Last Saturday morning I watched a film that had both a uniquely personal impact (reminding me of important influences in my life) and universal import (documenting great upheavals in time and space when entire knowledge traditions have hovered in the balance).
As an Albuquerque Film Festival selection, “The Great Transmission” (which documents the preservation of endangered, ancient Buddhist texts) passed through town, like a freight train slowing down at a railway crossing.
I arrived 15 minutes early at the Southwest Broadway Cultural Center and was surprised that I was able to park directly in front of the entrance. And at 10:00 am, sitting with five strangers in the almost empty auditorium, I watched how Lama Tarthang Tulku—ever since the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet–has devoted his time and knowledge to preserving endangered remnants of ancient, irreplaceable Buddhist texts. Using state-of-the-art green-screen technology, this film covers a wide sweep of historical time, including the Dharma’s earlier forced march across time and space—after the 1200 CE razing of Nalanda University in India, the land of Buddhism’s birth. As Buddhism was almost extinguished in India, surviving monks scattered around the globe, carrying a few sacred texts from which new branches of Buddhism—such as Zen—were founded in foreign lands.
This documentary presents the legacy of warfare across wide swaths of time and space, and the irrevocable loss of precious knowledge that comes with war. Watching it, I felt my own indebtedness to the knowledge that has been shared on my continent by Tarthang Tulku, who is now in his 80’s, and who arrived in California in the 1960’s.
I have been reading Dharma Publishing books since the late 1980’s—including the many volumes of the Time, Space, Knowledge Vision. Unlike the text preservation project–whose manuscripts are mainly in Pali, Sanscrit and Tibetan—the books I read are written in English. In collaboration with western students, these modern works seamlessly connect an ancient wisdom tradition with the scientific perspectives of our society. They may not even mention Buddhist teachings, but they uniquely address the confusions that come with living in a materialistic society, apprehended and illuminated in the open fields of ancient understandings. They have helped me find greater fulfillment in relationships, work, and within my own being. Voicing fresh and unsuspected possibilities, they penetrate the discouragement and emptiness so prevalent in our modern world. Instead of abhorring our society’s unbalanced reliance on technology, they speak to a deep love of knowledge and freedom that is also present in our modern world.
The film I saw on Saturday does not talk a lot about how the Dharma is being shared with Westerners. Instead of celebrating the historic migration of knowledge which is breathing new life into our materialistic culture, it tells the story of another more global stream in which Tarthang Tulku, and the community he has gathered around him, are deeply invested in preserving ancient texts in their original languages, among those texts the manuscripts that Tibetan monks carried over the mountains in 1959, before they collapsed in exhaustion in the heat and humidity of India, where, like their practitioners, those ancient works quickly began to deteriorate. It tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of sacred texts–printed in their original Tibetan, Sanscrit, and Pali languages, but now on high-quality paper able to withstand the erosions of time for centuries to come–are being distributed to the remnants of ancient cultures in their scattered pockets of diaspora.
“Emerging into time’s wholeness, we discover a world infinite in its measured-out manifestations—far richer in its possibility than we have ever imagined. But the infinite unique cannot be measured. It is the activating medium of measurement: the heart of time.”
Dynamics of Time and Space, Tarthang Tulku, Dharma Publishing, 1994, Page 163
One of the perspectives encountered in these ancient teachings—which have arrived on our shores from the East–is that there are two flows in everything that lives: one flow reaches out to experience a world and another reaches inward into the heart of the one who is experiencing. (For instance appreciation reaches out at the same time as it makes us aware of who is inside us reaching out in appreciation.)
Perhaps this image of a two-way flow can shed some light on why Tarthang Tulku is so devoted to supporting traditional Buddhist communities. At the same time as the benefits of these ancient teachings are being planted and nurtured in the west, there is also a flowing back into the traditional communities, such as those that existed in Tibet, which no longer exist in their evolved cultural contexts. These decimated communities carry the vestiges of ways of knowing that are irreplaceable if a path to realization, that has always been person to person, is to survive in our world. “The Great Transmission” documents an astounding effort that has been going on in northern California for more than half a century: to return sacred texts to the communities from which they have been taken–hopefully they are not arriving too late to find individuals alive there who can understand them.
The West’s technological accomplishments are thereby giving something of great value back to our world. Instead of drone strikes and the closing of borders, our society’s scientific way of knowing has been able to play an important role in keeping alive the fragile heritage of Buddhism. At risk is not just the world’s capacity to improve circumstances and restore knowledge. We’ve traveled too far along a dark road for that to be enough. Appreciating and acknowledging our indebtedness to the sacrifices of others may be a doorway into the future that offers our world its best remaining chance.