Writer and photographer
Unmistaken Child: Film Review on Greencine
I wrote a new film review for Greencine.com recently:
Reviewer: Walt Opie
Rating (out of 5): ****
You don't necessarily have to believe in reincarnation to practice Buddhism, nor to appreciate Unmistaken Child (2008), an engaging documentary on this subject by Israeli director Nati Baratz. Now out on DVD after a very brief outing in theaters, this film was shot beautifully by a small crew (often just Baratz himself) who serve as our proverbial "fly on the wall," allowing us incredible access into the inner workings of the Tibetan Buddhist system of picking reincarnated lamas. Call it Kundun meets Hoop Dreams and you might start to get the idea.
Describing the story of this film almost takes away from it, as the real pleasures are to be enjoyed in the simple moments along the way. But the gist of it is this: Unmistaken Child tells the true account of the search by an extremely devoted and quietly charming young Tibetan monk, Tenzin Zopa, for the reincarnation of his recently deceased 84-year-old master, Geshe Lama Konchog. The master was deeply revered for having spent 26 years practicing alone in a mountain cave (Tibetans apparently referred to him as "the modern-day Milarepa" which is high praise indeed). In the film, we go from the back corridors of the Tibetan government-in-exile's Dharamsala, India offices to the actual cave, or what's left of it, where Lama Konchog once lived. We tag along as Tenzin Zopa sets off on his rather overwhelming mission to find a young child who can be "unmistakenly" identified as the reincarnation of his beloved teacher. We watch him interview young children and their families in hope of discovering the correct signs that point back to his master. And we see what happens once a young boy has finally been selected, even watching as the boy gets his head shaved for the first time, which doesn't seem to go as smoothly as Tenzin Zopa expected.
In the director's press notes on the making of his film he notes how fortunate he was just to get permission from another high lama to film at all, and then had to agree not to show the footage to anyone until after the Dalai Lama (who does make a brief appearance here) had officially confirmed the reincarnation depicted in the film. As Baratz writes, "For three years, I had to keep this movie a secret, which was an extremely complicated issue, since I had to finance all the filming privately, and could show the materials to no one."
I am grateful to Baratz for sticking it out, because his film shows us in stunning detail what it means to search for, and perhaps find, a reincarnated master from the viewpoint of the Tibetans themselves. It's a rare gift, whether you choose to accept its core assumption of reincarnation or not. Unmistaken Child is a truly fascinating peek behind the scenes into Tibetan Buddhist culture as it is being carried out even today.
Walt Opie is a Bay Area writer and a practicing Buddhist in the Theravada tradition. He also currently serves as Communications Coordinator at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Link
Meditation Instrucstions from U Tejaniya
Observing Minds Want to Know
By Sayadaw U Tejaniya - http://sayadawutejaniya.org/
BEFORE WE START practicing mindfulness meditation, we must know how to practice. We need to have the right information and a clear understanding of the practice to work with awareness intelligently. This information will work at the back of your mind when you meditate.
1. Meditating is watching and waiting patiently with awareness and understanding. Meditation is not trying to experience something you have read about or heard about.
2. When meditating, both the body and mind should be comfortable.
3. You are not trying to make things turn out the way you want them to happen. You are trying to know what is happening as it is.
4. You have to accept and watch both good and bad experiences. You want only good experiences? You don’t want even the tiniest unpleasant experience? Is this reasonable? Is this the way of the dhamma?
5. Don’t feel disturbed by the thinking mind. You are not practicing to prevent thinking, but rather to recognize and acknowledge thinking whenever it arises.
6. The object of attention is not really important: the observing mind that is working to be aware is of real importance. If the observing is done with the right attitude, any object is the right object.
7. Just pay attention to the present moment. Don’t get lost in thoughts about the past. Don’t get carried away by thoughts about the future.
From Don’t Look Down On the Defilements: They Will Laugh at You, © Ashin Tejaniya.
Aung San Suu Kyi Faces Military Trial
Photo from Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
(NOTE: I am really outraged by what the junta gets away with in Burma. When will public outrage kick in? Maybe if Aung San Suu Kyi is put in prison. I added bold to the text in the article to emphasize a few points.)
New York Times - May 15, 2009
Burmese Democracy Advocate Faces Military Trial
By THOMAS FULLER and SETH MYDANS
BANGKOK — Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was charged Thursday with violating the terms of her house arrest in a move that could tighten the grip of the military junta over its chief opponent in advance of an election next year.
Her arrest grew out of a bizarre event in which an American man swam across a lake and spent at least one night on the grounds of her home, where she has been confined for 13 of the past 19 years. She is now being held in Insein Prison near Myanmar’s main city, Yangon, her lawyer said.
The motives of the man, identified as John William Yettaw, 53, were unclear. But Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer said the man told her he was a Mormon and prayed extensively while he was in her house.
The official government newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, said Mr. Yettaw was born in Detroit and lived in Falcon, Missouri. It identified him as a clinical psychology student, and said he had been a military serviceman for two years. The Thailand-based opposition magazine, Irrawaddy, said he had met with Myanmar exile groups in Thailand and told them he was working on a faith-based book on heroism.
Mr. Yettaw is now being held by Burmese authorities and was charged Thursday with illegally entering a restricted zone, which carries a maximum penalty of five years, and breaking immigration laws, which carries a maximum one-year penalty, Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyer said.
She had not invited the man and had told him to leave, her lawyer added, but ultimately she allowed him to stay after he complained of exhaustion and cramping.
Her arrest occurred only two weeks before the statutory expiration of her most recent six-year detention, and many analysts saw it as a legal ploy to allow the junta to extend her confinement.
