Precious Guru: Tracing the Wild and Sacred Legacy of Padmasambhava

By Craig Lewis
Buddhistdoor Global | 2020-06-16 |

Some nine years in the making and now finally arriving with an endorsement from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Precious Guru: Journey into the Wild Heart of the Second Buddha is an enthralling and inspiring new feature-length documentary that marks the culmination of an ambitious journey to trace the spiritual life and legacy of the eighth century tantric master Padmasambhava.

Part biographical chronicle, part travelogue, and part sacred teaching, Precious Guru peers through the roiling mists of time and digs through the accreted strata of myth and legend, asking the eternal questions: Who was Padmasambhava? What did he do? Why is he so revered in Vajrayana Buddhism? This enchanted exploration follows Guru Rinpoche’s rich legacy of transformation and transcendence that has literally shaped cultures and landscapes and an entire spiritual tradition, and which still today echoes through the Himalayan peaks and valleys and out into the wider world.

“The inspiration for this project was the story itself,” director and producer Marc Wennberg told Buddhistdoor Global. “I first encountered the story of Guru Rinpoche in my local library. I kept coming across terma treasures and, honestly, it took me some time to actually establish the underlying connection between one text and the next: namely Guru Rinpoche. Once he was established in my consciousness, his story began to manifest in my travels (coming across sacred sites in the Himalaya), my dreams, my daily thoughts, and eventually in my original idea for this project. We honestly didn’t set out to make a feature-length film. The original goal was to create a multimedia platform that explored his story through different artistic languages. It was only time that helped clarify the central work of the documentary.”

Popularly known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Guru), Padmasambhava was a key figure in the transmission of the esoteric teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism from India across the mighty Himalaya via Nepal, to Tibet, Bhutan, and beyond, and has over the centuries since been revered across the region as “the second buddha.” Although little is known about Guru Rinpoche historically, accounts of his exploits have been gleaned from ancient Buddhist manuscripts, which also tell of Shakyamuni Buddha foreshadowing his far-reaching influence.

In contrast to the historical Buddha, Guru Rinpoche was not an renunciate, but a wild man, a mystic of miraculous birth who took lovers, tamed goddesses, vanquished demons and bound them to the Dharma. Precious Guru follows the soaring arc of an epic spiritual odyssey—from his mysterious origin in a lotus floating on a milky lake in Oddiyana, “the land of the dakinis,” to planting the deeply rooted hidden treasures of Buddhist inner wisdom on the Tibetan plateau.

Precious Guru was first conceived as a multimedia arts project in 2010 during a trip to India,” Wennberg explained. “It took three years to plan the production trip, which launched in the fall of 2013. For eight weeks, our group of artists, including a writer, photographer, cinematographer, and choreographer (among others) traveled from Mongolia to Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India. We returned in December of 2013 and then assembled a multimedia exposition that toured through a few select galleries in Vermont.”

The story of Guru Rinpoche is also told through the voices and perspectives of prominent contemporary teachers and practitioners—among them: Mingyur Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche, Ani Bumchung, Lama Tsultrim Allione, Robert Thurman, Glenn Mullin, Ontul Rinpoche, and Ngak’chang Rinpoche—each of whom speak to the profound Dharmic realization Guru Rinpoche embodies and the deeply held reverence he inspires.

Precious Guru follows Guru Rinpoche’s crisscrossing trail as he traveled widely, performing wondrous deeds in various extraordinary manifestations—some fearsome and wrathful—throughout India, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and Mongolia. Because geography is frequently central to his revelation of primordial wisdom, numerous sacred sites scattered on and around the Tibetan Plateau that the eighth-century master is believed to have visited are preserved, consecrated, and frequented to the present day, regarded as sacred spots of great power. 

Guru Rinpoche arrived in Tibet during the reign of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen, and was instrumental in establishing Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery in Samye. He is today revered as the founder of the Nyingma school, the oldest of the four major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and is intimately associated with the terma tradition—he preserved his teachings by concealing them in the form of hidden treasures to be rediscovered by empowered lineage holders or tertons. His Tibetan consort and foremost disciple the princess Yeshe Tsogyal, a realized teacher in her own right, received the Dzogchen teachings directly from Guru Rinpoche and a number of major Vajrayana texts are attributed directly to her. Over the intervening centuries, these teachings have been transmitted from teachers to practitioners across generations, and preserved by refugee lamas as they fled the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959.

“Production of Precious Guru took about nine years from conception to completion. Once we finished the production trip, we took about three years to raise funding and complete additional post-production interviews. We started the editing work in the fall of 2017 and wrapped the film in September of 2019,” Wennberg related. “Our obstacles, beside the effort of raising funds and assembling the crew, were largely internal. Traveling in tight quarters at high altitudes with seven others was a deeply trying and revealing experience for everyone. The fast-paced travel also made it very difficult to settle into a cohesive rhythm. In spite of our challenging group dynamics, however, our external travel was remarkably smooth. Our equipment functioned flawlessly and we managed to return home with more than 100 hours of footage, thousands of photographs, extensive creative essays, and no broken bones!

“I need to recognize the tireless work ethic and cinematographic skills and aesthetics of Ronen Schechner. He is the artist behind our amazing footage. I also need to recognize the work of editor Catherine Hollander. Catherine was a true partner in helping to hone 120 hours of footage and interviews into a 70-minute documentary. Third, I need to recognize our film consultant Victress Hitchcock, who kept us from veering off onto too many tangents! And I need to recognize my board members, Michael Ginzberg, Peg Strait, and Sonam Chophel, who have been with me since this was just an inkling of an idea. This is my first film and it has been, to say the least, a total learning experience. I could never have finished Precious Guru without the support and skills of these colleagues and friends.”

Although planned public screenings of Precious Guru and film festival participation have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hoped they can resume as easing social-distancing restrictions allow. Wennberg and is team, through their production company Triptych Journey, have also made the film available for online viewing.

“Our film has been accepted into the Buddhafest 2020 online streaming platform, the Boulder Arts and Film Festival, and the 2020 Thus Have I Seen Buddhist Film Festival in Singapore, among others,” said Wennberg. “We also have a Vimeo On Demand Streaming of Precious Guru, a decision we took with the advent of COVID-19. Prior to the virus, we were scheduling community screenings in theaters across the United States in partnership with local Dharma centers.”

The captivating tale of Guru Rinpoche unfurls like a vast sacred thangka across the imposing grandeur of the Himalayan landscapes through which he traversed, lived, practiced, and taught. And like a thangka, the retelling of his profound achievements and insights reveals a radical truth, as relevant today as it was in the eighth century—the darker the times, the greater the potential for transformation.

“May Precious Guru benefit many, many beings in these difficult times,” said Wennberg. “I hope that we can bring Precious Guru back to the big screen so that people can see the film and the landscapes the way they should be: writ large. I hope that Precious Guru streaming will continue to encounter those who want and need to see the film. And finally, I hope the film serves as a lasting expression of gratitude for the Himalayan people who have nurtured, protected, and generously shared this remarkable and profound story with the world.”

Allow your mind to rest uncontrived, relaxed, and open.
Within the expanse of radiant awareness, you will meet me.
— Guru Rinpoche

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