I had a telephone call from a friend, Alan, who spent around 33 years in prison as a guest of Her Majesty’s’ Government for allegedly killing his gay partner in a flat in Victoria, London in 1973. He might have got an early release, perhaps even after 10 years, but he regularly harassed the authorities on various issues making himself somewhat unpopular with the prison authorities and the Home Office. A year or so ago, the Home Office gave him parole and he now lives in a small flat in south London. We have been in regular contact for getting on for 30 years. He rang to tell me that there was a 90 minute documentary on BBC 4, Britain TV for channel, on the Kalachakra, the Tibetan ritual. Well known Germany film director, Werner Herzog filmed the Kalachakra ritual in Bodh Gaya, attended by 100,000 Mahayana Buddhists and interviewed the delightful and kindly Dalai Lama. The film makes no attempt to explain the Kalalchakra because it is inexplicable. The Dalai Lama told me once that he can’t it either after I attended a Kalachakra in Switzerland in the 1980’s. Herzog has realised this also so the film takes us on a journey into the inexplicable. The director also travelled to Mount Kailash to film thousands of Himalayan Buddhists on a Yatra (pilgrimage) to the sacred mountain. It was all breathtaking stuff.
I have to marvel at the incredible resilience, fearlessness and determination of these Buddhists. One Tibetan had been released only days before after spending 37 years in prison for voicing his wish for a free Tibet. He told Werner Herzog that years ago in the prison he shouted out “Free Tibet! so the Chinese authorities added another five years to his sentence. On a later occasion, some foreign journalists visited the prison. They prevented this particular prisoner of conscience from meeting the visitors. The prisoner said that he spotted a small hole in the wall so he shouted out through hole to the journalists “Free Tibet.” The Chinese set him to another eight years in prison. The free spirit is not easily stifled. Inexplicable.
Herzog interviewed a pilgrim in Bodh Gaya who lived on the far side of the Himalayas speaking a rare dialect that required two interpreters so he could be understood in English. The man had engaged in more than two billion prostrations, yes billion, to reach Bodh Gaya. One clip in the documentary showed a pilgrim prostrating in a rugged, never ending valley in the Himalayas making his slow arduous pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. He stands up. He bows. He stretched out the body to its full length on the ground, reciting a mantra, and then brings his two feet up to the hands, stands up and repeats it again. Every inch of the way. A bone of the hand had become totally hardened and he had a small wound on his forehead through its contact with the earth. Inexplicable.
I can’t explain these incredible gestures. It is easy to make a standard response – devotion, developing wholesome karma, love of religion…..No, no, no. It’s another dimension altogether.
The prostrating pilgrim told the interviewer: “I don’t want to make a fuss.”
It’s a privilege to be connected with the Buddhist tradition. Like the kalachakra, the prisoner and the pilgrim defy all reason. So does life…
I wondered after watching the documentary what Alan made of it all.