I felt honoured and excited but also apprehensive when Walter and Victress asked me if I would review “When the Iron Bird Flies” for the Chronicles. I felt my review would most certainly be biased because I am a second generation Buddhist born into Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Sangha in 1974, so the subject of this film is very close to me. The film also uses some of my music, but I’m not trying to “sell” this film to anyone. I want to give an honest review and the more I think about it and talk with friends, I feel maybe my perspective could be interesting or even helpful to some, as I’ve had my entire life to ponder the subject matter of this film.
“When The Iron Bird Flies: Tibetan Buddhism Arrives In The West” looks at Tibetan Buddhism in the Western world. The title of the film is from Padmasambhava’s famous eighth century prophecy “When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the earth.” It is a very vast and deep subject to cover over the course of an hour and a half film but it is accomplished wonderfully.
The film tells inspiring, personal and very heartfelt stories of a number of different Westerners with very different backgrounds who have all embarked on the path of Buddhism and each path is as unique as the travelers themselves. The film features interviews with a variety of contemporary Buddhist teachers in the West, including Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, Matthieu Ricard, Reggie Ray, Lama Tsultrim Allione, and many, many others, as well as archival footage and stills of both students and teachers such as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Lama Thubten Yeshe and of course, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Intertwined within these stories and interviews is the ever present Dharma. Along with the teachings that are actually given in small snippets from these many teachers, the film gives simple and straightforward explanations and examples of the four noble truths and other glimpses of what the Buddhist teachings are and how they are so relevant and applicable to the modern world.
Not only does the film show us, in a very poetic way, how precious our sanity is and how Dharma is a gift that can remind us of our basic sanity and help us cultivate it in a fast paced and hectic world, it also looks at the difficulties and the cultural barriers that we face, both as teachers and students. The so-called Western mind can certainly understand and realize the essence of Dharma. This has been established and the film demonstrates this. There are, however, cultural issues that can’t be ignored and the film bravely looks at some of these issues. Examples of these are the male chauvinistic views that Tibetan Culture can have, as well as some of the flashy, esoteric and religious aspects of Tibetan Buddhism that can sometimes hinder the Western practitioner. The film examines these issues and ultimately shows us that the West has quite a lot to offer in this meeting of cultures.
As much as this film does a fantastic job of showing us what Dharma in the West looks like at the moment, it really is just an introduction. This isn’t a fault of the filmmakers at all. It’s because this story is continuing to evolve. The film isn’t describing the placement of a bunch of ancient Tibetan relics in a museum. It’s an honest look at the living, breathing teachings of the Buddha, as they have been developed over many centuries in Tibet and are now just beginning to be integrated into an ever-changing and increasingly complex world.
It’s remarkable to think that Tibetan Buddhism has really only taken root here as recently as fifty years ago. “When The Iron Bird Flies” is a documentary about Tibetan Buddhism in the West, not Buddhism in general or Zen Buddhism (which has a slightly longer history here). Buddhism was transmitted to Tibet some 1500 years ago where it was practiced and developed with very little contact with the outside world — until now. The modern world, with the internet and all its other means of communication and information sharing has certainly sped up this transmission of knowledge and wisdom, but at the same time, these same technologies are incredible distractions and forms of pointless entertainment. We are in a very interesting place where Buddhism seems to be flourishing in the West but what “American Buddhism” will look like remains unclear. I don’t think we know or can pretend to know. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, let alone hundreds of years from now. Trungpa Rinpoche warned us of the dangers of spiritual materialism and examining this closely reveals that spiritual materialism may be just as rampant today as it was in the 70’s when Rinpoche was teaching a bunch of hippies who initially thrived on it. Today, we also see potential problems in the form of a watered-down Dharma, a Dharma that is reduced to a feel-good, self-help meditation without vision. Fortunately, some very qualified teachers are teaching Dharma. Authentic teachers are precious and rare but the ones we have are remarkable and seem to be fully capable and willing to work with us. No matter who we are and how we discovered Dharma, we can’t afford to take this life and the opportunity we have to study and practice Dharma for granted. This is what I feel when watching “When the Iron Bird Flies”, even for the fifth time.
I want to thank Victress for creating such a wonderful and inspiring film and for using my music in it. One of my biggest distractions from Dharma is music, so I feel somewhat validated that I’m not completely wasting my life with this obsession of mine. The recording sessions we had that ended up becoming some of the music in this film were done under the name “Loopsy Dazy” which include friends Eleanor Edgar and Glenn Austin who are both meditators and study Buddhism. The processes behind the recordings, the performances, and my Loopsy Dazy project in general, are based on and inspired by my limited understanding and interpretations of a lifetime of studying Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on Dharma Art. The performances are improvised, in-the-moment and honest. We made the music before ever seeing the film so I was absolutely delighted to find out that it was used for the Trungpa Rinpoche section as well as some of the Khandro Rinpoche sections, with whom I currently study. They are a shining light of clarity and a constant source of wisdom and inspiration for me.
“When The Iron Bird Flies” is a very insightful documentary and whether you are new to Buddhism or a seasoned practitioner, it will inspire and illuminate.
Music for Iron Birds by Loopsy Dazy