Vajra Sky Over Tibet
John Bush’s latest film Vajra Sky Over Tibet begins with a perplexing if not disturbing question: How did so many Buddhist civilizations just vanish?
The third and final film of his bold and exploratory Yantra Trilogy (which includes Dharma River and Prajna Earth), Vajra Sky completes Bush’s cinematic survey of Buddhist practices throughout Asia. While I haven’t seen the first two installments of this impressive effort, I’m certain that this final film was the most dangerous for him to complete. Bush did not ask for the blessing of Chinese authorities when he entered Tibet to begin filming (it’s unlikely he would have received it). And there are no interviews with Tibetan monks and laypersons in the film, in order to protect them from the inevitable reprisals. So, this is a largely undercover effort, one that subjected the director to all sorts of potential risks (including imprisonment), which makes it even that more admirable.
A sort of schizophrenic rhetoric exists surrounding the matter of Tibet and its invasion by the Chinese in first half of the 20th century. It’s an extraordinarily complicated matter, of course (as evidenced by well-researched books such as Tsering Shakya’s The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet Since 1947, which is highly recommended). There are simple facts, however. Since the Chinese government took control of Tibet in the middle of the 20th century, over one million Tibetans have suffered premature death related directly to the occupation. Any simple web search will reveal all of the despicable details, including the exile of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso and his many devout followers. It’s very difficult for those of us outside Tibet to see how the Tibetans have benefited in any way from the presence of the Chinese. But the Chinese authorities, masters of propaganda, would have us believe otherwise.
Take the opening scenes of Vajra Sky, for example. Bush lets his camera slowly pan the hillside of Ganden Monastery, a once-prosperous spiritual center where over 7,000 monks lived and studied. During the filming, Bush found about 400 monks now living at the site, attempting to preserve their spiritual traditions and restore the monastery to its former glory. They look happy in the film, despite their crumbling surroundings, tending to chores and conducting rituals. When I returned home after the screening, I searched for more images of Ganden on the web. Travel China Guide, a tourist resource, reports, "Its significance as a religious, artistic, political and cultural relic led to it being preserved by the National Key Cultural Relic Preservation scheme in 1961, and [it] is now known as being one of the ’Three Great Temples’, together with the Sera Monastery and the Drepung Monastery " There’s no mention of any destruction of this sacred place by the Chinese, or the monks who were slaughtered there, just the Chinese bureaucratic reconstruction plan initiated over 40 years ago.
Bush does not ruminate over the Chinese persecution, however. If anything, his film shows the Tibetan monks and laypeople as irrepressible despite the most extreme horrors. In this way, it’s an optimistic documentation that makes you wish were there, circumambulating sacred sites and drinking butter tea with these noble, authentic people. The camera is often moving slowly across a panorama, which creates a mesmerizing visual rhythm as the film progresses. Original music by Tibetan singers Dadon, Yungchen Lhamo, Tibetan flutist Nawag Khechog, and especially the overtone singing of David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir augment the sacred quality of this cinematic experience.
Newcomers to Tibetan Buddhism will not find as much explanation of the intricate rituals and practices as they might desire. Early on Bush mentions the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, neglecting to explain the two latter terms until much later in the film, and abruptly at that. Many of the behaviors in the film, such as the practice of prostrating to the Buddha, are presented without context. An inexperienced viewer might think the Tibetans worship hundreds of Gods, though the wrathful and peaceful deities seen are all manifestations of Buddha-mind, objects of veneration and contemplation rather than worship. So be it. No short film could capture the full scope of Tibetan Buddhist life and practice. Bush has accomplished his primary and extraordinary feat: documenting a culture that threatens to disappear. It’s a loving effort, and an important addition to the body of films about this extraordinary, sacred region of the world.
87 Minutes. At the Kendall Square Cinema August 18-24.