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10 October 2005

Buddha & the 1998 Soccer World Cup

Ganesh and his mouse steed Mooshika are Hindu, and their posters are from India and from Kathmandu, the capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal.

The other predominant religion of India and the Himalayas is
Buddhism. Historically Buddhism sprang from the more ancient Hinduism, and culturally has folded within and co-existed alongside Hinduism pretty well. I'm sure this is a gross overgeneralization frought with historical inaccuracies, but in the history of religious strife and conflict in Asia, Buddhism has rarely been a major player.

The very odd and unique thing about Buddhism among the world's major faiths is that
Buddha isn't a God and never claimed to be; he's just a human being just like you and me. (In the Army, our sergeants taught us that commissioned officers put on their trousers one leg at a time, just like we enlisted men did.) If Buddha did anything special, he maintained, and Buddhism continues to maintain, that you can do it, too. So you venerate Buddha and bring him birthday presents and do things in his name as a Great Teacher, but you don't worship him as you would a god.

Wikipedia says Buddha's birthday will fall next on 5 May 2006, but his birthday is observed in different Asian nations, and by different Buddhists sects, on different dates. When Northern Hemisphere Earth Winter turns into NHE Spring, Vleeptron will keep you posted, or you can keep Vleeptron posted.

Buddha -- "The Enlightened" -- was born in what's now Nepal in 563 BC, as a prince known as Guatama Siddharta.

You can rent the video. I'm sure there are hundreds of biopics about Buddha, but of major Western flicks, he was most recently portrayed by Keanu Reeves in "Little Buddha."

To be fair to Mr. Reeves, playing ultra-holy figures like Jesus, Moses and Buddha in big Hollywood movies has always been a losing proposition; directors seem instinctively to call for the actor to portray the Holy Guy as if he were very constipated. Only Max von Sydow and Willem Dafoe seem to have escaped the Jesus experience with anything still resembling a career.

After being Jesus in "King of Kings," Jeffrey Hunter was the first commander of the space explorers in the pilot for "Star Trek," but he must have wanted too much money to keep playing Captain Benjamin Pike, or maybe he thought the whole Star Trek thing was a loser, so William Shatner got the role.

We have two cable channels,
Sundance and IFC (Independent Film Channel), which are usually dedicated to celebrating the unbelievably hopeless, mean-spirited, nihilistic and sordid dimensions of the human experience around the clock, although their offerings from midnight to 10 a.m. are even more ghastly, if such a thing could be possible. SWMBO has frequently been on the verge of locking these channels out with the V-Chip, and I have a hard time coming up with convincing arguments to keep them accessible. One night around 4 a.m. I saw a flick that starred Art Garfunkel ... oh, never mind, I don't want to talk about it.

But Lo! This week IFC has been showing a film about Buddhism in the Himalayas which is actually a human delight, and Vleeptron wishes to bring it to your attention and strongly urges you to see it, not necessarily for Spiritual Edification or Religious Conversion, but more along the lines of Just For Fun. It's a movie about Buddhism and Real Asian Buddhists which goes very well with popcorn. Nobody is constipated -- or perhaps, the characters who seem a bit constipated at the beginning of the movie turn out by the end not to have been constipated at all. By the end, everybody's eating the popcorn.

"Phörpa" / "The Cup" takes place in a monastery of Tibetan Buddhists who have been forced to flee Tibet since the Chinese invaded and occupied Tibet in 1949-1951, and subsequently and brutally banned all Buddhist organizations and destroyed the nation's religious infrastructure. (The occupation was accompanied by the murder of a fifth of Tibet's population.)

The film's Tibetan Buddhists now carry on their religious tradition in exile in northern India, in the shadow of the Himalayas.
The setup -- particularly in the IFC tradition -- calls for martyrdom and the holiness and spirituality that usually accompany grotesque brutality and torture, but there's nothing of the kind in "Phörpa." The challenge these Tibetan Buddhists now face to carry on Buddha's teachings is the incursion of The Mundane World, through satellite dish TV.

An infection of lust for the 1998 World Cup Soccer competition has broken out among the younger monks and monks-in-training, and as the semifinal matches are being broadcast, several of them have taken to sneaking out of the monastary at night to buy cheap seats on the floor of a neighborhood home which has rented a dish TV to watch the matches. Suddenly Buddha, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet have taken a back seat as the young monks sit mesmerized watching and cheering the on-field exploits of Brazil, France, Croatia and Italy, and wondering if they'll manage to sneak back to their dormitory rooms without being caught by the Abbot's keen-eyed disciplinarian, Geko. (As one clumsy boy makes a racket climbing through the monastery fence, another boy asks him how the heck he ever managed to escape from Tibet.)

It's a largely true story, the amusing and naughty truth of the young monks' lust for World Cup Soccer folded gently, naturally and sadly into the miserable genocidal truth about China and Tibet -- and in the middle, trying to make sense of it all, is the Buddhist Abbot: growing old through decades of exile, faraway brutal religious oppression depressing him on one side, the World Cup and satellite dish TV infecting his students and interfering with the teachings of the Buddha on the other.

He knows Buddha has the answers to how to live, endure and survive in such a world, but, as my old 8-Ball would say:

Answer Hazy, Try Again Later

But he tries again and again. And again. It's very contradictory to the Nihilistic Hopeless Prime Directive of IFC, but eventually Buddha comes through and provides the answers. (And France beats Brazil 3-0.)

"Phörpa" / "The Cup" seems to be the first and only film yet to be exported and shown widely around the world from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan. It won all sorts of awards at the Montreal, Vancouver and Cannes film festivals, and will be one of the major presentations at the upcoming Vleeptron/Dwingeloo-2 Fête du Cinema.


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