“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.

  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).  

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