Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy

Shot between 1974 and 1978, first shown in 1979 and then re-edited in 2005 to reduce its four-hour running time to a more manageable 134 minutes, Graham Coleman's documentary about Tibetan Buddhists is neither a catalog of beliefs and practices nor a history of the brutal 20th-century persecution of Tibetan Buddhist monks by the Chinese. Coleman instead...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Shot between 1974 and 1978, first shown in 1979 and then re-edited in 2005 to reduce its four-hour running time to a more manageable 134 minutes, Graham Coleman's documentary about Tibetan Buddhists is neither a catalog of beliefs and practices nor a history of the brutal 20th-century persecution of Tibetan Buddhist monks by the Chinese. Coleman instead lets the Buddhist way of life speak for itself through images, grouped into three sections: "The Dalai Lama, the Monasteries and the People," "Radiating the Fruit of Truth" and "The Fields of the Senses." The middle and longest section chronicles the elaborate and attenuated preparation for and celebration of a sacred ritual known as "A Beautiful Ornament." The mesmerizing rite, which invokes the feminine deity Tara, the Bodhisattva (enlightened being) of Compassion, is designed to transform potentially damaging energies into positive ones. Red-and-orange-clad monks, young and old, work together to mold, sew, paint and weave vividly colored ritual objects that are burned after the ceremony is completed, reduced to dust that scatters to the wind. It's an astonishing encapsulation of a belief system that values the spiritual over the material without denying that the potent beauty of objects can help focus the mind on divinity. The film's opening segment examines the education of Buddhist monks and nuns, who study both spiritual doctrine and such traditionally secular disciplines as psychology, logic, art and philosophy, with an eye to molding minds immersed in both worlds. Much of their study is done through impassioned debate that forces individuals to scrutinize their understanding of the Buddha's teaching in minute detail and defend their interpretations rigorously. Coleman also films the Dalai Lama in his Indian exile, meeting with seekers and dispensing blessings. The third and final segment establishes the notion of spiritual dignity through everyday work and concludes with a ritual designed to guide a dead man's newly loosed spirit through the transition between bodies. Coleman keeps voice-over narration to a minimum — though what he uses is clear and to the point — and gives equal time to mundane activities, like sewing and farming, and those that seem exotic to the modern Western eye. It's an impressionistic experience rather than a linear one, and the process of surrendering to the images and rhythms of lives lived in simultaneous harmony with the physical and the spiritual is greatly helped by the chants that dominate much of the soundtrack, especially in the hypnotic "Radiating the Fruit of Truth."

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