The Life of Guru Rinpoche Filming expedition in Nepal
As one of Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche’s monks, and with a background in digital effects, I am working full time on remastering the film ‘The Life of Guru Rinpoche'. There are many dramatic sequences that we need to recreate in the film, such as the King of Zahor and his ministers attempting to burn Guru Rinpoche alive, and Guru Rinpoche transforming the fire into a huge lake filled with lotuses. There are also sequences where Guru Rinpoche flies through the air.
In order to achieve these kinds of sequences in a convincing manner, we need to build a 3D digital version of Guru Rinpoche’s head and body. This technique, called Digital Doubles, is used in most modern-day Hollywood action movies. Digital Doubles are used in a scene mostly when it is too dangerous or extreme to use stuntmen. A vital part of the process of creating a Digital Double is to take many photos at different angles around the actor’s head. With the help of computer software, we can then build a 3D version of Guru Rinpoche’s head.
When we approached Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche about how to do this, without access to the Khenpo who played Guru Rinpoche in the film, he immediately picked up his phone and called Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche who played the original role in the film. The decision was made for me to travel to Kathmandu two weeks later so that I could take these pictures of Khenpo Nyima Dondrup’s features. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche is now 20 years older from when he played the role, so we will also need to go through some digital processes to make his face look younger again.
I arrived in Kathmandu on May 8th 2019 and was met by Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche at the airport. Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche gave me a generous offering to give to Khenpo Nyima Dondrup on my arrival at his retreat centre.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche was born in 1965, in the mountains which are the secret land of Guru Rinpoche called Beyul Yolmo Gangra. Since the age of six he has lived, trained and taken refuge with various great masters including Kunzang Yeshe Rinpoche, Gen Rigdzin Rinpoche, H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, H.H. Penor Rinpoche, and H.H. Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche. He has stayed in retreat in various holy places including the caves used by Guru Rinpoche and Milarepa. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche went to Namdroling monastery in South India, where he was ordained by H.H. Penor Rinpoche. He completed the nine years’ study of the Nyingma Shedra there with the highest possible grades. H.H. Penor Rinpoche enthroned him as a Khenpo at Namdroling with a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy, Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche then taught at Namdroling for several years.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche kindly allowed me to stay with him at his residence. On our first evening together, we talked about locations in Nepal which are in the Guru Rinpoche film. In order to make the most of my time in Nepal we would film the real locations and caves that Guru Rinpoche practised in, then we would include them in the new edition of the film. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche and I went through relevant parts of the original film. He was able to tell me where the actual locations were and said he would help arrange for me to visit and film there.
I showed him the progress and work we had done to date on the film. He explained that this is very important work, and serves to fulfil H.H. Penor Rinpoche’s wishes, which is very fortunate and wonderful work. He explained that if you work on the film from the heart then it is no different than doing retreat because we are servicing Guru Rinpoche’s life story.
H.H. Penor Rinpoche’s main wish was that people understand Guru Rinpoche the right way and understand Guru Rinpoche’s life story. Dharma educated people can go through the books, but for normal people, it’s not easy for them to understand. Making a film makes it much more accessible to normal people.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche was impressed with the film quality and restoration work that we have done so far, even before adding any of the new visual effects. He said he was so happy to see the quality of the video.
He gave me some background to the original film. The film originally came about at Namdroling monastery when a group graduating from the Shedra wanted to do something to repay the kindness of the Shedra. Their idea was to collect a token monetary offering and offer thangkas and statues, so they planned to perform a live play about Guru Rinpoche and collect money during the play. They talked to H.H. Penor Rinpoche and he said this is a very important project and he would offer finances in support of the staging of the drama.
Before staging the drama they collected information on Guru Rinpoche’s history from about 100 different sources and compiled it into one big book.
Initially, Khenpo Tsogye Rinpoche from Bhutan played the role of Guru Rinpoche. But later, senior members of Namdroling Administration decided that Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche should take the part, for which he memorised hundreds of pages of script. Under the supervision and instruction of H.H. Penor Rinpoche, they performed the drama at Monlam Chenmo ceremony in Bodhgaya. They built a large stage in the Kalachakra grounds and performed the drama over six nights from 7 pm to 11 pm. H.H. Penor Rinpoche watched, as well as many Rinpoches, Lamas, monks and 120,000 members of the public.
