WHEEL OF TIME

 Directed by Werner Herzog. Germany. 2003.


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"The body is a Bodhi tree, the mind a mirror-stand bright. At all times wipe it clean - Let no dust alight."
- Sixth Patriarch’s Dharma Jewel Platform Sutra [iv] 


In 2002 Werner Herzog went to India to observe the festival of Kalachakra, the ritual that takes place every few years to allow Tibetan Buddhist monks to become ordained. An estimated 500,000 Buddhists attended the initiation at Bodh Gaya, the land where the Buddha is believed to have gained enlightenment. The resulting documentary, Wheel of Time, is not a typical Herzog film about manic eccentrics at odds with nature but an often sublime look at an endangered culture whose very way of life is threatened. Herzog admits that he knows little about Buddhism and we do not learn very much about it in the film, yet as we observe the rituals, the celebrations, and the devotion of Tibetan Buddhists we learn much about the richness of their tradition and their strength as a people.  

The festival, which lasts ten days, arose out of the desire to create a strong positive bond for inner peace among a large number of people. One notices the almost complete absence of women yet the film ignores it and the narrator makes no comment. The monks begin with chants, music, and mantra recitation to bless the site so that it will be conducive for creating the sand mandala. The magnificently beautiful mandala, which signifies the wheel of time, is carefully constructed at the start of the festival using fourteen different tints of colored sand, then dismantled at the end to dramatize the impermanence of all things. Once built, it is kept in a glass case for the duration of the proceedings so that it will not be disturbed. The most striking aspect of the film are the scenes showing the devotion of the participants.  

Using two interpreters, Herzog interviews a monk who took three and one-half years to reach the festival while doing prostrations on the 3000-mile journey. The prostrations, which are similar to bowing and touching the ground, serve as a reminder that we cannot reach enlightenment without first dispelling arrogance and the affliction of pride. In this case, the monk has developed lesions on his hand and a wound on his forehead from touching the earth so many times, yet it hasn't dampened his spirit. Other Buddhists are shown trying to do 100,000 prostrations in six weeks in front of the tree under which the Buddha is supposed to have sat. Herzog introduces a moment of humor when he films a young child imitating the adults by doing his own prostrations but not quite getting the hang of it. In a sequence of rare beauty accompanied by transcendent Tibetan music, we see a Buddhist pilgrimage to worship at the foot of 22,000-foot Mount Kailash, a mountain that is considered in Buddhist and Hindu tradition to be the center of the universe.  

The Dalai Lama explains wryly, however, that in reality each of us is truly the center of the universe. After waiting in long lines to witness the Dalai Lama conduct the main ceremony, the crowd is shocked into silence when he tells them that he is too ill to conduct the initiation and will have to wait until the next Kalachakra meeting in Graz, Austria in October. The Graz initiation ceremony is much smaller, however, being confined to a convention hall that can only fit 8000 people; however, everyone is grateful to see the Dalai Lama restored to health. In Austria, Herzog interviews a Tibetan monk who has just been released from a Chinese prison after serving a sentence of thirty-seven years for campaigning for a "Free Tibet". His ecstasy in greeting the Dalai Lama is ineffable. During the closing ceremony, the monks dismantle the Mandala, sweeping up the colored sands and the Dalai Lama releases the mixed sand to the river as a means of extending blessings to the world for peace and healing.  

Herzog's mellifluous voice lends a measure of serenity to the proceedings and he seems to be a sympathetic observer. While he makes every effort not to be intrusive, he cannot resist staging a scene toward the end of the film in which a bodyguard is seen presiding over an almost empty convention hall to illustrate the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Wheel of Time may not be Herzog's best work but it does contain moments of grace and images of spectacular beauty. Because of the destruction of their heritage, the Tibetans survive today mainly in the refugee camps of India. Any effort that promotes an understanding of their culture is very welcome and Wheel of Time provides us with an insight into an ancient tradition geared toward perfecting humanity through quieting the mind and cultivating compassion. 

GRADE: B+

Howard Schumann
 
 
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