"The Last Dalai Lama?": The spiritual leader gets deep into neuroscience in new doc

Salon speaks to Mickey Lemle, the director of the new film and a friend of the Lama's for 25 years.

Published August 27, 2017 11:05AM (EDT)

"The Last Dalai Lama" (Lemel Pictures Inc.)
"The Last Dalai Lama" (Lemel Pictures Inc.)

Twenty-five years ago, director Mickey Lemle came out with “Compassion in Exile,” the documentary that helped introduce much of the Western world to the Dalai Lama and to the plight of Tibetan Buddhists under the yoke of the Chinese government.

This month, Lemle is marking that anniversary with the release of his latest film on the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, "The Last Dalai Lama?"

But before you despair over that ominous title, read what Lemle has to say about the still-mirthful holy man, who may indeed be the last in his line. (Currently, the Chinese government controls his homeland and will likely claim to "find" the next Dalai Lama, a state puppet.)

If Lemle's insights and outlook are any indication, the life of the Dalai Lama won’t end with him. It's inside people like Lemle. Heck, it may even be inside you.

You have a long history with the Dalai Lama. How did you first become close to him and how did you come to make "Compassion in Exile," your first film about him?

I first met the Dalai Lama in 1984 at a conference in Davos, Switzerland. I had gone there primarily to hear his talk and have a deep spiritual experience. What I found, though, was how funny he was and how unexpected.

It was a big conference; there were 800 people. It was a week-long thing. And there was a woman who, after each of the speakers, would ask the speaker, "What do you think is going to happen in the world 50 years from now?" And each of the speakers, in a position of authority standing behind a podium addressing 800 people, answered her. Well, some of them said, "I think we'll have more of this and we'll have less of that," and that sort of thing. After His Holiness spoke, she asked the same question. And he looked up and said, "Madam, I don't have any idea," and cracked up. He just laughed. He said, "I don't know what kind of tea I'm going to be having for dinner tonight. How am I supposed to know what's going to happen in the world 50 years from now?" And I thought to myself, "When was the last time I heard a political or religious leader acknowledge that they didn't know something?"

After his talk, there was a small reception for him and I was invited to it. And when I went to shake his hand, I was just overwhelmed by this aura, this palpable aura that he has. And I'm sure a lot of people who are reading this have met charismatic political leaders or celebrities that also have auras, but with him, he'll look you right in the eye, you're the only person in the room, but you can almost see the wheels turning. They're thinking, "Who is this person and how can I use them for me?" With His Holiness, he looks you deep in the eye, right into your soul, and you feel him thinking, "Who is this and what do they need? How can I help them?" So, you're overwhelmed by this sense of kindness. He was also asked if he hated the Chinese and he said he didn't. And I thought to myself, "I really want to learn about this; I want to learn how he does that. Because if he can do it with the Chinese, perhaps I'd be able to do it with some of my family members."

And then in 1990, I went and pitched the movie to him. He was spending a couple of days at a monastery in New Jersey. He listened very carefully and at the end, he said, "Do you think this is [a] worthwhile undertaking?" And I said, "Your Holiness, if I didn't think it was worth undertaking, I wouldn't spend my time doing it." And he looked at me with those wonderful eyes and he said, "That's a very American way of looking at it." After spending years with Tibet and Buddhist friends, I learned that the most important part of any action that you take is what's your motivation. And the Dalai Lama has said to me, "If you go on a peace march and you have anger in your heart, stay home. The only way to go on a peace march is with peace in your heart." So what he was asking me was, what was my motivation for wanting to do the film? I missed that completely, took it into my ego and answered from there. But since he's the world's most compassionate person, he had compassion on me and said, "Okay, well, let's do the movie, but let's do it soon." And two weeks later I was on a plane to Dharamsala, in India, to research the movie.

How did you come to make “The Last Dalai Lama?”

Well, “Compassion in Exile” was shown all over the world. It was used by virtually every Tibetan organization around the world. It was a wonderful tool for bringing awareness to people about what was going on in Tibet with the Chinese occupation and the destruction of the religion and the culture. And it was also a great introduction to His Holiness, who wasn't the world rock star that he is today.

But I was also able to see His Holiness almost every year. I have the great honor of serving as chairman of the board of the Tibet Fund, a foundation started under his auspices to look after cultural preservation and humanitarian efforts in the Tibetan community in exile and also inside Tibet. And because of that, I would pretty much see him every year, and we've stayed in touch, and I realized that a lot had changed in the 25 years since I made "Compassion in Exile." He had changed; I had changed. We thought 25 years ago that if only the world knew about what was going on inside Tibet, that something would have to change. And sadly, things have changed but they've gotten worse. And that's highlighted by the over 150 young Tibetans that have self-immolated and burned themselves to death to bring world attention to what's going on inside Tibet.

And, also, he's changed. I feel an urgency now when he conveys his message to audiences and to individuals. It's almost as if it might be the only interaction they'll ever have, and he wants it to be as meaningful as possible. So he looks deeply into each person's eyes and I guess asks, "What do they really need? What's the most profound lesson I can impart to them in this brief meeting?"

