FOUR STARS - Profound
“Seven Years in Tibet” is the autobiographical story of a former SS Nazi officer and gold-medal Olympian, Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt), whose encounter with the people of Tibet changed his life.
Although admittedly incomplete in its exploration of such a dramatic journey, few films attempt to explore such a profound spiritual shift and this one therefore, is worthy of thoughtful consideration.
America’s fascination with Tibet and the Dalai Lama is not only due to the spiritual longing within every person, but it is also due to the media’s interest in Buddhism.
Although often radically shifted in its Western forms, in which reincarnation is seen more as a “second chance” than a “cycle of suffering,” Buddhism is a religion which was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the BUDDHA, who lived in northern India from c.560 to c.480 BC. Foundational to Buddhist beliefs are the Four Noble Truths:
- All beings suffer under the samsara, a cycle of reincarnation in which this life of suffering is repeatedly experienced.
- Suffering is caused by desires which cannot be satisfied.
- The samsara, the cycle of suffering, can be broken. Buddhists call this end of suffering “Nirvana,” and see it as the cessation of reincarnation, an escape from samsara.
- The way to break this cycle is through the “Eightfold Path.” This is a combination of ethical and religious practices, including training in concentration and meditation to remove all desire from our lives so as to not live with SELF at the center.
Tibetan Buddhism is a branch of the religion in which the emphasis is on The Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle." Unlike the more conservative branch of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes ritualistic journeys and worshiping at holy shrines in order to break the hold of samsara.
Although the film did not show Heinrich Harrer practicing the disciplines of the Buddhist religion, the emphasis on letting go of the SELF within Tibetan culture spoke directly to his spiritual need.
Harrer was an egotistical and self-centered man. This was established early in the film when he leaves his weeping, very pregnant wife in the train station only because he had a desire to climb Nanga Parbat, one of the highest peaks of the Himalayan mountains. Since three previous Nazi expeditions had failed to conquer the mountain, the pride of the Fatherland was on his shoulders.
This prideful self-centeredness without concern for others nearly costs Harrer his life in a variety of situations. But finally recognizing his need for at least one other person, Harrer begins a reluctant friendship with another Austrian, Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis). With his help, Harrer finally makes it to Lhasa, the holy city, which has been inaccessible to foreigners.
Through the warm hospitality of a local dignitary, Harrer and Aufschnaiter become residents of the city. It is here that Harrer becomes a companion to the Dalai Lama (Jamyang Wang Chuck).
In a disarming way that reveals the centered life of a spiritually disciplined Buddhist, the Dalai Lama unlocks the heart of Harrer as Harrer unlocks the mysteries of the outside world to the Dalai Lama.
Since Harrer did not abide by the protocols of the reverence due the Dalai Lama, nor did he seem to accept the religious practices for himself, one wonders why the advisors allowed the Dalai Lama to have such a close relationship with a foreigner.
Another question left unanswered by the film is why Buddhist people who would not kill earthworms when digging a foundation for a building due to their respect for all life, would so easily pick up weapons to kill people when they were attacked and conquered by Chinese soldiers.
Harrer’s personal transformation is traced through his growing love and desire for a relationship with his formerly rejected son. This tiny bud of concern for another human opens his heart.
Christian faith does not teach that emptying one’s self of desires is the way to “Nirvana” or heaven, but rather that our desires are transformed by Jesus renewing our inner selves. However, Christian teaching does agree that our denial of the self is basic to this renewal. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”