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Film Review

By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

 

Vajra Sky Over Tibet
Directed by John Bush
Direct Pictures 08/06 DVD/VHS Documentary
Not Rated

This is one of a trilogy of visually stunning films providing a "Journey into Buddhism" by writer and director John Bush called the Yatra Series. Yatra is the Sanskrit word for a sacred journey, and these films open our hearts and minds to the large role of sacred sites for Buddhists.

Imagine a society where the enlightenment of the individual and the cultivation of compassion are the most important things in life. For more than 1500 years, while the rest of the world pursued progress through modernization and industrialization, Tibetan culture remained dedicated to those core Buddhist teachings. Then in 1949 China invaded the country, and Mao's armies began a wholesale campaign of genocide and "culturecide." His Holiness The Dalai Lama, the political and religious head of the country, along with thousands of other Tibetans, was forced to flee to asylum in India.

John Bush's enthralling and heartfelt documentary Vajra Sky Over Tibet explores the beauty and the vulnerability of the Buddhist tradition in Tibet today and its importance to the Western world. This is the third pilgrimage film by the director and cinematographer, after Dharma River about the Buddhist temples and mystical sites of Laos, Thailand, and Burma, and Prajna Earth about Buddhist and Hindu sites in Cambodia, Bali, and Java.

Vajra is a Sanskrit term meaning the thunderbolt of awakening, and Tibetan Buddhism is known as the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. Bush traveled to Tibet with a two-person crew and a Tibetan guide and driver. They went as pilgrims and didn't ask permission of the Chinese authorities to film. The result is an extraordinary pilgrimage through the occupied country to the sacred sites still visited by Tibetans. The stunning images, filmed only in natural light, convey the richness and the depth of the Tibetan landscape, its art, architecture, and cultural variety. Bush conducted no interviews with Tibetans since they might have suffered reprisals for speaking out. Instead, the voice-over narration is by Tenzin L. Choegyal, an exile and the nephew of the Dalai Lama; the acclaimed Tibetan singer Dadon; and the director himself.

During the period immediately after the Chinese invasion Tibetans were not allowed to practice Buddhism, and many of the monasteries and temples were destroyed. We learn of one being used as a slaughterhouse and another as a grainery (the grain protected priceless frescoes on the walls). In recent years, the restraints on religious practice have been lifted a little, but there are still limitations — photographs of the Dalai Lama are illegal — and the Chinese authorities have taken over administration of some of the teaching schools. Because all the dharma teachers were either killed or forced into exile, the Tibetan people do not have access to the teachings that are now readily available in the West. Bush lays out an elaborate scheme set in motion by the Chinese to install their own puppet Dalai Lama after the present one dies. In one scene, a statue of the Buddha is for sale in a shop next to one of Mao.

Despite these challenges to religious practices, Tibetans still manage to go on pilgrimages to the legendary sites of their tradition. The film captures the ardor and devotion of the pilgrims whether they are circumambulating a temple, doing prostrations, or walking through the dimly lighted halls of the 1500 year-old Jokhand Temple in Lhasa. The flickering butterlamp offerings shine like beacons in the dark. Bush integrates bits of information about Tibetan Buddhism in visits to a monastery for boys, a nunnery, and the empty palaces of the Dalai Lama, who is considered by Tibetans to be their own living Buddha. The narrators also comment on the importance of pilgrimages, prayer wheels, meditation, mandalas, visualizations, the emotions, and the practices of working with darkness and negativity. Inside the temples we are treated to frescoes, large Buddha sculptures, and elaborate tapestries.

Vajra Sky Over Tibet offers a sensuous appreciation of the Tibetan landscape and art, a deep respect for this colorful culture, and a wake-up call for the West to be aware of the manifold ways in which the survival of this profound tradition is in jeopardy. We commend John Bush for taking us on this important journey. We also appreciate the meditative qualities of the film, which are enhanced by the soundtrack, a synthesis of universal Harmonic Chant with David Hykes, original devotional compositions by Dadon, monastic overtone chants, and contributions by other singers and musicians.

Vajra Sky Over Tibet ends with an incredible sequence filmed at the thangka festival where Tibetan pilgrims intermixed with Chinese seekers climb to see a giant scroll of the Buddha covering a mountainside. Prayer flags, paper scrolls of prayers, and white scarves invested with prayers are tossed onto the Buddha. Gravity and the wind create a cascade of devotion down the mountain. There's a freedom in the moment that we wish could be extended to all of Tibet.

 

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Reviews and database copyright 1970 2012
by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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