Also, I'm a member of the Baby Boomers, and as a friend of mine says, "They're starting to shoot at our regiment." So, my generation is now facing aging and dying, and I thought as a gift to them, I would ask the world's most conscious person how he's dealing with it. So, all that being said, I approached His Holiness with the idea for the movie and he said, "Let's do it." And off we went.

What was it like being embedded in the gauntlet of media and worshipers who regularly surround the Dalai Lama?

Well, His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a luminary. He's a light in the darkness. And like any light in the darkness, he also attracts every moth and mosquito in the neighborhood. But there's also a group of incredible human beings who have been friends with him for many decades.

I was very fortunate a couple of days after his actual birthday, July 6th, 2015; there was a small birthday party for him in New York at the Hyatt Hotel. And there were probably 25 of us who have been with him and helping him for several decades. Philip Glass played happy birthday on the piano as His Holiness walked in at this reception room. There were people like Bob Thurman and Richie Davidson and Tom Pritzker and Nancy Pelosi there. There were just some wonderful human beings who have been very dedicated. A lot of people behind the scenes. And His Holiness, after people gave speeches and talked about how important he was to them, he said, "You realize that we're all going to be together again." And it was incredibly warm and reassuring that this phenomenal group of human beings might be together again in the next life. It's one of the nice things about believing in reincarnation.

Please explain the importance of the "atlas of emotions" and brain imagery science to the Dalai Lama and why you included those in the film.

One of the things His Holiness is urgent about now is his work with science and neuroscientists. 25 years ago, he challenged the leading neuroscientist to explore the technologies that the Tibetans have held for 1,000 years about how to overcome negative afflictive emotions such as anger, greed, jealousy, hatred, violence, ignorance. And the Tibetans have a technology for overcoming them. And as I said, they've held it for 1,000 years. But His Holiness said it's now time to share with the whole world, and it belongs to everybody. But if it came from one religious tradition like Tibetan Buddhism, he said, "The other religious traditions wouldn't buy it." So he challenged scientists to look into it scientifically. And he didn't say, "Prove it." He said, "Explore it. And if you find value in it, spread it as wide as possible."

In the movie, the Dalai Lama meets a group of high school seniors in Vancouver, and this young woman says, "Your Holiness, how can we live healthy, productive lives?" And His Holiness answers, "The first thing you have to do is make a map of your mind. Make a map of your emotions. Don't judge things in it, just observe it." And this is the beginning of the technology of overcoming negative afflictive emotions.

The first thing is to see them and how they work in your mind. And the reason for this is that we all believe the voice that we hear inside our heads is telling us the truth, but it's actually not. It's just our minds creating reality for us. And scientists have said that 90 percent of the thoughts you're going to have today, you had yesterday. So, we keep rethinking the same thoughts and creating our reality that way. So, if you think, "If only I was out of this relationship, I'd be happy," then your reality is that you're unhappy. If you say, "If only I was in a relationship, I'd be happy," then your reality is that you are unhappy. If you look at somebody and say, "That guy is a real jerk." And then you see the person the next day and you say, "That guy is a real jerk." And then you think to yourself, "God, I'm so perceptive and smart because I always thought that guy was a jerk." All you're doing is doubling down on the projection of your mind onto the reality of this phenomenon. And by so doing, we all create our own suffering. We create our own afflictive emotions.

The way out of it, the technology that the Tibetans have held, is with meditation. I think it's the only way out of creating these negative afflictive emotions and creating a reality that's filled with them. And so through meditation, through a meditation practice, over time you learn to observe your thoughts as they rise. You don't identify with them. You don't engage with them as we all do normally, but you just observe the thoughts as they rise.

An example of this is last summer, I was invited to two wonderful events on the same weekend. One was in England, and one was in Denmark. And I thought long and hard about which one I really wanted to do. I chose the one in England and immediately regretted not doing the thing in Denmark. And all of the regrets of my life rose — the girls I didn't kiss in high school, and movies I didn't get to make. And I became miserable for hours. But I learned that if I started any sentence in my mind with, "If only I had," that I was destined to four hours of being miserable.

So, as soon as I heard a sentence in my mind start with that, I caught it and said to myself, "Wait. Do you want to spend the next four hours in deep misery, or do you want to just enjoy being in the present with your friends here?" It's a tremendous tool.

So, His Holiness commissioned Dr. Paul Ekman and his daughter, Dr. Eve Ekman, to visualize this map of emotions, or “atlas of emotions,” as they call it, as a tool so that people can start to observe how their emotions work and how they affect them as a wonderful tool.

For those of us who don't believe in reincarnation, the plight of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism seems so dire and unavoidable, despite his appearance in your film. How can we feel anything but despair when considering his plight?

Well, I guess if he's optimistic about it, who are we not to be?

Has the Dalai Lama seen the film?

Last November, I brought a copy of it to Dharamsala to show him, and we watched some of it together. And he enjoyed it very much and was quite pleased. And I was very happy about that.

By Tom Roston

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Dalai Lama Documentaries Documentary Entertainment Movies Tibet