Niall Ferguson would say “I told you so.” For
centuries, Tibetan Buddhism was largely confined to the Himalayan region. Then China invaded Tibet, precipitating an
exodus of refugees. A few decades later,
Tibetan Buddhists have earned growing ranks of converts around the world. Arguably, a bit of competition and westernization
has been beneficial. Victress Hitchcock explores
the positive implications of their exile in When
the Iron Bird Flies: Tibetan Buddhism Arrives in the West (trailer here), which appropriately
screens before and after New Year’s at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.
is a rather eerie prophecy in retrospect.
In the Eighth Century, Guru Padmasambhava wrote: “When the iron bird
flies and horse run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants
across the face of the earth.” Communist
China realized the prediction with the 1959 invasion. In many ways, it was absolutely devastating
to Tibetan culture, particularly during the madness of the Cultural
Revolution. Yet, Hitchcock suggests it
forced one of the world’s most isolated religions into contact with entirely
new nations and peoples, during the 1960’s, a period when popular western
culture was widely receptive to Eastern thought.
Iron, Hitchcock challenges our
traditionally thinking on the Tibetan exile experience, suggesting it has
invigorated, modernized, and spread their religious practice. She has a real point. If one took a survey of most American college
dorms and neighborhoods, one would be far more likely to find books about
Tibetan Buddhism than Mao’s Little Red Book, even in Berkeley. That is a defendable standard of victory, but
it has certainly been costly.
subjects of several documentaries that have played at the Rubin over the last
two years, including the late E. Gene Smith’s game-changing campaign to
preserve and digitize ancient Tibetan texts (fully documented in Dafna Yachin’s
Digital Dharma) and Chogyam Trunpa,
Rinpoche, a learned teacher who adopted a western business suit and lifestyle to
popularize Tibetan Buddhism with the western counter-culture (profiled in Crazy Wisdom, directed by Johanna
Demetrakas, who served as a consulting editor on Iron).
the learned Rinpoches became evangelists out of necessity, Iron spreads the Tibetan Buddhist “gospel” with the zeal of a
convert. Hitchcock clearly hopes to
convince western audiences this once exotic faith speaks directly to the times
in which we live. A little of that is
all well and good, but she risks alienating the sympathetic by coming on too
offers a fresh perspective on Tibetan Buddhism, capturing its efforts to
shed centuries of male chauvinism. It is
very definitely the result of western contact, but also a reflection of the
fundamental humanism of the Tibetan Buddhist establishment in exile. Do not hold your breath waiting for similar soul
searching from the Islamic world. The
wit, erudition, and humility of many exiled Tibetan leaders also help enrich
Hitchcock’s portrait. Educational and
surprisingly optimistic, When the Iron
Bird Flies is definitely worth checking out when visiting the Rubin, home
to the world’s leading collection of Himalayan art. It screens again this Wednesday (12/26),
Saturday (12/29), and Sunday (12/30), as well as the 2nd and 23rd
of January 2013.
Labels: Buddhism on film, Documentary, Tibet