An Uncommon Lama
by Noa Jones

Druk Air flight KB 121 from Bangkok landed at Bhutan's airport last fall with some very precious cargo. In addition to 578 solid gold biscuits hidden in the shoes of several international smugglers seated in back, a number of professional filmmakers were on board, ready to make Travellers & Magicians, a Bhutanese road movie directed by the only known reincarnate lama-cum-auteur, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. The crew was greeted at the airport and taken to a nearby guest house while the Royal Bhutan Police swooped in and arrested the smugglers.
The incident would seem a mere coincidence-a bit of color-had the investigation not put Paro's airport customs office at a standstill. Travellers & Magicians' production company, Prayer Flag Pictures, was expecting shipments containing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of filmmaking equipment, and only a fraction of the boxes had arrived.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche had asked Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche-who acted as the menacing Gekko in Rinpoche's first film, The Cup, to do several mos, or divinations, during pre-production. One of these mos had established September 29 as the most auspicious date for cameras to begin rolling. Another predicted that the film would face one major obstacle.
But which of the many obstacles arising was "the one"? Only a few days before the crew arrived in Paro, the key grip and unit manager were racing around old Delhi in a rickshaw on a critical search for fog machines, fans, dimmers, skimmers, sun guns, dollies and all the necessary lighting equipment after the deal with a Calcutta company had fallen through at the last minute. The hired equipment was now making a thousand mile drive from Delhi to Phuntsholing through the perils of Bihar State, famous for bandits and bad roads. And as if that weren't enough, on the day the last flight carrying Prayer Flag Picture crew members landed in Paro, the rain began.
It was an insistent storm. The director of photography, Alan Kozlowski, and the film's two producers, Mal Watson and Raymond Steiner, came back from a scouting mission looking sodden, shocked and worried. All the props were missing. The camp wasn't ready. It didn't match pre-production maps. So the impending move from Paro up to base camp was stalled, and the crew was left to acclimate to the altitude while Watson and Steiner huddled with first assistant director Dean Steiner to assess the ramifications of the delays. All three had worked together on The Cup, a film with "half the budget and a quarter the obstacles," Watson said later. When the huddle broke, call sheets were scrapped. Moods were tense. Over dinner, someone gloomily pointed out that it was an El Niño year. It was easy to imagine that this film would never get made.
And where was the mastermind of all this chaos? Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, a.k.a. Khyentse Norbu, vajra master and veteran of the international-film-festival circuit, was overseeing a puja (ceremony) conducted by yogis at his retreat home in Paro.
While the monks' hypnotic drumming and chanting poured from the shrine room, Rinpoche tweaked his script and coached the talent. Sitting in his video library amongst his favorite films-Natural Born Killers, Kurosawa classics, Iranian new wave-Rinpoche insisted he was not breaking conventions of his centuries-old lineage. His reputation for outrageousness and irreverence, he says, is exaggerated. "I am not unconventional at all. In fact my biggest worry is that I am too conventional," he said. "Between ethics, morality and wisdom, Buddhism has always put more emphasis on wisdom. Wisdom surpasses behavior. Some of the more conservative generations might raise their eyebrows at what I do and what I say. But what they have forgotten is that their so-called 'right thing to do' and their revered traditions were once upon a time very modern and progressive. I could dye my hair pink and wear high heel shoes, but that's not being unconventional at all. That's just a sign of frustration."
Rinpoche had invited the principal cast members, all Bhutanese, all first-time actors, for a rehearsal weekend at his home. The house is within walking distance of Paro Taksang, where Padmasambhava manifested his wrathful form, Dorje Trollö, and where ten centuries later Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote his famous liturgy, The Sadhana of Mahamudra. Designed by producer Mal Watson (who's also Rinpoche's architect), the Japanese-influenced oasis is a departure from traditional Bhutanese homes. A sign warns passers-by not to enter its boundaries out of respect for a half-dozen three-year retreatants who live on the land. Few people are allowed within these gates.
"That day we entered the sacrosanct premises, I felt I had entered a Zen garden," recalls Tshewang Dendup, the film's key protagonist. "We sat on straw mats, the monks served us tea, there was a gentle dog under the pine trees. Rinpoche sat amongst us, talking about film as an art, the 'fourth wall,' French directors and Japanese art films. I knew then that this experience was indeed going to be a mix of the modern and traditional."
