We have to think about compassion from many different angles, not just thoughts, but something that comes from our heart and our bones. Then you are a follower of Mahayana…
If you give up on one sentient being then you lose bodhicitta…
~ HH Karmapa
For anyone who does not know Bodh Gaya, it can best be summed up as a journey through the sufferings of the six realms to the still point of enlightenment under the bodhi tree.
In a half kilometre you will pass cows and dogs eating their way through piles of waste on one side of the street while state of the art Subarus or Toyotas carrying Lamas and massive modern luxury buses with Chinese pilgrims or Indian tourists dominate a torrent of traffic. Bicycle rickshaws and horse drawn carts overloaded with human cargo struggle with each foot for space. As you reach the promenade in the precinct leading to the sacred bodhi tree, child vendors press fresh lotuses in your face, village men hold fish in plastic bags to be purchased by a pilgrim for the merit of liberation – then caught and used again for business. And then the beggars. Feet twisted, hands cut off crawling the dusty pavement to target a tourist handout. Or a stationary body, both limbs missing leaving just a torso sitting in the heat of the sun. This is buddha business, and it awakens a full range of emotions.
When I saw the trailer to James Gritz’ film, Never Give Up, I thought the directors had successfully captured the intensity of the Bodh Gaya experience and the Buddha who inspired their film, the 17th Karmapa. I followed the making of the film in Bodh Gaya, sat in on some of the interviews with HH Karmapa, and introduced James and co-producer Fernanda Riviera, to three women who were inspired by Karmapa to work actively on the street level.
I caught up with James recently to find out a bit more about the making of his film.
Never Give Up is a title that can be taken in several ways. It has a sense of struggle, a sense of perseverance in the face of all odds. Most commonly, people associate it with the Dalai Lama and his life’s work for Tibet. It also has a sense of patient endurance, a quality of bodhisattva activity. If you were to clarify this title, what would you use as a subtitle?
That is why we added the dash – Karmapa 17 after “never give up”. During one of his talks in Bodhgaya the Karmapa said we should “never give up on sentient beings.”
Winston Churchill is more famous for this saying than the Dalai Lama, when he said, while visiting Harrow in 1941, “Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never, Never, Never give up.”
I think the film needs a subtitle. Reaching out to the World?
This film is trying to reach out to the world through the teachings of Karmapa. We began with aspiration for world peace so perhaps a subtitle might be “A Prayer for the World”.
Can you describe the evolution of this film? I know it’s gone through several stages. Where is it at now?
Originally I had planned a much less ambitious documentary on the Kagyu Monlam – the Karmapa leading a prayer festival in Bodhgaya, India. Of course this has been done before, but I thought I could do it in a less literal and more poetic way.
At one point during his teaching on Atisha’s Lamp the Karmapa said, By going for refuge in the Dharma you stop harming beings. That’s very important. The Dharma is about peace. To harm beings is the opposite of being in peace and goes against refuge. Harming beings is not just killing. Hitting beings, caging them – this is all harming beings We torture animals by loading them with things they cannot carry – that is also violence. The Mahayana bodhisattva vow is to help and do something good for all beings.
To make inner-peace, to control our mind and negative emotions – that’s Dharma. If our mind is filled with anger, hatred and arrogance, it is important to transform it; not only towards our enemies but not to act with violence hatred or jealousy to all beings. Even if you don’t have a great understanding or great practice and you are not a scholar, if you don’t harm beings that is very great.
If you can take responsibility for others, whether you call yourself Mahayana or not you are Mahayana. If you are only doing for yourself, you are the lowest of the low, smallest of the Yanas…
Compassion is thinking about beings who are suffering and really wanting to liberate them from that suffering. This compassion doesn’t come by just saying the Vajrasattva mantra, saying please come. That will not make compassion arise. It is something we have to do every day. There are so many people in Bodhgaya, with no hands, no legs or nothing to eat …we may not be able to give too much to them but if we really care and feel for them we generate compassion.
