The Impressionable Faces of Buddhist Silence

by Trent Gilliss, online editor

Tomorrow, our latest production with Matthieu Ricard will be released via our podcast. His journey to the Himalayas and studying under some of the great Tibetan Buddhist monks and the current Dalai Lama was inspired by the films of Arnaud Desjardins.

What struck him and became the catalyst for his lifelong journey, as he told Krista in a hotel room in Vancouver, was a particular point in one of these documentaries when he saw “a series of faces, of contemplatives … in silence” — of all shapes and sizes.

I wanted to see those faces. The video above is excerpted from the 1966 film, Le Message des Tibétains: Le Tantrisme (deuxième partie). For the quick skinny on the portrait sequence Ricard mentions, skip to 50:05 in the clip.

Ricard describes the influence of Desjardins’s films in greater depth in The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue between him and his father, Jean-François Revel, a French intellectual who is well-known for his challenging critiques of Communism and Christianity:

Matthieu Ricard: …what triggered my interest in Buddhism was in 1966…

Jean-François Revel: You would have been twenty then.

M.R.: I was still at university, and just about to go to the Institut Pasteur, when I saw some films made by a friend, Arnaud Desjardins, as they were being edited. They were about the great Tibetan lamas who had fled the Chinese invasion and taken refuge on the souther side of the Himalayas, from Kashmir to Bhutan. Arnaud had spent several months on two trips with an excellent guide and interpreter, filming these masters at close quarters. The films were very striking. Around the same time, another friend, Dr. Leboyer, came back from Darjeeling where he’d met some of the same lamas. I’d just finished a course and had the chance of taking a six-month break before starting my research work. It was the time of the hippies, who’d set out to India overland hitchhiking or in a Citroen deux-chevaux, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I was also drawn to the martial arts and had thought of going to Japan. But the sight of the pictures brought back by Arnaud and Frederick Leboyer, what they told me and their descriptions of their encounters there, all helped me make up my mind to head for the Himalayas rather than anywhere else.

J.F.R: So it was Arnaud Desjardins’s film that started it all off.

M.R.: There were several films, The Message of the Tibetans and Himalaya, Land of Serenity (which included The Children of Wisdom and The Lake of the Yogis), four hours in all. They include long sequences of the great Buddhist teachers who’d just arrived from Tibet — what they looked like, how they spoke, what they taught. The films gave a very alive and inspiring account of what it was like.

J.F.R.: You said they left a strong impression on you, personally. Why?

M.R.: I had the impression of seeing living beings who were the very image of what they taught. They had such a striking and remarkable feeling about them. I couldn’t quite hit on the explicit reasons why, but what struck me most was that they matched the ideal of sainthood, the perfect being, the sage — a kind of person hardly to be found nowadays in the West. It was the image I had of St. Francis of Assisi, or the great wise men of ancient times, but which for me had become figures of the distant past. You can’t go meet Socrates, listen to Plato debating, or sit at St. Francis’ feet. Yet suddenly, here were beings who seemed to be living examples of wisdom. I said to myself, ‘If it’s possible to reach perfection as a human being, that must be it.’

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