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A voyage and a quest


A French filmmaker travels to the heart of Tibetan Buddhism’s highest initiation ritual and emerges with a story that is as personal as it is universal
TSI | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : Kalachakra initiation ceremony | Tibetan Buddhism | Natalie Fuchs | A Journey into the Heart of Kalachakra | Richard Gere | Uma Thurman | Dalai Lama | Tantra Buddhism |

A unique film on the Kalachakra initiation ceremony of Tibetan Buddhism is set for global release early next year. The $100,000 production has been directed by Natalie Fuchs, who lives in the South of France and is deeply influenced by the tenets of Buddhism.

The film, titled A Journey into the Heart of Kalachakra, is expected to rope in Hollywood actors Richard Gere and Uma Thurman for the voiceover.

The film was shot in Bodh Gaya during Buddhism's highest initiation ceremony performed by the Dalai Lama in January 2012.

As many as 4,00,000 people from all over 60 countries had descended on the town for the ceremony, which is held periodically and is meant to foster universal peace and compassion.

In 2011, a Kalachakra ceremony was held in Washington D.C., but prior to that the last such event was conducted in 2006, in the town of Amravati in Maharashtra.

Fuchs’ film delves deep into the essence of the initiation process in an attempt to grasp its complexities. The origins of the Kalachakra initiation ceremony dates back to the era of the Buddha. It represents the highest and most intricate teaching of Tantra Buddhism. It revolves around the concept of time (kala) and cycles (chakra), embracing both the personal and cosmic spheres of consciousness.  

Says Fuchs: “We initially intended to spend only three or four days in Bodh Gaya, but the energy of the Kalachakra initiation was so strong that we simply had to stay for all the eleven days of the ceremony in order to capture the power of the entire exercise.”

A Journey to the Heart of Kalachakra was originally meant to be a television documentary. However, what emerged from the shoot gave it the shape of a full-fledged cinematic endeavour. “When we saw the footage, we knew it would be something more than just a television film,” says Fuchs.

The film, which is currently in post-production, follows the entire process of the creation of the sand mandala that lies at the centre of the Kalachakra initiation.

It is a job that requires great expertise, discipline and concentration – the camera brings out the sheer meticulousness of the process as it focuses on the creation of the mandala by six young monks.

But A Journey into the Heart of Kalachakra isn’t only about the public spectacle. The film looks at the ceremony through the eyes of four individuals who come from from diverse cultural backgrounds, meet in Dharamsala and become friends, bound by their common quest for truth and inner peace.

One of these four people is the filmmaker herself, while the other three are a Tibetan couple and a young Buddhist monk.

Fuchs, whose father was a textile engineer who worked in Pakistan and travelled extensively to India, lost her sister when she was only eight years old. In the film, she says: “I was eight. My parents came back from the hospital. Dorothy was dead. My sister was dead… It was pitch-dark. Why life? Why death?”

As she grew older and the questions welled up in her mind, she looked around for a greater understanding of life and its many challenges. This film is her effort to fathom the ways in which one can “accept the unacceptable”.

Fuchs was a casting director for three years before she decided to take a break to raise a family. Her son is now 15 and she has the leeway to return to cinema. “It is a medium with which you can touch the world,” she says.

The filming of A Journey to the Heart of Kalachakra was wrapped up only week before the last Cannes Film Festival, where the producers unveiled a three-minute teaser. Says Fuchs: “This film isn’t just for Buddhists. It is meant for the entire world and that is why we are looking for global distribution.”

One man without whom the film might not have been possible is Manuel Collas de la Roche. "We are merely taking the message of the Dalai Lama to the people through this film," says the French citizen who has spent several years in India as a Buddhist monk

The 90-minute documentary will be released in India simultaneously with its theatrical release in the United States, Europe and Asia, says de La Roche, who has shown the footage to Richard Gere, a Buddhist and follower of the Dalai Lama.

Shot in two parts, the film has used Tibetan actors to give it the scope of a "human adventure film". "It is not only about the rituals, but about the lives of ordinary people," says de La Roche.

The second part of the film, which was shot in Dharamsala, includes an interview with the Dalai Lama, who delivers a message of peace.

"It is a very unique message," says the producer. "These days the world is in grave turmoil with economic, political and social problems affecting the people everywhere. We need to bring the people some kind of hope, an encouragement for a better world, a better life. That is the message of the Dalai Lama."

Says Fuchs: “The abbot of the Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama, opened the place to us for the first time ever and we were exposed to the entire story of Tibet. It was a totally unique experience.”

Fuchs reveals that the Dalai Lama granted her time for only one question. “But once the interview began, I got in five questions. The conversation went on for 25 minutes,” she adds.

“My film isn’t about the politics of the Tibetan struggle,” says the director, “but about the global quest for compassion and tolerance”. The Dalai Lama tells her that to achieve world peace we must all look for peace within each one of us.

The film is likely to premiere at a humanitarian film festival in New York to be held in 2014 under the aegis of the Film for Peace Foundation launched by Manuel Collas de La Roche.

The objective of the foundation is to help finance films about peace and harmony through the understanding of the different cultures of the world, de La Roche says.

De la Roche was the driving force behind Dutch-born French director Jan Kounen’s Darshan -- L'étreinte, a film about the world of Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi Devi.

What is Kalachakra initiation?
The Kalachakra Initiation is generally done over a period of 12 days. The first eight days are devoted to the preparatory rituals, during which the monks make the mandala.

In the next step, the students of Tibetan Buddhism are initiated, after which they are allowed to see the completed sand mandala. The ceremony draws to a close when the monks release the positive energy of the mandala into the everyday world through a final ritual.

The ceremony is meant to grant permission to neophytes to practice Tantra Buddhism. The person who bestows the initiation is known as the ritual master or Vajra Master. The vajra is the ritual implement that cuts through illusion and represents the indestructible mind.

Since the tantra itself lives through direct transmission by the Vajra Master, the initiation fulfils the Vajra Master's pledge to pass on the tantra without diminishing it in any way, always for the benefit of all sentient beings.

During the initiation, the student makes a similar pledge to respect and uphold the teachings. In this way the student enters into the lineage. Students may choose to take on different levels of commitment.

One who maintains the commitment to a conscientious daily practice will achieve greater results, and the lineage will be strengthened. Or, the initiation may be received simply as a blessing.

The student, by generating himself (or herself) as the deity, is introduced to new mental patterns which help him to abandon old, destructive conditioning, thus bringing him closer to the experience of the bliss consciousness of Kalachakra.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017