“Yogis of Tibet” - Jeffrey Pill (2002)

Yogis of Tibet (2002) is a little-seen documentary film that certainly deserves more attention.  The film, which is currently available on YouTube, offers a unique portrayal of Tibetan Buddhist Yoga as presented directly to the camera by a number of revered Buddhist lamas and yogis in their own words [1,2].  What makes this testimony special is that until now, certain esoteric yogic practises, such as some of the arcane aspects of Tibetan Yoga, have for centuries been carefully secreted from the general public and have only been made available to dedicated monks and novitiates.  The concern had always been that if attempts are made to share the deep wisdom of yoga in only a casual or limited manner (such as only expressing concepts and overlooking the wisdom and spiritual awareness that comes from dedicated practice), this will only result in bastardized forms of the true discipline.  Indeed, undertaking some of the advanced yogic practises without proper training can be dangerous.  

So it was always forbidden for Tibetan Yogis to speak openly about the nature of their religious practises.  Instead, the holy practises were carefully passed down only by authenticated monks to dedicated trainees, in master-to-pupil fashion.  But recently things have changed.  The Tibetan Holocaust, which was begun in 1950 and was perpetrated on Tibetan society by the Chinese government, resulted in the decimation of the population and the destruction of almost all the Buddhist monasteries and sacred documents in the country [3].  (Note that a form of this kind of ethnic holocaust appears to be being tragically recommitted today in connection with the suppression of the Muslim Uyghur community in Northwest China [4].)  So now a number of Tibetan Yogis are fearful that their sacred traditions will disappear and be lost forever, unless they are made available to a wider audience.  It was in response to these concerns that the film Yogis of Tibet was made.

The film was directed by Jeffrey Pill, written and edited by Barbara King, narrated by Jeffrey Gibson, and it was produced by Phil and Jo Borack.  And it features a distinguished cast of Tibetan yogis who give accounts of their spiritual practices.  Among these dedicated practitioners are:

  • The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama)
  • His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche
  • His Eminence Drubwang Konchok Norbu Rinpoche 
  • His Eminence Garchen Rinpoche
  • Venerable Nupa Rinpoche
  • His Eminence Choje Togden Rinpoche   
  • Ani Konchok Khandro (a yogini)
  • Chenga Rinpoche 
  • Drupon Sonam Rinpoche 
  • Lamchen Gyalpo Rinpoche 
  • Drupon Samten Rinpoche 
  • Dorje Lobun Tenzin  
  • Venerable Nupa Rinpoche
  • Geshe Yeshi Chophel

The film does not start with much background on yoga or Buddhism, both of which have such varied and complex histories that it would take too long to cover much of that material.  Instead, it begins by taking a look at Tibet’s incredibly harsh and forbidding mountainous environment, in which survival is difficult and life is fragile.  These relentlessly difficult circumstances have likely been an important factor in helping turn the people who live there inwards, towards spiritual succour.  

An important development in Tibetan history was the arrival in the eighth century CE of Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhist teachings to Tibet.  These teachings were then combined with aspects of the native Bon religion of Tibet in order to produce the unique hybrid form of  Buddhism that came to characterize Tibetan Buddhism.  One of those special aspects of Tibetan Buddhism is that, rather than restricting itself to austere rituals divorced from other aspects of culture, it has embraced both science and the arts.  In fact for Tibetan Buddhists, their religion is a natural science; but it is a science with a wider compass than Western natural science, because their discipline includes consciousness and the human soul.  Tibetan yogis also differ from Hindu yogis in many respects – for example, Tibetan yogis believe in the reincarnation of their lamas.

And so as a result, this Tibetan religion became so enmeshed in the common culture of the people that customarily about one out of six young Tibetan men would enter into Buddhist monkhood and receive sustenance support by alms from the general public.  However, as I mentioned, in 1950 this seemingly idyllic spiritual society came to a crashing end when the Chinese Communist government invaded Tibet to take over the country.  With the intent of plundering the country and eliminating its religion, the Chinese perpetrated a human and cultural genocide of horrific proportions.  Over the ensuing years, which included the disruptions associated with the Cultural Revolution, about one million Tibetans were killed or died of starvation, which was about one-sixth of the entire Tibetan population [3].  Moreover, many other Tibetans were subjected to torture and long periods of confinement.  As for the cultural genocide, almost all of the 6,000 Tibetan monasteries were destroyed by the Chinese, and almost all of the Tibetan Buddhist sacred documents were burned.

Some Tibetans did manage to escape from the carnage, including Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche [5,6], who found refuge in Bhutan, and The Dalai Lama, who escaped to Dharamshala, India, where he helped set up a center for Tibetan refugees.  And most of these Tibetan escapees were other  Buddhists of various persuasions.  But the focus of this particular film under discussion is primarily on practitioners of the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.  The overall Kagyu school is one of the major Tibetan Buddhism schools, and one of their key historical figures is Milarepa [7].  The particular Drikung Kagyu line of yogis are known to have an especially high degree of rigour to their regimen, and we must be thankful that they saw fit to reveal and show explicitly some of their long-guarded practises to the producers of Yogis of Tibet.

