When the Iron Bird Flies

Directed by Victress Hitchcock
Produced by Victress Hitchcock and Amber Bemak
Released October 2012
96 minutes
Download, Alive Mind Cinema, $19.95

When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, following the unsuccessful Lhasa uprising, the Tibetan diaspora began in earnest. In her new documentary, When the Iron Bird Flies, longtime Buddhist practitioner Victress Hitchcock traces perhaps the most unexpected outcome of this tragedy, the arrival of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. “Everything has two sides,” the Tibetan teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche deadpans in an early scene. “Unfortunate side is we lost country. Fortunate side is dharma went all over the world.”

When the Iron Bird Flies paints a compelling portrait of modern Tibetan Buddhism outside Tibet. We watch crimson-clad monks and nuns using cell phones and riding in golf carts, and countless Western converts—some in robes, some in jeans—studying and practicing the dharma in homes, temples, schools, and prisons from India to Britain to America to Mexico.

Several heart-lifting stories unfold gradually over the course of the film. Younger audiences may be particularly taken with Bridget Bailey, a 20-something New Yorker who leaves behind office work and casual partying to begin a traditional five-month solitary retreat. Her refreshingly conventional life prior to taking this plunge will make this narrative especially accessible to nonpractitioners. We see her enjoying a final night on the town with friends, shaving her head with a smiling band of Tibetan nuns, practicing in solitude in a remote Colorado hermitage, and finally reuniting tearfully with her parents. “What you give up is absolutely no comparison to what you gain,” she announces after reemerging. “Even though my hair was pretty.”

An important point underscored throughout the film is that contact with the West has changed the Tibetan tradition. Reflecting in the film on the evolution of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, Bhutanese teacher Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche asks, “How much is culture and how much is dharma?” The dharma has always evolved as it has moved from country to country. One experienced practitioner who appears in the film likens its spread to the West to the transmission of Buddhism from India to Tibet between the 7th and 10th centuries, which resulted in this new vehicle we now call Tibetan Buddhism.

Many in the film argue passionately that feminism is a crucial area of wisdom that the West can share with the Tibetan Buddhist mainstream, so it is no surprise that women feature prominently, both as teachers and students. “Male chauvinism is one of the oldest habitual patterns in the world,” observes Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. Geshe Kelsang Damdul, Assistant Director of the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics in India, has clearly been fully converted already, proclaiming, “Until and unless we give equal opportunity, in terms of education, in terms of anything, for women, we are not going to achieve very much.”

In this context, the film presents the remarkable story of Kelsang Wangmo, a Western nun pursuing the coveted geshe degree at that same institute. “In my class,” she explains, “I was the only woman” and it was “very, very lonely.” At the time of the film, she had studied 16 years in this male-dominated enclave. “The first 10 years I really struggled,” she admits, and we certainly believe her. No woman before Kelsang Wangmo had ever received the geshe degree in the recorded history of Tibetan Buddhist learning. That the first should be this young, energetic native of Germany feels both entirely fitting and deeply touching.

Hitchcock has uncovered some rarely seen archival footage of the Dalai Lama as a young man, first arriving in New Delhi by train, and of Westerners who traveled to Dharamsala in the 1960s and 1970s, often overland by bus from Europe, a journey that would be unimaginable today. We also glimpse Chögyam Trungpa’s arrival in England in 1963 and his travels in America in 1970. Poet Allen Ginsberg, a student of Trungpa Rinpoche’s, appears in several black-and-white shots.) Although Hitchcock doesn’t dwell on this historical material, it provides a helpful backdrop to her primary focus on the contemporary scene.

Hitchcock interviews several well-known Western practitioners, including the movie star Richard Gere, but she also gives ample screen time to many “ordinary” students, young and old. We watch them meditate on, study, and even rap the dharma, and hear firsthand how it has touched their lives. Among the most appealing of these everyday characters is Wendell Garnett, who went from living on the streets as an American teenager to studying at the College for Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarah, India. Garnett strolls through Dharamsala in his dreadlocks and hoodie, appearing completely at ease as in near-fluent Tibetan he engages in vigorous traditional debate with the local monks.

The Nepali-born teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche, whose Pundarika Foundation helped produce the film, appears several times. Near the midpoint, he quotes Shakyamuni Buddha on the essential buddhadharma:

My dreamlike form
Appeared to dreamlike beings
To show them the dreamlike path
That leads to dreamlike enlightenment.

There is something dreamlike about the film, flowing across so many continents and cultures, portraying contemporary Tibetan Buddhism in so many forms. The film’s title comes from the seemingly miraculous prophecy popularly attributed to the 8th-century Tibetan guru Padmasambhava: “When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the earth.” Hitchcock’s film is an inspiring testament to just how far these wondrous “ants” have traveled and how much they have carried with them.

“Maybe we were just too comfortable up there in the mountains in the land of snows, doing our own little thing,” the Tibetan nun Jetsün Khandro Rinpoche wonders at one point. It feels callous to be grateful to the Chinese Government for invading Tibet and inadvertently spawning this great migration of Buddhist wisdom. And yet When the Iron Bird Flies makes a persuasive case that immeasurable good has come from all that suffering. By the end, Victress Hitchcock has us convinced that everything indeed has two sides.