J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Last Dalai Lama? If Tibet were Free, We Wouldn’t be Asking

The Javits Center is so out of the way, most people do not realize Manhattan extends that far west. It is an evil looking building, but it was the only venue in the City large enough to accommodate the 14th Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and long-life celebration. In contrast, General Secretary Xi could hold his at a table in Starbuck’s, if you excluded all the favor-seekers. Such longevity and so many friends seem to be signs of good karma, yet the Dalai Lama has lived most of his life in exile. Given the worsening human rights situation in his Tibetan homeland, he might be the final Dalai Lama to reincarnate. His Holiness takes stock of his life and legacy in Mickey Lemle’s The Last Dalai Lama (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Now a vigorous eighty-two-years young, His Holiness has been on the world stage since he was a teenager. When only nineteen, he led a delegation to meet with Tibet’s Chinese occupiers. Initially, he thought he had persuaded Mao and Zhou to allow his people greater freedom of conscience, but alas that was not the case. Eventually, he was forced into exile, but in doing so, he became one of the world’s great statesmen and spiritual leaders. Ironically, he would spread Tibetan Buddhism farther than it had ever reached before. Yet, his commitment to emotional health and awareness always transcends faiths and religions.

In fact, the first half of the film is largely devoted to various educational endeavors that promote healthy mindfulness rather than Buddhist doctrine. That is all very nice, but the film’s title clearly begs a much bigger question. It is indeed true the 14th Dalai Lama has said he does not expect to reincarnate again—and if he does, it will absolutely not be in Tibet. Again, blame China, who insist the Communist Party must play an active role in “selecting” the reincarnate Dalai Lama, much as they did with the contested Panchen Lama, whom virtually all Tibetans consider an illegitimate puppet because he is. The Panchen Lama officially recognized by the 14th Dalai Lama has been held incommunicado since 1995. He was six years old at the time.

Lemle does not spend a great deal of time recapping China’s systematic violation of human rights in the captive nation or their rapacious despoilment of the once pristine environment. However, he directly addresses the surge in Tibetan self-immolation to protest the occupation, which deeply pains His Holiness. It also starkly contrasts the militarism of the invading Communists with the humanistic, nonviolent principles of Tibetan Buddhism.

In military terms, this seems to be a mismatch that grossly favors the occupiers. Yet, as Victress Hitchcock’s documentary When the Iron Bird Flies argues (and Lemle’s film largely seconds) Tibet Buddhism has lost all the battles yet it has already won the war. Which has more international adherents, Tibetan Buddhism or whatever the CP currently calls its “Chinese Dream” Crony Capitalistic-Socialist ideology? Who is more respected globally, His Holiness or Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed? There is no contest.

Of course, it does not hurt Lemle’s film that the 14th Dalai Lama is such a warm, charismatic, and often witty figure (for instance, he archly comments, if the Party now believes in reincarnation so strongly, they should go find the reincarnated Mao.). Lemle, who previously documented His Holiness in Compassion in Exile, once again secured first-class access and continued to share a real rapport with his subject. He also deserves credit for his nonpartisanship, including an insightful segment with former President George W. Bush, the first sitting president to appear publicly with His Holiness. Highly recommended, The Last Dalai Lama? opens this Friday (7/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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