I watched Werner Herzog’s 2003 movie, Wheel of Time the other night, and was powerfully reminded of the difference between Buddhism as a religion—in this instance, the Tibetan variety—and Buddhism as a teaching and a practice that I follow with enthusiasm. Herzog’s movie documents in two parts—the first in Bodh Gaya, the second in Graz, Austria—the Kalachakra Initiation ceremony for the faithful. The first, in India, was cut short by the illness of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so the Austrian event provided a convenient opportunity to show the completion of the ceremony.
Herzog himself was at first ambivalent about the project, hesitant about the adoption of an eastern religion into Western culture. As he put it, colorfully, in an interview with BBC’s Channel 4 with reference to the Graz ceremony, “Wouldn't it look strange if you were in Bodh Gaya and saw 10,000 Tibetans in Hassidic outfits celebrating Yom Kippur?” An exaggeration, as he himself readily admitted. But his ambivalence reveals itself in the film, as we watch monks chanting and prostrating, creating the awesomely beautiful and intricate sand mandala, and as faithful laypeople make sacred pilgrimages, thumb through long strands of beads, erect strings of prayer flags and twirl their ritual time wheels. Watching the film, I felt like something of an intruder on a practice that remained foreign to me in so many ways, even as I was intrigued by the rituals and awed by the sounds and colors, the “trappings” of the religion.
Not being a religious person, though, I found myself sharing Herzog’s discomfort. To feel the full impact of religious Buddhism in the heart requires a lot more belief than I can muster for any religion, and simply to indulge a fascination for the exoticism of its customs, ritual apparel and paraphernalia seems condescending and inauthentic. Watching the movie, I got stuck between these two irreconcilable attitudes, and failed to achieve that "suspension of disbelief" that Coleridge required for fiction, but which I think is equally applicable to all art forms, even documentary film.
That said, I did find myself seduced, once more, by the Dalai Lama's universal message, repeated at several moments in the course of the film: that we humans are all one, and that compassion for each other is the core of every religion. As Herzog said, in the same interview, to qualify the hesitation cited above: "Yet of course I fully agree with the Dalai Lama on one of his basic views that he voices over and over again - only through understanding other religions will we eventually create lasting peace on this planet.” Bottom line, though, as I hear the Dalai Lama's words, it's not just an understanding and tolerance of other religions that we need, it's the recognition that they all agree on that one fundamental principle: Do unto yourself as you would have others do unto you; or, Love thy brother as thyself.