This film, fortunately, doesn’t deliver what it promises. Here’s the hype:
Since the invasion of Tibet over 50 years ago, China has systematically destroyed Tibetan culture. One of the most profound losses is the tradition of the great master yogis. The entire system which supported these fascinating mind masters has been inexorably eliminated.
In order to record these mystical practitioners for posterity, the film makers were given permission to film heretofore secret demonstrations and to conduct interviews of subject matter rarely discussed.
This profound historical, spiritual and educational film will someday be the last remnant of these amazing practitioners.
And so a really dangerous promise ends with a ludicrous claim the film itself undermines.
Let’s begin with the hype: Step right up and buy your ticket (or your DVD) now! Mystical secrets, preserved here for all time, about to be divulged!
In the course of the film several highly accomplished practitioners, some young, some close to ancient, are indeed interviewed in poster-perfect settings. Positioned against a lavishly decorated Tibetan altar or a skyline offering a glimpse of the snowy Himalaya, the yogis face the cinematographer. We moviegoers see their wine-red and saffron robes, their coppery Tibetan skin, their knowing twinkly eyes. Some have the ordinary haircuts of engineering students, but others wear the classic wispy beard or dreadlocks coiled godlike about their heads–oh yes!
Questions are put to the yogis, who seem graciously disposed to answer.
The auditorium gets very still. This is Santa Fe, where people crave access to spiritual secrets, if only the yogis will share.
And yet, how can they? Share, I mean.
Had these yogis spilt the beans, in a documentary meant to be shown to anyone anytime anywhere in the world, they would have outdone the Maoists in damaging the tradition. They would have destroyed it.
The development of the mind, in all Buddhist traditions, depends on strictly empirical explorations of ever-changing phenomena under the protection of a guide who fosters progress without quite telling the aspirant what to look for. This is why the oral tradition is so important. Anyone can read a book, but adepts teach only those judged to be ready. Why must it work this way? Simple. If you know in advance what you should be looking for and you want very much to achieve it, you may imagine it. You may even fake it. Either way, you lose time, at best. Delusion and deception do not lead to enlightenment.
The yogis in the film may or may not have reached a state of final liberation, but they are very clever! Ever so gently, they respond, while giving nothing away.
What’s more, only two elements of actual practice occur in the film, some rudimentary breathing instruction (which I know from experience is a lot harder than it looks) and an astonishing demonstration of physical agility–let’s call it a bit of Tibetan yoga, pop up calisthenics for the pillow bound.
We see a young monk propelling himself straight up from the lotus position, topping out at a couple of feet or even a meter from the cushion, appearing to pause for a nano second, as if resting on air, then plopping back down, legs now crossed in the opposite direction. It looks quite miraculous, that airborne pause. Could it be the origin of the stories about flying yogis?
Who knows? But all objects thrown up appear to pause before coming down. Toss a tennis ball skyward. Same effect.
So think of Olympic acrobats. Think of the laws of physics and terrific physical conditioning.
Then think of magicians shifting the pea under walnut shells. The magic, of course, lies in the mastery of distraction.
It wasn’t until I got home that I realized how very little, really, had been revealed of the yogic tradition within the Drikung Kagyu sect, whose monastery in Dehra Dun north of Delhi in the Himalayan foothills is the setting of many of the interviews, including one with H.E. Chetsang Rinpoche, who currently heads this branch of Tibetan Buddhism. In short, if you really want to learn what these wily adepts know, I mean really really, this film won’t help you. You’ll have to spend three years of solitary practice with a very good teacher—and then some. Maybe not in Tibet these days. In Ladakh, India, perhaps. Or Dehra Dun. Or even in the U.S. or Chile, where Drikung Kagyu centers have been established by expatriate lamas and monks and their non-Tibetan initiates. There’s one which I personally know, outside of Washington, DC in Frederick, Maryland. American-born practitioners trained in Frederick are already undertaking the three year retreat.
You see, the practice really isn’t dying out.
When the Chinese moved into Tibet and set about destroying Tibetan traditions, the law of unintended consequences intervened. The Maoists smashed monasteries. They killed and tortured monks. They also created a remarkable diaspora. Many monks, lamas and meditation adepts escaped from Tibet, along with a vast number of lay people. Many important books and manuscripts were also spirited out of the country. Now there are centers for the study and practice of every aspect of Tibetan Buddhism all over the world. The manuscripts have been computerized for mass distribution in Tibetan and they have also been translated into English and many other languages. Western universities offer courses in Tibetan language, culture and religion, and Buddhist universities are springing up in the West, too. Lamas themselves have responded to the challenge of working in new cultures by writing their own books in their new found languages, or they work with the help of translators dedicated to the task. The results are astounding. Take a look at the catalog for Snow Lion Publications.
And finally, meditation masters are passing on what isn’t in books.
None of this is surprising. Buddhism’s history is a story of fruitful transfer from one culture to another, an enriching, not a debilitating process. Already Buddhism is already having an extraordinary impact on Western culture, which is adding its own flavor to the mix.
Traditionally the images of the great meditation masters like Padmasambhava or Milarepa or Marpa were preserved as thankas or Tibetan paintings. Today’s meditation masters will have their images preserved on film or disk. For that we can be grateful to films like The Yogis of Tibet. But the teachings are not and cannot reside in such films. They are in the hearts and minds and bodies of the yogis and their disciples—and of all those many lesser practitioners who know that such deep things can’t be learned from sound and sight bites.