What Changes and What Doesn’t: An interview with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Lion’s Roar – Buddhist Wisdom for our time, February 10, 2015

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is an outstanding Buddhist teacher and director of The Cup, arguably the first great Tibetan feature film. He’s thoroughly modern and deeply concerned about corruption of the dharma. In this classic interview with his student, Kelly Roberts, from 2000, he challenges Western Buddhists to uphold the unchangeable truths of Buddhism while letting go of its cultural trappings. Too often, he says, we do the reverse.

Kelly Roberts: I just wanted to say that your film, The Cup, reminded me so much of you, particularly when the Coca Cola can dissolved into Manjushri.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Really.

Kelly Roberts: In many places in your film, you replace traditional items with modern ones. For instance, the offering bowls on the shrine are replaced by the Coke can and the prayer flags on the roof of the monastery are replaced by a satellite dish. I’m wondering why you did this, because usually you are so worried about Buddhist tradition being corrupted.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: This is something that I want to tell my fellow Tibetans and Bhutanese—that modern technology is not a threat to so-called traditional Buddhism. Their society is just beginning to be exposed to the world of the fax, the telephone and the internet. They may feel uncomfortable with change, but the fact is we can no longer go to any place where there is no modern technology.

We cannot avoid technology—it’s already at the doorstep, if not already inside our house. So instead of allowing these things to influence us, the wise thing to do is make use of their power and speed—to be the influence rather than the influenced. We can use the telephone, the web and television to teach, instead of them teaching us. We can use their power and the speed.

For me, film can be modern day thangka.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche

Kelly Roberts: You have compared your film to a modern version of a traditional thangka painting or a Buddhist statue.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: Every culture has a different way of telling a story, and I felt that maybe I should just tell a story in a Tibetan way.

Kelly Roberts: Would that be your way of teaching?

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: No, not at all. Buddhism has a long tradition of using images to represent wisdom and compassion. In its 2,500-year history, we can see that Buddhism has adopted many methods of expressing the dharma—through painting, sculpture, architecture, performing arts. These existed even during the Buddha’s time. The Buddha himself in the Vinaya Sutra discusses how to paint the five realms and the twelve interdependent links as we see in the wheel of life. So there is an old tradition in Buddhism of using images, and film can do that, too. Why not? For me, film can be modern day thangka… [+]

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