Meditating on our global interconnectedness: A conversation with Samsara filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson

Alexandra Marie Daniels, The WIP: When I set aside my dance career, my fascination for movement in time and space had not ended though my interests had shifted from the proscenium stage to film.

At the time, I asked my friend James, a film producer, to please make me a list of must see films.

The next morning I received an email with a list of five movies. The film Baraka was at the top of the list with a note that said “Watch this film on the big screen.”

It has been twenty years since filmmakers Mark Magidson and Ron Fricke created …

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Meditative stream of images in ‘Samsara’ raises questions

“Samsara,” a dazzlingly beautiful documentary directed by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, consists of a non-narrative stream of images shot in 25 countries. It is best enjoyed as a kind of meditation, writes Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald in this review. The film is playing at Seattle’s Cinerama.

Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson’s stream-of-images documentary “Samsara” floats by, its pictures piling up like turned pages in a magazine. Shot in 70mm and playing on Cinerama’s massive screen, it’s often dazzlingly beautiful — a shot of clouds erupting like cotton over a volcano; a massive church whose windows are a candy-colored kaleidoscope of stained …

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Aston Kutcher channels Steve Jobs at UCLA

The Daily Mail carries photographs of actor Aston Kutcher playing the part of Steve Jobs in a biographical film that’s being make of the late Apple chief.

Jobs is said to have been inspired by meditation and by the minimalist Zen esthetic, although his legendary bad temper suggests that his meditation practice only went so far.

He was so dedicated to Buddhism he went to India in search of enlightenment – and was married by a Zen master.

And new scenes of Ashton Kutcher sitting cross-legged at a meditation class show it is another of the threads of his live that will be touched upon in the forthcoming Steve Jobs biopic.

The Two and a Half Men star looked every inch the idealistic young hippie in his orange and cream striped shirt, torn jeans, Beatles-esque hair and beard at the UCLA university campus today.

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Florida Dharma Film Festival embraces Buddhist teachings

Amy C. Rippel, Orlando Sentinel: Whether you are Christian, Jewish, Muslim or any other religion, Mark Winwood wants you to embrace your inner Buddhist ideals.

It’s not about changing religions. It’s about living a happier, more meaningful life that is full of strength, confidence and clarity. Winwood, founder of the Yalaha-based Chenrezig Project and a self-taught Tibetan Buddhist teacher, hopes that local residents — no matter what religion, ethnicity or affiliation — will embrace the Buddhist teachings.

Through the Florida Dharma Film Festival, which begins Friday at the Windhorse Wellness Center, he hopes to bring together Eastern philosophies to the west.

Feature films with ties to Eastern ideals will be shown during the free festival, which also will be held Saturday at the Windhorse Wellness Center, 353 Plaza Drive, Eustis. It continues March 30 and 31 at the First Congregation Church of Winter Park, 225 S. Interlachen Ave., Winter Park.

Some of the films on tap are big Hollywood productions with famous-named actors while others are small, lesser-known independent films.

“These films communicate that there is a lot more to our lives than the everyday struggles we all engage in,” said Winwood, who in 2006 took a spiritual trip to Dharmsala, site of the Tibetan government in exile and home to its political and spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

That year, Winwood, 60, started the Yalaha Tibetan Buddhism Study Group as a means to teach Tibetan Buddhist practices. Today, it’s evolved into the Chenrezig Project with dozens of students learning the peaceful ways. Three years ago he started the film festival, which has grown into a two-weekend event.

Between films there will be breaks for discussion. All are free but reservations are recommended by going to

Film schedule

Friday, March 23 (Windhorse Wellness Center, Eustis)

7-7:50 p.m. — “The Lion’s Roar”

8:10-10:15 p.m. — “Fearless”

Saturday, March 24 (Windhorse Wellness Center)

Noon-1:30 p.m. — “10 Questions for the Dalai Lama”

1:50-3:20 p.m. — “Saint Misbehavin'”

4-5:45 p.m. — “Buddha’s Lost Children”

7-7:45 p.m. — “Tibetan Book of the Dead”

8:10-9:55 p.m. — “Enlightenment Guaranteed”

March 30 (First Congregation Church of Winter Park)

7-8:10 p.m. — “The Devotion of Matthieu Ricard.”