After that, many people made request to H.H. Penor Rinpoche that it be turned into a film. As a result, under the direction of H.H. Penor Rinpoche, they spent two years filming and recording sound at location around Namdroling Monastery. During this time Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche was the person who received regular direction and instruction on the content of the film directly from H.H. Penor Rinpoche.
On completion of the film and on a return visit to Nepal, Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche visited Chatral Rinpoche who was very happy with the result, saying they had done a very good job, and that this medium for most people is more valuable than a Dharma book.
Throughout my time with Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche I was touched by his humility. As we discussed potential filming locations, I became aware of his local knowledge, and his understanding of which places were authentic caves used by Guru Rinpoche, and how these places fit into context in the film.
He lives in an area in Kathmandu called Boudha , a five-minute walk from the Boudhanath Stupa, which is mentioned in the film, and he suggested filming here.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche suggested filming at Pharping. However, not all of the caves in Pharping are actually where Guru Rinpoche practised. Pharping also has one of the world’s largest statues of Guru Rinpoche, several monasteries, temples and retreat centres, including the Palyul Retreat Centre.
The Yanglesho cave, is the cave that Guru Rinpoche accumulated and attained realisation. In front of the cave, a Hindu temple has since been built. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup explained that Guru Rinpoche is a Buddha from birth, he does not need to practise and actualise realisation. He was doing the practice to set an example for us to follow, that this is the way you attain enlightenment. When Guru Rinpoche was practising, he removed all the obstacles through the Vajrakilaya practice and then realised the Mahamudra state.
The Asura cave is related to the Twelve Tenma Sisters, they were non-human spirits who were harming sentient beings. This is the cave where they took an oath to Guru Rinpoche, and he tamed them and made them protectors. They then became the 12 female protectors of Tibet.
Filming at Pharping
We set off early in the morning when travelling to Pharping for filming at Asura Cave and Yanglesho Cave. Yanglesho Cave is usually locked, but Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche knows the key-holder, and gave us access. I took photographs in a way which will enable us to recreate the caves as digital 3D models. This will allow more flexibility in post-production to remove certain objects (such as people, shrines etc. that don’t need to be shown in the film).
Guru Rinpoche practised here with Princess Mandarava. This is where they performed the accomplishment rituals of longevity for three months and actualized the Immortal Vajra Body which marks the attainment of an Immortal Life Awareness Holder.
A Hindu priest looks after the cave and they do not allow filming. Hindus believe that this is Shiva’s cave.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche lived there in 1998, and H.H. Penor Rinpoche instructed him to go on retreat there when he was finishing at the Shedra. He stayed there on retreat for about 2 months.
Even before Guru Rinpoche, this was a sacred place; there are three sacred hills: one of Avalokitesvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani. The cave where Guru Rinpoche and Princess Mandarava practised is located in the Avalokitesvara hill. Many Buddhist masters of the Mahayana and the Vajrayana have confirmed that this is the place.
In the sacred hill of Avalokitesvara is the Long Life Cave, and Demon-subduing Cave. Through the practice of Vajrakilaya Guru Rinpoche tamed all the negative energies, and practised to remove obstacles to achieve immortal life.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche explained that Guru Rinpoche has five well known consorts: Mandarava, Shakyadevi, Kalasiddhi, Tashi Khyidren, Yeshe Tsogyal. Both Shakyadevi and Kalasiddhi were Nepalese.
Travelling to Maratika caves
We travelled early morning to Maratika caves, a 9-hour drive winding through valleys and mountains. Our jeep driver, a monk at Namdroling Monastery for 10 years, remembers Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche and knows the original Guru Rinpoche Film. Being aware that filming might not be allowed and realising we need all the support we can get, I turned my mind to seek support from Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche and spent much of the journey accumulating the 7-line prayer.
On arrival, a local man showed us around some of the different caves and sites. I had planned to film the landscape late afternoon but there was a big thunderstorm. The wind suddenly picked up with heavy rain, lightning struck around the area of the caves and the whole area was flooded with bright orange light, this did not feel like normal weather.
Early the next morning, I walked up the Manjushri mountain to film the sunrise, the whole area felt very peaceful.
After preparing to film the caves early before they become busy, plans quickly changed and instead I was taken on a trek into the surrounding hills, so we could see the three sacred hills which are mentioned in the film.