The charge against her carries a sentence of up to five years and raises the possibility that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, 63, who has been reported to be in fragile health, would face lengthy incarceration under much harsher conditions at Insein, where hundreds of other political prisoners are believed to be held.
“It is ridiculously obvious that they are trying to put her away from any involvement in the upcoming election,” said Soe Aung, who represents the Bangkok-based Forum for Democracy in Burma, a coalition of exile groups from Myanmar, formerly Burma.
Western nations, including the United States, are reviewing a confrontational policy of economic sanctions and political exclusion toward the junta, which has jailed its opponents, crushed pro-democracy uprisings and clung to power through force for the past two decades.
The harsh treatment of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s most prominent opposition figure and winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, may give pause to those who advocate more humanitarian aid and engagement with the junta, said Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Thailand.
The release of Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has been a primary demand of the United Nations and of Western nations. Her treatment now “would send a serious signal to the international community, especially the West, that the Burmese military is not ready to be engaged,” he said.
The junta is preparing for an election next year that would be its first multi-party poll since 1990, when Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming victory but was denied power by the military, which has ruled since 1962.
The coming election, part of what the junta calls a “twelve-step road to democracy,” would put in place a mostly civilian government in a power structure that maintains the dominance of the military.
Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyers had been preparing to demand her release after six years of detention,“and then this chap comes swimming along,” her lawyer, U Kyi Win, said.
The lawyer said Mr. Yettaw had swum to Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi’s house once before, last November, and had left “a little Bible” for her. Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi is a Buddhist.
Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained and charged together with two companions, Daw Khin Khin Win and her daughter Win Ma Ma, who have lived with her since she was last detained in 2003. Her lawyer said that she was being held separately from the general prison population. It was unclear whether her companions were being held with her.
Her lawyer, Mr. Kyi Win, speaking by telephone from Yangon, said that Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi had not violated the conditions of her house arrest because Mr. Yettaw was an intruder, not a guest. He said the American had slipped past security forces guarding the compound.
When he swam up to the house with the help of improvised flotation devices — large, empty plastic containers — Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi considered turning him in to the police.
“She was about to report it to the security guards outside,” Mr. Kyi Win said. “But he begged and said he would go away soon. She had some pity for the chap.”
U Han Thar Myint, a prominent member of the National League for Democracy, said, “There must be some ulterior motive behind this. They think that she could disrupt the election process. They want her to be inside her own compound or prison.”
Most of the members of the National League for Democracy have decided not to take part in the elections, but the party has not reached an official decision, Mr. Han Thar Myint said.
However, at a recent party meeting, members took a conciliatory tone toward the government, saying it was prepared for discussions without preconditions.
A consular officer from the United States Embassy in Yangon met with Mr. Yettaw on Wednesday for half an hour in the presence of many police and intelligence officers.
“He would not go into any details about his stay in the house,” said Richard Mei, a spokesman for the embassy.
Sharon Otterman contributed reporting from New York.Link
Julia Butterfly Hill - Interview Excerpt
Here's an interesting excerpt from an interview with Julia Butterfly Hill, the well-known activist who lived near the top of a giant redwood tree (named Luna) for 738 days about ten years ago as a protest action. She is also profiled in today's SF Chronicle here.
Belvia Rooks (Shift In Action): And what was the personal aspect of your journey that led you or called you to the West coast and the Headwaters forest?
Julia Butterfly Hill: In August of 1996 I was designated driver. A friend called me and asked me to come and get her because she had been drinking, and I took a taxi over to her, and we got in her car and we literally only made it out of the parking lot to a first stop when we were rear-ended by a drunk driver. She had a two-door hatchback and he had a Ford Bronco, and he hit us so hard that the stereo broke out of the stereo console and bent around the stick shift, and the steering wheel of the car went into my skull. It took about ten months of physical and cognitive therapy to recover from the damage that happened to my short-term memory and my motor skills as a result of that impact. During that time I started looking at the question between real value and perceived value, and I realized that a majority of my life had been spent chasing after perceived value and as a result I never felt completely fulfilled. I never felt completely actualized as a human being. And there is nothing like a steering wheel in your skull to steer you in a whole new direction. [laughs]
So that steering wheel literally and figuratively steered me in a new direction of trying to figure out what is real value, what has my life be a life that has such deep and profound meaning for me that it pulls me out of bed in the morning and makes me joyful and completely inspired to be alive. I didn't know where that journey was going to take me, I was just clear that that was the journey I was going to take. And then two weeks after my last doctor released me from the therapy from the wreck, I had acquaintances who were heading West who needed someone else to go along to help cover the expenses, and having grown up traveling...I enjoy traveling and I had not been able to as the result of having to be in physical and cognitive therapy, so I signed on for the trip. And in California I felt, by some deep intuitive knowing, that I was supposed to stay in California. I had no clear reason why, I just knew I was supposed to--so I gave them some money for the rest of their trip, and said, "Have a good trip," and I stayed in California, and then found out about the redwoods, and a few months later was in Luna. Link
How to Make Fewer Mistakes
Untitled (SF,CA) photo by walt opie
How to Make Fewer Mistakes
We all make mistakes from time to time. Life is about learning to make our mistakes less often. To realize this goal, we have a policy in our monastery that monks are allowed to make mistakes. When the monks are not afraid to make mistakes, they don’t make so many.
–Ajahn Brahm, from Opening the Door of Your Heart (Lothian Books) Link
The Inauguration. At Last. By Maira Kalman
This is great--my kind of word/image combo. -walt
The Inauguration. At Last. by Maira Kalman (from The New York Times, 1/29/2009)