While serving in the Peace Corps in Nepal, writer, director, and producer Mickey Lemle began engaging with the Tibetan people and learning about their plight and genocide. In 1991, Lemle made Compassion in Exile, his first film about His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Now, 25 years later, Lemle revisits His Holiness in his newest film, The Last Dalai Lama? The film is an intimate portrait of what is on the heart and mind of His Holiness the Dalai Lama at 80 years old.
This film features interviews with His Holiness, his family, and other people who have been deeply influenced by the Dalai Lama. Lemle also documents the work His Holiness is doing in regards to neuroscience and emotional intelligence with his involvement in school programs that focus on heart-mind learning and the Dalai Lama’s support of the creation of Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions. These beautiful and hopeful portions of the film are balanced by Lemle revisiting the history and continued suffering of the Tibetan people who are still under Chinese occupation.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mickey Lemle to discuss the new film, His Holiness, and how the practice of meditation can truly change the world.
How did the idea for the first film, Compassion in Exile, come to light? And why did you decide to return to His Holiness 25 years later with your recent film, The Last Dalai Lama?
I was in the Peace Corps in Nepal back in ’69-’70. I was in the foothills of the Himalayas and half the village was Buddhist and half was Hindu. Every now and then, these Tibetans would come through town and I noticed that they didn’t look like the usual villagers. And I would ask, “Who are those guys?” And I was told, “Those are Tibetans.”
I met some at the refugee camp in Darjeeling and in Kathmandu and learned about what was going on in Tibet with the occupation of the Chinese and the destruction that they [The Chinese] were perpetrating. I became involved with the issue. There is so much today that is morally ambivalent or morally ambiguous, but there is nothing morally ambiguous about what went on in Tibet. It was just wrong. And the destruction of the Tibetan culture and religion is a crime against humanity.
The Tibetan culture and religion is a very valuable resource. It is the spiritual equivalent to the rainforest. It belongs to all of us and, like the rainforest, it is being destroyed everyday. The Tibetans have a lot to offer us, especially in the west.
One of the things they have managed to solve is how to live interethnically without violence. They have also learned how to live on the Earth without causing it damage and how to face Death without fear. These are things that we are not very good at. The other thing that they have managed to understand and have held onto for over a thousand years is how to overcome negative and inflictive emotions such as anger, greed, jealously, hatred, ignorance, and violence. They’ve worked out the technology to overcome them and thereby they live happier lives.
Twenty-five years ago, His Holiness challenged a group of cutting-edge neuroscientists, and said, “We have been holding onto this knowledge for a thousand years, now it’s time to share with the world. But if it comes from one specific religious tradition, the others wont buy it.” So he challenged them to explore it scientifically. Not to prove it, but to explore it, and that if they found value in it, to spread this information as widely as possible. So this group of neuroscientists started looking into it and I do not think it is an accident or a coincidence that 25 years ago this mindfulness movement also started that has taken off across the Western world and the rest of the world. My friend even told me there is mindfulness mayonnaise in Whole Foods. So this movement has really spread, no pun intended. It came out of those meetings that His Holiness had with those neuroscientists. They have shown that using all of this this cutting-edge technology of neuroscience that your level of happiness and your capacity for compassion is not something you are born with. It is not fixed, and you can actually increase it and increase the amount of happiness you have in your life and the amount of compassion that you feel. This all comes through meditation and learning to how to meditate on these things.
They have shown through MRI’s that some of these Buddhist monks and practitioners can be shown photographs of the human condition like picnics and puppies and happy times. Then all of the sudden they will show them very disturbing images of humans and humanity like war, disasters, and atrocities, and their brains will light up with compassion and this compassion takes up a big part of the brain.
It is this incredibly valuable gift that His Holiness is spreading throughout the world.
We all believe the voice that we hear inside our head is telling us the truth. And science has shown that 90 percent of the thoughts that you had today, you had yesterday. So we just keep rethinking the same thoughts over and over. In a way, it’s reassuring, because it’s confirming our sense of reality. But it’s not reality, it’s a projection of our minds onto phenomenon. So what happens is, we’ll say, “Oh that guy’s a jerk.” And then the next day you see that person and you say again, “Yeah, that’s guy’s a jerk.” And so then you say to yourself, “I’ve always thought that guy was a jerk. Aren’t I smart and perceptive for being able to realize that?”
