Review of Documentary Recalling a Buddha

Review of Documentary Recalling a Buddha
Recalling a Buddha: Memories of the Sixteenth Karmapa is a documentary film about the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpei Dorje, within the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. It was sent to me by the filmmaker Gregg Eller for review (I’m disclosing the source in compliance with BellaOnline's Ethical Review policy.)

'Karmapa' is the title for the head of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, one of four main schools. The sixteenth Karmapa lived from 1924 to 1981, and is universally recognized amongst Tibetan Buddhists, and particularly practitioners within the Kagyu school, as one of the most important and influential teachers of the modern age. He played an extraordinary role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism within the West, by traveling to the U.S. at the request of his student, Chogyam Trungpa, and conducting the sacred 'Black Crown' or 'Vajra Crown' ceremony for thousands of people.

In Recalling a Buddha, interviews with those who studied with or knew the Karmapa are entwined with historical commentary, photography, and documentary footage of him to create a complete history of his life and influence on the West. Many of those interviewed are now well-known within Tibetan Buddhism, such as Tenzin Palmo, one of the first western women to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and subject of the popular book by Vickie Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow. The interviews cover both individuals' personal reactions to the Karmapa upon interacting with him, and events from his life history, including his exodus from Tibet in 1959.

The most fascinating part of the documentary for me was the footage of the Black Crown ceremony, performed by the sixteenth Karmapa. The Black Crown is a sacred hat and symbol of the Kagyu lineage. According to legend, in a prior lifetime the Karmapa attained one of the highest levels of bodhisattva-hood, and 100,000 dakinis created a crown from the hair on their heads and gave it to him as a gift. On the historical level, the crown is said to be a gift from a Chinese Emporer, who was able to see the field of enlightenment and power residing above the Karmapa's head, and had a physical replica of what he saw created.

The Black Crown ceremony is an empowerment and blessing ceremony consisting of prayer and chanting. The Karmapa places the hat on his head while reciting a mantra and meditating on the Buddha of Compassion, Chenrezig. It is said that anyone witnessing the ceremony has the opportunity to attain the first level of bodhisattvahood within three lifetimes. The sixteenth Karmapa performed this ceremony several times in the United States during his visits for thousands of people, and it is considered to have been a powerful transmission of the dharma in the West.

Overall, Recalling a Buddha will probably be of most interest to those already somewhat familiar with Tibetan Buddhism, and particularly those interested in the Kagyu lineage. Although anyone interested in the history of Buddhism in America might also want to check it out, because the sixteenth Karmapa (and many of his students) were and are a major influence in the U.S.

You can learn more about Recalling a Buddha, including screening dates, at the website for the movie, or you can purchase it from Amazon below.

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Website for Recalling a Buddha

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