What goes around comes around on the great wheel of karma, and DVD recycling works the same way. Originally released in 1979 as a four-hour Buddhist primer for hippie Westerners looking for their inner mandala, Trilogy has now been chopped down to a somewhat less tedious length, with what appear to be new graphics and computer effects added for clarity. Well—as much clarity as Buddhism, or any religion, can supply through the yak-butter fumes.
Part I (about 35 minutes long) introduces us to the Dalai Lama, in exile since the Chinese takeover of Tibet and (as now) living in Dharamsala in northern India. Part II (about 70 minutes) consists of one long ritual ceremony conducted by monks in Nepal. (Isn't it cheating when the PowerPoint graphics show us the image the monks are trying to visualize?) Part III (about 30 minutes) ventures to Ladakh, where peasants sing and till the earth, and monks dispose of the corpse of a dead villager.
If you've already got Sanskrit prayer flags fluttering from the eaves of your Wallingford bungalow, there's no way I can dissuade you from seeing this movie, though Trilogy will surely be on video very soon. Serious students of the DL won't be too bored, while those of the Richard Gere school of Beverly Hills Buddhism can always check their BlackBerries for e-mail during Part II. For former Himalayan tourists like me, the barley farmers and landscapes of arid, dusty Ladakh will be most interesting—it's a place where you wish you'd been able to get your passport stamped some 30 years ago.
Despite the DL's homilies against attachment and selfishness, no matter how he preaches the gospel of impermanence, you can't help thinking how much things have changed since this doc was made. We're now further from this film than the film was from the Dalai Lama's 1959 flight from the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Buddhism is now an old, tame, boutique religion, a specialty item for Western spirituality shoppers at Trader Joe's. These days, if there's a hot new religion that needs understanding, it's from the land of a different occupation.