Wheel of Time
“The mandala of Kalachakra symbolizes the entire universe (Outer Kalachakra) in terms of planets and time cycles, as well as aspects of our body and mind (Inner Kalachakra), and even the practice (Other Kalachakra).
In the practice of Kalachakra, one strives at visualizing the complete mandala, including all its deities and ornaments in perfect detail within the size of a tiny drop to practice single-pointed concentration.”
– International Kalachakra Network
In Wheel of Time (2003), the curious and persistent director Werner Herzog wheels us into the world of Tibetan Buddhism and drops us off at the center of its universe. From there we stand, and amidst the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims we observe a sacred ritual of this religion – the Kalachakra Initiation.
The Kalachakra Initiation is a process through which a student of Tibetan buddhism pledges to respect and uphold its teachings and becomes ordained. The Initiation is generally given over 12 days. The first eight days consist of preparation rituals, during which the monks make the Mandala, an elaborate sand model that is the symbolic spiritual map for the journey to enlightenment. Then the students are initiated, after which they are allowed to see the completed sand mandala, protected under glass as mere human breath can be fatal to its intricacy. The ceremony ends when the monks release the positive energy of the mandala into the everyday world through a final ritual.
This is a fascinating process and an enormous event. It takes place every two or three years, and nearly half a million pilgrims travel to witness it in person in Bodh Gaya, India, where the Buddha sat under a tree and found Enlightenment. For most of the pilgrims who manage to be present for the Initiation, it is the occasion of a lifetime, marked by an arduous journey that spans months, years, even decades of their lives.
In this documentary, we first witness the 2002 Kalachakra Initiation in Bodh Gaya, India, followed by a second Initiation in Austria. We see unnamed pilgrims from Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka arrive in masses. Some of them arrive by transportation. Some arrive by foot. Some arrive by doing prostrations – a physical practice of reverence to the Buddha, which consists of moving forward along the earth by measuring it with your body through repetitions of yogic postures – feet, knees, chest, forehead, a physical step forward, repeat. Your body is the unit, and you journey ahead by literally measuring yourself to the ground, carefully, meticulously, one unit at a time.
And just like that, thousands travel thousands of miles at a painstaking pace, meter by meter, body by body, believing that by prostrating every single step, they are purifying their bodies, spirits, and minds of the karmic defilements, such as pride. This sounds insane, you may think. Senseless. Indescribable. Perhaps. Will you ever do it? Probably not. Will I ever do it? Unlikely. But then we meet a man who travelled prostration by prostration to the Kalachakra Initiation in India, for three and a half years, through 3000 plus miles, from a part of Mongolia so remote that he required two translators to speak to the camera. From the outside, he looks unremarkable, not unlike any other monk in the crowd. The only mark of his journey is a small wound on his forehead that has refused to heal due to touching the ground a few million times, and some bony growth on his wrists from rubbing the ground a few million times. When asked if he knows how far he has come, he smiles yes, that he has measured the earth with the length of his body, and he knows that it is big. The man looks to the Tree of Enlightenment with full, brimming adoration in his eyes. In a crowd of human noises, he emanates an undeniable aura of peace.
“Wheel of Time” is full of astonishing moments like the one just described. It is an astonishing documentary because it documents an astonishing event. This may not be one of Herzog’s boldest or most imaginative films, as many of his followers point out, but it speaks to the kind of filmmaker that Herzog is to have chosen to make this film. Anyone else could have made this. Yet, they didn’t. Herzog did.
This is, above all, a film about devotion of the human spirit. The devotion to search for peace. The devotion to attain enlightenment. The devotion to better oneself. Facing the Tree of Enlightenment, the faithfuls perform prostrations on grounds, wooden boards, scraps of fabrics. Their goal is to do it 100,000 times. We learn that this will take the fittest ones about 6 weeks. Such feats fascinate me for their ode to the strength of the human spirit. Through repetition of the ordinary, something extraordinary is borne.
This is also a film about learning and communication. Under the Tree of Enlightenment, one monk is granted the privilege of publicly defending his doctorate thesis in buddhist philosophy, a debate about the traditional style of Tibetan monastic life. His argument is about the two aspects of reality: the functional reality of everyday life versus an emptiness, considered the final reality by Buddhist teachings. Hundreds sit together and talk animatedly together. The speakers slap their hands to emphasize points, and the rest look on and listen. I can’t help but think that many of our most educated leaders can learn something from this.
This is also a film about the sacred and the beautiful. Herzog takes us to Mount Kailash, a sacred landscape of Buddhism. A pilgrimage around its 52km base is said to erase the sins of a lifetime and give benefits for a future reborned life. Such a journey takes place at an altitude of 17,000 – 19,000 feet for 3 days. Each year, a few pilgrims from Indian lowlands, not acclimatized to such altitude, will eventually die. Yet, we see stretches of pilgrims, in the most basic clothing, with the most basic resources, the young, the old, women, men, performing prostrations, making the pilgrimage, without fuss or complaint. There is something divine and sacred in their perseverance, and we may not understand it, but it is moving on a most fundamental level.
Most of all, this is a film of unabashed joy and peace. The monks take turns in kitchen duties to cook for the masses. They cook in huge pots and prepare enormous amounts of foods, chopping mountains of vegetables, kneading boulders of doughs. They do it in teams, together, ritualistic, with smiles and laughters, at peace. Perhaps that is the most astonishing thing of all for me personally – the sight of such simple, pure peace in masses. In the society I live in, I am so used to being on guard and alert in situations of masses that it is not one that I associate with feelings of peace. However, in a temple in north-east India, amongst a religion that I am not familiar with, is a happiness that even I can see so plainly that it is enviable.
This is a beautiful work of cinema. The cinematography is thoughtful and engrossing.
There are small pictures: Tiny grains of sand, energized by the vibration of two metal rods, precisely shaken into tiny streams that form the mountains, villages, and symbols of the Mandala. And then, just as it takes days to form, the grains of sand are swept away in mere minutes at the conclusion of the ceremony, mixed by the gentle hand of the Dalai Lama. Dust to dust. Impermanence of all things created. All is but a dream.
There are large pictures: the sacred lake from Bodhi Sarovar with lights glittering at its surface, as if millions of tiny spirits are dancing on its head. The snowy peaks of Mount Kailash, almost otherworldly, barren, divine. Each step seems to impart a footprint in time and space of a sacred cosmography, and it is almost like a dream.
Then, Herzog subtly evokes the most powerful image from that of the most ordinary: a lone monk sits still, long after the ceremony is over, in the midst of some 400,000 empty pillows.
And then, there was one.
Each person is the center of his own universe. The perspective of my universe comes from myself, and therefore I am the center. The same for you. His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama imparts.
What does this mean? Herzog asks. Is the lone monk praying for us? Has he reached the state of enlightenment?
Could it be that he marks the very site, that universe has as its center?
The Wheel of Time continues turning.