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The Guru Makes Movie - Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)

The lama and filmmaker Khyentse Norbu behind the scene of the making of his new movie and why he makes them

SANSARI Bazaar in Gelephu, located about thirty-five minute drive from the main town, across the mercurial Maokhola River, is a shabby old town with low wooden houses that surround a dusty mule track that pass through its square.

In the old days the town, I would later find, was a roaring, feverish metropolis by Sansari resident standards. Today, however, it seems to be, by any other standards, a miracle of ghost town.

People stare wordlessly from finger-marked windows. Stray dogs lay indifferent near antique shops. The only sound you hear is the flutter of leaves from a giant gulmohar tree that stand watch at the entrance of the town.

As it happened, the town was recently handpicked by Jamyang Khyentse Norbu as one of the locations for his latest directorial outing, a movie based on bardo, a Buddhist telling of what happens in the period between a person’s death and rebirth, which the renowned 61-year-old Bhutanese lama and director opted to shoot entirely in the foothills of Bhutan in Gelephu.

It was fifteen minutes past four in the afternoon of January 2, 2023, and a huge red sun sat atop a flaming horizon when Khyentse Norbu, dressed in a purple bandana, brown half down jacket, maroon monk robe and ankle-length faded boot, rolled in on the town in a grey Maruti van.

“The film is about this young man who sleeps with the young wife of an old man who is impotent, who also happens to be a close family friend and benefactor,” Khyentse Norbu tells me with an impish smile, his eyes alternately penetrating and dancing.

When the young wife misses her period, her panicked lover comes up with a plan to slip in viagra tablets into the old man’s food to make it appear, in case the missed period resulted in a child, that it was the handiwork of the old man himself. “But in the process the young man has an accident and dies. The viagra part is based on an actual story by the way,” he adds.

With that he walked over to a corner. Sansari Bazaar had been transformed into a movie set and composed of a string of prayer flags strung over the square, a cluster of cosmic eyes printed on cardboards hoisted at a corner, Chinese red lanterns hanging from the cornices of a roof, the square’s gulmohar tree turned, oddly, into an open air hair salon, a miniature vegetable market, a handloom, some people, few monks, two cows, a horse, and a goat.

He surveyed the scene from various points. At one point, he put his left arm around his stomach, placed his right elbow on the arm and turned on the Thinker pose. With his index finger, he began to tap his temple and his front teeth. He stared at the space in front of him. He ran his right hand over the bandana that covered his shaved head and began to massage it. The creases on his forehead deepened.

The sun had vanished behind the horizon which soon gave way to the gray twilight and gathering foothill winter chill. He studied the set one final time with his producer, cameraman and assistant director. He discussed with the cameraman where the camera should be placed, how much of the scene should be in the frame and how things might eventually look in the final picture.

“You understand?” the director would say each time to which the Bhutanese cameraman, a young wispy man in a red monkey cap and ponytail, responded by nodding his head solemnly.

It was 6 p.m. when the shooting started. There were no talking scenes, only montages designed to evoke the unsettling dreamscape of the bardo of the afterdeath. The young Bhutanese lead actor does a good job of a man trying to make sense of the bewildering episodes unfolding around him even as he is pulled farther into it.

Occasionally, Khyentse Norbu would interrupt to instruct the actors to look in this direction or that, or to re-outline the general intention of the scene. He doesn’t coach the actors; he sets them free to give their own pulse to their characters. If he is unsatisfied with a take, he asks them to do it again.

It was close to midnight when the shooting wrapped up. Khyentse Norbu thanked the crew and said good job. He discussed for a bit with his producer and assistant director about the next day’s shoot. Then he got inside the Maruti van and was gone.

In the world of Tibetan Lamaism that has never been very comfortable in the presence of unbashful writers and prophetic provocateurs, Khyentse Norbu is an unabashed wordsmith, a prophet, a provocateur, and a lama who, beside Late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is largely responsible for the English phrase ‘pulling the rug out from under your feet’ becoming a popular and profound tool in the understanding and teaching of the Vajrayana Buddhism in the 21st century.

And tucked away in his arsenal of radical ways which he occasionally takes out to pull the rug out from under our feet is his employment of the medium of motion pictures, the most powerful and celebrated form of communications there is.

It is in this field that Khyentse Norbu, a lama, shines in laying bare what he calls roadblocks to the comprehension and application of Dharma in our lives. And like the lama himself, his movies are hard to miss and even harder to ignore. And, for some, hard to take.

