This documentary is about a Buddhist monk ordainment festival that takes place in Bodh Gaya, India and in some place in Austria. Herzog takes the viewer through the long journey to the festival (at the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment) and to various other important locations. One monk had traveled for 6-7 years straight, making the journey by prostrations. While Herzog only encounters this particular monk after his journey-by-prostrations had ended, he does shows others’ prostrated journeys in their slow, methodical, repetitiveness. The viewer wonders, ‘how will she get across that river?’, and then we are fed the image we crave–the same way she has prostrated herself along the dusty pilgrim’s highway: on her knees, and then her belly, and then her forehead.
In addition to the images of the lengths to which pilgrims are willing to go to in order to mimic the Buddha’s path of absolution, Herzog also presents us with some less-than-appealing images. Amidst all the enlightenment seekers and their prostrated serenity, there is an ugly side, a greedy side. We see a man with a trick monkey enslaved by a chain, begging for money. And worst of all we see common folks ripping ‘gifts’ out of the hands of monks, knocking them over to grab what they can. This is the ugly side of this Buddhist ceremony. Doesn’t seem altogether different than any other depiction of mob mentality except that to Westerners, Buddhists are always presented as serene, non-invasive, humane, and uber-enlightened. It seems as though Herzog is merely pulling the Wizard’s screen away to reveal the regular guy behind it all.
Now, of course, that is not to say that the Dalai Lama and his fellow monks and nuns are somehow implicated in any of this basal greed. In fact, it does not appear as though the Dalai Lama is even aware of the crowd’s greediness. Turns out he is sick and is unable to perform the rituals of the ceremony and everything gets postponed until next year.
Herzog’s style of documentary filmmaking is fun. His long pauses on individuals, and the camera’s capture of their squeamishness as a result, are expected, appreciated, and laughable when they come. His commentary is always raw and ironic, and the viewer can’t help but laugh at the obviousness of his remarks about those he captures on film. What comes to mind is one of the final shots of the film when nearly everyone has left the Austrian ceremony (because it was over a week before), and there are a few stragglers kneeling on mats and one security guard standing around watching the people intently as if they were dangerous, I suppose. Herzog’s comment about this was to the effect of: someone forgot to tell him his shift was over. Funny. True. But also related to those stragglers still kneeling on the floor: one can’t absorb the essence of the Dalai Lama by osmosis, you know. And a week later would be even more impossible. Perhaps that was also the mistake of the greedy pilgrims back in India–they thought that by merely being there, they would be cleansed.
This brings to mind the play “Waiting for Godot” by Samuel Beckett. We can’t just sit around waiting for things to happen to us, expecting or demanding that they happen to us. We have to be active and do it, live it. This was Jodorowsky’s main point in The Holy Mountain–see my blog post on it.