8:30-10:20 p.m. — “Twelve Angry Men”

March 31 (First Congregation Church of Winter Park)

Noon-1:15 p.m. — “Tulku”

1:35-3:15 p.m. — “Recalling a Buddha”

3:30-5 p.m. — “How to Cook Your Life”

6-7:20 p.m. — “The Sun Behind the Clouds”

7:45-10 p.m. — “Little Buddha”

WindHorse Theatre: 353 Plaza Drive, Eustis, FL :: (352) 602-4351

First Congregational Church of Winter Park: 225 South Interlachen Avenue, Winter Park, FL :: (407) 647-2416

The Chenrezig Project: PO Box 11, Yalaha, FL 34797 ::

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Freedom in prison

Dhamma Brothers documentary stillThe New York Times: The teachings of the Buddha infiltrate a maximum-security prison in “The Dhamma Brothers,” a thinking-head documentary about finding answers within for those who can’t get out.

Visit the film’s web site and view a trailer here.

Filmed in 2002 at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Ala., one of the most violent prisons in North America, this provocative film follows a small group of inmates through a strict course of Vipassana meditation. Read more here.

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Kiran Bedi’s You be the sky: From criminality to humanity (Delhi Newsline)

The documentary, You Be The Sky, Kiran Bedi’s initiative to highlight the vitality of meditation and humane management in prison and policing, was screened in the Triveni Kala Sangam. The film highlighted the success of Vipassana, a form of meditation, in fostering change and empowering people physically, mentally and spiritually.

You Be The Sky is an initiative of the India Vision Foundation, a trust chaired by Bedi. The trust, with its objective as ‘‘save the next victim’’, deals with issues of prisoner reform, drug abuse prevention and crime prevention among others.

The film has been funded jointly by the trust and Bedi’s friends, and directed by Lavlin Thadani, whose first production, Karmawali, was screened at Cannes Festival.

One of the lead protagonists in the documentary, Bedi, spoke of the enormous change she had witnessed in prisoners and the police before and after Vipassana. The film also features S.N. Goenka, Vipassana teacher who spread the meditational technique across the world and Raju, and ex-convict who is now a Vipassana instructor.

Expressing her attachment to the film, Bedi said that she had lived the film in the course of her life, and that it was a part of her.

Vipasanna, which draws its inspiration from Lord Buddha, is a an ancient form of self enhancement and reform, “it is what Gautam used to become Buddha. It makes you a Buddha within”, remarked Bedi.

The film is to be screened across the globe and the initiatives to screen the film in parts of Europe are already underway. It will also be screened at the UN this November. To further the effort of making this documentary public, a time slot on television is also on the cards.

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Meditation and movies

Mireya Novu, Tampa Bay Times: It was hard to reach Khyentse Norbu, Tibetan spiritual leader-turned-film director, as he traveled from his native Bhutan to Sydney, Australia, then to Tokyo and Honolulu on his way to the Miami International Film Festival, where his latest film, Travellers and Magicians, was screened at the Gusman Theater last month.

His jet-setting ways are quite a departure from his life of quiet contemplation in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the country that inspired the fictitious Shangri-La in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon. It was in the tiny kingdom, nestled between China and India, that he was enthroned at age 7 as the reincarnation of revered 19th century saint and reformer Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.

The Lama H.E. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, as he is known by his followers, is a revered teacher who studied under the 14th Dalai Lama and has dedicated his life to teaching Buddhism….

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But we still want to know if a Tibetan lama can hang on to his serenity while he schmoozes with celebrities and producers at film festivals. “Well, I have to get up an hour and a half before everyone else and do my meditation,” he said affably when we finally located him for this interview in Honolulu. But this is not an ordinary monk.