So we just reconfirm that what we tell ourselves and what we think is reality but it’s just a construct of our minds. The way to understand that concept is one of the byproducts of having a meditation practice. You sit and you empty your mind of thought and you observe the thoughts rising. You don’t engage them and you don’t identify with them, you just observe them and let them go. And over time you see how your thoughts are not only creating your reality, but how you identify with the witness of the thoughts. That’s the technology for not only overcoming your negative and inflictive emotions, but it’s also the technology for world peace.
It was really powerful in the film to listen to His Holiness talk about how he has been practicing for 65 years and that he still has to work at it. It was encouraging and hopeful that His Holiness does not claim to be perfect or above negative thoughts, but that with practice these things can lessen and compassion and happiness can increase.
Yes. It’s transformative. My movies, people say that they are spiritual, but I don’t see them as that. All of my movies have the common theme of human transformation. Without human transformation and the evolution of human consciousness, then the world is going to be just as dreary tomorrow as it is today. But with that as a possibility, that means there is hope for all of us. His Holiness is a great example of what all of our potentiality is. He is an incredibly special human being. There is no one like him, there’s never been, and there may be no one like him ever again. But at the same time he is an example of what’s possible for all of us.
Hope, potential, and human transformation are such important things to focus on.
I know I have gotten away from the original question but let me get back to it.
I first met His Holiness at a conference in 1984 in Davos, Switzerland. It was a big week-long conference, with a lot of important people speaking. And after His Holiness’s talk, there was a small reception for him and I was invited to meet him. I shook his hand and looked him in the eye and I was blown away by how funny he was and how human. He was not at all what I expected.
After all the speakers finished their talks, there was a Q&A. There was a woman who asked all the speakers the same question, “What do you think is going to happen in the world 50 years from now?” And each of the speakers in a position of authority, standing behind a podium, addressing 800 people answered her with, “We will either have more of this or less of that.” After His Holiness’s talk, she asked the same question and he contemplated it for a few moments and then looked at her and said, “Madam, I don’t have any idea.” He said, “I don’t know what kind of tea I am going to be having for dinner tonight. How am I supposed to know what is going to happen in the world 50 years from now?” And he laughed. I thought to myself, When is the last time I saw a political or religious leader acknowledge they didn’t know something? I couldn’t think of a single example.
Then when I met him about an hour later in person, I was overwhelmed by his aura. You know, it’s palpable. I’m sure a lot of people who read this will have met celebrities or politicians or people who are very charismatic and they have an aura. But when you meet them one on one, they will look you in the eye like you are the only person in the room, but you can see the wheels turning. You can see them thinking, Who is this person and how can I use them for me?
Yes. Those people wanna know, “What can you do for me?”
Yes. But with His Holiness, he looks right into your soul and thinks, Who is this person and what do they need? What can I give them? So you are overwhelmed by this sense of kindness and also this brilliant mind. So after I met him, I decided he would be a really good subject for a movie. And the other thing is, I had heard someone ask him if he hated the Chinese. He said no. He said he didn’t hate them. And I thought well if he can do that with the Chinese, maybe I can do that with some of my family members.
Around 1990, His Holiness was staying at a monastery in New Jersey, and I went out and met him and pitched the movie to him. He listened very carefully and at the end he said, “Do you think this is a worthy undertaking?”
I said, “Your Holiness, if I didn’t think it was a worthwhile undertaking I wouldn’t spend my time doing it.”
And he just looked at me with those wonderful eyes and said, “You know. That’s a very American way of looking at it.” After years of spending time with my Tibetan Buddhist friends, I learned that to a Tibetan Buddhist, the most important aspect of any action you take is the motivation behind it.
So the Dalai Lama said to me once, “If you go on a peace march and you have anger in your heart. Stay home. The way to go on a peace march is with peace in your heart.” So what he was asking me was what was my motivation? I missed it completely. I asked it from my ego. Luckily, he’s the world’s most compassionate person. So he had compassion on my ignorance and so he said, let’s do the movie and let’s do it soon. Two weeks later, I was on a plane to Dharamsala to research it.