When you see people suffering you have to feel yourself in that person’s situation. All of us are under the same sun, on one earth, we breath the same air, we are like the same family so we have to feel the same suffering and happiness, share the suffering and happiness together…
This turned my mind around from just looking inside to looking out to what was happening in the world right there in front of us, in Bodhgaya, India. My co-director, Fernanda Rivero and I were searching for a way to make this film different to other documentaries about Buddhist teachers or about an event like the Kagyu Monlam. You told us about three women students of Karmapa who were inspired by his message of compassionate activity. It seemed the perfect way to link seamlessly into what the Karmapa was actually teaching. In the film we develop the parallel stories of these women along with the activity and message of the Karmapa.
Perhaps the film will begin with the candle offering sequence you see in the trailer and a brief glimpse of the 17th Karmapa. Then the stories of the three women working in Bodhgaya and the scenes of the Mahabodhi temple grounds, the market place, the endless flow of suffering beggars, street vendors, dogs and goats, the kora of the pilgrims, monks prostrating near the Bodhi tree and so on.
How are you bringing the Karmapa into it? Is he the focus or the background?
Some times we feel like the Karmapa is pulling the strings. Maybe we are just puppets. He is definitely the star of the movie and his teachings are the driving force behind all the scenes. During one of our meetings in Bodhgaya, Karmapa expressed an interest in becoming involved in the editing process of our film. I’m not sure if he will have the time but I would love this to happen.
Another key teaching for me was something the Karmapa said in Boulder during his visit in 2008.
“Now is the time for us to start thinking about what kind of imprint we are leaving on the world and in particular what we can do for the world because largely up until now we have been on the receiving end of the world’s kindness…The world is what gives us our life. Without the world it would be impossible for us to live so we can think about the world as a beautiful goddess or a loving and affectionate mother to us. If we think about the world in that way there will be a lot of liveliness to our attitude towards the world and this will be a great motivation for us to bring a positive change to the world, rather than thinking about the world as some inanimate matter”.
It sounds like the film is trying to reach out to cover the whole world.
This is a film that goes beyond devotion to a charismatic person and beyond Tibetan Buddhism as a religion. Never Give Up – Karmapa 17 explores the purpose of our lives on the planet we are destroying. The disaster in Japan is one more wake up call in an escalating series of messages we have been receiving and ignoring. The Karmapa spoke about nuclear danger in Sarnath. We are trying to convey visually the teachings and the powerful presence of the one whose name means “Activity of the Buddhas” and what forms that activity can take in this so called “real world”.
Yes. This “real world” is our stage where we enact our drama. The most important teaching for me is to remember emptiness. Karmapa described it as a great theatre where we can perform any action. All the world’s a stage.
“Sometimes I think of the world as being as a great theater – a great theater that was made especially for one self. When I see stars and planets at the sky at night, the sun in the day, these are like the stage lights of the theater, the beautiful features of the world such as rivers and mountains are like the stage props – ornaments and paintings in the theater.
Within this theater we have the complete freedom to enact any play we want to perform. If we would like to view an excellent and inspiring and beautiful play, we can make this play happen in this theater. Similarly if we wish to view an extremely sad and disturbing tragedy, then all the conditions are present for us to perform this kind of play as well.
This theater is a very open space that has been made for us and (the play is) our choice. It is important for the actors in this powerful hall to recognize the excellent opportunity we have. We also must take good care of the theater as well.
These days humans have a habit of focusing solely on obtaining very small forms of happiness solely for themselves. When they fail to obtain these small amounts of happiness they then destroy the happiness and well being of others and of the world. This narrow approach is beset by pride and ego clinging …When we disregard the welfare of others, we begin seriously to endanger the very theater in which the show of our own birth and death, our own joys and sorrows is performed; we subject our world to the risk that it will disappear. When this happens it is very sad.
We can all see clearly that our own bodies are an indispensable basis for our own individual happiness. No matter what we want to do with our lives, no matter what future we see ahead of us, we need our basic health in order to make that possible. If that is true, then it is also true that the world itself is the indispensable ground for the well-being and indeed the survival of all beings. Therefore the continuity of the world is the responsibility of everyone”.
“The Journey Begins – Wisdom of Enlightened Mind” from HH Karmapa’s historic first visit to the USA May 31 – June 1. 2008 Seattle.
May your film inspire compassionate action by showing the truth of suffering.
Naomi Levine’s website https://earthmudra.com