This get-together was necessary not only to make sure the actors knew their lines, but to dissolve the uneasiness most Bhutanese feel in the presence of such a high lama. Though Deki Yangzom, the beautiful temptress of the film, describes her religious conviction as being "halfway between hard-core and someone who doesn't even believe," she felt overwhelmed that first weekend. "I was raised in a religious household, and Rinpoche's portrait was always on the shrine," she says. "Being Bhutanese and Buddhist, you grow up with his name. The very thought that he will be so close, that he will have to deal with you, was too much. But Rinpoche made us feel at ease."
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche conceived Travellers & Magicians as two intertwined stories, a modern-day road-movie and a timeless, magical tale. The dialogue is delivered entirely in Dzongkha, Bhutan's official national language. The film sets out to illustrate that high drama, obscurations and suffering exist even in one of the planet's last Shangri-las, the only remaining Vajrayana kingdom. Intersecting themes and two parallel characters-Dondup, played by Tehewang Dendup, and Tashi, played by Lhakpa Dorji-are woven together with the help of a story-telling monk. Both protagonists are on journeys-one sends himself, the other is sent unwillingly. It is essentially a "grass is always greener" tale, says Rinpoche. He began developing the script during the shooting of The Cup, but rewrites continued for three years-in retreat, on trains, at cafes, between teachings, even undercover as he sat on a throne in the midst of a puja.
Making a film in a land that has never seen a production of such proportion in all its history generated a storm of activity that shook the country from top to bottom. The current ran from the Royal palace to the sleepiest of villages. But the storm needed a calm eye, and that was Rinpoche in Paro. When asked if he was worried four days before Orgyen Tobgyal's start date with no film, no cameras, no props, no sign of an end to the rain, the director answered, "I'm a little concerned about the last line."
The last line? But what about the rain? What about the shipments stuck in Bangkok? He glanced out the drizzle as if noticing for the first time. "The rain? Oh, I'm not at all worried about that," he said brightly. For a moment all the obstacles seemed to evaporate. Maybe it would be all right after all. How could you doubt one of Buddhism's most venerated lamas?
Even if he had never been recognized as an incarnation of the great Tibetan Buddhist master Jamyang Khyentse Chöki Lodrö (1894-1959), Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche would still hold a place in one of Bhutan's most noble families as the son of contemporary Buddhist master Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, and grandson of both tantric yogi Lama Sonam Zangpo and H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche. He has also been recognized as a promising filmmaker after his success with The Cup and also his experience as Bernardo Bertolucci's advisor on the Little Buddha. The Independant named Rinpoche "Most Inscrutable Filmmaker" at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival.
It took such credentials to dissolve the obstacles that have prevented others from making films in Bhutan. Since the shooting of Bhutan My Love, a propaganda film shot in 1983 by an Indian crew to encourage North/South relations, Travellers & Magicians is the first full-length feature made on film in the country. Filmmaking is not seen as a particularly praiseworthy occupation here. Bhutan's Film Review Board guards the country's reputation, reserving the right to axe any project they deem questionable. Tourist visas can be up to $250 per day, making it impossible to import talent. Film, sound and editing equipment is non-existent. Bhutanese filmmakers (there are 41 "briefcase" studios in the country which produce primarily Hindi-style soap operatic musicals) are relegated to using second-rate video equipment.
Rinpoche's personal relationships with members of the royal family, high-level public servants and well-connected devotees helped to remove some of these extraordinary barriers. His eminence gave him certain immunity, opened doors and cleared some uncharted territory. Everyone who helped seemed to find it an extreme honor to participate in his activities in any way, even if it was "just a film."
But all the favors in the world couldn't stop the rain, and with the rain, Rinpoche and his crew couldn't make a film. On September 26, a decision was made to shift everyone up to the soggy logging camp in Chelela, regardless of weather. Rinpoche was confident. Others were hesitantly hopeful. Prayer Flag Picture's crew and its convoy of 15 buses, cars, vans and jeeps made a pioneer voyage as a unit: the 86 Bhutanese, ten Indians and 16 Westerners finally converged as a team.
