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In Search of My Perfect Teacher

by Jessica Roemischer

Filmmaker Lesley Ann Patten attempts to come to terms with her Tibetan Buddhist guru, Dzongsar Rinpoche—the man she has hired to “assassinate” her.

“If from anybody one should understand the Doctrine preached by the Fully Enlightened One, devoutly should one revere him, as a Brahmana reveres the sacrificial fire.”
— Gautama Buddha, Dhammapada

“The number one [characteristic of postmodern individuals] is an ironic defense against the possibility of being duped. That's the main thing they don't want to happen to them. And of course, believing anything with any great conviction sets you up for making a fool of yourself if you ever turn out to be wrong.”
— Thomas de Zengotita

Across the mystical traditions and over the course of millennia, the enlightened teacher has been the holy grail of the spiritual quest. “Through the blessings and kindness of the guru, great bliss, the realization of emptiness, and the union of samsara and nirvana can be obtained instantly,” says the Chakrasamvara tantra. Indeed, history and human consciousness are suffused with the almost mythical accounts of those spiritual masters through the ages who opened the way for many to enter sublime and transcendent realms. And aligned with these great teachers, students often became legendary in their own right, the “guru principle” having activated a force of purification and love so powerful that the disciples were irrevocably transformed.

Surprisingly, the revered tradition of the guru-disciple relationship began to emerge in a secular society amid the newfound freedoms and cultural pluralism of our postmodern world. Beginning in the 1960s, as a steady stream of Asian teachers made their way West, a generation of Western seekers, untethered from their own religious and cultural traditions, turned to embrace the medieval customs of Tibet or China or India—colorful and novel delivery systems for enlightened consciousness—that these teachers brought here. The gurus themselves became highly magnetic objects of rapt attention—seemingly miraculous, living expressions of wisdom, compassion, love, and illuminated awareness. But the story of Eastern gurus and Western students over the past forty years has often begun as an idyllic honeymoon and all too frequently has given way to a rocky marriage. Fraught with the difficulties of bridging a vast cultural divide in a time of increasing psychological and social complexity, the journey of the spiritual aspirant and the Eastern teacher is an especially challenging one.

In her full-length film, Words of My Perfect Teacher, Lesley Ann Patten has perfectly captured both the dilemma of the contemporary spiritual seeker and the dilemma of the guru. The movie is a poignant and powerful portrayal of the cultural, psychological, and spiritual difficulties faced by so many who have been drawn to the promise of a transcendent possibility, and to Eastern teachers and teachings. And it evokes the question: In a twenty-first-century world, can the traditional guru awaken the seeker to his or her own true heart and catalyze enlightenment?

A student of the highly revered Tibetan Buddhist lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, Patten's documentary chronicles her spiritual and intercontinental odyssey alongside two other Westerners as she follows Dzongsar across the world. She is pursuing him in the hope that he can fulfill her lifelong yearning for enlightenment—that, in fact, he is her “perfect teacher.” Filmed in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, Germany, and Dzongsar's homeland of Bhutan, Patten's colorful portrayal of her spiritual quest is part autobiography and part travelogue. It grows out of her attempt to come to terms with her own ambivalence about the student-teacher relationship, as well as her ambivalence about this jet-setting, enigmatic, and elusive Tibetan lama. He is a man uniquely straddling two worlds, East and West, a teacher who alternately inspires and exasperates her.

Patten opens the film by imparting the story of the Buddha's awakening and explaining why, in Buddhism, the guru is so important: “The Buddha said this enlightenment could be realized in one lifetime or over many. It is the birthright of every human being, but to perfect it you need a teacher.” Her invocation of this central tenet of Buddhism accompanies shots of the serene and mountainous landscape of Bhutan. This is followed by a sequence of images that takes us from London's Big Ben, to the faces of Bhutanese boys at a Buddhist ceremony, to the hustle of urban streets at rush hour, to her traveling companions, to the carefully folded fingers of Tibetan monks in Buddhist ritual, to a game of street ball in Los Angeles, to Dzongsar himself. This first sequence is a cinematic overture to what will follow; it is postmodern pastiche as global odyssey, where the episodic vignettes of countries, cultures, friends, family, and the revered teacher alternate between East and West—the two worlds Dzongsar himself inhabits, and the two worlds that Patten, as Dzongsar's Western student, is trying to reconcile.

Like many of her generation, Patten was driven by a strange disaffection and isolation that had haunted her since her youth, and she sensed some higher and deeper possibility beyond the circumstances of family, life, and culture that she found herself in. “As a child, I would escape to tales of foreign lands. I longed to meet an extraordinary teacher, the Merlin who could help me pull the sword from the stone.” Her spiritual yearning eventually found a worthy object in Dzongsar Rinpoche, who held “a strange attraction” and whose background was clearly “not ordinary.” And yet, while she was passionately drawn to him as the means to fulfill her hunger for a transcendent reality, the film ultimately reveals the perennial battle so often waged in the mind and heart of the spiritual seeker—the battle between that which fervently resists submission to the teacher and that which deeply recognizes that surrender and trust can bring to fruition a lifelong aspiration for enlightenment.

Born into a traditional feudal culture and recognized as an incarnation of one of the most admired Tibetan Buddhist teachers of the prior two centuries, Dzongsar Rinpoche is, indeed, “not ordinary.” Raised among a family of preeminent Vajrayana Buddhist masters, he is heir to an august lineage—a lineage that rests on the inextricable relationship between enlightenment and the living awakened teacher, the revealer of that ineffable and peerless state of freedom. As Patten explains, the Vajrayana tradition was brought to Tibet from India in the eighth century by the great Buddhist saint Padmasambhava. It emphasizes that the “most important reference point a student has is a teacher who points the way . . . [using] all means necessary to help students awaken to their own inner wisdom and compassion.” “The truth of the matter,” Dzongsar has written, “is that the guru has all the qualities of the Buddha. He is the Buddha; he is the dharma; he is the sangha; he is everything.”

And yet, as Patten's film illustrates so clearly, embracing this mythic ideal is particularly difficult for those born into our contemporary milieu, where so many of the traditional structures of hierarchy and authority, including spiritual authority, have given way to a culture in which self-reliant independence is held as most sacred. As her film also reveals, the psychology of postmodernism is strikingly contradictory, and the flip side of this heightened individualism can often be the doubt, mistrust, and weak faith that undergird the vague discontent so particular to our time.

Nonetheless, Patten is compelled to pursue a higher spiritual calling—and Dzongsar Rinpoche. Together with her two fellow “ducklings”—as she refers to herself and her two companions, Luc Dierckx and Louise Rodd—she follows him from London to Germany and finally to Bhutan, “bedazzled” by his presence. “I don't want to be a minute away from him,” says Luc, a computer programmer from Vancouver. “There's never one instant that Rinpoche is not teaching something, if you're willing to view it as such.” At the same time, his enigmatic, outrageous, and often unpredictable behavior seems to be deliberately designed to cause them to doubt.

From the outset of the film, we witness Dzongsar's antics, which are sometimes met with offhand comments by Luc and Louise, a tarot card reader from London, as well as by Patten herself. Dzongsar is shown stealthily disembarking from a London bus, leaving Luc scrambling to catch him. Later on, he manages to evade the filmmaker and her companions at the Munich airport—despite having arranged to meet them there—leaving them in the lurch for hours. Louise remarks that “you're meant to see him as this great, great being, and then on another level, you could think, 'Is this all my imagination?' So you end up chasing your tail. It's like being in a bizarre kind of comedy.”

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December 2005–February 2006