After all, he counts among his favorite films Kill Bill and Natural Born Killers. “We all have preconceived ideas about Tibetan monks, but he defies most preconceptions,” said producer Mal Watson. “He is witty and wise. A great teacher.”

Born in Bhutan in the Year of the Metal Ox (1961), Norbu is an inveterate movie buff who admits to carrying around a VCR and tapes of Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet. While studying at London’s School of Oriental and African studies in 1998, he was hired as a consultant for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. “Bertolucci had heard that there was a Tibetan lama in London who was obsessed with film,” recalls Norbu. “And he found me.”

The collaboration with Bertolucci proved fruitful in more ways than one. It was through the contacts he made while working on Little Buddha that Norbu was able to finance his first feature film. Based on real events, The Cup displays the lighter side of monastic life, as a soccer-obsessed young monk is determined to rent a satellite dish and have it installed in time to watch the World Cup final between France and Brazil.

Since there are no actors in Bhutan, Norbu had no choice but to cast real monks in the film. It proved an inspired neorealist touch. This gentle, upbeat fable of the cultural clash between East and West in a Tibetan monastery charmed audiences worldwide. The Cup had its world premier at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999 and traveled to the Miami Film Festival a year later. Distributed in 40 countries, the film earned Norbu international critical acclaim.

Was Norbu surprised at the film’s success? “I was surprised that the film was made at all, since I don’t have any film background,” he said. “But seeing it screened at some of the most important film festivals in the world was an even bigger surprise.”

He is especially delighted that his cinematic debut helped demystify Westerners’ perception of Tibetan monks. Norbu had a message for his countrymen as well: “We’re in the 21st century,” he said. “We have faxes, e-mail, Web sites, telephones, film. Let’s make friends with them. They are not a threat.”

Adapted from a Buddhist fable, Norbu’s latest film, Travellers and Magicians, is more philosophical and somber than his previous offering. “I don’t want to claim there’s a profound spiritual teaching in the film, but I can always learn something out of anything that involves life,” he said.

Shot entirely in Bhutan, the film premiered in Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital, in August and has already been shown at the Venice, Toronto, Sao Paolo and London film festivals and at the Buddhist Film Festival in Los Angeles.

The film tells the tale of a young man fed up with life in his Bhutanese village. He decides to head to the United States, where he has heard he can make a fortune picking grapes. “You always think that the grass is going to be greener on the other side, but that is a fantasy and hope becomes pain,” said the third incarnation of the Khyentse lineage. He adds that the movie is really about Bhutan, “its serenity, its culture, its tradition.”

Even as he travels to film festivals around the globe, Norbu continues to teach Buddhist philosophy, found charitable institutions and spend several months a year in strict meditative retreat.

At 42, he doesn’t envision being a filmmaker indefinitely, although there is one project he would love to undertake: The life of Buddha. “For it to be authentic I would have to cast the right actor. I will look for an actor in India or Nepal, but who would finance me if this actor isn’t a big star? To be successful,” he adds philosophically, “I would need to speak the language of Hollywood.”

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New seasons, new lessons and a nod to Buddhism (via Buddhist News Network)

Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald: SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER … AND SPRING (Unrated) ***½

Transcendental, humorous, occasionally grim and above all wise film about the journey of life. An elderly monk teaches his young pupil some hard lessons in this intriguing reflection on the cyclic nature of life.

The South Korean director Kim Ki-Duk is known to many as a maker of violent films with a radical and often shocking view of Korean society. People who gave up watching The Isle, can however this time enter the cinema without fear to see Kim Ki-Duk’s serene and breathtaking meditation about the essence of life.

No one is immune for the power of the seasons and their yearly cycle of birth, growth and decay. Not even the old and the young monk who live as hermits in a floating monastery on a lake surrounded by mountains and trees. In the spring, the young monk in his cruel innocence binds stones on the backs of fishes, a frog and a snake. For punishment, he has to carry a stone on his own back as he looks in the stream for the frog and the fish he mistreated. When the boy is 17 (in the summer), a girl comes to the monastery.