Chelela is not so much a town as a point of reference. There are no shops, no phones, no post office, not even a tea stand. Just monkeys, trees and rushing streams. One hour straight up from Paro, the weather was noticeably colder, the mountain seemed to trap dampness in the crook of its neck, the trees hoarded the sun for their leaves, leaving little for the humans struggling in the mud below. All 108 people were neatly packed into 33 cabins, rooms, tents, truck cabs and even in a lean-to off the kitchen.
Rinpoche's quarters were no more elaborate than the rest-in fact, his room was the smallest in camp. He requested the ornate curtains to be taken down, and he slept on a mattress on the floor like everyone else. He had to step over the beds of several monks to get outside. Neten Chokling Rinpoche was just on the other side of a thin plank wall.
In the mornings, Rinpoche bathed and brushed his teeth al fresco standing on the cold pebbles, steam rising from his soapy head. He took meals in the mess tent-a three-sided shed with fresh pine needles for carpet. Being the director gave him one special privilege-at dawn he shook the camp awake with selections from his iPod: Bob Dylan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ravi Shankar blasted from the little Bose speakers on his windowsill.
These public displays of normality helped level the playing field for those who didn't recognize him as the supreme guru (of the 16 foreigners on the crew, only seven were students of Rinpoche), while relaxing the Bhutanese who were unsure how to behave around him. They were timid at first. They covered their mouths when they spoke and kept their eyes averted. An audible gasp escaped the kitchen when one of the Westerners whacked Rinpoche on the arm in jest.
Rinpoche seemed to enjoy the casual atmosphere. "For the first time I had the opportunity to work with the ordinary Bhutanese people-sit together with them, eat with them, travel with them," he says. "I have experienced so many things that I have never had the opportunity to before in Bhutan. This has been very important to me."
The auspicious day for the start of filming arrived. The production's unit manager and all of the lighting equipment were stuck in Phuntsholing. But there was a camera and there was film. Rinpoche rose early and headed up to Chelela Pass with a small group. At more than two miles above sea level, it is one of the highest passes in Bhutan. Sandwiched between two thick cloud tables-one in the valley below, one overhead-nine monks struggled against the damp to light 13 fires for a puja along the ridge. Down to the last match, the wet wood finally succumbed to flame. Rinpoche emerged from the smoke and mist wearing his favorite crushable straw hat-white with a black band-and monks robes. He looked happy. "No matter what we do we still have some kind of superstition necessary," he said. "Whatdoyouthink?" The puja was to appease the local deities. "We are doing something that has never been done before," he said. "We need to make sure the spirits are O.K. with it."
He gracefully switched hats, joined the monks on the cushions and the puja began. Eventually the rest of the film crew began to arrive. For some, this was a first. Soon they were all joining in, carrying plates of torma offerings and dumping them in the fires, pouring whiskey on the flames and calling out like banshees to scare away the evil. The fog was still thick but for the first day in a week it was not raining. A rainbow appeared and tea was served from Chinese flasks.
A few hours later the crew-saddled with shiny black equipment, shrouded in hi-tech polar fleece, wired in walkie-talkies-stood silently watching the mountainside. Each wildflower stood out in the bright, indirect light. From around a giant boulder, Gomchen Penjor stomped into view, bare-chested, his straw hat at a tilt. As Agay, Penjor is steering the handsome hero, Tashi, away from his remote hut and sheltered wife. Tashi limped behind him, strikingly good-looking. They delivered their lines perfectly. "Cut!" called Rinpoche. The cheers echoed into the next valley. The film had begun. That very first shot is featured in the film's poster.
Pre-production chaos paled compared to the mayhem that ensued. The set was located ten minutes from camp, deep in the forest, down a railroad tie stairway, in a tiny house the size of a walnut. The crew swarmed in and out like ants. Monks and Hollywood professionals tangled together with wires, cables, planks. Traditional wooden phalluses used in ceremonies to ward off evil spirits lay about amongst plastic mugs, chili peppers, battery packs and bundles of bright, knotted, weaving thread.
