Kundun, or The Presence, is one of the names that the Tibetans use for His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
In 1997 Martin Scorsese directed the movie Kundun, a biographical story of the current Dalai Lama written by Melissa Mathison. I remember going to see the film a number of times when it came out. I picked up a copy of the soundtrack, composed by Philip Glass, and listened to it regularly. I also bought the movie on CD when that came out. The film kept drawing me back to, moving me in ways that stirred deeply in me.
While the movie is historically accurate, it is unlike any biographical story that I am aware of. The cast is made up of unknowns. The film does not appear to aspire to high dramatic art. Instead it becomes a visual and, dare I say, devotional piece, drawing the viewer into the tragic story of Tibet and how the young Dalai Lama takes on and manages the disaster happening around him alongside the weight of expectation from the Tibetan people.
For me the connection with the film came out of my connection with Tibet and the movie’s presentation of the Tibetan Buddhist faith, both in the iconography used, but also and probably more so, in the recitation of Buddhist texts which are sprinkled throughout the film. This is especially so in the final scene where the Dalai Lama is escaping from Tibet. The visuals of the flight are over dubbed with His Holiness reciting verses of Aspirational Bodhicitta. Bodhicitta, or the “mind of awakening”, is sometimes referred to as the seed of liberation. It is also described as an extraordinary mind, as it is a mind whose sole concern is the welfare of all other sentient beings.
Former film critic Robert Ebert said of the movie,
There is rarely the sense that a living, breathing and (dare I say?) fallible human inhabits the body of the Dalai Lama. Unlike Scorsese’s portrait of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, this is not a man striving for perfection, but perfection in the shape of a man. … Once we understand that Kundun will not be a drama involving a plausible human character, we are freed to see the film as it is: an act of devotion, an act even of spiritual desperation, flung into the eyes of 20th century materialism. The film’s visuals and music are rich and inspiring, and like a mass by Bach or a Renaissance church painting, it exists as an aid to worship: It wants to enhance, not question.1
Those words, “we are freed to see the film as it is: an act of devotion…The film’s visuals and music are rich and inspiring, and like a mass by Bach or a Renaissance church painting, it exists as an aid to worship: It wants to enhance, not question.", say better what my bumbling words have been trying to express.
Watching Kundun last night many years after my last viewing in no way diminished that feeling for me. Indeed the film brought it all back for me. Last night will not be my last viewing, I’m sure, and I feel grateful for what Scorsese has created. 🍿