Tibetian lama, filmmaker to visit

“The body keeps flopping over to face in a certain direction, or as he’s burning the heart will suddenly pop out of the fire.”

These are some of the signs that Tibetan disciples look for at a lama’s cremation to guide them toward his next reincarnation, explained Religious Studies professor Jacob Dalton. And this process would have been used in Tibetan tradition to determine the true identity of lama and filmmaker Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, officially recognized as the reincarnation of 19th-century Buddhist saint Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.

Along with his followers, who refer to him simply as Rinpoche (an epithet meaning “precious one”), this Buddhist lama, who will visit Yale this Friday, is actively trying to make Buddhism more accessible to students all over the world. His visit to New Haven is part of a larger mission to reconcile traditional Eastern teachings with Western academia.

Born in Bhutan in 1961, Rinpoche has spent his life investigating the relationship between Eastern and Western thought. He studied with more than 25 great lamas from all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism ­­— Sakya, meaning “Grey Earth,” Gelug, meaning “Way of Virtue,” Kagyu, meaning “Oral Lineage” and Nyingma, meaning “The Ancient Ones” ­— as well as at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Recently, he has funded a chair of Tibetan studies at University of California, Berkeley and started the first of an international network of Buddhist primary schools in Linsmore, Australia. He would like to fund more chairs outside the United States, and is particularly interested in Peking University, Dalton said.

The lama is the third-generation tulku, or main reincarnation, of Wangpo, according to the Khyentse Foundation, one of the nonprofit organizations founded by Rinpoche that was established to support institutions and individuals committed to the study of Buddhism. Wangpo believed in the possibility of learning something from all schools of Buddhism, and Rinpoche’s work is the modern incarnation — perhaps literally, according to his followers — of this philosophy of non-sectarianism, according to the Khyentse Foundation website.

“To what extent is Buddhism inherently part of the cultures it has existed within, and to what extent is it some sort of teaching that can move from one country to another and to the West and still remain the same?” Dalton asked. “All these different cultures that follow the same religion — is that the same religion, or is it putting the same label on things that are very different? Those are the kinds of questions [Rinpoche] is struggling with as a Tibetan teacher bringing Buddhism to the West.”

In terms of examining the effect of separating Buddhism from its cultural context, Dalton explained, Rinpoche is also looking at questions of the religion’s ability to survive in an increasingly Westernized world, particularly in China. Rinpoche is concerned with the ways in which traditional Buddhist practices must adapt in order to exist within Western culture, and this has inspired him to begin funding the study of Buddhism on an international scale.

In more traditional centers of Buddhism, the need to fund aspiring scholars and monks is not as prevalent, Rinpoche has said.

“In places like Bhutan and Thailand, a monk can basically take off with a bowl, walk in the street begging for alms,” Rinpoche said in an interview with the Khyentse Foundation. “It’s very well accepted, even venerated; he’s not looked down on as a beggar. … But this isn’t found in Western society; it doesn’t even occur to people to think in this way.”

Despite founding several nonprofits, Rinpoche’s interest in the interactions between East and West is not limited to charitable foundations — he is also the writer and director of three films that approach this relationship from a more creative angle.

After acting as a consultant to the Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci on his 1993 film “Little Buddha,” which featured Keanu Reaves as the Buddha and told the story of a lama who comes to Seattle, Rinpoche began writing and directing his own films under the pseudonym Khyentse Norbu. His most recent film, 2006’s “Milarepa,” depicts the life story of the eponymous 11th-century Tibetan saint. His 2003 film “Travellers and Magicians” is along the lines of a Bhutanese road movie, and “Phörpa,” or “The Cup,” released in 1999, tells the tale of two Tibetan monks who are obsessed with the World Cup. He is also the subject of a biographical film titled “Words of My Perfect Teacher.”

Film professors interviewed were not familiar with Rinpoche and his work but expressed excitement over his visit.

“I have not heard about the filmmaker or the films,” said professor Ashish Chadha, a South Asian filmmaker and scholar, via e-mail. “I myself look forward to seeing these films.”

Last year, the South Asian Studies Council received a five-year grant from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation to further undergraduate teaching of Himalayan and Tibetan studies. According to their Web site, the Foundation is “primarily interested in supporting the inclusion of art from non-Western European cultures into the mainstream of scholarship and display.” Thanks to this donation, the Council will hold events throughout the academic year relating to the interaction between Tibetan Buddhism and contemporary arts, Dalton said. Dalton, one of three professors pioneering the Tibetan Studies program at Yale, hopes Rinpoche’s visit will help “build a presence and interest in Tibetan Studies [on campus].”

The visit will begin Friday afternoon with a discussion open to the community about the study of Buddhism. That evening, he will give a talk entitled “Projecting the Dharma: Film and the Transmission of Buddhism from East to West.” Both are sponsored by a grant from the Foundation, the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies and the Hixon Fund, through the Department of Religious Studies.

cholars and monks is not as prevalent, Rinpoche has said.

“In places like Bhutan and Thailand, a monk can basically take off with a bowl, walk in the street begging for alms,” Rinpoche said in an interview with the Khyentse Foundation. “It’s very well accepted, even venerated; he’s not looked down on as a beggar. … But this isn’t found in Western society; it doesn’t even occur to people to think in this way.”

Despite founding several nonprofits, Rinpoche’s interest in the interactions between East and West is not limited to charitable foundations — he is also the writer and director of three films that approach this relationship from a more creative angle.

After acting as a consultant to the Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci on his 1993 film “Little Buddha,” which featured Keanu Reaves as the Buddha and told the story of a lama who comes to Seattle, Rinpoche began writing and directing his own films under the pseudonym Khyentse Norbu. His most recent film, 2006’s “Milarepa,” depicts the life story of the eponymous 11th-century Tibetan saint. His 2003 film “Travellers and Magicians” is along the lines of a Bhutanese road movie, and “Phörpa,” or “The Cup,” released in 1999, tells the tale of two Tibetan monks who are obsessed with the World Cup. He is also the subject of a biographical film titled “Words of My Perfect Teacher.”

Film professors interviewed were not familiar with Rinpoche and his work but expressed excitement over his visit.

“I have not heard about the filmmaker or the films,” said professor Ashish Chadha, a South Asian filmmaker and scholar, via e-mail. “I myself look forward to seeing these films.”

Last year, the South Asian Studies Council received a five-year grant from the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation to further undergraduate teaching of Himalayan and Tibetan studies. According to their Web site, the Foundation is “primarily interested in supporting the inclusion of art from non-Western European cultures into the mainstream of scholarship and display.” Thanks to this donation, the Council will hold events throughout the academic year relating to the interaction between Tibetan Buddhism and contemporary arts, Dalton said. Dalton, one of three professors pioneering the Tibetan Studies program at Yale, hopes Rinpoche’s visit will help “build a presence and interest in Tibetan Studies [on campus].”

The visit will begin Friday afternoon with a discussion open to the community about the study of Buddhism. That evening, he will give a talk entitled “Projecting the Dharma: Film and the Transmission of Buddhism from East to West.” Both are sponsored by a grant from the Foundation, the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies and the Hixon Fund, through the Department of Religious Studies.

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