When the Iron Bird Flies is a 90-minute documentary about Tibetan Buddhism in the Americas and Europe. It’s a story that begins with the Chinese occupation of 1949, a calamitous event for Tibetans but perhaps a blessing for the rest of the world. As a result of the Chinese military moving in, thousands of Tibetans moved out, trekking across the Himalaya in a diaspora that propelled Tibetan lamas and rinpoches out into the wider world. A decade later, young westerners disaffected with their own societies began showing up in Tibetan refugee communities in India and Nepal, soaking up religion and culture that was carried home to inform the creation of American and European Buddhist communities. Interviews with many of these participants, western and Tibetan, make up most of the film, which includes as well as archival footage from Tibet and early western Buddhist centers. While Richard Gere makes an appearance, Robert Thurman is absent, the Dalai Lama is hardly to be found, and Trungpa Rinpoche is quickly passed over. The newest generation of teachers and practitioners are represented by Kelsang Wagmo, a German nun who became the first woman to be awarded the academic title of geshe, an African American student of Tibetan and Buddhism in India, the son of a Tibetan Rinpoche and his American mother, and a young lay practitioner whom we follow as she heads into a five-month retreat.
The American film makers presumably aspired to document Tibetan Buddhism in the West, but in truth the examples are principally American. They touch on a couple of problems encountered importing an ancient Asian religion, including traditional forms of worship (such as bowing to Buddha images) and an all-male clergy. Among the issues unexplored are the guru (central to Tibetan practice, but anathema to many skeptical moderns); the tulku, or reincarnated teacher (a system that hasn’t proven resistant to exposure to modern capitalism); the role of belief (in karma, rebirth, and the pantheon of celestial buddhas, bodhisattvas, and assorted beings of the heavenly and hell realms, as well as occult practices such as divination and weather control); the commercialization of the practice (with many retreats costing thousands of dollars); and western Buddhism’s white, upper-middle class demographic.
The filmmakers also seem to make a couple of problematic assumptions. While they clearly state the film is about Tibetan Buddhism, this version of the religion seems to be conflated to Buddhism itself. There is no effort to educate or distinguish between brands, which brings out yet another aspect of Tibetan Buddhism overlooked – the influence of Bon, Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion. More problematic is a presentation of Buddhism as a happy pill: take some meditation and all your problems will melt away. Most of the teachers seem to talk about happiness, but no one says much about just what this happiness is, nor talks about Buddhism as a philosophy that sees the world as illusory and the practice as a means of learning to how to free oneself from it – perhaps in this life, but most probably in one of many suffering lives to come. That such a view is not discussed is perhaps because this is precisely how the West has changed Buddhism, from other worldly to this worldly, from aspiring to nirvana to escape the world, to aspiring to nirvana to enjoy the world.
If you know nothing at all about Tibetan Buddhism in the USA, this film might make a suitable introduction. It covers the most basic history, interviews widely, and is well paced. For more substantial discussions of the cultural interface between Buddhism and American capitalism, see a few of the references below.
96-minute Documentary Film from the Producers of BLESSINGS: The Tsoknyi Nangchen Nuns of Tibet
Producers VICTRESS HITCHCOCK & AMBER BEMAK
Editor CATHERINE HOLLANDER
USA • Running time: 96 minutes • English • Not Rated • Color and B&W
© 2012 Chariot Productions & Pundarika Foundation
MicGirk, Tim. “Reincarnation in Exile.” The Believer. February 2013.
Paine, Jeffrey. Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Lopez, Donald S. Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. University Of Chicago Press, 1999.
Interview with director Victress Hitchcock.
Other reviews of this film at: