Tibetan Book of the Dead (2003)
NETFLIX SYNOPSIS: You’ll feel instantly at peace with this DVD chronicle of one of the most unique books of Buddhist spirituality, narrated by singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. Sit back and explore the rites prescribed by the text and see how they’re applied by people around the world. Two parts — “A Way of Life” and “The Great Liberation” — are included on this single disc.
REVIEW: I can’t say I’ve had much luck on Netflix with satisfying Buddhist selections, but wow, this is such a great find. Is it possible to feel such a sense of peace after watching something on screen? After the 90-minute documentary, I felt so at peace – not a tranquilized sense of peace, but an “enlightened,” informed sense of peace. Not being someone who contemplates my own death and mortality on a regular basis, I wasn’t expecting to confront this issue so fully, much less feel so at peace with this “natural transition” by DVD’s end.
The much-more-philosophical-than-it-sounds Tibetan Book of the Dead compiles the Buddha’s teachings on death and the afterlife (as interpreted in the Tibetan culture) and is read to those who have passed on, days and days after they have passed on, to guide the “consciousness” after the mortal body has been shed, as natural as an animal molts. Though the documentary focuses on one stage of our life (namely death and what happens after), Buddhist philosophy informs it so that anyone wanting to learn more about Buddhist tenets in general will not be disappointed.
The documentary is split into two fascinating episodes, the first a bit longer than the second. It focuses mainly on Tibetan Buddhist monks and their reading of the enclosed sutras to those who have passed on, with the invisible narrator translating in English. The intimacy the director affords the viewer with the documentary’s subjects (the Tibetan monks, young monks in training asking the same questions the viewer asks, the grieving families) provides for not only a highly informative experience, but a greatly entertaining one as well. The connection becomes even closer as we see these Buddhist teachings being read by American Buddhists to terminal patients in the U.S. (a clinic in San Francisco) and we see the effect on those who know they have months to live, who might otherwise be afraid of death. I felt such a sense of compassion and universal connectedness during those scenes. There are even some clips of the Dalai Lama’s speeches on the subject – one thing you’ll notice about him is, he has got to be the happiest person on the face of the planet (an important tenet in Buddhism: keep your sense of humor!).
I’ve always related most to Buddhism of all the world’s major “religions” (I use “religions” in quotes because to me it is more of a philosophy) because it seems to me so complete, well-considered, and rational and does not involve belief in any omnipotent “god” figure (something I always thought a strange relic of the times when your ability to float in water determined whether you were a witch and consort of Satan – it couldn’t just be that, oh, say, you didn’t want to drown?!). That said, Buddhism has been taught for nearly 2,000 years, so that gave it even more credibility with me and I’ve never missed an opportunity to learn more about it when I can. The ultimate goal of Buddhism, to attain “enlightenment,” reflects belief in humanity, as opposed to belief in something supernatural, and this very basic, but extremely difficult-to-achieve status, offers some guidance to any person – humanist, agnostic, Wiccan or proud, card-carrying member of any organized religion. No distinctions are made in Buddhism for they are irrelevant. Buddha is not an omnipotent god, decider of human fate, as in so many of the other major religions. He is like the ultimate teacher who was able to attain enlightenment, started out as a human being like the rest of us, so that the rest of us can do the same. In one of the scenes, one of the monks-in-training (very cute little Tibetan boy) asks, what’s the point of life then if death is just another “bardo” (gateway) to the next life? To which the elder monk replies, “to be compassionate and to seek truth.”
This documentary was a collaborative feature between Japan’s NHK and a European studio, if I recall correctly, and the production value reflects this high quality. You’ll also see scenes of daily life for average Tibetans, learn more about their culture (in addition to the Buddhist culture), and see some spectacular shots of the Himalayas in the background.
In sum, this is a mad deep documentary that is also very accessible
(like Buddhism itself) and entertaining. There are even some pretty cool animated sequences included to illustrate the process. For a modern (non-documentary) film that I think exemplifies Buddhist principles (equally enjoyable for novices, like me, and for those very familiar with Buddhist tenets, as well as for those who could give a rat’s ass about Buddhism and just want to see an awesome film), I can’t recommend enough Spring, Summer, Fall Winter…Spring.
Final Rating: 4.5 stars.