“The American Rimpoche” explores America’s introduction to Tibetan Buddhism

By on July 21, 2015

“I was born October 36, 1939 in Lhasa Tibet. My mother was a nun, I believe. And my father was a very well known, very very well known, incarnate lama. And this photo is me, (laughter) wearing a monk’s robe, which indicates I am already recognized as an incarnate lama.”

This is Gelek Rimpoche’s own rich voice that starts The American Rimpoche, a riveting documentary, directed by Nikki Appino, with music by Philip Glass. We follow not only Gelek Rimpoche’s path- but the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the “Easternization of Americans” as Mr. Glass explains- responding to spiritual, historical and artistic inquiries.

Gelek Rimpoche, formerly of Tibet, is now a citizen of the United States. Chosen at a young age to be taken away into the monastery, Rimpoche says “I was born in the 17th century, and dropped into the 20th century.” This man is one of the last generation of Lamas fully educated in Old Tibet. As a young child Gelek Rimpoche was able to memorize seventeen pages a day and continues to have a capacious mind.

The film’s score consists of beautifully linked pieces Philip Glass composed between the years 1981-2007. One of the more striking segments is when “Dream of Fiji” (from The Truman Show) plays as Gelek Rimpoche reminisces about his mother. It is a vulnerable moment- and is well matched by Glass’s music, which contains an emotionality not often discussed.

“How did you get involved with Tibetan Buddhism?” I ask Mr. Glass, who has taken a moment from his inspiring non-stop schedule of composing and touring.

“It was a very casual approach to a very serious subject,” Glass explains. “I was trying to see if the things I had read about actually existed in the real world. When I was young you could have read all the books on Tibet in four afternoons. They suggested an esoteric tradition, which was barely believable. Did these people really exist? Were these practices that they describe in fact currently in practice?”

Fleeing the invasion, Gelek Rimpoche and so many others (200,000 Tibetans fled during the Chinese invasion) make the long trek to India. In India, after much upheaval, Gelek Rimpoche breaks free of the monastic life he has led so far. “I wanted to send a shock up my spine,” Rimpoche says in the film. His humorous, casual take on his dramatic life, is captivating. “‘Did you get what you were looking for?’ my teachers asked, knowing I would be back in the same old web.”

Gelek,-Allen,-Philip Philip Glass/ Gelek Rimpoche/ Allen Ginsberg

“They let him play around for a while,” Glass explains. “We don’t know what he did. I don’t know how wild the parties would be by modern standards. One of the more striking things is he got married and stopped wearing the robe. He presented himself in America as a lay person who happened to be a Rimpoche. He didn’t want us to bow down to him. However, when it comes to the teachings there is no one more traditional. The outside of Rimpoche’s house in Michigan looks just like another suburban home. But inside, you might as well be in a temple, there are so many paintings on the wall.”

Wichita Vortex Sutra, a composition that always commands attention, plays as the story of how Allen Ginsberg became a student of Gelek Rimpoche. “I asked Allen if we could work on a piece for a Vietnam Veterans’ benefit,” Glass continues. “They were putting on a concert at the Schubert Theater. I saw Allen in a bookstore. Of course he was in the poetry section, where else would he be? I said ‘Allen I’ve been invited to do a concert for this anti-war group on Broadway, would you work with me on it.’ And he said ‘Yes.’ He just pulled out his book from the shelf, opened it up to Wichita Vortex Sutra and said ‘This is the poem. Use this one.’ I then asked Allen to join me in a benefit for Gelek Rimpoche in Michigan. Allen came, and just fell into Gelek Rimpoche’s arms. From that moment on, until his death, Allen went to every retreat.”

The closing credits of The American Rimpoche have Glass’s composition “Ragas in Minor Scale” featuring Ravi Shankar. “There are many similarities between the spiritual and artistic worlds,” Glass adds. “There is discipline and ethics and of course, the calling.”

This film introduces us to what surely is a very evolved practice. With both subtlety and force, director Nikki Appino brings to light this key figure, Gelek Rimpoche, who has been instrumental in bringing Tibetan Buddhism teachings to the West. As well, the astute use of Glass’s music (which has it’s own expansive investigations) gives Nikki Appino’s debut film, The American Rimpoche, a rare poignancy.

The American Rimpoche can be ordered at americanrimpoche.com. It will be touring as part of the International Buddhist Film Festival in 2016.

About M.P. Snell

MP Snell has been published in No Tokens, Best of Ducts, Nerve Cowboy, Specter. She has recently completed her novel, Planet of Blue and Green. She has performed with John Moran and Ridge Theater, in venues such as Lincoln Center and The Guggenheim Museum. She can be heard on the Point Music/Philips Classics Recording of Moran’s Opera ‘The Manson Family’ with Iggy Pop. She writes articles on the arts, and in particular, has a passion for jazz, avant-guard and classical modern music. She composes music, as well