The writer Naomi Levine just finished interviewing me for Elephant Journal. I am sharing some of that interview here.
We have to think about compassion from many different angles, not just thoughts, but something that comes from our heart and our bones. Then you are a follower of Mahayana…. If you give up on one sentient being then you lose bodhicitta….HH Karmapa 17
Never Give Up – Karmapa 17 – Trailer
For anyone who does not know Bodh Gaya, it can best be summed up as a journey through the sufferings of the six realms to the still point of enlightenment under the bodhi tree.
In a half kilometre you will pass cows and dogs eating their way through piles of waste on one side of the street while state of the art Subarus or Toyotas carrying Lamas and massive modern luxury buses with Chinese pilgrims or Indian tourists dominate a torrent of traffic. Bicycle rickshaws and horse drawn carts overloaded with human cargo struggle with each foot for space. As you reach the promenade in the precinct leading to the sacred bodhi tree, child vendors press fresh lotuses in your face, village men hold fish in plastic bags to be purchased by a pilgrim for the merit of liberation – then caught and used again for business.
And then the beggars. Feet twisted, hands cut off crawling the dusty pavement to target a tourist handout. Or a stationary body, both limbs missing leaving just a torso sitting in the heat of the sun. This is buddha business, and it awakens a full range of emotions.
You can view the entire interview here at Elephant Journal Interview
At one point Naomi asked me how our film had evolved. I would like to share that story here in more detail than our interview permitted.
The evolution of Never Give Up – Karmapa 17
The original inspiration behind this film was fairly simple and straightforward. I was the principle still photographer during Karmapa’s U.S. tour in 2008. When I found out about the 2010 Kagyu Monlam and that this was the 900 Year Celebration of the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa I thought I would try my hand at making a documentary. Once I got the permission we needed to film at the Monlam I thought of my friend Fernanda Rivero, a filmmaker living in Mexico. She has done a number of short films and had experience with documentaries. Fernanda is a great storyteller, while I am more of an image-maker. I called up Fernanda to see if she would be interested in helping with this film. As it turned out she was planning to go to Bodhgaya in January for teachings at Shechen Monastery. She was immediately excited and changed her dates to arrive in India a month earlier. So Fernanda became my co-director and co-producer on this film.
Soon after this I received an email from Maia Saabye Christensen, a Danish filmmaker who had seen the announcement of our documentary on Facebook. She said she would be in Delhi working on a film on Richard Davidson, the scientist whose studies, sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, are showing how meditation on compassion and loving kindness actually effects certain regions of the brain. The Dalai Lama has been involved with this project for many years. Maia asked if we needed any help. As it turned out Maia was an invaluable help as an additional camerawoman and a great help with coordination at the Monlam as she arrived ahead of us and made relationships with most of the people we needed to work with.
With the help of Karmapa’s general secretary Karma Chungyalpa, his western secretary Chime and some others we were actually granted three interviews with His Holiness. Considering his busy schedule we felt immensely fortunate. Karmapa’s interest in our film and approach seemed to grow with each meeting. At one point he actually expressed a desire to get involved in our editing process. He said he had been advised to study Final Cut Pro (a film editing software) but didn’t have the time. Due to his busy schedule and our lack of funding I am not sure if this will actually transpire.
We were in Bodhgaya searching for a way to make this film different than other films about charismatic Buddhist teachers or about an event like the Kagyu Monlam. During His teaching on Atisha’s Lamp the Karmapa spoke a lot about going beyond our comfort zones with our Buddhist practice and really generating compassion. At one point he talked about how sitting in our shrine rooms with our precious malas and bone horns was the main point of practice. Considering all the suffering there was in the world we need to get out and do something. He said, “As Buddhist’s working on the path is to work on taming your mind. To give tormas, make offerings to the Buddhas, making prostrations is not enough to practice. You will not be freed from your suffering by making offerings to the Lhas, offering smoke, you must really change yourself, bring wisdom and meditation and good conduct to yourself…
He asked, “How much responsibility can we take for others? If you cannot take responsibility for others, whether you call yourself Mahayana or not you are Mahayana. If you are only doing for yourself, you are the lowest of the low, in the smallest of the Yanas…Compassion is thinking about beings who are suffering and really wanting to liberate them from that suffering. This compassion doesn’t come by just saying the Vajrasattva mantra, saying please come – that will not make compassion arise.
… There are so many people in Bodhgaya, so many people with no hands, no legs or nothing to eat, with health problems…we may not be able to give too much to them but if we really care and feel for them compassion is generated.
This really struck home. I was practicing, taking pictures and now working on a film, but what was I doing for anyone else? I turned from looking inside for some lofty enlightenment message, the “nature of mind”, “the emptiness of this or that” to looking at what was happening in the world right there in front of us, in Bodhgaya, India. My co-director, Fernanda Rivero and I were searching for a way to make this film different than other documentaries about one’s Buddhist teacher or about an event like the Kagyu Monlam. Naomi introduced us to the three female students of Karmapa’s who were actually trying to do something about the mess in Bodhgaya. It seemed the perfect segue into what Karmapa was actually teaching. He was advocating taking action, doing something to help others no matter how small it might seem.
So now we are weaving together the parallel stories of Karmapa and his activities and these three women trying to make a difference to the people and the world of Bodhgaya, India.
At this moment, Fernanda and Matthew Shultz, an experienced editor from Chicago are continuing the editing of the movie in a small town in Mexico. The biggest challenge we face with embodying our vision for this film is how to you convey the teachings of Karmapa in a 70-minute visual metaphor. We are looking at incorporating footage from Karmapas 2008 tour of the U.S. and telling the story of Karmapa’s teachings through world footage; scenes of a planet being destroyed, scenes of the beauty we may lose, wars and tsunamis and nuclear disasters, scenes of abuse to animals Karmapa often speaks about,
This is all developing and evolving during the editing process. We came home from India with a lot of footage – hours of interviews with The Karmapa and other Rinpoches, hours of teachings, days of the activities of the Kagyu Monlam and days following around our characters. We had no hard and fast script. Everything seemed to naturally morph into a new and more refined direction. We are still deep in the process of this creation. As I mentioned to Naomi there are times when Fernanda and I feel like we are just puppets and maybe Karmapa is pulling the strings, maybe “we” are not really creating anything.
UPDATE ON THE FINANCES OF NEVER GIVE UP – KARMAPA 17
During our first couple of months working on this film we did manage to raise a little of $2000 through Facebook and this blog. This came mostly from Dharma friends and devotees of Karmapa. We are grateful for that help. That money was spent to Fed Ex tapes of HHK’s 2008 USA visit to Mexico City from the Karmapa Foundation, to ship a book on HHK that had photos of the previous 16 Karmapas that we used in the intro to the 900 Year Film for the Kagyu Office, to pay for some editing help in Mexico City and also to hire the editor Matthew Schultz to come to Mexico City and work on the film with Fernanda for two months. She paid for his airfare, food and lodging out of her own pocket. We have made a short film on the 900 Year Celebration to travel with the Dusum Khyenpa statue for Karmapa’s office. We did this at our own expense. His Holiness the 17th Karmapa has reviewed this film and he and his office have sent us a list of changes they wish to make, so this is still an ongoing expense. We have been very frugal but we now need some financial assistance from Karmapa’s friends, students and anyone else who thinks this project is worthwhile. We are working towards creating a film that will show the actions of a great compassionate and charismatic spiritual leader, whose name means “Activity of the Buddhas” and hopefully encourage others into taking social and environmental action.