They poke holes in our notions of morality and values and reasons which, he points out, is built on shifty foundations changing from one era to another according to the temper of the times. His message: don’t take yourself too seriously.

Other lamas shy from talking about their establishment’s shortcomings. He’s not so bashful. The Vajrayana institution, like most organized religions in the world, is a cauldron of archaic rules and petty politics, most times out of step and out of tune, a pot he enjoys stirring in his movies.

This is not to say his movies work all the time. Very often they fly over the heads of audiences and critics. His organic style and his preference for telling stories without the clanking of plotline don’t fit the sensibilities of either Hollywood or Bollywood oriented viewers, which has accustomed even sophisticated viewers to simpler films. This unhappy coincidence has made it challenging for any but the most assiduous fans to decipher his movies fully.

Not surprisingly, Khyentse Norbu’s moviemaking has caused a lot of raised eyebrows and head scratching, even condemnation, among his peers and devotees and observers alike. The idea of a lama making a movie, an enterprise associated with glitz and glamor no less, is unimaginable—no lama has done that before. Naysayers harrumphed. What’s a lama doing making movies? He should focus on his teachings instead. They were outraged and suggested that he should be too.

Khyentse Norbu clearly enjoys making movies. He’s a natural storyteller and finds the process of creating visual imagery that bring his stories to life fulfilling. He was the happiest and the most relaxed I’ve seen him at his movie set in Gelephu. He joked with the crew, ate with the crew and generally glided from one facet of the movie to another with such ease and good humor that you’d think it was one big party when in fact moviemaking process is one endless beat of tedium.

He is though quick to point out that filmmaking is not his full-time job. “Being a lama is,” he says. Khyentse Norbu is the incarnation of one of Tibet’s greatest Buddhist masters Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo who was, according to scriptures, the Bodhisattva Manjushri in person. He is the abbot of several monasteries in Asia and the spiritual director of several meditation centers across the globe. He writes books, travels, teaches.

In the 24 years since he made his first film The Cup he has made four other films, the latest on bardo being his sixth. To Khyentse Norbu, however, making movies is more than a diverting excursion or a hobby. It’s a means to an end, the end being to help awaken Homo sapiens to the truth which, he points out, is a lama’s job.

He likens his harnessing of the movie’s potential to his predecessors using murals and thangkas to teach. Indeed in the past the most effective way to tell a story was through pictures. And murals and thangkas, a distinctly Tibetan form of art centered on religious figures, themes and symbols, constituted a terrific feat of Tibetan storytelling, movies of their day, which the lamas of that time used extensively to enrich their teachings.

“In my time, film probably is the most modern tool to express what you want to and need to express,” he says. “In my time, film probably is the most avant-garde tool. I say in my time because it’ll be something else in the future.”

Khyentse Norbu’s embracement of movies as an instrument to teach follows in the vein of what is described in the Lotus Sutra, one of the oldest texts of the words of the Buddha, as ‘skillful means’. It refers to an enlightened person’s ability to tailor their messages to a particular audience of a particular time and place.

The Buddha himself is said to have gone great lengths to adapt his teachings to his students. He used local languages, familiar imageries and metaphors to convey his teachings. Many times, it is said, he cooked Cinderella type of fiction to get his messages across.

The Buddha compared his teachings to a boat and said that once the river was crossed and the far shore of liberation reached, the boat should be abandoned. In other words, the forms or words used to reach the goal aren’t intrinsically valuable but are worthwhile to the extent that they help us attain liberation.

Guerrilla shooting

It’s a hot day. A dusty dirt road wind through patches of wood and brush to the location. This morning Khyentse Norbu is slated to film his protagonist’s encounter with an Indian fortune teller who is on his tail and an ancient Bhutanese messenger warrior who is stuck in the afterdeath bardo.

The scene required strong winds. Since strong winds could not be called upon at will on the set, the production team had relied on a high-velocity fan imported from India. But the clunky device which had arrived the night before would not be roused. As the crew worked on it, words spread quickly that the seller had sent a faulty equipment, a chintzy contraption of the picture of the real fan he had sent before the buy. When it did finally sputter to life after a couple of hours, it gave out such an ear-splitting clanking noise that it was abandoned for the smaller backup consumer fan.

“This is the fun part of filmmaking, don’t you think?” Khyentse Norbu turns to me and chuckles. We are inside the director’s tent, which is a blue canvas. He is wearing a pair of black headphones and sitting on a green canvas chair behind a small wireless monitor. The monitor is propped up on a stand and allowed the director to watch a live feed of the action.