The young monk soon experiences the meaning of love and obsession. In the third episode, autumn, the boy returns from the mountains as a 30 year old. The old monk finds him when he wants to commit suicide in front of the statue of the Buddha.

See also: A meditation on lessons of life (film review)

He makes him carve the Prajnaparamita Sutra in the wood to rediscover his tranquillity. As an adult man, the monk (now played by Kim Ki-duk himself) returns to the deserted monastery. A woman leaves her newly born son with him. In the last part of the film, it is against spring and we see an old monk and a child…

Nearly all of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring takes place aboard a floating monastery on a pond surrounded by picturesque trees and mountains. An oasis of serenity and beauty, the locale is far enough removed from civilization to feel like another planet — a perfect place for an old monk (Oh Young-soo) to raise his young disciple and educate him in the principles of Buddhism.

With the onset of each of the seasons, which leap ahead several years in the characters’ lives, the pupil learns a new lesson. In spring, while still a boy (Seo Jae-kyung), he discovers the price of casual, mischievous cruelty. In summer, now a teen (Kim Young-min), he experiences sexual longing when a young woman (Ha Yeo-jin) visits the temple for healing. The boy’s lust causes a rift between him and the monk that will take years to repair.

An entrancing cinematic poem, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring was written and directed by Kim Ki-duk, an accomplished South Korean filmmaker whose work remains largely unknown to American audiences (this is the first of his movies to receive wide distribution in the United States).

Kim, who also edited the film and appears as the adult pupil, leavens the movie with the tenets of Buddhist principles: Animals, meditation, man’s relationship to the natural world and spiritual penitence all factor strongly in the plot, which has the circular structure and resonant wisdom of an ancient fable. But this delicate, transporting movie, which keeps dialogue to a minimum to tell its story primarily through images, is also a triumph of sheer cinematic craft that mirrors its characters’ contemplative natures while extolling the virtues of lives simply led.

Cast: Oh Young-soo, Seo Jae-kyung, Kim Young-min, Kim Ki-duk, Ha Yeo-jin.

Writer-director: Kim Ki-duk.

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The greatest story ever told? (Independent, UK)

Andrew Buncombe, The Independent (UK): A 1993 romantic comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell is being hailed by religious leaders as the most spiritual film of all time. Today, as the US town of Punxsutawney celebrates Groundhog Day, Andrew Buncombe reports on an unlikely parable.

Fred knew a thing or two about redemption, about the willingness to change, about turning one’s life around. Sitting drinking beer from a bottle in a dark, late-night bar in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as a blizzard blew up outside, he explained, “A few years ago, my son was about 12 or 13 and it had got to the point where he needed me around more than I was. I was working for a gas company, making $55,000 [£30,000], which is good money for these parts. But I just walked away from it. Now I sell trailers and low-loaders, anything, and I doubt I make a third of what I used to. But I’m always there for my boy. Now my son’s a star athlete at high school and a grade-A student.”

Fred put down his bottle, tugged on the peak of his baseball cap and glanced at the snow coming down outside. “I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my time, but I can walk down the streets of Punxsutawney with my head held high.”

Today, the people of Punxsutawney will be holding their heads as high as any. For the 117th consecutive year the people of this small town will hold aloft a small, rat-like creature and, by its subsequent behaviour, seek to forecast the weather. Records suggest that the forecasters usually get the prediction correct, but either way the town’s Groundhog Day has become world famous, and tens of thousands of people will flock to this part of Pennsylvania to participate in it.

Much of that has to do with the success of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a brash TV weatherman who is dispatched to Punxsutawney to cover the annual festival. Yet the movie has achieved far more than simply luring crowds to a Pennsylvanian town – what is usually described as a romantic comedy has become a crucial teaching tool for various religions and spiritual groups, who see it as a fable of redemption and reincarnation that matches anything that Fred could tell me at the bar.

“At first I would get mail saying, ‘Oh, you must be a Christian because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief’,” the film’s director Harold Ramis recently told The New York Times. “Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation centre for 30 years and my wife lived there for five years.”

