Documentary filmmaker Yuqi Kang remembers the first time she visited Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.
“I imagined standing under the actual tree that the Buddha was born under, and I closed my eyes,” recalled Kang of her visit to the sacred garden in what is now Nepal. “I envisioned a golden ray of warmth, and it started to touch me. It felt like a compassionate and motherly love was rising inside of me.”
Those maternal feelings would be put to good use as Kang, who grew up in Inner Mongolia, China, and now lives in New York City, started to work on her film, A Little Wisdom, a documentary about the young boys who come from all over South and Southeast Asia to study at a small monastery in Lumbini. After debuting at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea last October, the film will make its U.S. debut at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin this March. This is Kang’s first longform documentary.
Many of the children featured in A Little Wisdom are very young and come from poor families that struggled to support them. Viewers experience monastery life through the eyes of Hopakuli, a five-year-old boy who navigates the ordinary trials and tribulations of childhood. Kang does not disclose the name of the monastery in order to protect the children who live there.
“In the case of my monastery, I saw a group of children who are enjoying very simple things: climbing trees, exchanging scary ghost stories, fantasizing about becoming superheroes, and sometimes fighting with each other,” Kang recalled. “At the end of the day when little Hopakuli held onto my hand, I could only see a 5-year-old child who was looking for affection and love.”
Many families like Hopakuli’s saw sending their sons to the monastery as a continuation of the tradition of sending the youngest son to take holy orders. “One of the characters in my film told me that the quality of life was so much better at the monastery as opposed to his home,” Kang noted. “This is a very common situation.”
But, as Kang found as she got to know the monks better over the course of her time with them in 2014, post-monastery life was often difficult and uncertain for those who decided not to take lifelong vows at the age of 18. The young men who spent nearly their entire childhoods living in a holy environment often struggled with what to do next. While some former novices enrolled in high school, “some of the older ones now have found menial jobs in the city or back in their villages,” she said.
While many critics and child advocates say monasteries should be doing more to prepare novice monks who do not end up taking vows for life beyond their walls, Kang stressed the problem was more complicated than that.
“The difficulty these children face as adults cannot be all attributed to the monastic structure,” she said, adding that Nepal remains one of the poorest countries in the world. “These challenges have to be looked at in context to the economic situation the whole country is facing, especially now, after the 2015 earthquake.”
In addition to building strong relationships with the young novices that allowed her to get a glimpse into their lives, making A Little Wisdom was also personally enriching for Kang. Watching the day-to-day activities of her subjects deepened her appreciation and understanding of Buddhism, she said. Kang shared that while she had always been interested in religion and culture, most of her knowledge of Buddhist traditions prior to traveling to Lumbini came from popular culture and films.
“My early expectations about religious life and Buddhist monks were based on romanticized representations and my imagination,” Kang said. “Having the experience of becoming friends with the monks made me see the human side. They are not just happy-go-lucky and carefree figures in colorful robes.”