At the time, a lot of people didn’t know about him as the world rock star that he is today. A lot of people didn’t know what was going on in Tibet with the occupation of the Chinese and the genocide and destruction of the Tibetan culture and religion. So I thought this movie would be a really good vehicle for bringing world attention to the situation. We thought that if only the world knew about what was going on it would get better. But sadly, over the last 25 years it has gotten worse.
I thought it was a great story 25 years ago when I did the first major movie about him and now 25 years later, a lot changed. He changed. I changed. The situation changed. And I felt an urgency when he would meet with groups or individuals about getting his message out as he was about to turn 80 when we began filming.That was one of the motivations.
The other motivation was that I am a member of the baby boomers. As a friend of mine said, “They are starting to shoot at our regiment now.” All the baby boomers are facing the issues of aging and dying and so as a gift to my generation, why not ask the world’s most conscious person how he’s dealing with aging and dying? So we both decided to do the second movie.
It is so powerful towards the end of The Last Dalai Lama? when His Holiness is discussing altruism and separating his consciousness from his body so that when he dies it will only be the body that dies and that altruism will be the last thing on his mind.
He meditates on his own death seven times a day, so that at the moment of his death he can be clear and separate his consciousness form what is going on in his body. That is what he practices. I mean how many Americans do that? They may think about their own death seven times a day, but they don’t mediate on their death in a way that’s positive. They think about it in a way that brings up fear. He’s made friends with death. The Tibetans believe that if his consciousness is clear at the time of his death he can project his reincarnation wherever he wants it.
Yes, which is so important in regards to the Chinese government demanding they be part of the selection of the 15th Dalai Lama and any other high Lamas.
In regards to Americans and death, we are so tied to our vanity, the idea of our body breaking down and being any less than perfect is a very hard concept for Americans to wrap their heads around. And part of it has to do with the fact that we don’t talk about death in American culture. I think that as American and Western culture moves away from spiritual practice and more towards an atheistic mindset, a mindset of “one shot and then you are done”, the culture becomes much more ego driven.
It is also very materialistic. It says that there is only the material world.
So when people think about death, they are not only thinking about losing their life, they are thinking about losing their stuff.
Yes they are.
In regards to the material world and the idea of celebrity. I attended the birthday celebration that was held for His Holiness at the Honda Center in July 2015. One of the things that struck me were all of the celebrities that came to give him their birthday wishes. Yet even though as Americans we see these people as celebrities, His Holiness does not care about their status and just sees them as people.
I have been with His Holiness when he meets with a lot of important, fancy people, and he’ll get up and start talking to the waiter because the waiter needs something. He just has this intuition about who needs something and what it is they need.
And that is all about higher consciousness and being aware of those around you and not in a taking mindset, but in a giving mindset.
He says the secret to happiness is not getting more stuff, or getting stuff for yourself, but it’s helping others and serving others. And he lives it. It’s not just a cute saying to put on your refrigerator. He lives it. He means it.
When you listen to His Holiness speak, it strikes me at how straightforward the concepts he is teaching are, and yet, they cause me to really stop and think.
When you listen to His Holiness, it can be easy to get caught up in thinking his teachings are simple, but it’s because his proficiency in English is not as strong as his proficiency in Tibetan. But some of these very simple sounding ideas are tremendously profound.
Yes, like the idea that losing compassion causes a person to lose their soul.
One of the people I was struck by in the film is Thupten Chokdhen, the Chant Master that was imprisoned by the Chinese for 20 years. It was so powerful to listen to him speaking about talking about how every day Thupten had to focus on being compassionate towards his captors.
Yes. That was his practice. That is a level that you and I might never get to.
But even if we don’t. If that man can have compassion on his captors, I definitely can have more compassion for my family and for all people.
In the film, you draw attention to the Tibetans who have sacrificed their cycles of reincarnation to bring awareness to the Tibetan plight and genocide.
Yes, it is now over 150 people who have self-immolated to bring attention to the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the atrocities that are being committed. I remember the Vietnam War and there were three Buddhist monks that self-immolated and it was on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Today with over 150 people who have self-immolated, you couldn’t find it in any Western press anywhere.
