“Wheel of Time” - Werner Herzog (2003)

Werner Herzog, one of the greatest filmmakers, is one of my favorites.  Over the course of his prolific career covering the direction of some twenty dramatic feature films and more than thirty documentary features, he has invariably cast his unique vision across a wide range of subject matter, much of it with an existentialist philosophy tinge.  Thus he often travels to remote locations to observe how people deal with the extreme conditions there.  This is what I find particularly fascinating about Herzog: he is a philosopher with a movie camera.  The Herzog film I will be discussing here, Wheel of Time (2003), which he wrote, directed, and narrated, is very explicitly aimed in this philosophical direction, because it is concerned with the passions and rituals of Buddhist monks.  The film featured cinematography by Peter Zeitlinger and film editing by Joe Bini, and as usual with Herzog films, one gets the feeling that a good part of the film’s story was composed in the editing room.  And also as usual with Herzog films, it was well-received by a range of critics [1,2,3,4,5].

The specific subject matter of the film concerns the elaborate Kalachakra Initiation ceremony for Tibetan Buddhists (note that ‘Kalachakra’ is a term in Vajrayana Buddhism that means "wheel of time") that is held every two or three years at a place chosen each time by the Dalai Lama.  This event typically attracts some 500,000 Tibetan initiates and pilgrims from all over Asia who wish to participate in the elaborate rituals over the course of ten days and ten nights.  On this occasion, in January 2002, the chosen place for the Kalachakra ceremonies is very special – Bodh Gaya in Bihar, India.  It was here some 2,500 years ago that Siddhartha Gautama spent seven weeks meditating under the Bodhi Tree (a sacred fig tree there) and reached enlightenment, thereby achieving the status of the Buddha.  Bodh Gaya is also the site of the associated Mahabodhi Temple.

The film begins with some physical shots of the Bodh Gaya area, and then it shows the many pilgrims arriving for the Kalachakra events.  Some of these pilgrims are so devout that they make their jouney to the Kalachakra event entirely on foot, and after every step or so they fully prostrate themselves in obeisance.  Herzog shows some of them reverentially following this practice over all sorts rough terrain, and the whole journey to their holy destination can take many months, even years.  These pilgrims are mostly poor people, but some of them at least bring pup tents in which they can sleep in the temple yards overnight.  The rest of them must just sleep outside in the open.  

The principal activities of the Kalachakra activities fall into three main categories:
  • Buddhist teachings and prayers conducted by lamas and monks,
  • The construction and display of the great Kalachakra Mandala, an elaborate symbolic design made out of colored sand that is an important artefact of Tibetan Buddhism [6,7], 
  • The closing initiation ceremonies for the aspirant Tibetan Buddhist monks.
Of these activities, a considerable amount of Wheel of Time screen time is devoted to showing the detailed construction of the Kalachakra Mandala.  This is made of loose, colored sand, the tiny individual granules of which must be so carefully placed  that they collectively form an incredibly intricate design.  This takes a number of sand artists manydays to complete. Once completed, the Kalachakra Mandala is seven feet in diameter and displays visual references to 722 deities.  Since the mandala is made only of loose sand, it must be protected from the approach of onlookers and even casual breezes which could disturb it, so it is walled off by a glass partitioning surrounding it.  

But after the mandala’s construction and display to the monks and pilgrims at the end of the usual Kalachakra ceremonies, all the sand of the entire mandala is collected and ritualistically thrown into the river, thereby symbolizing the utter ephemerality of existence.  
Just before the halfway point in the film, Herzog takes time out to go off on his own with his own camera and visit another sacred Buddhist site, Mount Kailash in western Tibet.  Thousands of pilgrims come to this 22,000 foot mountain at a specific time every year  (Herzog came in May 2002) to carry out a high-altitude circumnavigation of the peak, which they believe will bring them holy salvation.  The 52 km trek around the peak that the pilgrims take is at an altitude of 18,000 feet, and sadly every year, some pilgrims who are not appropriately acclimatized to these heights die from exhaustion.

At other points in the film we see brief clips of the Dalai Lama speaking in closeup on a few topics.  He is always relaxed and reasonable, and one his more interesting remarks was his comment that all religions carry the same message.  It would be good if more people felt that way.  The Dalai Lama is, of course, the star personage of the Kalachakra Initiation ceremonies, but unfortunately his health at this time was not good, and he was unable to carry out his required, full participation in the ceremonies.  This was naturally very disappointing to the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who had come to Bodh Gaya, as well as to the Dalai Lama, himself.  But he promised to all the practitioners that he would come back there to see them all the following year.

The scene now shifts to another ten-day Kalachakra Initiation ceremony that was held later that year – in October 2002 in Graz, Austria.  This time the attendees are mostly European Buddhists, and the number of participants are in the thousands, rather than the hundreds of thousands.  And  now the Dalai Lama is healthy and fully participating.  Also present is famed Buddhist monk and communicator Matthieu Ricard, who often serves as the Dalai Lama’s translator.

One of the highlights of this section of the film is the showing and description of a Tibetan Buddhist monk and pilgrim, Takna Jingme Sangpo, who, partly thanks to international protests, had recently been released from prison in Tibet after being held there under cruel conditions by the Chinese overlords for 37 years.  Sangpo’s only crimes were apparently his public expression on a few occasions that he supported a “Free Tibet”.  Despite his extreme hardships, Sangpo, is now overjoyed that he now, finally has the opportunity to see the Dalai Lama in the flesh for the first time.

At this Kalachakra Initiation event in Graz, another elaborate Kalachakra Mandala is duly constructed out of colored sand and displayed.  And at the end of these ceremonies, a healthy Dalai Lama performs the ritual act of dispersing the collected mandala sand into the Mur river there.  

Overall, Herzog’s Wheel of Time does provide a lot of information about the Kalachakra ceremonies.  But what lingers most in my mind after watching it is something else that he has captured on film.  And that is the extraordinary religious fervor that you can see silently expressed on all the faces of the vast crowds of pilgrims shown.  These dedicated practitioners are not boisterous; they are not broadcasting. Instead, they are wholly devoted to their spiritual path of seeking total purity and enlightenment.  Herzog does not articulate or discuss this issue.  He directly shows it on a thousand faces.

  1. Walter Addiego, 'Wheel of Time', Film Clips, SFGATE, (22 July 2005).  
  2. Dennis Schwartz, “Wheel of Time”, Dennis Schwartz Movie Reviews, (n.d.).   
  3. Ed Howard, “11/8: Wheel of Time; The Flowers of St. Francis”, Only The Cinema, (8 November 2007).   
  4. Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, “Wheel of Time”, Spirituality & Practice, (2005).   
  5. Stephen Holden, “With Herzog, Inside a World of Devotion”, The New York Times, (15 June 2005).      
  6. “Mandala”, Wikipedia, (15 June 2021).   
  7. “Sand mandala”, Wikipedia, (29 April 2021).   

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