by Gary Gach
American Reporter Correspondent
San Francisco, Calif.
September 26, 2007
MILAREPA: MAGICIAN. MURDERER. SAINT.
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- If aliens from outer space visit us, I'm sure they'd be struck by our penchant for revenge. Just look at newspapers, where the motto is "If it bleeds, it leads." They'd find more horror there than any single mind can comprehend.
If we try to escape it all by going to a movie theater, we bump into more of the same, such as Jody Foster's "The Brave One" and Kevin Bacon's "Death Sentence."
No, I doubt Earthlings would be recommended soon for entry into the League of Intergalactic Beings, as we seem quite dangerous to ourselves, hence others. But we'd stand a fair chance if our spokesperson were Milarepa.
Milarepa was one of the great heroes of Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, "I cry, weep, and feel a strong sense of faith each time I read or hear the story of Milarepa." Now we have a chance to see, as well as hear, his timeless story, in a remarkable motion picture by Neten Chokling, opening Friday in 36 theaters nationwide.
Like the Buddha, Milarepa was a real person who lived in 11th-Century Tibet. Thus, as in any biopic, the story is already known. But his accomplishment wasn't political, military, cultural, or economic; rather, spiritual.
While Milarepa represents the best we can aspire to. Having attained enlightenment, his path to that mountaintop reflects some of our worst potential, our unevolved, instinctual, animal nature, if you will. Milarepa studied magic in order to murder not only the greedy relatives who'd wronged his family, but also the whole town, for siding with them. The film centers on this early phase of his life, up to the moment that resonates with the Buddha's own life story, the renunciation of the world in search of the meaning of life.
A word, first, about the filmmaker, Lama Neten Chokling, the revered leader of a distinguished Buddhist lineage, with monasteries in both India and Tibet. Filmgoers might remember him as an actor in "The Cup," filmed at his monastery. Awed by the magnitude of Milarepa's life, he chose to present only his beginnings. In so doing, he puts our own times into clear focus, to break the cycles of violence wherein we always blame someone else, while hatred is never ended by hatred.
Little wonder it was voted National Geographic Audience Favorite for Best Feature-Length Film. "Milarepa" was filmed in the high altitudes of Spiti Valley, on the border of India and Tibet, still pristine as it ever was. The landscape itself is an integral part of the film, whose majesty and magic rival any special effects.
To ensure authenticity, antiquities and treasures were borrowed from monasteries and villagers' homes. As in a film by Robert J. Flaherty or early Rossellini, or more recently Martin Scorsese's neorealist "Kundun," the characters are non-actors, mostly from Lama Chokling's monastery, including his own teacher, plus some of faces from "The Cup." Even if none going to win an Oscar, they're all re-enacting a story etched in their very souls, so we're watching acting as essentially a religious performance.
Cinema has revealed the redemption of other rogues, notably in Robert Bresson's miraculous "Pickpocket" (another movie with all nonactors). But here the material isn't original. True, sometimes it might move as slowly as a passage from Deuteronomy. But it accumulates an undeniable force, rivaling Milarepa's own harnassing of elemental powers.
The Bible isn't a bad analogue here, where small details can be enormously moving, such as the 80-year-old woman who wanders onto the climactic scene and witnesses Milarepa's revenge. (The director told us, after the San Francisco premiere, that the woman, was in real life a follower of his own teacher, and so frail they had to carry her in. But when her moment came, she shed real tears.)
The viewer is, thankfully, not bludgeoned with the significance of what is seen. And there is tender subtlety in what is not seen, as well. We're left to intuit conversations that have taken place, for instance, without having seen them laid out before our eyes, adding to the film's resonance.
Today, we're more likely moved by the singer not the song, but in "Milarepa" the story itself, and the filmmakers' devotion to it, is the dynamo. On the level of Hollywood, which is to say perhaps the lowest common dominator, it's a welcome antidote to the all-too-familiar media toxins of anger, fear, and greed; common manifestations of our human ignorance of What Is. "
Milarepa" transcends, to touch our hearts, kindling the aspiration for tolerance and compassion, so necessary if we are ever to lead a genuine life.
Milarepa? Just change the names, and the story is about us.
"Milarepa" is directed by Neten Chokling, produced by Raymond Steiner, and produced by Shining Moon Productions Running time: 96 minutes. A "teaching companion" DVD is available at www.milarepamovie.com.
Gary Gach is author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism." Homepage: http://word.to.