You mention those Tibetans a few places in the film and the montage towards the end is just heart-breaking.
It breaks my heart every time.
You mentioned earlier in which His Holiness is wanting to get his message out to the world. Do you feel that urgency is coming because His Holiness is so meditative on his own impending death?
He‘s 82, he is in good health, and everybody hopes he lives another 20 years at least. But he is getting older and he knows it. I definitely think that is a big part of it.
What do you hope audiences take away from The Last Dalai Lama?
I hope that they understand that happiness comes from serving others. That it is not about getting more stuff for yourself. Getting a better car or a bigger house. Getting in a relationship or out of a relationship. There is nothing external that is going to make you happy. That happiness comes from an inner place of being of service. It is more important to know that we all create our own reality. And the way out of that and the way out of suffering and inflictive emotions is to understand how our minds work. By doing so we will become free of those inflictive emotions. Then we can be happier and be of more service. There is no other way. It is not going to happen through legislation. You cannot legislate happiness. It’s not a political thing.
I also want them to appreciate this extraordinary human being who is walking on the planet while they are walking on the planet. Because I think a lot of people wont appreciate him until after he’s gone. They will marvel at the fact that they were alive when he was alive.
Not a lot of generations get to experience that. You read about great people of history or spiritual significance as part of the past but not as part of your present. His Holiness is part of our present.
I think that people didn’t realize when Gandhi was alive who was on the planet with us. Or Martin Luther King? I keep thinking to myself, Why didn’t I go meet Gandhi or why didn’t I go meet Martin Luther King? Why didn’t I go meet Mandela? These people were alive when I was alive.
In the 1990s when Compassion in Exile came out, I can remember the huge rallying that was occurring around Tibet and the Tibetan people. I remember the Tibetan Freedom Concert and celebrities like Richard Gere really trying to bring voice and awareness to this cause and the oppression and genocide that the Tibetans were and are still facing. Since Tibet is not at the forefront of the media, what do you think needs to truly happen for thins to change?
There are two parts to answer that question. A meditative practice is the first, best thing, anybody can do. Its non-denominational. I am not pushing a specific religion. I am just saying that I have found tremendous value in having a mediation practice. The whole thing I talked about becoming aware of how your mind creates your reality. The only way to understand that, that I know is through meditation. Because when one meditates, one watches thoughts arise but, you don’t get involved with them. You don’t get attached to them, and you don’t identify with the thoughts. You just observe them and let them go like clouds on windy day. You don’t force them away. You don’t push them away. You just let them go. And over time, you start to see your thoughts and how they create your reality. Then you start to identify with the witness and not the thought. That is why it is such a valuable practice. That’s on the personal side. Anyone who sees the movie can do it if they are ready for it. I’m not preaching anything. My movies don’t preach. Because it only works if someone is ready for it.
I made this film, The Other Side of the Moon, about the astronauts that went to the moon. My assumption going into it was that everybody who went to the moon and stood on a heavenly body 250,000 miles from Earth and watched the Earth rise would have to have a profound spiritual and transformative experience. Some of them did, but when I started to interview them, half of them didn’t.
I said to Edgar Mitchell, one of the men on Apollo 14 who had a deeply transformative experience, one night after we were filming, I said, “Ed, how is it that you had this amazing transformative and life-altering experience and half the guys didn’t? They have said they had trained for so long that they knew what to expect and they did their job and came home. But how it that possible?”
He said, “Mickey, it’s like bouncing the ball off the wall. If you’re not open to an experience, you don’t have it.” And there is an old Sufi expression, “Trying to teach someone to be happy is like trying to teach a pig to sing. It’s not going to work and it’s only going to annoy the pig.” So that is how I feel about any art work that is pushing something or promoting something or advocating something. It becomes a polemic. It’s annoying. So all that I can do with my work is offer it and if someone is open to this and they are ready for it, then I hope the film can become an actual transformative agent and help them in that journey. And if they are not open to it and not ready for it, it’s just a really good story.
The Last Dalai Lama? opens today in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center. A national release will follow.