On the way back we had the opportunity to film in the cave where it is said that Guru Rinpoche subdued the demon of the Lord of death.
In the afternoon we met a man called Sonam Sherpa who is a Tibetan Doctor who runs a clinic in Kathmandu, and happened to be staying in Maratika. He had heard about the film we were working on, and enthusiastically came to help. He went completely out of his way to be of service. His grandfather Lama Ngawang Choephel Gyatso was the founder of Maratika Monastery which is directly outside the main cave and he was a monk there for over 10 years, so he is very knowledgeable about the area and he is friends with most of the local people. I went with him to the local office where he wrote a handwritten official document which would gain us permission to film in the main cave (which is where Guru Rinpoche and Princess Mandarava practised). Apparently, in the end we even had support from the local mayor. They opened the Amitayus vase rock that is usually under lock and key.
There are hundreds of bats hanging from the roof of the cave, and it is said that they are not normal bats, but practitioners that are reciting a short long-life mantra, ‘Tse drum Tse drum Tse drum’. Some devotees even perceive the bat droppings as amrita.
The cave is a challenge to film because of so many people, man-made structures, the large scale and the darkness. I’ve taken hundreds of photographs in such a way that will allow us to digitally reconstruct the cave in 3D without all the people and man-made structures. We can then create a digital film set of the cave and add digital versions of Guru Rinpoche and Princess Mandarava practising.
We had been told many times that we are not allowed to use the drone for filming in this area and I had totally accepted that, but as the sun was beginning to set, Sonam and Dawa (the owner of the Hotel) seemed to be determined to find a way. Dawa spoke to the local police for their support, while Sonam took me on a motorbike up to the top of the Manjushri mountain to fly the drone high above the area as the sun set. It is amazing how we got all the support and how everything came together, the right people seemed to turn up at the right time. I started filming before 5am and didn't finish until the evening and I didn't feel tired because of the supportive energy and blessing at this location.
The following day was Guru Rinpoche Day, and Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche instructed me to practise at the caves. So I did my morning practice there before beginning our travels back to Kathmandu. There was a low-sounding murmur around the cave; to me it sounded like even the mosquitos were reciting the Vajra Guru Mantra.
We stopped several times on the jeep-drive back in order to film Nepalese landscapes. On returning to Kathmandu, because it was Guru Rinpoche Day, there were many people at the Boudhanath Stupa practising. The energy and atmosphere was very uplifting. I found it very beneficial practising here and in my time staying in Kathmandu, I would break up my days by practising circumambulation at the stupa.
In order to film landscapes that are typical of Nepal and of where Guru Rinpoche practised, Khenpo Nyima Dondrup kindly offered to take me to his village in Yolmo.
“To the north of the land of Nepal, on the Himalayan borders of Nepal and Tibet, is the hidden land of Yolmo, enclosure of snows, also known as Padma Tsal, ‘lotus grove sanctuary’. Concerning the prophecy of this hidden land in the Avatamsaka Sutra, it is written in the ‘Hundred thousand songs of Milarepa’ that Marpa told Mila ‘The Riwo Pelbar mountain in Mangyul and the Yolmo snow enclosure in Nepal are places prophesied in the Avatamsaka Sutra, so meditate there." It is a place visited and blessed by Guru Rinpoche’ of Odiyana and his consorts.” (excerpt from ‘Guide to the Hidden Land of the Yolmo Snow Enclosure and its History’ by Khenpo Nyima Dondrup).
This is the secret holy land of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche wrote five articles about Yolmo and it was mentioned many times in other texts.
H.H. Penor Rinpoche went to Yolmo on two occasions. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche recounted a story where he flew with H.H. Penor Rinpoche in a helicopter to Yolmo and visited two very remote caves where Guru Rinpoche practised:
"On the way up to the highest cave they dropped us off at the first cave. H.H. Penor Rinpoche then flew on to the highest Guru Rinpoche cave (which was found by Kyabjé Chatral Rinpoche), but the pilot could not land because it was all ice, so for about 6 or 7 minutes they hovered the helicopter, H.H. Penor Rinpoche did prayers and blessings from maybe 15 metres above the cave. Then they flew back down to pick us up. But for some reason, the helicopter landed half a kilometre away. The secretary and me had to walk half a kilometre, all this time His Holiness had to wait."
