Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Movie review: Words of My Perfect Teacher (2008)

Portrait of an ordinary guru
This is a film about a Buddhist guru and his western followers, a Canadian engineer, an English fortune teller, and an American filmmaker (the same who made this movie). What you'll find at the end of nearly two hours with this group is that the guru is the most normal person among them.

This is especially remarkable for a man who in his native Bhutan is revered as a god and who, if he let it go to his head, could lord it over his western students, who being in need of someone to tell them how to manage their lives have already given over to him much of their own intellectual and emotional independence.

The guru, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (aka Khyentse Norbu), is in Europe and North America one of the most well-known teachers of Vajrayana Buddhism, the form of the faith practiced in the Himalayan countries of Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and north India. He is believed to be the reincarnation of a famous teacher and comes from a family with a long line of famous teachers. It is not his pedigree, though, that has earned him notoriety, but his films. He began his movie career working as an assistant on Bernardo Bertolucci's Little Buddha (1993), before going on to make The Cup (2000), and Travelers and Magicians (2003).

Khyentse Norbu finds himself, though, somewhat reluctantly stuck with the job of guru. “I hate my profession,” he laments. “So much hypocrisy, pretense, so much cultural hang ups. I wish I'm just an ordinary person.” So, ordinary is how he acts, to the great consternation of his students. He cooks his own meals, he drinks, he goes to football games, he shows up late, or not at all. As the Canadian computer engineer remarks, “If he's enlightened, why doesn't he act like an enlightened being?”

Shot in the early years of the new millennia, filmmaker Lesley Ann Patten introduces us to Khyentse Norbu while in residence in London, following him to the World Cup in Germany, the United States immediately following the attacks on the New York Twin Towers, and finally to Bhutan where we see the guru in his greatest splendor, attended by throngs of devoted worshipers. Along the way, Patten makes a detour to Los Angles to explore the guru phenomenon with two unlikely subjects, Gesar Mukpo, a recognized reincarnation and the son of one of the first Tibetan gurus to teach in the west, and action-movie star Steven Segal, also a recognized reincarnation (of more dubious distinction). Mukpo would rather play basketball than guru and gives Patten a quick course in recognizing bogus claims to enlightenment. A good teacher, he says, invites challenges to his authority; it shows the student is growing. Segal notes that the thousands that have challenged him did so only because of their vapidity. (The subject of finding authentic teachers and the dangers of the guru-student relationship come up later in the DVD bonus material, a 30 minute interview with Khyentse Norbu.)

The film concludes with the guru going into a three month meditation retreat and the students returning to their homes in Europe and North America. Director Patten got enough material to complete her film, a remarkably fresh portrait of a modern Buddhist teacher, and everyone seemed to have enjoyed their time in Bhutan. None of the students, though, declare their independence or seem to have come away wiser or more capable of managing their lives.

  • Director: Lesley Ann Patten
  • Studio: Festival Media
  • DVD Release Date: February 26, 2008
  • Run Time: 103 minutes

Official web site (currently unavailable)


Post a Comment