As the first scene was being set up, outside under the shade of an old acacia tree, a young crew member yawned, stretched out on the ground with his head on a backpack, and went to sleep. The director popped a candy in his mouth and stepped outside the tent. He clapped a crew member on the shoulder, called out some correctives on the framing to the cameraman, made some amusing remarks to the actors which included a mule, took some pictures of the mule, went to pass water behind the bushes, took some more pictures, and returned to his tent.

“Rinpoche, we are good to go,” the assistant director, a young woman from India, informs the director via a walkie talkie headset. Khyentse Norbu checks the monitor and croons “okay” through his headphone mike which is in sharp contrast to the ringing squawk of his assistant director that follow: “And—ACTION!”

If he likes what he sees on the monitor, a smile flickers at the left corner of his mouth followed by a nod of approval or a thumbs up to the air. If he doesn’t, he might furrow his brow, put a fingertip against his lips and utter what can only be described as an elongated mix of sounds of “hmmm and ummm” which I learned connoted a moment of thought or deliberation in Khyentse Norbu’s vocabulary. Otherwise, he is impassive.

Like many hardened directors he directs with editing in mind. His shoots rarely run very late or involve a crazy range of takes. He also writes in terms of images. By the end of the script, he would have seen the whole movie in his head, all the shots and angles. He would stay up late night before filming a scene, planning out shots.

“I have to,” he says. “This is something poor filmmakers like us must do.” Otherwise, he adds, the costs will skyrocket. “My shooting as you can see is all guerrilla style.”

Khyentse Norbu comes from a group of ultra-low budget, grassroots, independent filmmakers where guerrilla shooting is as much a mentality as it is a way of life. It entails working with nonprofessional actors (most of the time he casts the people in his life as actors), shooting with available light and mostly outdoors to avoid hiring lighting equipment, and coaxing passersby to serve as extras.

In fact for this movie, he has done himself one better. Except for the sound team from Taiwan, the rest of the cast and crew, from the producer and cameraman to wardrobe and set design, are mainly youths with none to scant experience in films, and mostly from Bhutan. The cameraman had not done a single movie before this and was a jangle of nerves throughout the shooting. Apparently, that’s how Khyentse Norbu wanted.

It was partly for aesthetic but mostly for experimental reasons, he explains. For one, the absence of professionals in his film gave him the space and the freedom he needed to exercise his own ideas.

“Unless they know the story, it doesn’t matter whether you bring in the best or not—cameraman, editor, etc., because the story is in the writer’s head,” he says. “Unless as a writer I can transfer my consciousness to them it doesn’t really work. Besides so-called professionals have too many things in their heads. So then it gets really mixed up.”

No climax

To enter into the world of Khyentse Norbu’s movie is to surrender to the dream, whatever it may be and wherever it may take you. There are no sweeping violins or roiling waves. Stories are told through suggestions and implications. Looking for explanation or hoping for a happy ending in his movies is like waiting for the ground to open up and swallow you first.

To be sure there are others in the arthouse community who make similar kind of movies, but they also borrow from Western cinema, with its propensity for plot and character development and stunning cinematography, to be recognizable to Western audience. Khyentse Norbu does not. Or he tries not to.

As much as he admires the West, he believes that the East is enduring a Western cultural occupation via Hollywood as significant as the British occupation of the East during the 19th and 20th centuries, and equally hard to resist. He argues how Hollywood or even the Western arthouse cinema tell a story may not necessarily be how the East tell a story or consume a story.

“Our storytelling is basically ruined by the modern Western thinking that it must have a universal theme,” he says. “If you look at the way Bhutanese told stories in the past, in most of them, for example, there is no climax, it’s mere description of events.”

Khyentse Norbu’s brush with filmmaking happened during the making of the movie Little Buddha in 1992, a large portion of which was shot in Bhutan his home country, under the parasol of the late Oscar-winning Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci (1941-2018). He was in his mid-thirties and the film’s spiritual consultant.

Growing up he had watched old Bollywood movies with more than idle interest, but with Little Buddha it was his first exposure to filmmaking, and he was hooked. He thought movies were an excellent vessel for Dharma. He felt it could reach a wider and more diverse audience than literature.

