“Altruism is the best way to fulfill your own happiness.” –The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Last Dalai Lama? is Mickey Limle’s new, heart inspiring documentary film about the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. It opens with white text appearing on a black screen as the voice of His Holiness emerges from silence. He states:
“So long space remains, so long sentient beings remain, so long suffering remains, I will remain. In order to serve.”
It is an intriguing beginning. Why would the title be posed as a question if that question were to be answered within the first few seconds?
During the course of the film it becomes evident that the title and the opening statement, though related, are not directly linked. They both arise from the complex circumstances that surround the Tibetan spiritual leader. The question is of vital concern to the Tibetan people. The statement is a beacon of hope for the entire planet.
Through artfully filmed and edited interviews, footage of the Dalai Lama from childhood into his 80th year, and newsreels of Tibet’s occupation by the People’s Republic of China, we get a glimpse into the life of this extraordinary being. In preproduction meetings, His Holiness stated that he wanted the scope of the film to extend beyond the topics of his reincarnation and the conflict between China and Tibet. He wanted it to be a platform from which to share the things he is passionate about. Lemle honors this request by documenting two projects that reflect the Dalai Lama’s influence throughout the world.
“The Atlas of Emotions” is a dynamic visual representation of the experience of five primary emotions. It was created by American psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman and his daughter, Dr. Eve Ekman by the request of, and with funding by, the Dalai Lama. In a meeting with the Ekmans, His Holiness describes the motivation behind this project:
“Ultimately our emotions are the real troublemaker so we have to deal with that fact. Destructive emotions are our inner enemy. In order to deal with that enemy firstly we have to know the nature of that enemy and from where their strength comes. Then we deal by training the mind with fuller knowledge about the whole map, or atlas, of emotions. We do not use external means. We use training and awareness. We must let people know we have this ability by nature. When we face some mental level problem we usually rely on religious faith. That cannot cover 7 billion people. We are working for 7 billion people.”
We also see the Dalai Lama in British Columbia where 90% of the schools are using a Heart/Mind Learning curriculum inspired by his philosophy of education. He believes that by teaching children the value of inner experience focus will shift away from pure materialism and the world will gradually become more peaceful. Footage of his visit to one of the schools shows him explaining to the students the detrimental effect that negative emotions have on health and how, in contrast, the cultivation of positive emotions leads to peace of mind and relaxation. He also tells them that external means, like drugs and alcohol, are not effective ways of dealing with emotional stress.
The only Dalai Lama in history to have spent most of his life outside of Tibet, His Holiness has become a global presence. He has inspired religious and world leaders of many faiths. Interviews with two different Deans of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC and one with former US President George W. Bush illustrate this fact. Regarding sharing his wisdom he says:
“These teachings are human knowledge, something that belongs to the world. They should not be considered a Buddhist matter. No. This is our common knowledge, our human knowledge which lives with humanity. I think it is time now that the knowledge we kept for over 1000 years should be made available to everybody.”
His Holiness is living proof of the effectiveness of these teachings and practices. Since the age of 19, when he was called upon to lead his country in the struggle against the Chinese invasion, he has been faced with circumstances that for most humans would create a surplus of negative emotions. He was forced to flee his homeland in 1959 and has been living in exile in India ever since. In spite of repeated attempts to negotiate with the Chinese, conditions in Tibet have deteriorated further.
The film details the plight of the Tibetans in powerful images and interviews. Portraits of the more than 144 young Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest of the occupation of their country personalize the desperateness of the situation.
Interviews with the Dalai Lama’s doctor and his chant master tell of their imprisonment in labor camps, not for committing crimes but for remaining loyal to their country and their faith. There is a particularly heartbreaking moment during the interview with the elderly chant master. He explains that worse than any of the physical tortures he withstood was the fear that he would lose compassion for his captors and that in losing compassion he would lose his soul. The toll that this struggle took on him is etched in every line of his face and evident in the tears that seem to be permanently welling in his eyes.
In Lemle’s earlier film, Compassion in Exile (1991), he asked the Dalai Lama if he hated the Chinese. His Holiness explained that, although he sometimes lost his temper with them, he never hated them. He described his daily practice of “Exchange” where in his imagination he took all of the hatred, anger and ignorance of the Chinese into himself and in return filled them with his positive mental thoughts. In 2015 Lemle references that conversation and asks His Holiness who has benefitted from his devoted practice of Take and Give. He answers:
“The benefit is to myself. It won’t help the actual problem but it is an immense help to maintain peace of mind. With all of these practices, I think, even the practice of love and compassion, the benefit firstly goes to himself or herself. Then through actions some other people may also get benefit. I think quite often people get this impression that the practice of love and forgiveness is something good for others, not necessarily themselves. That is totally wrong. Through the practice of these sorts of things you immediately get a more peaceful mind and you gain more inner strength, more self confidence. Then automatically there comes an indication from your smile, from your face, and from your actions. That gives some benefit to others. So, if you think seriously, the practice of altruism is the best way to fulfill your own happiness, your own benefit.”
Indeed this vibrant 80 year old radiates a depth of inner peace that defines true happiness. His interviews are continually interspersed with chuckles and laughter. He speaks with humor even when talking about his own death and addressing the key question asked in the title of the film: “will he reincarnate?”
The crux of the reincarnation issue becomes clear toward the end of the film. The Chinese government has been issuing statements for several years now that the recognition of the reincarnation of the next Dalai Lama will be in their hands. In response to this ludicrous notion, His Holiness has said that he will not reincarnate in Tibet while it is ruled by the PRC, nor in any country that is not free. By stating that there may not be a 15th Dalai Lama he is preemptively discrediting anyone chosen by the PRC to succeed him. He will not allow the government of China to use a fake Dalai Lama to exert control over the spiritual lives of the Tibetan people.
The Dalai Lamas are believed to be a continuation of the lineage of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara, that dates back to his incarnation as a Brahmin boy in the time of Buddha Sakyamuni. The 14th Dalai Lama is number 74 in this greater lineage stream. Perhaps it is true that the Chinese occupation of Tibet will necessitate a discontinuation of the institution of the Dalai Lama, but the conclusion of the film leaves us hopeful that Avalokitesvara will not desert a world in such desperate need of compassion. It ends as it began, with the voice of His Holiness saying:
“So long space remains, so long sentient beings remain, so long suffering remains, I will remain in order to serve.”
Now playing in select theaters. Click on the image poster for screening dates and locations.
Written by Aliki St. Denis. Photo courtesy of His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Adam Segal.