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A magical mixture of rustic road movie and mystical fable, Khyentse Norbu's (The Cup) film—the first ever shot in the tiny kingdom of Bhutan—weaves parallel fables about two men who seek to escape their mundane lives. Dondup (Tsewang Dandup) decides he will be better off picking grapes in the U.S. than working as a rural government officer; Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji) cannot bear the thought of a life consigned to his village. As the men embark on parallel (if separate) journeys with a common yearning for a better life, the question remains: Is the grass truly greener on the other side?
 

 Life As Cinema

Let us imagine that we are born in a cinema and all we know is this screen in front of us.

We do not recognize that we are looking at a film and that the events in the movie have no true existence. Everything we perceive on that screen–love, hatred, aggression, suspense, thrills–are in fact just the effect of a projection of light through film. But no one tells us this. We are sitting there watching, fixated on the film. If somebody tries to divert our attention, we say, “shut up!” We are so engrossed. Yet we are blind to the futility aspect of this projection.

But if somebody in the next seat suddenly tells us: “Look, this is just a film. This is not real. This is not really happening. This is really only a projection,” then there is a possibility we may realize that it is essenceless.

This does not mean that we get up and leave the cinema. We can now relax, and simply watch the intensity, the love affairs, the suspense of the crimes, or whatever is going on. If we are confident that this is merely a projection, we know we can rewind or fast-forward or leave whenever we like, or watch a double feature. Sometimes a sequence in the movie can overwhelm our emotions. A tragic part might hit our soft spot. We now know that this is not a real thing, not a big deal. Until we see that this projection has no inherent existence we will be carried away, seduced by all the glory and beauty of this world, by apparent success and failure. Which is not to say that once we see the truth of the projection, we run off to Nepal or India, and become a monk or nun. We may still keep our job, wear a tie and a suit, and still go with a briefcase to our office every day. But somewhere inside us we know that this is essenceless.

Now, it could happen that we don’t hear the person in the next seat whispering, “Hey, this is just a film,” because we are too engrossed. Maybe there is a big car crash in the movie, or loud music, so we do not hear the message. Or we might hear the whisper but our ego interprets this information so that we remain confused, believing something in the movie is true. What does that mean? That means we lack merit. Without merit, we are like an illiterate beggar who wins a multi-million dollar lottery but does not know what to do with such wealth and loses it immediately.

If we have the merit to hear the whisper, then as Buddhists we have different options. In Theravada and Hinayana Buddhism we leave the movie hall, or close our eyes, so we are not carried away by the movie. We put an end to our suffering in this way. In the Mahayana, we understand that the movie is not real, that it is a projection and empty, and we do not suffer. We don’t stop watching the movie, but we see it has no inherent existence. Moreover, we are concerned about the others in the cinema. Finally, in the Vajrayana, we know it is just a movie, we are not fooled, and we enjoy the show. The more emotion the movie evokes in us, the more we appreciate the brilliance of the production, and the more we share our insights with our fellow viewers.

People ask: “What are the similarities between teaching and directing?” I can say there is a big difference and yet it can be very similar. It all depends on the motivation. I could be teaching dharma purely for worldly gain and in that case I might as well ride in a limousine half-doped like some directors do. But the question still comes up: “You are a Buddhist lama, why do you make film?” This question is a bit puzzling. It indicates to me that from certain standpoints this work is viewed as almost sacrilegious, like I am breaking some kind of holy rule. At the same time, I understand. People automatically associate film with money, sex and violence because there are so many such films coming out of Hollywood and Bollywood.

But if only they had access to films by the likes of Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Antonioni, people would understand that filmmaking doesn’t have to be like that. In fact it is a tool. Film is a medium and Buddhism is a science. You can be a scientist and you can be a filmmaker, a salesperson or a politician at the same time.