Friday, August 31, 2007

Phorpa - The Cup

Going ahead with my newly found interest in World cinema, I would like to draw the attention of readers to Phorpa (The Cup), a Tibetan/ Bhutanese movie directed by Khyentse Norbu, a Lama, better known under his religious title- Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche - an eminent teacher and practitioner of the non-sectarian tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and the recognized incarnation of a great 19th century Buddhist saint.

The very idea of a monk in the world of entertainment sounds weird, but then such a thought is a tribute to our sense of stereotyping more than anything else. After all, art has no boundaries – then, why not an ascetic entertaining us? Norbu not only manages to make a movie but also weaves a surprisingly charming tale using a set of non-professional actors and real life monks.

The Cup was a surprise hit at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival; it tells a story of football crazy monks, obsessed with the idea of viewing the 1998 World Cup – torn between spiritual enlightenment and their love for the game.

Based on a true story, it takes a delightful look at the world of Tibetan monks and refugees staying in India. To outsiders who imagine that Tibetan monks live an impossibly austere life, the film comes as a surprise. The youngsters under the control of their strict taskmaster, Geko, are mischievous and playful.

You have scenes of the monks playing football, singing, sleeping during prayers, secretly reading magazines etc. – everything which enables us to look at the monks just as they are, sans their halos. His lens not only gives us a peep into the various Buddhist rituals happening but also the normal day-to-day activities in their lives.

Most of the youngsters in Dharamshala have escaped from Tibet and come to India to stay under the aegis of the Dalai Lama. But this does not mean they are automatically attracted towards religion. Two boys are sent, with much hardship and danger, to a monastery in exile in the picturesque foothills of the Himalayas to be ordained into a monastic life.

They have other things on their mind and football is a top priority (in the film), but staying within the walls of the monastery means that they cannot watch their stars in action. Led by a young trainee monk, Orgyen, a few of them make plans to watch the World Cup by sneaking across outside the monastery but are caught by their supervisor, Geko, and punished.

But Orgyen, a Ronaldo fan, is not willing to give up and makes a last ditch attempt by requesting Geko to allow them to bring a television to the place so that they can watch atleast the World Cup final. They promise to work harder and plead to be allowed this one chance.

Surprisingly, they are allowed permission to bring a television but the next challenge is to raise funds for it. The monks pool in money to rent out a television and satellite dish so that they can watch the finals.

The narrative is slow, sparse and does not have any specific events that drive the plot but it sashays its way across effortlessly as a monk navigates through time. It is not didactic or preachy and takes us into the world of Tibetan monks at a leisurely pace.

The humour is warm, sweet and not forced. The bewilderment that the senior monks have when faced with this “non-spiritual” challenge is genuinely funny. Like the scene where Orgyen and his friends consult a soothsayer monk to predict the result of the matches; the soothsayer is left wondering what the fuss is all about.

Witness this conversation between Geko and the abbot:

Abbot: What is the World Cup?
Geko: Two civilized nations fight with each other to gain possession of a ball.
Abbot: Is there violence involved?
Geko: Sometimes.
Abbot: Sex?
Geko: No, you do not have to worry about that.
Abbot: What do they get after the war?
Geko: A Cup.

This exchange can be seen as a critique of modern sport also where two countries battle it out for something as simple as a cup or a trophy. Contrast this to the Tibetan struggle where the hope of a country itself is in shreds and sport has no meaning.

It looks at what home sickness and nostalgia means to the monks in exile, who are so cut away from their homelands. It also presents the attitudes of the new generation of monks who have always tasted freedom and portrays a streak of rebellion in them, unlike possibly their predecessors.

The movie could as well have been set anywhere in the world and the incidents would still have remained just the same. But when the same story is juxtaposed against the ethereal and slow world of the monks in Dharamshala, the movie has a different hue and the layers demand more meaning to the flow of events.

A movie on Tibet could easily have been a blatantly political movie but Norbu allows the theme of political independence to be embedded in the script subtly and does not permit it to dictate the flow. There are hints to the Chinese occupation and Indian and American support for their cause but these are thrown at a few places here and there and do not form a central part of the plot.

Modern sport is a curious mix of entertainment, raw passion and nationalism. The director uses football as a symbol of this nationalism to convey the Tibetan sense of loss. Sitting on our sofa set when we cheer the Indian cricket team, we do not merely support eleven men in blue but we associate that feeling with a sense of pride in the nation.

Sports, probably, more than anything plays this role of arousing nationalism and so, Norbu uses this is as a powerful allegory to feel what it is to belong to a nation.

The entire Tibetan affair is a serious business but to look at their world in a light hearted way which is appealing is a clearly an ingenious act and full credit to the director for this serene and lyrical movie which gladdens all our hearts and still scores cerebral points. Who says soccer and religion cannot mix!!!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Chasing Daylights

Death is not annihilation; it is the flowering of life
- Mata Amritanandamayi

A few months back I chanced upon a book- Chasing Daylights -in one of the book reviews in Business World. The premise of the book- How my Forthcoming Death Transformed My Life – seemed interesting and I promptly bought it.

I started off in a hurry as I generally do with all the books that I buy but after a few pages, I lost interest and the book found itself scattered all across the house- at different locations, in different rooms, lying in an unwanted heap of books and papers.

And then, suddenly, last week, for some unknown reason, I decided to pick up the book and give it a try (Thank you, Amma). My journey to office takes close to 1.5 hrs daily and I had the time to read it. Now that I am through with the book, I wonder why I did not finish it in one go earlier.

Chasing Daylights is a new age philosophy book written by Eugene O’Kelly, former CEO and Chairman of KPMG, one among the Big Four Audit firms. Calling it a New Age probably does not do it justice – New Age is a much abused terminology. This book is an account of his final journey towards death.