Firstly, a brief synopsis of the film: Murray’s arrogant and curmudgeonly character, Phil Connors, having been sent to Punxsutawney for the fourth year in a row, finds himself inexplicably trapped in a seemingly endless cycle in which he is forced to repeat that 2 February day over and over again. Nothing he can do – not suicide, not prayer, not visits to the psychiatrist – can break the circle. At first he uses the repetitious cycle to his advantage, learning to play the piano and to speak French in an effort to seduce his producer, played by Andie MacDowell.

It is all in vain. Every day at 6am he wakes up in the same bed with the same crushed pillow in the same small hotel, the same tinny radio on the bedside table playing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and the same obnoxiously cheerful local-radio presenter reminding everyone – just in case they had forgotten – that it is Groundhog Day. It is only when, an endless number of days later, Murray learns humility, understanding and acceptance of his fate that he breaks the cycle.

Unknown to Fred, and probably to most of the people in snow-bound Punxsutawney, Groundhog Day is now associated in the minds of many spiritual seekers with redemption, rebirth and the process of moving to a higher plane. Professor Angela Zito, the co-director of the Centre for Religion and Media at New York University, told me that Groundhog Day illustrated the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that individuals try to escape. In the older form of Buddhist belief, she said, no one can escape to nirvana unless they work hard and lead a very good life.

But in the teachings of the slightly more recently established Mahayana Buddhism, no one can escape samsara until everyone else does. “That’s why you have what are called bodhisattvas who reach the brink of nirvana and come back for others,” she said. “The Dalai Lama is considered one living bodhisattva, but Bill Murray could also be one. You can see [in the film] that he learns.” Zito shows the film to her undergraduates in New York without any explanation beforehand. “Most of them know the film,” she said. “I think they find it interesting.”

But Ramis is quick to point out that it is not just Buddhists who are able to draw parallels with the film. Scholars of Judaism have also leapt on it, and Ramis claims that many Buddhists in the US started out as Jews. “There is a remarkable correspondence of philosophies and even style between the two,” said Ramis, who was raised in the Jewish tradition but practises no religion. “I am wearing meditation beads on my wrist, but that’s because I’m on a Buddhist diet. They’re supposed to remind me not to eat, but they actually just get in the way when I’m cutting my steak.”

Dr Niles Goldstein, the author of Lost Souls: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness, is rabbi of the New Shul congregation in Greenwich Village. He recently said that there was a resonance in Murray’s character being rewarded by being returned to earth to perform more good deeds, or mitzvahs. This was in contrast to gaining a place in heaven (the Christian reward) or else achieving nirvana (the Buddhist reward). He is considering using the film as an allegory when he speaks to his congregation. “The movie tells us, as Judaism does, that the work doesn’t end until the world has been perfected,” he said.

As Ramis has been told by Jesuit priests among others, the film clearly also contains themes found within the Christian tradition. Michael Bronski, a film critic with the magazine Forward and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he teaches a course in film history, said: “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays. And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.”

Not everyone in Punxsutawney buys into the Groundhog Day cult. Rev Mary Lewis of the town’s First Baptist Church felt the idea that the film illustrated resurrection was taking matters too far. “However, to me, in terms of Christian values I see that [Murray] is growing as a person. He starts out as a creep only out for himself, but gradually he begins to actually become a better human being.”

The morning after the night in the bar, I drove up to Gobbler’s Knob to inspect Phil’s temporary home. Bill Cooper, the president of the Groundhog Club, and Butch Philliber, another member, were shovelling away the overnight snow and throwing down salt in anticipation of today’s crowds.

Cooper, an affable banker from Pittsburgh who moved to Punxsutawney some years ago, knew all about the religious groups who had jumped on the movie, and he appeared to approve of the spiritual element attached to the event. “With the forecasting, it depends who you listen to,” he said. “Some people say we get it right a lot, others say we usually get it wrong. But if you’re the sort of person who is going to come and argue about that, then Groundhog Day is not for you.”

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