TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD, THE(director/writer: Barrie Angus McLean, Yukari Hayashi, Hiroaki Mori; cinematographer: Hideo Saito; editor: Judith Merritt; cast: Leonard Cohen (Narrator), Dalai Lama; Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: David Verrall; Wellspring/Direct Cinema Limited; 1994)
“An outstanding introduction into Tibetan Buddhism.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The Tibetan Book of the Dead is presented in a two part series. Part 1: A Way of Life explores how the tradition still lives in Ladakh, northern India, after the Communist Chinese government invaded and now controls Tibet since 1959. Part 11: The Great Liberation presents a detailed account of the Book of the Dead and of the traditional Buddhist teachings on compassion and the search for truth which are its foundations.
In the 8th century the great guru Padma Sambhava brought to Tibet from India the teachings of the Bardo Thödol, which is the name the Tibetans call The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Bardo refers to the state intervening between death and rebirth. According to Tibetan Buddhism after a person dies they are in a state of “bardo” for 49 days until the next rebirth. They are wandering on a different plane unless they can see the clear light (which is their own true nature) when upon death their consciousness is released from their body, that is, unless they are still clinging to returning to their former existence and their consciousness remains as a prisoner. The Tibetan Book of the Dead is a guide for this period of flux between death and the rebirth to come.
The documentary in an intelligent and lucid manner describes this process and uses as an example an older lama and a younger acolyte, who administer the ritual to a dead man of 42 who rejects the clear light and will be subject to rebirth, and in the process we see how the Bardo is meant to aid the dead man. Also the wise lama answers all the boy’s concerns about the meaning of life and death. In another death, an older lama does the Bardo ritual for an older man who had success in seeing the clear light.
It’s an outstanding introduction into Tibetan Buddhism, but will also serve well the knowledgeable believers. One of the lamas who founded monasteries in Scotland and America (Colorado and Vermont), the late Chögyam Trungpa, acted as a film adviser and also helped in the translations from the Bardo. Leonard Cohen does the narration. There’s also an appearance by the Dalai Lama talking in an informal way about his daily prayers and concerns about death, and how important a work The Tibetan Book of the Dead is to the world. It was translated into English by the American scholar on Eastern religion from Oxford, W.Y. Evans-Wentz, who gave it that name for the westerner. It was published in 1927 by the Oxford University Press.
For the Tibetan Buddhists, it’s a simple fact that all people will die and all our hopes and fears will become irrelevant. That we are all living in the Bardo state aimlessly wandering and looking for a permanent home, gives us hope in death that we have the chance to become liberated by seeing our own true nature without life’s filters. This is something that shouldn’t be ignored as an aim for living a worthwhile life, as the true meaning of life for the believers is in seeking the truth with an open mind and showing compassion for all people.
This National Film Board of Canada production also explores the rites to see how it can be applied to the modern world. We are taken to a Living/Dying Project in San Francisco, where the patients have six months to live and volunteers give them comfort by reading from The Book of the Dead. We follow as one patient dying of AIDS takes to heart the words read to him from the book.
In this enlightened book “The True Reality is originally only one, but the degrees of ignorance are infinite; therefore the natures of men differ in character accordingly.” In this time of great strife and religious intolerance, it is refreshing to hear the peaceful teachings of a religion that recognizes all true religions are one and makes no big deal of cultural differences as many other world religions do. In recent days the release of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ made a big splash because of its passionate religious message. While it spoke to its hard-core believers and gave them solace, nevertheless it opened up many old wounds in others who felt the stings of its bias and felt left out of its message for love.
REVIEWED ON 4/6/2004 GRADE: A+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