Trilogy takes viewers along on Buddhist pilgrimage

by David Yonke, Toledo Blade, Aug 11, 2007

Toledo, OH (USA) -- In this fast-paced world with frenetic media activity and TV shows blitzing viewers with quickly shifting scenes, filmmaker John Bush opted to step back and slow down with his three-part documentary, Journey into Buddhism.

“A pilgrimage is designed to make an inner journey for the participant,” Mr. Bush said in an interview this week. “Basically what we’re doing is using pacing deliberately designed to, and calibrated to, induce an inner journey on the part of the viewer.”

The trilogy, delving deeply into Buddhism in southeast Asia and Tibet, is now available on DVD through Boston PBS station WGBH and will be released to stores Sept. 4.

The series features cameras lingering on Buddhist temples, statues of Buddha large and small, the rugged terrain of the Asian jungles, the golden ripples of the Mekong River, and the majestic peaks of the Himalayas.

Throughout all these scenes we see the spiritual devotion of the people, who are filmed prostrating themselves in prayer, chanting, lighting candles, meditating, and walking in pilgrimages.

The third episode, centering on Tibet, includes the mountainous country’s troubled history since its takeover by Communist China in 1949, and the forced exile of its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

And yet it dwells more on the people’s resilience and their devotion to faith and tradition than on the political strife.

“It was a fine line,” Mr. Bush said, “because we wanted to preserve this feeling of a pilgrimage and journey with the film, but there was no way of ignoring the political situation. It would have been untruthful. It was a matter of finding a way to balance those two things. And I think it set up a nice tension in the film that tells the story.”

The Dalai Lama gave his blessing to Mr. Bush’s documentary, writing a message that said, “I wish this film every success.”

The Dalai Lama said he believes that “as people become more aware of the reality of the situation in Tibet, they will naturally lend their support to our efforts to resume a dialogue with the Chinese authorities aimed at improving the lot of Tibetans in their homeland.”

Narrating the Tibet episode is Tenzin L. Choegyal, a nephew of the Dalai Lama who was raised within the Tibetan exile community in Dharamsala, India.

“He’s not a professional narrator, but he has a sonorous voice and he obviously has a lot of feeling for the subject,” Mr. Bush said.

The filmmaker did not interview Tibetan monks, for fear that the government would punish them.

The stunning Tibetan scenery features the temples built on rocky Himalayan peaks, with azure skies and cotton-white clouds in the backdrop as robed monks study, pray, and meditate in the monasteries.

“I wanted to show the majesty of this tradition in its environment, and what remains of it,” Mr. Bush said.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Bush runs the independent film company Direct Pictures, based in Greenwich Village, New York City.

The filming for the series began in 2001, Mr. Bush said, with the first two segments filmed simultaneously.

The opening episode, Dharma River is set in Laos, Thailand, and Burma, and follows the Mekong River as Mr. Bush and crew explore the rich history and the current state of Buddhism in that region.

Prajna Earth was filmed in Cambodia and centers on the lost civilization of Angkor, including spectacular images of Angkor Wat, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. That segment is narrated by actress Sharon Stone.

The final film in the trilogy, titled Vajra Sky Over Tibet, was filmed in 2002.

All told, Mr. Bush said, the three 90-minute documentaries in Journey into Buddhism were edited down from more than 80 hours of film.

“You know what you want to do when you set out to make a documentary, you have the idea, but it isn’t until you get back in the studio and see what you have that the story starts to reveal itself,” he said.

Journey into Buddhism was a project of special meaning for Mr. Bush, who has a personal interest in the subject matter.

“I’ve been a practicing Buddhist since I first went to Indian in 1970, so it’s something I’m quite comfortable with,” he said. “But I was interested in making it for people who weren’t interested in becoming Buddhists or who were just curious. My feeling is that we can find the most universal themes and extract those — things that would relate to somebody else’s spiritual life or spiritual practice.”

Vajra Sky Over Tibet has been shown in theaters in limited release, in 30 cities, and the trilogy is being discussed for broadcast by PBS stations next year, Mr. Bush said.

The DVD series includes several bonus features including an “ambient sound mix with music,” eliminating the narration and offering only natural environmental sounds with background music by regional artists.

“When I originally conceived of this piece, I was really anticipating doing it without any voiceover, just a direct experience of the place” Mr. Bush said.

“When I showed the initial cuts to people, I found they were creating their own stories, their own ideas of what was happening. And it was not as interesting as the real thing. So it had to be shown with narration.

“But after you’ve seen the DVD once or twice with narration, you’ve probably got it. And it’s a whole different experience when you can watch it with the music and ambient sound. It allows the places to speak even more strongly to the viewer.”

More information on “Journey into Tibet” is available online at, where DVDs of the individual episodes or the boxed-set trilogy can be ordered. The documentary also will be available in stores starting Sept. 4.

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