John Bush, who has taken a long interest in our traditions, has created this full length documentary of pilgrimage to Central Tibet, bearing witness to the enduring faith there. I am grateful to him for his dedication to this project to raise awareness of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition of Tibet as well as the current restraints on religious freedom there. --The Dalai Lama, from him Special Message
Bush's stunning camera work adroitly captures the majestic landscapes and icons of Buddhism: its murals and artworks, monks and nuns... A tonic for Buddhists, no doubt, it offers many pleasures to atheists as well.
When the Iron Bird flies, the dharma will go to the West, says a 1,500-year-old Tibetan Buddhist prophecy, one that seems to have been amply fulfilled in 1959, when Mao s Communist forces overwhelmed Tibet, killed a million or so Tibetans, and forced the 14th Dalai Lama into his still-continuing Western exile. In the near half-century since, there has been a deliberate long-term undermining of Tibet s ancient Buddhist culture crudely violent in the Great Helmsman s time, more subtle and insidious since. Deep physical and spiritual scars remain on this tiny, beleaguered nation. Longtime Buddhist filmmaker John Bush took a two-person crew into the country without official permission, they avoided interviews for fear of reprisals and filmed, often surreptitiously, the great religious sites as they exist now, after decades of oppression from Beijing. He finds a resilient, welcoming people who continue to practice their religion (now officially tolerated ) despite the infiltration of Chinese agents into their monasteries, the razing of many sites to facilitate surveillance, and the kidnapping of the family of the 9-year-old Pandau Lama (whose future duty is to choose the next Dalai Lama) and his replacement by a 6-year-old Beijing-backed stooge. Filmed only with direct light and sound, Bush s stunning camerawork adroitly captures the majestic landscapes and icons of Buddhism: its murals and artworks, monks and nuns. Not incidentally, the film also offers a compact primer in the ways of dharma. A tonic for Buddhists, no doubt, it offers many pleasures to atheists as well. --John Patterson, Village Voice
Not only the year s best documentary, but also among the finest films ever made about religion... A work of power and glory.
John Bush s Vajra Sky Over Tibet has been traveling the art house circuit under the proverbial radar, which is a major shame since it is not only the year s best documentary, but it is also among the finest films ever made about religion. The faith in question is Vajrayana, the Tibetan form of Buddhism. Vajra is Sanskrit for thunderbolt of awakening and Vajra Sky Over Tibet is a thunderbolt in its own right.
Traveling through Chinese-occupied Tibet with only a local guide and driver, Bush quietly captured the most remarkable portrait of that Himalayan land imaginable. In a way, this may be the last hope to see Tibet before it is permanently asphyxiated by the Communist Chinese authorities, who are slowly turning this ancient land from a vibrant and distinctive culture into a massive Chinese-operated museum.
Bush chose not to interview any local people for his film, fearing reprisals by the Chinese government for anyone who speaks out against the occupation. He also kept his camera away from the Chinese occupation force (except for a brief and funny shot of two sloppily dressed soldiers enjoying a cigarette break).
What Bush focused on, however, is the remains of Tibet s Buddhist cultural heritage. The fact any of it survives is miraculous, given the genocide enacted against the Tibetan people by the Chinese and the wreckage of the holy shrines during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. The temples and palaces that survive overcame years of desecration (with sacred sites used for storing pigs or grain) and subsequent years of haphazard restoration (some statues of the Buddha were repainted in hideous and inappropriately garish hues).
But the will and faith of the Tibetan people was not destroyed by the Chinese, and Vajra Sky Over Tibet brilliantly shows how both the surviving monastic orders and the general population did not jettison their religion. Sequences showing people coming to prayer and celebrating religious festivals provide an extraordinary view of quiet, sincere and genuinely humble allegiance to a power greater than the Chinese military. Even the Chinese who ve been relocated by the Beijing regime to Tibet in an effort to outnumber the Tibetan population have been caught up in this (the Communists banned Buddhism after their 1949 takeover).
But the display of faith is tempered with an uncertainty of the future. The challenge of the Dalai Lama, who has been in exile since 1959, hovers throughout the land. Even though his photograph is banned and his palaces (the Potala and Norbulinka) remain empty, his significance is only further enhanced by his continued absence. It is widely believed the Chinese government will attempt to pick its own choice as successor to the Dalai Lama after the holy man passes away, much as they did with the successor to the Panchen Lama (the child chosen by the Dalai Lama s representatives to succeed the last Panchen Lama is believed to be imprisoned in Beijing). Nor will the Chinese government allow new generations of teachers to pass along the Buddhist principles to tomorrow s students. This, of course, will seriously weaken the pursuit of Buddhist education, and it is not hard to imagine the Communist authorities plant their own teachers in place to fill that void.
While the vision of a culture threatened with extinction is harrowing, Vajra Sky Over Tibet is actually a life-affirming celebration. The film carefully and succinctly summarizes the basic tenets of Tibetan Buddhism through the use of art, architectures, and the surviving monasteries and nunneries that keep the religion alive. What emerges is a religion that is both serene and complex, and for those unfamiliar with the subject it provides a brilliant introd --Phil Hall, Film Threat