The days at the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival were magical. Followed as they were with days at the Fowler museum in Los Angeles and with the well-blessed inauguration of Drikung Kyobpa Choling in Escondido, it’s taken me a while to finally sit down and write about what I saw there.
Those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter know that I was deeply moved by several films. Raw Faith topped my list for raw sincerity and courage. Sita Sings the Blues was playful, funny, clever, and personally relevant. The Asian and Abrahamic Religions: A Divine Encounter in America made an important contribution to the cultivation of understanding. Mr. Rogers and Me touched my heart. And Griefwalker brought me into the world of Stephen Jenkinson, a man with whom I was fortunate to spend some time during the festival. Steve’s work invites us into honest presence with dying and is even more deeply presented in his audio CD set, Angel and Executioner.
But today, I’m going to write about a film that inspired me to act, to contribute, to partner.
Journey from Zanskar follows two Tibetan monks in India as they enact their bodhisattva vow, their promise to make their lives beneficial to others. Specifically, they undertake great hardship to give 17 poor children from a remote Himalayan region the possibility of education. Most of us don’t realize what a privilege it is to simply go to school. To be able to read and write and explore ideas as we do.
Zanskar is a barren high-altitude region of northern India, Tibetan Buddhist by culture, located in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, separated from Srinigar, Leh, and Manali by high mountain passes. It has only been made accessible by rough road in the past year. The region has no telephone service, electricity, or running water. The children have no addresses or birth certificates. They don’t even know their birthdates.
In 2004, filmmaker Frederick Marx accompanied Geshe Lobsang Yonten and his companion Dhamchoe as they met with families, identified children to receive the limited school openings and then trekked with them for over snowy mountain passes to reach their destination. You can view the trailer here.
The spirit of the kids is exhilarating. The youngest, some as young as 4 years old, head to school in Manali, where they’ll study Tibetan language and culture along with English, Hindi, and general subjects. Two older children — one girl and one boy — choose a monastic education.
The parents’ faith in their children is inspiring. They are clearly heartbroken at saying goodbye to their young ones, perhaps not seeing them again for years. But clearly the hope that their children may become educated and have richer, freer, broader, happier lives outweighs their fear and sadness. Their sense of the great good fortune this opportunity provides is palpable.
The grandparents’ raw grief at saying goodbye to the children is more heart-wrenching. Since the return journey is so arduous and expensive, visits are not likely to occur within the elderly relatives’ lifetimes.
When I lived with Tibetans in Dharamsala, I felt a kinship with them culturally. Not only because of my interest in Buddhism and for the emotional familial connection I felt. I also felt that Tibetan culture shared some basic values with my American culture. Individual choice is honored. Women are relatively independent. These impressions were reinforced in the film, in the behavior of rural Zanskaris living in an environment most of us would find unfathomable. In family after family, when Geshe posed questions about which path children should take with their lives, parents gave that choice to their children.
Should she become a nun or go to school? Would he be better off as a monk or a student?
“She should do what she wants.”
“He knows what he wants,” they replied.
And the group of 17 children was quite evenly made up of girls and boys. Families with sons and daughters sent the one most ready, most suitable, regardless of gender.
Two lines in the film made me laugh. Along the trail, as one father is packing a horse, he remarks, “Don’t they ever get tired of filming? They must be making a lot of money!” They is just filmmaker Frederick Marx and cameraman Nick Sherman who made the same harsh trek the monks and children did. I heard many similar comments from Tibetans in Dharamsala in the 1990s. They thought researchers interviewing for books on esoteric Tibetan artistic forms or religious practices were making a lot of money for writing these books. Little did they realize that these dedicated researchers were spending everything they had with little hope of return to investigate and share about a culture they loved.
Similarly, many Dharamsala Tibetans thought I would get rich making thangkas! Let’s just say it hasn’t happened yet… The choice to make or research sacred art is generally not in one’s best financial interests.
Another amusing moment came when the children were asked how they would stay in touch with their parents in Zanskar. One said he would phone. (Remember there are no telephones in Zanskar and none of these children had ever seen or used a phone.) Another said he would write, because a phone call would take several days to reach Zanskar!
The children have now been studying for six years now in Manali and Dharamsala and finally visited their families in Zanskar this summer, 2010. Because of weather and travel difficulties, they had only an afternoon with their parents before they had to turn around and trek back to school.
The film is not yet in general distribution, but is available to schools, libraries, and nonprofits. I invite you all to look for it when it becomes available. You can keep an eye on it at www.journeyfromzanskar.com.
You can also listen to an interview with Frederick Marx here.
Check out the calendar for upcoming screenings in northern California, Korea, and New Mexico.
And I understand that it will also appear at the 7th annual Artivist Film Festival at the renowned Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood between November 30 and December 4, 2010. (I’ll send announcements when I get them.)
I, like Geshela and Dhamchoe, have taken bodhisattva vows to release all beings from suffering. Geshe Lobsang says, “We are not bodhisattvas, but we took the bodhisattva vow.” Me too. This motivates me to remember to do what I can each day to increase happiness, understanding, and freedom. My own and that of others. To become of increasing benefit, even if both the benefit and the increase are currently small.
There’s an alignment between the monks’ efforts to educate Zanskari children, Frederick Marx’s commitment to produce films that bear witness and create change, and my own work making silk thangkas and educating people about them. We share an aim to increase happiness in the world and to keep Buddhist culture alive.
In keeping with that aim, I will donate 5% of my receipts from sales of original art, prints, and lessons in the coming year to Save Zanskar. The aim of Save Zanskar is to promote education, and save the distinct culture of this very poor, traditionally Tibetan region of northern India.
I believe this is a project in which a small contribution can make a big difference. I urge you to support me in supporting Save Zanskar. And I thank Frederick Marx for making me aware of their work.