This concept struck me as I sat in my local Buddhist center study group in the summer of 2006. A year previously, I had been shooting stills in Ladakh, Northen India, for our photo gallery called 'First Light' which is based in Brighton, 50 miles south of London.
Being a practicing Buddhist and a film maker I was eager to link the two together, to create an entry point film, something which you could watch on various levels and perhaps gain insight not only to what some believe to be an exotic eastern religion, but also into one's own true nature, yet to be discovered.
I knew then, as I do now, that preaching one's religious beliefs is an extremely unhealthy spiritual exercise, so I tried to make the film visually strong with a commissioned soundtrack to enable the viewer to immerse themselves in an 'audio-visual' experience, whilst gently relating this to some of the Buddha's teachings.
Of course the above quotation from Kalu Rinpoche was on my mind as we set out from Heathrow to Delhi in January 2007. Although daunted by the fact that I can only just understand this quote myself in my better 'quiet mind' states, I did feel drawn to reflect in my film this concept, which relates to the Buddha's teaching on emptiness and the universal self.
My crew consisted of myself (main camera), Ade Groom (stills and second camera) and Philip Meehan (sound man). This team - which bonded well from the stifled heat of Calcutta to the night time experience of Bodhgaya - gathered round the Bodhi tree where the Buddha had gained enlightenment 2500 years previously.
Together we made several journeys to India that year, always aware we were attempting not only a contemporary travelogue but also a piece which tried to touch people, make them more self aware and hopefully more questioning with regard to why and how we are here, now.
On our first trip on the second day we had a setback when I was arrested for filming illegally on Delhi station. My sound man Philip came with me, as we were frog marched to the police station followed by a group of locals interested to see the outcome. Eventually we were let free with a warning, after the locals had moved on after an hour of waiting outside.
The first trip was mainly to show contemporary India whilst touching on its rich religious traditions, paving the way for the historical section on the Buddha.
After various expeditions into the countryside of Rajasthan and a marvelously fruitful day at the Taj Mahal, the second trip in India was the true spiritual adventure... From Calcutta we took a 12 hour train ride to Varanasi on the banks of the sacred Ganges. It was near here that the Buddha had traveled 200 miles from Bodhgaya to give his first teaching after enlightenment. He taught to a small group of friends the four noble truths - his realization that suffering is part of our lives; that there is a cause to this suffering stemming from our craving, desire and attachment; that there can be an end to our suffering; and that this is achieved by following an eightfold path. This path includes seeing things as they really are, plus ethical action, livelihood, speech and meditation - resulting in a quiet mind, full of insight but with no egotism.
Quite a tall order for anyone to achieve, but my problem was how to capture the essence of this with film and music, and some voice-over.
After filming a river journey on the Ganges we made our way to Bodhgaya, a remote village in the Bihar region of Northern India, the place where there are many temples from all the different strands of the Buddhist faith. We were given exclusive access to film the musicians in the Tibetan temple, and also the Japanese temple where they chanted and used the Taiko drum - which, it is said, expounds the dharma (the teaching) as you beat it in time.
But it was at the Mahabodhi temple next to the Bodhi tree at night, where I felt a truly spiritual experience as monks and lay people from around the world walked, prayed and meditated together, knowing that this was, for Buddhists, the center of the spiritual and physical world.
In post production we had a wealth of material and it took over six months to edit the film, and arrange the music. We had shot all the footage in high definition and so it had to be finished in London at a special HD studio to create the master.
Already in production is 'Timeless Journeys, Japan' where we explore Buddhism's journey in the far east to become Zen, after Bodhidharma took the teaching from India to China (Chan) before its manifestation in Japan.
'Timeless Journeys, India' is distributed through TVF International in London who specializes in documentaries. So far the film has sold to Russian and Indian television broadcasters.
First Light have now mastered to high definition their film called 'Timeless Journeys, India: the Buddha's Path.' The DVD (52 minutes) is now available for purchase. The film is a 2-part documentary about a journey through India, from New Delhi to Bodhgaya, looking at the history and rise of Buddhism and its relevance to modern life.
I received the 'Timeless Journeys' DVD last week and yesterday evening we watched the film. I must say that it is the best introduction to the Buddhist teachings that I have seen. Both Nicole and I were very moved with the beauty and truth of the insights and the way they were presented.
There was some beautiful layering of sounds, sometimes microtonal, that added to the mystery of the atmosphere. It was subtle and in the background, except for emphasis, like a soundtrack should be - not distracting from the images and words, but essential nevertheless.
And the images... Mark Nelson is an accomplished stills photographer with a unique style, particularly in color. With pastel shades and classic compositions, he manages simultaneously to get an alternative view, with a stillness and mindfullness absent from most photos. It's like meditative photography. I believe he has transferred this skill to his filming as well. From the opening picture the images are stunning.
I've been interested in Buddhism since my teens, since I feel that Buddha's teachings present a universal truth, with minimal dogma and most importantly, offering practical and workable methods to advance on one's personal spiritual path. Much of New Age philosophy is closely aligned to Buddhist philosophy as well, by the way. However, I've always been looking for ways to accelerate the meditative process toward enlightenment and I believe I and others have made progress, as represented by the courses Trans4mind presents and recommends. Nevertheless, it seems I remain a Buddhist too, as I closely identified with the ideas presented in this film, which are about universal truth and not religious dogma. It's a path to enlightenment that is not in a hurry. The heart of truth is simple, and beautiful, and this "timeless journey" is a great illustration of that.
The Zen film that is in production has amazing potential and I look forward to viewing Mark Nelson's interpretation of Zen teachings. One of the people I particularly follow in Zen teaching is Dennis Genpo Merzel - a good summary is his book, The Path of the Human Being.
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