Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A different spiritual journey

On the first day of Lent, I suppose I am expected to focus on penance or self-denial or at least something resembling prayer, yet I cannot escape memories of a film we watched this week, "Milarepa" by the Bhutanese director Neten Chokling.

The subject is the leading Tibetan Buddhist mystic named Milarepa (c. 1052-1135), who lived during what seems like a world-wide surge of spiritual energy that touched Europe, Asia and other parts of the world.

Perhaps the appeal of Tibet is its remote beauty and strangeness and the purity of its culture and religion, despite what China has tried to do in this Himalayan kingdom at the top of the world. So, though I know relatively little about Tibetan Buddhism, I am drawn to films like this with their prayer-flags waving in impossibly beautiful alpine reaches.

The film, made in Northern India, is memorable for me because of its haunting, visual beauty, enhanced by a slow pace and the wailing hymns that alternate with the silence. The main disappointment is that this 2006 movie is (I found out at the end) only Part I; Part II, not yet released, was made in 2009 and completes the story of the young mystic in his search for peace.

In Part I, Milarepa has learned that revenge against his greedy, evil relatives will accomplish nothing nor will the lessons of a sorcerer help him. He must travel and meet wise guides to the inner life, including masters of wind meditation that enables Milarepa to travel great distances using internal air. But the full, mature mystic that this great poet, yogi, and saint became is not seen in Part I.

"Any ordinary man can do as I have," he concludes, suggesting that the great discipline of the solitary journey to enlightenment is available to many. For people like me in the Christian West, there is a reminder here of the need for more and more cultivation, in silence and solitude, of the God within, if we are achieve anything resembling individual peace and freedom.

So this story from 11th century Tibet has given me an unexpected suggestion about Lent as a time that is less about repentance and more about trying to hear the still, small voice of God somewhere within me. To hear this, I must let go of my own desires in that spirit of self-denial that has long been part of the Lenten tradition.

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