did an impossibly serene Dane wind up in the middle of a struggle for the soul
of Tibetan Buddhism? Along with her husband Ole, Hannah Nydahl earned a place
at the table as arguably the religion’s busiest Twentieth Century evangelists. She
was scrupulously spiritual rather than ideological, but Nydahl’s travels took
her to some of the most politically contentious corners of the globe. Marta György-Kessler
& Adam Penny chronicle her life in Hannah:
Buddhism’s Untold Journey (trailer here), which has three more special screenings this
Friday and Saturday at the Rubin Museum of Art.
Nydahls were basically hippies when they somehow beamed themselves to
Kathmandu, but thanks to the innocence of youth, the revered Bhutanese lama
Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche first took them under his wing, before entrusting their
studies to His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, one of the most
venerated lines of reincarnated lamas in Tibetan Buddhism. Before his death,
the Karmapa sent them back to the west to share their teachings. After a bit of
scuffling, the Nydahls soon found they had a talent for outreach, becoming
tireless road warriors.
of the film’s most intriguing sequences contrast the guileless Nydahls with the
extreme socio-political climates they blithely walked into. Bizarrely, the
Communist government granted the Nydahls permission to visit pre-Marital Law Poland,
in the vain hope Tibetan Buddhism would undermine the Catholic Church. Needless
to say, it was a tense trip, but the bonds of some lasting friendships were formed
Untold is truly newsworthy for its
insider account of the disputed elevation of the 17th Karmapa. It is
a case Westerners might be hazily aware of. Communist China (Tibet’s atheist
occupiers, who had previously denied the legitimacy of reincarnation)
officially recognized one Karmapa, while leaders in exile recognized another. György-Kessler
& Penny provide full context to the controversy, explaining the implications of each development, while largely relying on footage of the
Nydahls recorded in-the-moment.
their credit, the Nydahls did not rush to judgement. However, when the time
came, they acted decisively to protect His Holiness, Trinley Thaye Dorje, the
rival of China’s compliant candidate. Just when you thought the Communist government
could not sink any lower, György-Kessler & Penny document thuggish behavior
that manages to lower the bar even further.
those who are fascinated by Tibetan Buddhism and Chinese geo-politics, the
Karmapa crisis is clearly the film’s centerpiece. However, for the more
right-brained and sentimentally inclined, the grand romance shared by the
Nydahls always takes center stage. As a former friend and student of Hannah
Nydahl, György-Kessler clearly has a deep appreciation for them as individuals.
The portrait that emerges is sensitively rendered, but still quite intimate.
Frankly, the Nydahls were disgustingly
attractive, charming, and calm, but they used their gifts selflessly on behalf
of their faith and for the sake of others. You can get a sense of their stature
from the interviews His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa granted the
filmmakers (but not the other guy). There is a lot to learn from Untold, but it is also a touching story.
Highly recommended, Hannah: Buddhism’s
Untold Journey screens again Friday night (5/8) and twice on Saturday (5/9)
at the Rubin Museum of Art, Manhattan’s home for Himalayan art and culture.
Labels: Buddhism on film, Documentary, Hannah Nydahl, Tibet