Filming The Yogis of Tibet


One of the most profound losses as a result of the Chinese systematically destroying the Tibetan culture is the tradition of the master yogis. The entire system, which supported these fascinating mind masters has been inexorably eliminated. After getting permission from the Dalai Lama we set out to captures for posterity the lives and practices of these mystical practitioners.

At that time we began filming we were not certain what we would be allowed to capture on film. It was clear that, although, we had been given permission by both H. H. Dalai Lama and H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche, (the head of the Drikung Kaygu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, whose yogis we filmed), the yogi’s themselves were finding it hard to reveal these ancient secret practices.

With the encouragement of highly respected Tibetan exiles, now living in Canada, Tashi and Genyen Jamyangling, whose family was once one of the wealthiest and most financially supportive families of the monasteries in Tibet, and due to their devotion to the Dalai Lama and Chetsang Rinpoche, the yogis agreed to break their silence and share with us what it means to be a yogi.

We were always respectful of their reluctance. Their concerns were with breaking a code that went back centuries which meant that they never demonstrated their powers of control over mind, body and energy just to show that they could. The teachings have been and still are passed down personally by highly realized masters.

JEHM FILMS, our production company consisted of my husband, Phil Borack, myself, LuAnn Winters, who had worked with us on other movie projects and the Jamyanglings who served as interpreters and consultants. We hired a California film crew made up of a director, a soundman and a cinematographer and his assistant. They were experienced in shooting documentaries. All of them were eager take on this project. As we worked with them we became confident that we had an excellent and respectful crew.

However, each time that we met a new yogi and set up our lights, checked the sound, and positioned him for questioning, we worried about how he would respond to our need to interrupt in the middle of his or her answer while an airplane flew overhead, thunder rolled in or the wind whipped nearby prayer flags causing interference with the sound equipment and halting the interview. This required us to ask for all or part of the interview to be repeated…and then sometimes…repeated again.

We would ask a question, wait for it to be translated for them, they would answer, stopping from time to time to let us have it translated for us. They took all these delays in stride and with humor.

We became weary, setting up and taking down equipment, rushing to get every minute of light, our backs aching, perspiring or shivering depending on the weather while they sat in the lotus position in their maroon robes with arms bare, legs folded, backs straight, patiently waiting.

One by one they impressed us as we listened to each explanation of the long years they spent in meditation and training, including the required retreat of three years, three months and three days.

The older yogis told of the Chinese invasion and loss of their monasteries and imprisonment and escape to exile. Those who had spent over twenty years in Chinese prison labor camps and suffered torture and hardship spoke of the Chinese people with compassion. Some of the younger ones who were born in Tibet under Chinese rule, also suffered hardships and had only recently made their way to refuge with the Dalai Lama in India.

Perhaps H. E. Garchen Rinpoche, head of the Garchen Institute in Chino Valley, Arizona where we began filming in July of 2001, is the most humble. He radiates tranquility, warmth and joy. From the age of seven until he was twenty-two he was the head of the Lho Miyalgon Monastery in Tibet. Although he was imprisoned and tortured by the Chinese for twenty years, he says that the Chinese did him a favor. He was placed in a camp that was strictly for Tibetan Buddhist monks. Among them were many highly realized teachers. In spite of daily work details and a ban on interaction between the prisoners, he secretly received many valuable teachings and refers to that time as a twenty-year retreat!

One of the most moving moments we captured while filming at the Garchen Institute in Arizona, took us by surprise. We had prepared questions for meditation master, Drupon Samten, originally from Ladakh but now living at his monastery in Escondido, California. Drupon, which means meditation master, patiently answered in English, which he learned after coming to the United States. Then, on his own, he pulled out a picture of his beloved late teacher, Khyunga Rinpoche, and told of the last lesson he gave his students.

He held a picture of Khyunga Rinpoche for the cameras and explained that on this day the teacher looked well and hardy as always and they were all dismayed when he announced that it was time for him to die. He led them through the ceremony for dying. He then looked at each student, said a blessing for each of them and placed his head in his hand and died.

We all felt honored that Drupon shared this experience and almost stopped breathing ourselves as we heard it. In fact we were so flustered that it took us a few minutes to realize that he had begun performing a secret breathing exercise and had to scramble to get the cameras in the right position.

We held our breath again as we watched H. E. Chenga Rinpoche demonstrate POWA, a yogic exercise that takes years to learn and requires two hours of practice daily. At one point he jumped from a sitting position with legs crossed so high in the air that, later, while viewing the days work, we saw he had jumped out of the frame of the fixed camera. While at the top of his jump he re-crossed his legs and landed with a thump.

The Venerable Drubwang Rinpoche, the oldest of the Yogis, and the most reluctant to break the silence, had spent over thirty years in retreat. When he was not answering a question, he very quietly chanted prayers for the well being of the world. We have been told that he never sleeps, but sits up repeating these mantras.

Although we did not capture it on film, several years ago, Phil and I were lucky enough to attend one of his teachings in Canada. It was the first time he came to the North American Continent. At that time he told the audience that while he remained in retreat in Tibet and the Dalai Lama was in India, he was able to communicate (with his mind) with the Dalai Lama and see all that was happening to him. During filming in India he explained that the Dalai Lama told him it was time to come out of his retreat. He was needed to help people through his teaching.

We had planned to leave for India for the remainder of the filming several days after 9/11, but our flight was canceled. In the uncertainty that followed we worried about risking our American crew by sending them to that part of the world. Once we could resume our flights, they insisted on continuing. In spite of our family protests Phil and I decided to go too, but as the delay continued it pushed us into the time that our grandson was scheduled for open-heart surgery so we reluctantly decided not to go with them.

Our heroic crew spent an exhausting first day driving from New Delhi to Dharamsala just in time to interview the Dalai Lama whose interview had originally been set at the end of our shoot. His schedule did not allow even a days change.

While the focus was about the yogis, we filmed the Dalai Lama talking about the tragedy in New York. I wanted to include it in the documentary but was voted down as it wasn’t about the yogis. We also have personal footage of the Dalai Lama, who we had met several years before, praying for our grandson who did come through the surgery very well.

There are more surprising interviews with the yogis, including H.H. Chetsang Rinpoche telling of the mystery of the master Yogi who had died recently, whose body was had not decomposed even more than a month after.

Back in the States, we found a wonderful editor, Barb King, right in our own backyard (well she lives a few blocks away). She had had experience making documentaries and agreed to work on our project. It was she who pulled film from archives and wrote the history of Buddhism in Tibet. It was she who found the footage from the Chinese invasion and the Dalai Lama’s dramatic escape to India.

The documentary has many more interesting and startling interviews and breathtaking scenery. We are very proud of it and are pleased that it has been well received by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Over twenty thousand copies have been distributed and copies have been requested for showings at film festivals and for use as a fundraiser worldwide. It is being translated into Spanish and at present under consideration to be translated in Mongolia and Taiwan. We are pleased to agree to these requests and donate the documentary for these uses.

Philip Borack has produced several full-length films as well as this documentary. His interest in Buddhism began five years ago after reading The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama.

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by Jo Borack
Jo Borack is a freelance writer. She and her husband live in Cincinnati, Ohio where they raised their four children.