When Kyabjé Chatral Rinpoche heard the story about what happened, he was very happy, “You don't know why this happened. It’s not a problem with the helicopter. H.H. Penor Rinpoche had to land in these places. It’s the Dharma Protectors that made this happen.” He explained that H.H. Penor Rinpoche had to land there 2 times in front of that cave in order to bless the area.
We left Kathmandu by 3 am and travelled to Yolmo driving on mountainous dirt tracks in a 4x4 jeep. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche instructed me to accumulate the 7-line Prayer and Vajra Guru mantra on the journey. On the way, I saw the sunrise over the distant Himalayas.
It is summer in Nepal and when we came to the area of Yolmo there was something very inspiring about the landscape. It has very dramatic luscious green mountains and valleys, with a giant wall of snowy mountains in the distance. We arrived in Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche‘s village at around 9 am.
We filmed the Guru Rinpoche Meditation Cave, a Dakini cave, Guru Rinpoche’s Jewel Millstone, and other rocks relating to Guru Rinpoche.
We needed to leave about 2 pm in order to get back to Kathmandu, since the roads can be dangerous to travel in the dark.
I was reflecting on the supportive conditions on this journey, the rain overnight meant the roads were not dry and dusty. But then we had very clear dry conditions on the journey and when we were filming at the village.
I was also aware that Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche has a lot of responsibilities, and therefore not much free time, yet he was giving me every support needed to assist me in filming. I worked as best I could in the endeavour to be the least trouble possible, and I realised that the reason I was getting so much support is ultimately because of his respect for Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche, and also his recognition of the importance of this film project.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche told me a story about Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche in America, a lady on the street came up to Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche and wanted to hug him. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche declined and said he could not because he was a monk. She was upset about this so Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche, as a Ngagpa Lama and not a monk, stepped in and gave her a hug instead. Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche was complimentary about Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche’s skilfulness to harmonise the situation.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche talked about the film of Bardo (intermediate state) which H.H. Penor Rinpoche was planning on making after the Guru Rinpoche film. Because H.H. Penor Rinpoche got more and more busy travelling and teaching he never got the time. We have the text but it’s not easy to understand. Nyingma has the most extensive explanation of the Bardo. There is a very detailed explanation about the 100 deities.
Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche said in 1987 it was very easy to see H.H. Penor Rinpoche, with only 700 monks; then later with 3000 plus monks, to see H.H. Penor Rinpoche for even 5 minutes was very difficult.
One evening I was listening to Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche answer questions from a student. There was something very familiar about his description of the teaching and how he answered the question. Then I realised it was because it was from the same source as Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche. Both Khenpo Nyima Dondrup and Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche retain the flavour of H.H. Penor Rinpoche's teachings.
I feel extremely grateful for this time I have had in Nepal, and I recognise that the only reason this was possible is because of the kindness and support of others. Due to Lama Dondrup Dorje Rinpoche’s support and blessing on this trip I have experienced quite extraordinary supportive conditions, like people who seem to turn up to be of service at the right time and also the supportive weather conditions. This isn’t a one-off; I have experienced very similar conducive conditions on every filming trip we have been on for the Guru Rinpoche film, whether in India, Romania, Scotland, the Lake District or elsewhere in the UK.
One day, while filming by the Boudhanath Stupa, I met a young man from India who had left everything behind and come to Nepal in order to seek out a spiritual master; and yet, in the midst of hundreds of monasteries and dharma centres in Nepal he had still not found anything suitable. My experience was that it is often not easy for foreigners coming to Nepal looking for Buddhist teachings to find something that is authentic, valuable and relevant in a modern world.
These experiences caused me to reflect upon my own circumstances, having found a teacher who has gone to great lengths to master the use of English in order to perfectly transmit the teachings in a manner that is pertinent to our conditions, and consistently demonstrating to us through practical examples how to put the teaching into practice.
On my travels I came across many people who were familiar with the original Guru Rinpoche film and were very excited and enthusiastic to find out that we were remastering the film.
What I found very helpful is that Khenpo Nyima Dondrup Rinpoche confirmed and reinforced the importance of remastering the Guru Rinpoche film; by doing so we are fulfilling H.H. Penor Rinpoche’s wishes. Also, that if we are working on this film with the right mind then it has great benefit and is no different than being on retreat.