(director/writer: Werner Herzog; cinematographer: Peter Zeitlinger; editor: Joe Bini; cast: Dalai Lama; Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lucki Stipetic; Wellspring; 2003-Germany-in English with some Tibetan)

“Awe-inspiring for those of all faiths who sincerely hope that this world can be a peaceful one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Noted German filmmaker Werner Herzog’s (“Grizzly Man”/”The White Diamond”) marvelous documentary gives us an eyewitness report on the annual Buddhist pilgrimage gathering of some 500,000 of the faithful in May of 2002 (the Year of the Horse) in Bodh Gaya, India, the site where the Buddha some 2,500 years ago found enlightenment under the bo tree. Herzog also takes us to a considerably smaller gathering in a convention hall in Graz, Austria, during the same year. The Dalai Lama was in attendance in both places to lend support to the Kalachakra (Wheel of Time) ritual, though too ill in India to lead the ceremony he fortunately regained his health in Austria and therefore was able to preside in his usual robust manner over the main ceremony.

For the ceremony a sand mandala (a perfect visual metaphor for everything being impermanent and empty), created by the monks to signify the wheel of time, is kept under a sealed glass case for the pilgrims to observe without moving it in any way (even one’s breath will disturb it). The celebration lasts 10 days and 10 nights, and at the end of the ceremony the sand mandala is broken up and returned to the earth. The sight of so many peaceful pilgrims in such a holy place doing genuflections and their overall good will, has a mesmerizing effect. The sick hoping for a cure are seen rubbing themselves against a stupa (a dome-shaped Buddhist shrine), which is erected on the very spot the Buddha found enlightenment and therefore has been endowed with possible healing powers for the believers.

Herzog also takes us on a sidetrip to Mount Kailash, the 22,000-foot western Tibetan mountain sacred to Buddhists and Hindus, that according to dogma is the center of the universe and custom dictates that the pilgrims walk around it three times to cleanse themselves of their bad thoughts and sins. The wise Dalai Lama explains that the universe’s center shouldn’t be taken all too literally, that wherever one is becomes the center and gives one a chance to gain harmony in the world if one learns how to still the mind and become one with their surroundings. He also gives us his view that a better world should be a tolerant one where mankind can live peacefully as brothers and sisters, all religions should be respected for exercising the same feelings of love for mankind, wealth should be more equally distributed so we don’t have such huge gulfs between people, and we shouldn’t destroy the world by polluting it.

In one startling interview Herzog needs two translators for a monk who has journeyed from a remote part of Tibet, because his dialect is not easily understood. The serene monk shares his experience of walking for three-and-one-half years to be at Bodh Gaya for the ceremony. Supplied with little food, he nevertheless did prostrations for the entire 3,000 miles trek and has welts on his wrists and an unhealed lump on his forehead from touching the earth so many times in his act of devotion.

In Austria, an elderly Tibetan teacher has just been released by the Chinese Communists as a political prisoner, due to international pressure, after being jailed for 37 years for advocating a free Tibet. He was thrilled to see the Dalai Lama for the first time, and words couldn’t be adequately expressed to show his joy.

In the dark materialistic age we are in presently, there are few groups trying to counter the repressive forces–those who use their power to try and prevent us from raising consciousness and to make us slaves to one system or another (even a slave to wealth, is still a slave no matter how wealthy one may be). One of the groups fighting these dark forces is the Tibetan Buddhists. They do it by devotion, meditation and living a good life where they cause no harm to others and allow people to look within themselves to gain liberation from the vicious continuous cycle of life and death. The marvel is that Herzog shows these peaceful seekers in a sympathetic light without being a cheerleader for their beliefs, and gets across to even the uninitiated viewer that being such a visionary is certainly not the easy road to take but for those who make that choice it’s a necessary road. To see this ceremony, which includes many secret rituals never before seen on film, in this inspired documentary should be an eye-opener for how the devoted follow Buddhism and it should also be awe-inspiring for those of all faiths who sincerely hope that this world can be a peaceful one.

Wheel of Time Poster


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