The ways of " and the way to " the Dalai Lama
The Aspen Times
Rick Ray’s first guru was the late Jack Palance. Some 25 years ago, Ray, freshly graduated from the film program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was looking ahead to a career in Hollywood. One of the early stops down that path was as a production assistant on the TV show “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” Ray, a native of Southern California, eventually worked his way up to chauffeuring the show’s star, the rugged, former boxer Palance. The interaction with Palance ultimately steered Ray off the Hollywood track.
“He’d sit in the back of the limo, saying, ‘What, you’re going to make derivative movies based on other derivative movies?'” recalled Ray by phone from his office in Central California. “He was a big influence. I walked away, got a backpack, and wandered around the world.”
Ray’s early sojourns truly could be termed wandering. At 25, “with no project in mind, to get as far away from the career path as possible,” as he put it, Ray spent 18 months traveling. When his mother picked him up at the airport, he had 48 Taiwanese dollars ” worth considerably less than 48 U.S. dollars ” and was so emaciated, his mother was scared.
Ray put that trip to good use. He turned his photographs and experiences into a slide show lecture, which proved reasonably popular around California. The demand for his down-on-the-ground presentation convinced him there was an opportunity to make travel films that didn’t focus on the world’s golf courses and hotels.
“In a real travel film, you’re showing the culture, what makes the place tick,” he said.
Ray continued traveling and filming, building a stock-footage library that he would license to commercial filmmakers, and making his own movies that emphasized foreign cultures. His career breakthrough came with “Raising the Bamboo Curtain,” a 1996 video about Southeast Asia that featured narration by Michael Sheen and was aired on PBS. Ray has since made films about India, Jerusalem, the Middle East and Iraq.
Those travels eventually led Ray to his second guru, Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. In 2001, Ray had an audience with the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, and turned his hour-long interview with the Dalai Lama into the documentary, “10 Questions for the Dalai Lama.” The film, which includes a history of Tibetan Buddhism, an examination of the half-century-long occupation of Tibet by China, and the Dalai Lama talking about his philosophy of nonviolence and internal harmony, shows Thursday and Sunday, Feb. 7 and 10, at the Wheeler Opera House.
Ray’s road to the Dalai Lama was supposed to be direct and obstacle-free. An acquaintance, a film producer, presented him with the chance to spend six months in India, all expenses paid. The big enticement was an interview with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, the northern Indian city where Tibet had established its government in exile in 1959.
“I think any sentient being would say, ‘Where do I sign?'” said Ray. “Needless to say, I got over there and there was no connection. Everyone just looked at me blankly, saying they had no idea about this.”
Ray has since come to see that Indian society has peculiar ways of working. “The great thing is, you can get anything done,” he said, an observation borne straight out personal experience. The one person who didn’t answer Ray’s inquiries with a blank look was his 80-year-old driver. On the contrary, the octogenarian claimed to know the Dalai Lama from having taken so many visitors to his holiness’ monastery. The best way to get the Dalai Lama’s attention was to e-mail his secretary, and the driver provided Ray with the contact info.
“That’s the kind of thing that happens when the forces are aligned the right way,” said the 48-year-old Ray. “Suddenly the tables turn, and it becomes possible.”
The interview with the Dalai Lama would not have been possible, however, if Ray’s schedule had not been so loose. After several requests, the secretary gave him one hour with the Dalai Lama ” three months down the road. Perfect, thought Ray, who was looking at another five months in India. Ray spent the time exploring Buddhist culture, and pondering the 10 questions ” the allotted number ” he would ask the Dalai Lama. It was time used wisely; as Ray points out in his film, his holiness is known to abruptly dismiss visitors ” even heads of state ” who come insufficiently prepared, or without sincere intentions.
Ray came up with some interesting topics for the Dalai Lama; as he notes, “I had three months to come up with 10 questions.” Among them are questions about the importance of preserving cultural traditions, and the intersection of faith and science. It is a point of pride for Ray that the Dalai Lama thanked him for certain of his questions.
The answers provided by the Dalai Lama can be surprising. He says, for instance, that when faith and science collide, he will side with the latter as a more reliable path to the truth. But the answers tend to be simple, even simplistic. Asked about conflict in the Middle East, the Dalai Lama doesn’t delve into the dynamics between nations and factions; rather, he says the answer to those eternal problems is “more festivals.”
“But sometimes, the simplicity of his answers is very refreshing,” Ray said. “And in a way, he’s profoundly right.”
More profound than the specific answers is the way the Dalai Lama holds himself. He brings lightness and laughter to every topic; it seems impossible to throw him out of an easygoing mood. Regarding China ” which, as the film portrays, is erasing Tibet’s cultural legacy with brutal efficiency ” the Dalai Lama continues to preach engagement, tolerance and nonviolence. Above all, he is humble. He sees himself not as a man whose answers are going to change the world, but whose personality might serve as a model for others.
“He’s very self-effacing,” said Ray. “That comes across in his humor and in his insistence that you’re not going to touch his hand and be healed. There’s no shaft of light coming through the ceiling. But in that humor, that genuine connection with people, he is extraordinary.”
Ray doesn’t have to look any further than his own life for evidence that the Dalai Lama’s example can make a difference. Ray was raised a Protestant, but in his culture, going to church was a social outing rather than a spiritual experience. He had become wary of embracing matters of religion and the spirit, but the hour he spent with the Dalai Lama and the months of studying Tibetan Buddhist culture have had an impact on him.
“Before I met the Dalai Lama, I was living a life where I was hiding a lot of things, not being truthful about a lot of personal issues,” he said. “That baggage takes a lot out of you. His advice to live truthfully and honestly, that allowed me to open up to those problems. And they all just went away. My relationships with my kids, my wife, my atmosphere have just improved ” not because of magic, but just that kind of practical faith he practices.”
Ray doesn’t call himself a Buddhist. Yet he believes the Dalai Lama ” who is said to be the spiritual incarnation of the fifth century B.C. Buddha ” has an essential message that anyone can adopt.
“We’ve had political and religious leaders we’re very cynical about,” said Ray. “They haven’t lived up to their ideals. The Dalai Lama has been humble, incorruptible. He’s kept his eyes on the prize through turbulent decades. That’s something we can all learn from.”
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