Reviewing An Uncommon King
An Uncommon King, the much anticipated film biography of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and son of the trail blazing Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa, had its U.S. premier on Nov. 14th, a crisp Fall night, at the Rosendale Theater in the lower Hudson River Valley. A funky upstate New York enclave, uncommon in its own fashion, refers to itself proudly as the ‘Peoples Republic of Rosendale’. It is positioned on the Southern tier of what has been called the ‘Buddha-Belt’ due to the large number of Buddhist retreat centers and monasteries in the Catskill Mountains region; Sky Lake Lodge, a Shambhala center, Karma Triana Dharmachakra, and Zen Mountain Monastery among them. Postponed for a week due to a ‘Noreaster,’ the silver lining in this winter storm was that it allowed the film makers Johanna Lunn and James Hoagland, hopping between Boulder and Halifax, to attend on this note worthy occasion.
I will cut to the chase and say that the film is quite excellent, a skillful and straight forward telling of the extraordinary journey of this unique and accessible dharma teacher. Its premier screening was quite well received, and clocking in at only 72 minutes will probably leave Shambhala students hankering for more. In the lobby conversation afterward I heard the words ‘amazing, inspiring and touching’ uttered by practitioners and John-Q-Public alike.
In the spirit of full disclosure I will say I am a devoted student of Sakyong Mipham. I am also a known cinephile, as are the film makers, a fact readily apparent watching the seamless story-telling of Johanna Lunn and the visually striking imagery of James Hoagland, who shot film footage over 17 years, some quite intimate, of the King of Shambhala. And what a story these ‘visions of Johanna’ vividly unfold to us. Devotional not promotional, the film tells its story honestly and directly, and this story has a fantastical, Hollywood quality to it.
His father, an unconventional Tibetan master, flees the Chinese invasion first to India over the Himalayas then to the West. Sakyong Mipham, born as Osel Rangdrol Mukpo in 1962, in Bodhgaya, India, the birthplace of the Buddha, growing up first in a refugee camp, then in America and seems to be a happy-go-lucky kid, western through and through. Coming of age in the era of the spiritual supermarket that his father faced and tamed, he took on the enormous challenge of leading the international network of meditation centers, and taking his seat as the head of an organization devoted to his founder-father, as well as his throne as the King of a society, that of Shambhala.
Indeed he is the reincarnation of Mipham the Great, a revered 19th century Tibetan teacher. His father went from the robes of a monk to a suit. He went from a suit to the robes of a King. The Sakyong describes meditation practice in one of his books as being akin to taming a wild horse, done using both bravery and gentleness. One could also use this metaphor in describing how he has tamed and trained the thousands of students of Shambhala, heartbroken and, face it, shaken and contentious after the death in 1987 of the beloved and charismatic genius Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Quite a legacy to uphold.
Johanna Lunn is an excellent storyteller, clearly guiding us through the Sakyong’s narrative from ancient to modern, through myth and reality, from the East of Tibetan monastic training to the youthful West of college parties, marathon running, and later the making of a pop/rap music video, an ode to no-self. Recognizing that he needed more training the Sakyong returned to India to study at Mindroling Monastery and with the greatest living teachers of Buddhism in Tibet including Penor Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma lineage and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the teacher of teachers, who was a particularly significant mentor to the Sakyong.
Implicit in the film is the idea that there is no separation between the dharma teacher and the teachings. Thus the key concepts of the Shambhala world view are touched upon; basic goodness as the radical and necessary ground for cultivating happy and compassionate individuals as well as an enlightened society. Warriorship is shown to be the practice of bravery, requisite to be open and gentle towards self and other, the indispensability of meditation, the synchronizing of body and mind, a fresh model of rulership, and finally, the Rigden principle.
Shambhala centers would do well to promote local public screenings of An Uncommon King as there is no better introduction to Shambhala and Sakyong Mipham. Don’t wait for the DVD either, for the film looks great on the big screen, its texture swinging from the grainy home video of the wild and shirtless counterculture of 1970’s America to the stunning, vast Himalayas and the intense saturated hues of the flags, shrines and costumes of ancient Tibetan ritual. An Albany film maker attending the screening said he would like to see ‘a day in the life of the Sakyong.’ A good idea and viewers do I think get a glimpse of that here, seeing the Sakyong’s courting of Khandro Tseyang Ripa Mukpo, their marriage, and the birth of their first child.
Another viewer said they appreciated ‘seeing how the Sakyong was received in Tibet and the rest of the world.’ Glimpses of this include extraordinary footage of SUV’s fording a whitewater river to bring the Sakyong to a blessing for ten thousand Tibetans, an emotional scene of the Sakyong receiving relics of Mipham the Great from the nephew of the Vidyadhara, the Sakyong on a panel discussion with Queen Noor of Jordan and Rabbi Irwin Kula.
One viewer, a practitioner, commented on the ‘absence of crazy wisdom’ in An Uncommon King. Indeed, for those more familiar with Chogyam Trungpa and/or his notoriety, than with his son, the healthy, straight-forward persona of Sakyong Mipham may come as a surprise. One memorable scene has the Sakyong saying ‘It would not be healthy to try to do what my father did,’ a mountain stream flowing in the background. Perhaps one day Crazy Wisdom, the recent film about Chogyam Trungpa and An Uncommon King could be paired as a double feature? What sparks would fly?
An Uncommon King is the story of enlightened rulership, about one man leading by example, about ancient dignity and wisdom holding a key to the ‘pickle’ the world is in today. It is about recognizing basic goodness in ourselves and in society, training to rule our sacred world beginning with our own minds. This film should certainly bring Sakyong Mipham and the vision of Shambhala to a broader public. I hope it does. It couldn’t be better timing.
To learn more about An Uncommon King and find screenings, visit their website at: