‘Tashi and the Monk,’ on the power of transformation
It wasn’t quite Shangri-La, the Himalayan paradise in Frank Capra’s 1937 adaptation of James Hilton’s novel “Lost Horizon.” But British documentarian Andrew Hinton recognized that Jhamtse Gatsal (Tibetan for “the garden of love and compassion”) was a special place.
He had just spent three grueling days traveling to the little community for children founded by former Buddhist monk Lobsang Phuntsok. Some in the Boston area might be familiar with Phuntsok; in 2003 he founded the Jhamtse Buddhist Center in Concord and spent several years teaching here.
Hinton, however, was not in search of enlightenment. He had been sent by a San Francisco production company to shoot footage at Jhamtse Gatsal, which is in the Himalayas of Northern India near the Tibetan border. “By the time I arrived I was feeling shaken up,” he recalls over the phone from his home in Brooklyn. “The last leg of the journey is about eight hours in a four-wheel drive. I arrived, finished the assignment in a couple of days, and ended up staying for three weeks.”
Somehow, the place differed from the rest of the world. Or maybe it was the way the world should be.
“I had never experienced an atmosphere like it,” he remembers. “So I stayed longer, spending time getting to know Lobsang and getting to know some of the kids. I said I’ll be back and try to tell the bigger story.”
That bigger story can be seen in “Tashi and the Monk,” which airs Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO. It was an experience that changed Hinton’s life and that of his co-director and close friend Johnny Burke. “We were both feeling burnt out by the film industry,” explains Hinton. “We were questioning what it all meant and what we were doing. The treatment we got in the community completely transformed us as individuals. And it changed our relationship to film.”
On the phone from Jhamtse Gatsal, Phuntsok expresses bemused bewilderment at the effect that his establishment — a compound where 80 troubled boys and girls are educated, cared for, and treated with unflinching empathy — has on visitors like Hinton and Burke and those who make a pilgrimage there after seeing their film.
“I ask everybody — why did you come?” he says. “It might be beautiful, our surroundings, but for us it’s our day-to-day life. So I’m a surprised people are so fascinated.”
Despite his modesty, Phuntsok has come a long way from his humble beginnings. In one scene he relates his past to the kids as a bedtime story. He tells them about a little boy — as lonely and sad as themselves — who is abandoned by his parents and raised by his grandparents. But they found him so unruly that they sent him to a monastery, where the kindness he received made him into the person he is today.
“It’s almost mythological, the journey he’s taken from being a troubled child who grew up to help other kids who are going through similar experiences,” says Hinton. “It was like a Joseph Campbell myth. But as a documentary filmmaker that story is hard to relate because you don’t just want someone talking about it in an interview. It’s much more engaging if you have it happening before your eyes. Then Tashi made her presence known.”
Though waif-like, Tashi was full of mischief, defiance, and pain. She seemed shadowed by bad memories. “She was at that time a troubled soul and constantly getting into trouble,” says Hinton. “But she was also a large personality in a small body. I started following her. In a documentary, you just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Some of the things that happened were disturbing. “There were indicators that she had experienced trauma,” says Hinton. “In the scene where she bites the eyes off her Teddy bear, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, but when we had the translation it was ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to slit your throat.’ Not the behavior you’d expect from a five-year-old.”
Phuntsok remembers her circumstances. “She lost her mother at an early age and her father was an alcoholic unable to take care of her. She was wild and didn’t listen to anybody. She would pick up glass and eat it. It convinced me that she needed a home, a family, somebody to look after her. Helping children like her is one of the main reasons for the community.”
In one of the film’s more affecting moments, Phuntsok takes Tashi aside after she has hit one of the other children and talks to her. “It’s all right to be naughty sometimes,” he tells the sobbing, furious child. “But you also need to study so that when you grow up you can be happy, like me.’
“Tashi has since made impressive progress,” says Phuntsok. “She has many friends now. Less than a year ago she was always by herself, but now she wants to play. She even helps with the cleaning.”
“And after ‘Tashi and the Monk,’ ” he says joking, “there will be more pressure on her to be good because she’s a celebrity.”
Phuntsok himself was something of a local celebrity when he taught in the Boston area. Still, though he loved the work, he was not satisfied. “I never felt that I was doing what I was teaching other people,” he explains. “I wanted to turn my teachings into action. And now to see how happy these children are, how full of hope and dreams, I feel like I am living my childhood again through them.”
Though it did not fulfill him, Phuntsok’s teaching career in a karmic way has benefitted his present endeavors. As Hinton explains, “The Boston area has been fundamentally important to Lobsang both personally and in the formation of the community. The efforts of local volunteers have helped it grow in the way it has.”
Hinton has seen the power of Phuntsok’s teaching firsthand. “I was with Johnny last November at a fund-raising screener at Sudbury High School where Lobsang had lectured years before. The staff fondly remembered him and it was one of the most exciting screenings we had. The auditorium was packed with people who had been his friends or students. We raised $100,000 that night.”
Phuntsok appreciates the financial support for Jhamtse Gatsal that “Tashi and the Monk” has engendered, but he believes the true value of the film is as a reminder that simple kindness can change the world.
“I’m excited about it not so much because of the attention it brings to us but to the practice of compassion. Many people believe in compassion. Because it works.”