000 other Tibetans.  The Dalai Lama managed to find refuge in Dharamsala, India, while Dilgo Khyentse made it to safety in Bhutan.

There from his new home in Bhutan, Dilgo Khyentse made many visits to other areas in the Himalayan region – Sikkim, Nepal, and India – in order to spread Buddhist teachings.  In Nepal, Dilgo Khyentse initiated the rebuilding of the Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery, the original of which in Tibet had been destroyed by the Chinese invaders.  This detailed construction effort took over twelve years of hard manual work and craftsmanship, but it was finally completed in 1991. 

Journey to Enlightenment also portrays how Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche would spend a typical day.  At 4am in the morning he would wake up and commence five hours of continuous, solitary meditation.  Then he would eat something and attend to sacramental and administrative duties, after which he would offer his guidance to people who had come to him for help.  Finally he would resume his meditation before retiring in the evening. 

In his later years, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was assisted by his grandson, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, who came to be recognized as a spiritual heir and who became the abbot of the Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling Monastery.  Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche also became recognized as the reincarnations of three important lamas from the original Shechen monastery in Tibet.

In those later years, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, along with other disciples, would accompany Khyentse Rinpoche on annual trips to the sacred Bodhi tree in Bihar, India, where Siddhartha Gautama Buddha is said to have first gained spiritual enlightenment.  There Khyentse Rinpoche would offer to the many in attendance his prayers for world peace.

In 1985 China finally opened the borders to allow a few Tibetan exiles to briefly visit their homeland, and Khyentse Rinpoche was able to come.  Wherever he went on this visit, he was met with large rapturous crowds who had not forgotten their beloved spiritual master.  Since Matthieu Ricard was able to accompany Khyentse Rinpoche on this trip, the film features colorful and revealing footage of the many crowds of Tibetans offering their welcoming.  While there, Khyentse Rinpoche vowed to help restore the Samye Monastery, the earliest Tibetan Buddhist monastery, which had been first constructed in the 8th century during the time of Padmasambhava’s stay in Tibet.  But Khyentse Rinpoche devoted most of his time on this visit to teaching and blessing the many Tibetan lamas who came to him seeking his guidance.

In 1991, after a brief illness, Khyentse Rinpoche passed away, and ceremonial observances of his death were conducted throughout the Himalayan region.  To ensure the continuance of his spiritual legacy, his many disciples and followers sought to find his personal reincarnation.  This was accomplished when a child born in Nepal in 1993 was officially identified as Khyentse Rinpoche’s reincarnation and given the name, Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche in 1995.

Returning to the comparison of Journey to Enlightenment with Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, I would say both of them are good films.  Brilliant Moon, with its colorful and unique animated imagery, offers a more schematic coverage of Khyentse Rinpoche’s whole life.  But Journey to Enlightenment, thanks to the extensive personal commentary given by the Dalai Lama and, more importantly, Matthieu Ricard’s colorful photography and cinematography, provides a more closeup and intimate portrayal of this figure.  I recommend it to you, as well.
★★★★

Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, “‘Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche" - Neten Chokling (2010), The Film Sufi, (6 October 2018).   
  2. Matthieu Ricard and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Journey to Enlightenment: The Life and World of Khyentse Rinpoche, Spiritual Teacher from Tibet, Aperture,  (1996).
  3. “About Padmakara”, Songsten, (n.d.).   
  4. Matthieu Ricard and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, The Spirit of Tibet”: The Life and World of Khyentse Rinpoche, Spiritual Teacher, Aperture,  (2001).
  5. Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life, Schocken, (1999). 
  6. Kim Zetter, “Scientists Meditate on Happiness”, Wired, (16 September 2003).   
  7. 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).   
  8. Robert Chalmers, “Matthieu Ricard: Meet Mr Happy”, The Independent, (18 February 2007).  
  9. Matthieu Ricard, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill,  Little, Brown and Company, (2003; English translation by Jesse Browner, 2007).   
  10. Matthieu Ricard, The Art of Meditation, Atlantic Books (2008; English translation by Sherab Chodzin Kohn, 2010).
  11. Matthieu Ricard, On the Path to Enlightenment: Heart Advice from the Great Tibetan Masters, Shambhala, (2013 – this is an abridged edition and English translation of Chemins Spirituels: Petit Anthologie des Plus Beaux Texts Tibetans, 2010).
  12. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015). 
  13. The Film Sufi, “Interactionism”, (label), The Film Sufi.     
  14. Maura Moynihan, “Genocide in Tibet”, The Washington Post, (25 January 1998).  

Matthieu Ricard

Films of Matthieu Ricard: