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If I'm Lucky They Call Me Unorthodox

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An interview with Vajra Master/filmmaker Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche about what it's like for a traditional Buddhist teacher to also live the life of a filmmaker.


Noa Jones: How is this film different than your last film, The Cup?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: In every aspect—scale, story, location. But I am afraid I have used the same technique. I still haven't achieved the courage to do something different.

Noa Jones: Some of your methods of teaching dharma are quite progressive ...

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: No, not at all. I am very traditional.

Noa Jones: Well, your outward behavior is interpreted as very modern.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: I may not be fulfilling some people’s expectations. If I am lucky they only go so far as to call me "unorthodox"; if I am unlucky they call me "wild and untamed."

Noa Jones: So some people are surprised that your method of filmmaking and your story telling are quite conventional.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Because I am not experienced yet, I dare not be too unconventional. I can't afford to make a film that will flop—otherwise people won’t give me money to make the next film. But at times it occurs to me to do something different.

Noa Jones: Like what?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Like showing action in real time, for instance. Ohi Imamura's film Warm Water Under Red Bridge comes to mind.

Noa Jones: Are there any filmmakers who you would like to study or work with?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Ridley Scott, John Boorman and Abbas Kirostani.

Noa Jones: If money were no object, what would be the dream project for you? 

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Life of the Buddha, actually, with a Cinemascope. I would like to work with a crew of only Buddhists who really put heart into it—not just their artistic talent, not just as work.

Noa Jones: Working on a film brings with it a pretty grueling schedule. Did you manage to keep up your own Buddhist practices?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Yes. It just meant I had one hour less sleep than the others.

Noa Jones: Sometimes on the road you'd be in the middle of calling a shot and a nomad would come to prostrate at your feet. How was that for you? Did you take any measures to conceal your Rinpoche-ness?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Since it was happening in Bhutan, it came as very natural. I am sure some of the non-Buddhist crew may have thought I was practicing tyranny, but I have to remember the Buddhist practice of not caring what people think.

Noa Jones: One of the non-Buddhist crewmembers said he thought you were pretty groovy, but that your followers seemed kind of nuts. He thought the reason they were following you was that they needed help. Care to comment?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: I would take it as a compliment. Because in Buddhism personalities like myself are considered like a doctor and followers are like patients.

Noa Jones: What’s the difference between teaching and directing?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: It all depends on the motivation. I could be teaching dharma purely for worldly gain. In that case I might as well ride in a limousine half-doped like some of the directors do.

Noa Jones: In the film, one of your characters has a series of experiences that may or may not be a dream—in fact his whole storyline may not be real. Do you think we are responsible for what we dream? Can we create karma in our sleep?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Of course. In fact this life is a big sleep.

Noa Jones: What does your father, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, say about your filmmaking habit?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: My father? I am sure he thinks it is a useless worldly pursuit, ego boosting, everything that's not right. And I honestly believe he is right.

Noa Jones: The title of the film is Travellers & Magicians. If you didn't have to worry about marketing or posters, what would you title this film?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: An Illusion During A Sip Of Wine. That is the Bhutanese title.  

Noa Jones: Who would you like to see come to the premiere?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Boy George. Or Michael Jackson. What do you think? I love Boy George.

Noa Jones: Why do you make films? 

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: I make films because I love films. 

Noa Jones: But don't you do it for the money too?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: First of all, I am not that keen on making money. I still consider myself a yet uncorrupted artist. Besides, if I want to make money, there are many other ways to do so. In fact, filmmaking is very risky, especially the films that I have been making, where you have no entertainment, no sex, no violence. If I really wanted to make money I would have chosen to make Hollywood—even Bollywood-style—films, avoiding the agony of not being accepted by festivals, not being liked by critics. Then it doesn't have to be artistic, because as long it's entertaining, you make money. Having said all that, in the future I might actually do commercial films because being artistic and commercially successful can be quite challenging. 

Noa Jones: Are you putting spiritual messages into your film? Is this a way of teaching dharma?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: People say, "You are a Buddhist lama, why do you make films?" This question is a bit puzzling. It indicates to me that from certain standpoints this work is viewed as almost sacrilegious—like I am breaking some kind of holy rule. At the same time, I understand. People automatically associate film with money, sex and violence because there are so many such films coming out of Hollywood and Bollywood. But if only they had access to films by the likes of Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Antonioni, people would understand that filmmaking doesn't have to be like that. In fact, it is a tool. Film is a medium, and Buddhism is a science. You can be a scientist and you can be a filmmaker, a salesperson and a politician at the same time.

Noa Jones: So is this proper behavior for a Rinpoche? 

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: I have often heard that some people feel I am Westernized, I guess partly because of my association with Westerners. But I totally disagree. I may be slightly modern, this is true. But when it comes to Buddhist teaching itself, I totally oppose people attempting to make Buddhism more adaptable to the West or to the modern world. It is not required: Buddhism has always been up to date. From the moment Buddha taught, the essence of the teachings hasn't changed, and it shouldn't change. Anyone who tries to modernize buddhadharma is making a grave mistake. 

It's important to make a distinction between the culture and Buddhism. As the wisdom of Buddha traveled to different countries over different ages, the culture and tradition of each particular time or place became intrinsic to the teaching. Culture is indispensable because without it, there is no medium to convey the teachings. Dharma is the tea and culture is the cup. For someone who wants to drink tea, tea is more important than the cup. The cup is also necessary but it is not the most essential. Hence, you can say that I am not attached to the cup. If necessary, I am ready to change the cup, and for that reason you can say that I have a modern mind.

Noa Jones: Will you ever direct a film set in the West with Western actors?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Yes, if I have the opportunity.

Noa Jones: Which of the Western actors do you like?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins.

Noa Jones: Which Western actresses do you admire?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Kate Winslet, because she has the most sexy hips.

If I'm Lucky They Call Me Unorthodox, Noa Jones, Shambhala Sun, November 2003. 

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