August 1, 2012 by lunchboxcity
I am the only one in the theater. Tim McHenry, producer at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, has let me come up from Philadelphia to test our BluRay for the Wednesday night premiere of my first feature theatrical documentary, Digital Dharma. He left me with a cup of green tea and 150 empty seats. From the balcony above, I hear a young technician’s voice asking me if it looks better now. How about now?
The larger-than-life image of E. Gene Smith is now less red. He looks good. It always looks good to me to see Gene’s big smiling Buddha-wise face. The timbre of his deep, patient voice sounds amazing in surround sound. A calm, metered, unlikely lead character for any epic story.
Just outside this theatre is where I first met Gene only six years earlier. Feels like 50.
At the time, I did not know that Smith, a Mormon from Utah, had dedicated his life to saving a culture that was not his own. I was doing a documentary short on Peter Gruber, a philanthropist who is credited for numerous things, including helping facilitate one of the first English translations of any Tibetan books, “Hundred_Thousand_Songs_of_Milarepa.”
We had to interview Gene at the Rubin Museum because there was no room to fit a camera in his pint-size office down the street, where, I was told, he was digitizing thousands of old Tibetan texts. During the interview, Gene just patiently explained the importance of Peter Gruber’s publishing efforts and the basics tenants of Buddhism. He knew that he was talking to a woman whose path to enlightenment was off the beaten. Afterward, knowing his interviewers were clueless, he kindly took me and the crew to see what a Tibetan text looked like. They are called bats and look like… a cricket thing. Behind what was once the Old Barney’s department store were rows and rows and rows of cricket things wrapped in red or blue or orange cloth and piled on top of one another. I thought: Finances for the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, which Gene had established, must be a bit slim to keep 1,500 years of teachings, many of them drawn from the Buddha’s original words, on metal utility shelves.
Over the next year, I ran into Gene several times at human rights events. He radiated a warmth and intelligence that always made me want to sit with him. I’d ask him how the digitization efforts were going and he’d tell me about some collection that was just realized in Mongolia, Bhutan or in the bowels of the Library of Congress right here in the U.S. His passion was infectious. I kept picturing ancient texts locked away in crates on forklifts, like an Indiana Jones ending. I needed to get more of Gene on camera.
In 2008 Gene gave me permission to follow him back to India and Nepal as he set out to deliver, to the main lamas of the four leading Buddhist traditions and the Bon, 12,000 digitized texts produced from a total of 20,000 volumes that had been salvaged. Like Gene, these lamas had spent their lives finding and preserving the texts lost during China’s Cultural Revolution.
As my field producer and I waited to board our flight to New Delhi news of the Goldman Sachs scandal splashed across the TV screens throughout the airport and around the world. The U.S. market was free falling — and we were on our way to the Himalayas with five hidden MiniMacs in our suitcases that Gene had conned us into carrying. We still did not fully understand that what we were carrying in our roll-ons held a chronicle of the advancements of mankind — from the medical to the mystical — and included the Tibetans’ original contributions, as well as the traditional works of great Indian scholars and masters which were systematically documented and preserved in Tibet.
We were granted unprecedented access to the highest lamas, and enjoyed the generosity and “mother-hen-like” guidance of attending monks. They were so generous because, while Gene was an unknown in New York party circles, he was a legend in hundreds of monasteries in the Tibetan Diaspora. It had been a particularly long and active rainy season in the northern provinces of India and flooding was still rampant. Mudslides closed our route on more than one occasion, and there was ever-present danger on roads that deliver drama on Ice Road Truckers. One of the most memorable moments on our filmmaking trek came on our approach to the Menri Monastery of the Bon in Himachal Pradesh. Close to one hundred monks in muddy robes stood with shovels by the side of the road as our crew drove up, having just moments before cleared a huge mudslide that would have kept us from our date with the His Holiness Menri Trizin, one of Gene’s oldest friends and the spiritual leader of the Bon religion. These gentle men were determined that “Gene-la” not miss his visit with Menri. Their reward for making it so was a double rainbow, shining down on our group as the two old friends embraced. Menri gently brought his forehead in contact with Gene’s and sighed, Now that’s gooooood.
Gene’s journey, which actually began 50 years earlier, crossed multiple borders — geographical, political and philosophical — and led to international humanitarian and academic efforts to find, preserve and make accessible the documents that form the core of Tibetan culture. This journey was an incredible gift to the Tibetan people and to all of humanity. (Now that’s really good.) But the mission is still not complete.
As I am told the next group is here for testing in the theater and I must skedaddle, I try to feel my journey with Gene one last time. Gene gave me the gift of telling his story, but most of all I got a larger-than-life lesson on how to live a life worth living.