Seven years later in 1999 he would make a stab at it with his breakout debut film The Cup, about two Tibetan monk football fanatics who, against various odds, secures a TV to watch the 1998 World Cup final live. It was a runner-up for the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival and a hit at the Sundance that year.

“He was there more or less for the whole shoot,” says Bernardo Bertolucci in the documentary Words of My Perfect Teacher (2003). “He was watching the process of making a movie, watching me directing, watching the actors playing… watching.”

Perhaps coming from an artistically inclined family, it was not difficult to get the drift. His paternal grandfather Dudjom Rinpoche, who was said to be the living embodiment of Guru Rinpoche, was a consummate story teller and a poet of compelling beauty. Khyentse Norbu left behind enough telltale signs for Bernardo Bertolucci to say in the documentary: “I saw a filmmaker coming out of the cocoon of a lama.”

But Bernardo Bertolucci’s maximalist cinema with its sensually stylistic and panoramic historical epics (he directed The Last Emperor) contrasted with the young aspirant on a fundamental level who as a Buddhist monk related to simplicity and restraint more.

It’s no shock therefore that Khyentse Norbu has gravitated toward a filmmaker from Japan, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-63), from a bygone era half a century ago. “Ozu is so special because he makes films for us,” he gushes. “He’s such a good storyteller.”

Ozu, for his part, loathed a conventionally structured story. He used only one lens, 50 mm, and only one kind of shot, a shot taken from the level of a person seated on the floor in the Japanese traditional fashion. There were no pans, few dollies and in his entire work used only one crane shot. Yet the Japanese to this day think of Ozu as the most Japanese of all directors. His films they say had the “real Japanese flavor.”

Not surprisingly, Khyentse Norbu’s movie carry inevitable shades of Ozu. Like Ozu, he believes tricky camerawork distracted the audience’s attention from the story. While shooting a vegetable market scene in Gelephu, he had the cameraman fix the camera on a single space and let the actors and the world enter and exit on their own. “That’s how life is, isn’t it?” he told me.

But it’s not only the wells of Ozu from where he draws his inspiration from, although Ozu for him remains a monument. Perhaps unavoidably, he is also influenced by the way Buddhist masters teach. In that what they teach and how they teach are, as a matter of principle, always restrained. He also seems to take his cue from the thangka which show everything and explain nothing. In this way, his movies are structured but their structure is that of Buddhist art.

However, he is under no illusion that his craft or finish have achieved anywhere near the synthesis or the language that he is aiming for in his movies. These qualities remain aspirational, he says. He’s learning from the ground up, movie by movie, story by story, script by script.

Flashes of fire

Khyentse Norbu’s movies may be a cinematic distillation of the ethos of Buddhism but they are never cinematic representations of religious fervor, or even earnestness. His movies, unlike many religious movies, never tilt toward the melodramatic. Nor does it trade in the good-and-evil narratives.

Sure sometimes he’ll show you nudity or even a sex scene, which by the way are never explicit or gratuitous, like in his movie that was banned in Bhutan, that had sent the review board into a moral panic, Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait. Those scenes were not only crucial to the filmmaker’s evocation of what people were capable of doing behind the mask as an abject reality, but were also an implement to prick our prudish moral balloon.

As the internet entertainment exerts its great gravitational pull on the public consciousness, it may feel at times like Khyentse Norbu is ringing an alarm bell that nobody is willing to hear or listening, but he rings them anyway. “Am I trying to reach millions of people? No, impossible. My films are targeted at like-minded people.”

Like his persona, his movies are like a puzzle that one can never put together, but can’t quite

put back into the box, either. There is considerable disagreements among his fans about his 2021 film Looking for a Lady With Fangs and a Moustache whether he was serious or having a bit of fun, or both. With his droll sense of humor, intense powers of observation and a wide playful streak, you never know.

To a discerning eye, however, his movies are like those clouds you see in the summer, close to the horizon and dark gray in color and now and then silently pulsing with interior flashes of fire.

Contributed by

Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)

He is the former editor of Kuensel

456 views2 comments


johan online
johan online
May 12

Thank you Kencho for your sharp & gentle observations, engagingly beautiful descriptions and useful insights into Khyentse Norbu's cinematographic world and vision, and for allowing us to be part of the shooting of Rinpoche's latest movie, which has turned out as such a captivating and beautiful movie and profound wake up call!



Sarah Rinzin Benson
Sarah Rinzin Benson
May 11

Wonderful to read your post. I feel that I was on the set with Rinpoche. Thank you 🙏

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