Bhutanese lama Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche is a natural-born filmmaker. Self-educated in London cinemas, he served as an advisor to Bernardo Bertolucci during the making of Little Buddha (1993), then wrote and directed several shorts before making his first feature film, The Cup in 1999, a dramatic comedy about a group of young Bhutanese monks attempting to hook up a satellite dish so that they can watch World Cup soccer. The Cup was awarded the People’s Choice runner-up prize at the Toronto Film Festival and won a One Future Award in Munich.
Born in 1961, Khyentse Norbu is formally known as H.E. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, following his recognition at the age of seven as the incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820—1892), one of the greatest Tibetan lamas of the last century. He currently supervises his traditional seat, Dzongar Monastery, and retreat centers in Eastern Tibet, as well as new colleges in India and Bhutan. He has also established centers in Australia, North America, and Asia.
I spoke with Khyentse Norbu in January, shortly before a New York showing of his latest feature, Travellers and Magicians (2003), a contemporary Bhutanese road picture with a second, more ancient fable embedded within it.
It surprises a lot of people that a Buddhist lama is making films. People are puzzled both in the East and in the West about me, a Buddhist, making films. In the West the question is always, “Why is a Buddhist making films?” In the West, religion always has to do with morality and ethics. That’s the backbone of Western religion: you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Buddhism does not emphasize morality and ethics. Buddhism emphasizes wisdom. For me, Buddhism is a science. I can be a scientist. I can make films. I see no contradiction.
Perhaps what’s puzzling to people is that you’re making films that aren’t expressly “Buddhist” films. You once said that you do not even claim your films are “spiritual.” Maybe Travellers and Magicians is more spiritual than The Cup.
But why are you hesitant to claim that these films are spiritual? I’m just saying that I don’t want to claim that I am doing any service for the dharma community at the moment. I might in the future, but very unlikely.
You once said you wanted to make a film about the Buddha. First I have to meet a really stupid, rich, crazy person who would throw me $150 million, because I don’t want to have Brad Pitt as the Buddha—which means, who would buy the picture?
Bertolucci cast Keanu Reeves as the Buddha! Exactly! And it didn’t work! For me, I don’t think casting a star would work. It’s about how authentic you want to be. For instance, the filmThe Last Samurai works as an entertainment. I think it’s wonderful. But for someone who really wants to be authentic, it doesn’t work. Because in our very limited knowledge of Samurai, there were no “fluffy hair” Samurai! But if you let Tom Cruise shave his head, fifty percent of the audience will be gone! So Hollywood always tends to break these kinds of historical rules. If I make a life of the Buddha, maybe I will do a sort of surrealistic claim at the beginning— make my face appear on screen and say, “This is my own interpretation” Which would be really, really tough.
I read somewhere that you have Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers in your video library. Yes. That for me is the most powerful romantic film.
I found the violence of that film so over the top that I couldn’t begin to take it in. I guess we need this kind of exaggeration. For instance, Robert De Niro’s The Deer Hunter. That film made me not eat for a few days, because I can plainly see that I have the complete potential to be like his friend, Christopher Walken.
Who becomes an opium addict because of the horrible trauma he suffered in Vietnam. Yes. As strong as I look or appear to be, I can get into that Russian roulette game, yes.
You mean if something so black or demonic happened to you? No. I can always start today, even though my life is complete and perfect—begin with the small thrill of shooting myself, and then slowly get into that. I think everybody has that potential. Those types of messages are really important. Films can deliver them.
Do you think it’s possible to speak of a style of filmmaking that combats and tricks the tenacity of ego and helps our minds to stop clinging? Do you think it’s possible that there could be Buddhist filmmaking? I haven’t mastered it yet. I guess so. Also, it depends—for that, the audience is equally responsible for how they watch it.
Yes. There can be a single moment in a great film, or even on a TV sitcom, where something simply… Clicks. And lets people think.
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