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Film Review: Journey from Zanskar: Choose your own adventure (to Buddhist enlightenment)

July 1, 2010

Going to school in the mountains? Magical. Going
to school in the Tibetan mountains, where one of
the core curricula is to attain enlightenment, or
at least a sense of what it is? Nirvana.
Chris Knight
The National Post (Canada)
June 17, 2010

Film Review: Journey from Zanskar (3 stars)
Vagrant Films

Why does a Buddhist monk climb a mountain? To
reach enlightenment on the other side.

In Frederick Marx’s strangely old-fashioned
documentary, the monk is Geshe Lobsang Yonten;
the "Geshe" means he’s a doctor of Buddhist
Philosophy. The mountain is a 5,200-metre pass in
northern India. And the enlightenment is the only
Tibetan-language school for hundreds of miles in any direction.

Yonten, who grew up in the dirt-poor region of
Zanskar, has decided to ferry 17 local children
to Manali, where they can be schooled in their
native language and culture. (Before partition,
the Kashmiri region of Zanskar was part of Tibet.)

He must choose between three routes, each with
its own perils. One requires expensive road
transportation and could be snowed in. Another is
beset by anti-Buddhist extremists. (The onscreen
map helpfully adds cartoon explosions to denote
danger.) The most direct path requires a
300-kilometre slog on foot, accompanied by
packhorses and the occasional snow-ploughing yak. The monk decides to hoof it.

Marx, one of the makers of the 1994
Oscar-nominated doc Hoop Dreams, creates a simple
structure consisting of various voiceovers,
footage of the children en route, and narration
by Richard Gere, Hollywood’s go-to guy for
Buddhist and Tibetan causes. We watch as the
children’s mostly illiterate parents weigh the
benefits of proper education against the
likelihood of not seeing their offspring, aged
between four and 12, for several years.

The on-foot route at least allows some parents to
accompany their children, although the adults --
and particularly Yonten himself -- seem the most
affected by the cold and high altitude. The
caravan is dealt a blow when the crucial pass is
deemed impassable, and they must double back and try a different way.

"We lose everything," says Yonten cheerfully; his
serenity is such that even the possibility of
death seems to strike him as no more than a minor
distraction or modest setback. “We are not
bodhisattva but we took bodhisattva vows,” he
adds, the kind of joke that probably plays better to a Buddhist crowd.

Yonten then decides to raid his monastery’s
coffers and go for broke, but he can’t find an
inexpensive ride through the mountains.
Unfortunately, Buddhists are not Jedi; calmly
repeating to drivers that their prices should be lower has no affect.

By the end of the film, which also features an
appearance by the Dalai Lama, the whole thing has
started to feel suspiciously like an
advertisement for the monks’ doubtlessly worthy
causes. Sure enough, as the credits roll the
first thing we see are instructions on how to donate.

Nevertheless, the journey is a compelling one to
behold, and its leader is an inspiring,
soft-spoken figure. He explains at one point that
he only chose monkhood over marriage (at age 10!)
because he liked the idea of chanting and tea
ceremonies. But he has grown into his vocation,
and if his vows -- to relieve all humans of
suffering -- may never be completely fulfilled,
he’s determined to do right by his 17 young charges.
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