It starts from the time he is diagnosed with the disease- glioblastoma multiforme - and concludes with his death four months later. The final chapter of the book is written by his wife as he is too sick by that time to pen down all his thoughts. It is an intimate, thought provoking account of the last days of a man who realizes that he was “…blessed. I was told I have three months to live”.

Death is undoubtedly the most personal moment of one’s life(!!!) – a phase which one has to handle alone - all alone. The grief that surrounds this transition affects not just the person but the surroundings, making it a rather morbid feeling. Eugene, however, decides (rather realizes) that death need not be so bad at all and that the pain of it can be lessened by being ready for the last day and embracing it full heartedly.

He decides to unwind himself from all that he is associated with – his colleagues, his business associates, family members and finally self. He reckons, very rightly I realize, that the pain is much lesser when both the related parties agree to move apart.

I guess, in many ways, the problem with death is not that it comes one day inevitably – we all know that- but when it comes, it jolts us rudely from our slumber of mortality. Most cultures do not discuss death because there is a fear and anxiety about it but how about facing it with a smile or even welcoming it by being ever ready for it?

Welcoming death does not necessarily mean running away from life but it means looking at death as yet another milestone that needs to be covered in our ever changing state of consciousness. We are all scared of Death because no one has ever returned from there to tell us how it is to die; if someone could return, things could have been very different.

Most Hindus would agree, at least theoretically, that death is not the annihilation of our souls but a mere signpost in our long journey. But are we ready for this journey?

I distinctly remember reading the The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche where he says that the best form of meditation is to meditate on one’s death. Sounds ghastly, right? But it is so only because it is a radical thought; after all haven’t we all been brought up to look at death as something hideous and grotesque? He says and I quote -

Death is a vast mystery, but there are two things we can say about it: It is absolutely certain that we will die, and it is uncertain when or how we will die. The only surety we have, then, is this uncertainty about the hour of our death, which we seize on as the excuse to postpone facing death directly. We are like children who cover their eyes in a game of hide-and-seek and think that no one can see them.

One of the most beautiful things that Eugene tries to explain is how to live in the present and not bury oneself in the debris of the past or the uncertainty of the future. Now this is not an entirely novel thought and I’m sure we would have heard this umpteen times. But, he does not sermonize; instead, he tries to bring that change to his life.

He succeeds on a few occasions while he continues to struggle on many others but there is a certain peace that he feels as he connects to his true self – something that happens when you start living in the present. It is a constant struggle which takes a great deal of effort initially but slowly it becomes an effortless and painless process. Contrary to what we have been brought upto believe, it is our nature to be happy and it is only when we move away from this feeling, we become diseased – a state of not being at ease.

Being a businessman, he goes about the business of dying (as he calls it) in a very methodical manner. He lists his final goals, sets timelines and tracks his progress, all of them focused with one final target in mind – DEATH. He stumbles repeatedly as he realizes that his strengths as a business leader are probably not the biggest assets that he requires now.

Speed, efficiency and micro-management (Type A Personality characteristics) were of not much use to him at this juncture and it is then he realizes that the most important virtue in a man’s life is Consciousness.

Multi-tasking is not a virtue as many of us would like to believe. It merely means a lack of focus on any particular activity. I remember reading this beautiful Zen tale about a monk and his disciple. One day, after years of austere life, the disciple asks his Master what is the difference between the two of them?

The Master says, “I eat, I sleep, I work and I meditate. “ The puzzled student says, “So do I. What is the difference?” The Master smiles and replies, “When I work, I work; when I eat, I eat. But when you work, you think about what you eat; when you eat, you think about your sleep and so on”.

How different are we? At this moment, as you are reading this, you probably have lots of different ideas running through your head. We are all a set of muddled minds, without a focus – the ocean of thoughts needs to become a silent stream.

Chasing Daylights is not about one man’s fight against death like Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About The Bike which chronicles his struggles against all odds and less than 10% survival chances to emerge a hero. Armstrong’s effort is wonderful and inspiring but for some reason I felt closer to Eugene’s story. Embracing death is probably so much tougher than enduring it, though a happy ending always makes for pleasant reading.

The disease was at its final stages when diagnosed; probably one reason he did not fight it the way he and many of us would have wanted. Yes, snatching life from the jaws of death is heroic but there are times, when we need to accept life and death as they are. The book is more about his acceptance of his fate which some people may claim as cowardice but to me, it is as heroic as it gets.

After reading the book, I think I need to strive to live in the present; not an easy idea to implement by any stretch of imagination but it is a profoundly powerful feeling. As I write this, my mind goes back to the meeting that I had in the morning; clearly there is a long way to go before I actually start living in the present but then, I can always make a start, can't I?

We all have the required tools scattered around us to tap the energies in the world, conspiring outwardly to help us whenever we need. But let us make an attempt to reach out to it. It's never too late; we need not wait until Death stands at the altar of our lives before we attempt to change.....

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Right to Reincarnate????

Reincarnation was always considered to be something left to the faith of people and a religious issue. But now, the overzealous Chinese Government has pitched in to stop and regulate reincarnations.

We always knew that the Chinese government was scared of the Tibetan monks but isn't this stretching it a bit too far? In a new rule, Tibet’s living Buddhas have been banned from reincarnation without permission from China’s atheist leaders.

Beats me how the Government is going to identify reincarnations. Can you imagine a set of monks sitting for a reincarnation test and then an interview? Maybe the monks would have to submit an application claiming their reincarnation with required proof, duly attested by a gazetted officer (scope for easy money).

When matters of faith start being regulated and framed by governments, you know where this is all headed. Now you’d appreciate the complex responsibilities that bureaucrats have to deal with across the world, especially in such regulated democracies...

For further reading, check this space - China tells living Buddhas to obtain permission before they reincarnate...