For some of the professionals on the crew, Rinpoche's style was sometimes too casual. Pandemonium between takes often left people wondering who was in charge. He was too generous, they thought-welcoming suggestions, allowing people to experiment, open to advice. "But if you watched closely," said first assistant director Isaiah Seret, "you saw how skillfully he was in actually realizing his original view. Rinpoche was always in charge."
Peace came only when the camera was rolling. "Quiet on the set!" the AD yelled. "Kemachup," wheezed an asthmatic monk into his megaphone. The policemen at the ridge locked down the one-lane black top, the main artery between east and west Bhutan. Silence descended but for the trickling bamboo aqueduct. Magpies tiptoed in the treetops. "Speeding," called a crewmember with her boom all balanced. "And...action!" Rinpoche said into his headset.
Although there were cameras of all kinds on the set, it seemed to some impossible to truly capture the precious moments as they fled by. There was tea break after tea break, but never really a break long enough to snap out of the work and appreciate the uncommonness of the situation: standing there, in Bhutan, with Dzongsar Khentsye Rinpoche hovering above the branches in the rusty Indian crane. Watching Chokling Rinpoche gallop away on horseback. Catching first glimpses of the film played back on video, fresh from Bangkok, in a leaky bamboo hut. Late night trance parties by the fire. Monks with megaphones. Disasters beyond comprehension.
A month into the shoot, the Aaton XTR Prod camera crashed into a gravel road when its tripod collapsed. The filters were scratched, the housing cracked, the French flag and follow focus bent. The internal mechanical damage could not be determined. The crew slumped back to camp, freaked.
Rinpoche didn't flinch. Instead, he was jubilant. "If we weren't doing something great, we wouldn't have obstacles," he said. He called Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche, who confirmed that this was the complication he had predicted. The camera was fine, said O.T., but get it tested to appease the skeptics. A pilot for Druk Air agreed to hand-deliver a test roll to the lab in Bangkok, but a result would take days.
The crew was only just recovering from this shock when another, even more dramatic, accident took place in Chendebji village. This ancient Bön village is the setting for the opening scene of the film, the village Dondup is seeking to escape. Chendebji is stage to a perfectly preserved Bhutanese way of life. It is beyond bucolic. The entire population lives in a cluster of seven large houses, each with its own name and history. The crew embraced the village. The cook staff flirted with peasant girls. Hemp-fed pigs rolled in the bushes.
It was here that the second camera, an Aaton A-Minima, fell from the Flo Cam, an aerial dolly which had been suspended twenty feet above the ground between two houses. The massive roof beam at the far house snapped like a brittle chicken bone. The camera's hothead was smashed and the body was scratched. And while film could be fed through, suspicious grinding sounds had be investigated. The house from which the beam fell is called "the Black Roost" and is known to be haunted. Locals had no doubt that spirit intervention played a roll in the incident.
Then, three days before wrapping in Thimphu, Gomchen Penjor went AWOL. He was needed for an important scene. Visas were expiring, the crew needed to go home. Aside from arriving at the set wearing a long, black wig, Rinpoche appeared completely unfazed. He spontaneously wrote a new scene.
"Watching Rinpoche's reaction was the ultimate teaching," one of the actors said later.
Rinpoche quietly left Bhutan right after the wrap party in Thimphu. He spent the next several months in Australia splitting his time between overseeing a ngöndro retreat at his secluded Vajradhara Gompa and overseeing the post-production at editing studios in Sydney. Meanwhile, several of his former crew back in Bhutan began seriously practicing dharma. "I am more of a practicing Buddhist than a Buddhist in principle now," says one crewmember. Two others were inspired to make a pilgrimage to Dzongsar Institute in Himachal Pradesh, India.
But Rinpoche contends Travellers & Magicians was purely a creative venture. He's saving the Buddhist message for his film about the life of Buddha. "Teaching was never on my mind," he says, "as I was rather caught up with shots and camera angles. But if some people see it that way, then I have all the more reason to believe the Buddhist concept that Buddha's blessing comes from your own devotion."
Travellers & Magicians premiered on August 3rd, 2003, in Bhutan and is set to travel the film-festival circuit before popular release in 2004.
Noa Jones is a freelance writer for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.
From "An Uncommon Lama," by Noa Jones. Shambhala Sun, November 2003.