One special treat in the film is the rare chance to see Milarepa’s original meditation cave near the remote Lapchi Gang valley, which that famous yogi used during the 11th century and which took some arduous efforts on the part of a cameraman to access.  There in the cave, two yogis on retreat, Nupa Rinpoche and Geshe Yeshi Chophel, are shown and interviewed.

Another feature is the extended interview of the revered elderly yogi His Eminence Drubwang Konchok Norbu Rinpoche, who says that he has spent so many years in isolated meditation that he is now able to see his past life incarnations.  In this connection, he discusses some aspects of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of bardo, which refers to the transition “gaps” between one life experience and another [8].  As an elderly yogi, Drubwang Konchok Norbu Rinpoche was starting to make preparations for his departure from incarnate life when the Dalai Lama interceded and asked him to live longer in order to pass on his valuable teachings to others.  So Drubwang Rinpoche assented to this request.

There are also more detailed depictions of some other Tibetan yogic practises.  One concerns the Tantric meditation practise of Tummo, which is used for the remarkable generation of one’s bodily heat without using any external heat-generating instruments.

Another interesting practise demonstrated is the Trul Khor practise.  This amazingly strenuous  yogic exercise, which is intended to awaken the kundalini power within the body, is given a full five-and-a-half-minute demonstration for the camera by Chenga Rinpoche.

There are further claims of paranormal yogic powers, such as alleged control on the part of an advanced yogi over the form of his coming reincarnation, but, of course, these cannot be demonstrated.  More compelling is the commentary by several yogis concerning their unremitting commitment to compassion.  Even those who endured the most severe atrocities of the Tibetan Genocide have maintained complete compassion for the perpetrators of these atrocities and have no feelings of hatred or revenge.  These yogis feel that the bad things that have happened to them are the result of their own bad karma that they, themselves, generated in past incarnations by committing sinful acts.  For now, they feel that their salvation – and in fact the salvation of all living beings – lies in the direction of meditation.  And this should be a meditation that focusses on loving compassion for all beings.  

At the end of the film, the narrator comments that the Chinese Communist effort to obliterate Tibetan Buddhism certainly backfired.  Rather than snuff out the ancient Buddhist practises, these supposed acts of annihilation have helped spread them to a wider world at large.  In 1949 the Dalai Lama was not so well-known internationally; but today, after his escape from the Tibetan massacre, he is one of the most famous and admired figures in the world.  And his teachings and those of other associated Buddhist monks are now reaching a worldwide audience.  In addition, thanks to such efforts as the making of Yogis of Tibet, even the more arcane yogic practises of Tibetan Buddhism are coming to a wider light.

All in all, Yogis of Tibet is a interesting watch, and I recommend it to you.  However, there is a heavy emphasis in this film, and in most other accounts of Tibetan yogis, on the rigours associated with a practitioner's austere withdrawal from the world.  In this regard, I feel sure they are recommending a withdrawal from the mundane and self-dominated circumstances of our everyday experience.  But I don’t think the yoga masters demand a total withdrawal from all aspects of the world.  In fact, I believe their recommendation of withdrawal from the everyday world is made with the ultimate intention of achieving a blissful and compassion-filled union with the entire, incredibly rich world of which we, and all other beings, are essential cooperating parts [8,9].  Indeed, this suggests to me that the goal of achieving the feeling of compassion and love for all beings is a crucial aspect of the Tibetan yogic way of life.  Although this is briefly mentioned in the film, I would have liked to have seen more coverage of and testimony on this vital topic from the enlightened yogis who are shown in this fascinating film.
★★★½ 

Notes:

  1. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “The Yogis of Tibet: A Film for Posterity”, Spirituality and Practice, (n.d.).  
  2. Georg Feuerstein, “Yogis of Tibet (video)”, Traditional Yoga Studies, (6 July 2011).   
  3. Maura Moynihan, “Genocide in Tibet”, The Washington Post, (25 January 1998).   
  4. Peter Apps, “China’s Uyghur detention camps may be the largest mass incarceration since the Holocaust”, The New Statesman, (21 March 2019).   
  5. The Film Sufi, “'Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche' - Neten Chokling (2010)", The Film Sufi, (6 October 2018).   
  6. The Film Sufi, “'Journey to Enlightenment' - Matthieu Ricard (1995)", The Film Sufi, (7 July 2019).  
  7. The Film Sufi, “'Milarepa' - Neten Chokling (2006)”, The Film Sufi, (28 June 2018).   
  8. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and Helen Tworkov, In Love with the World: What a Buddhist Monk Can Teach You About Living from Nearly Dying, Bluebird, (2019).
  9. Paramahansa Yogananda, Wine of the Mystic : The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,  Self-Realization Fellowship, (1996). 

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