If you've been a reader if mine for any length of time, especially of my more social justice oriented writings, then you likely already know that I struggle with a question that serves as a central theme of Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke's award-winning documentary Tashi and the Monk.
Can love and compassion truly reach everyone? Is there any human being beyond the reach of love?
On any given day, my answer changes. There are times when I believe that love is the most powerful force on earth capable of reaching anyone and transforming anyone's life. There are times when I believe it is possible "lose" people. There are times when I believe it is possible that we as a society have done so much damage to a human being that they are beyond reconciliation.
If you've read my more personal writing, then you know that I have wrestled with whether or not I am one of those "lost people."
So, it was through the lenses of both life experience and film criticism that I found myself watching Tashi and the Monk, premiering on HBO on August 17th. Winner of the International Documentary Association's Best Short Award, Tashi and the Monk tells the story of Lobsang Phuntsok and the unique children's community, Jhamtse Gatsal, that he has created in the Himalayan Mountains that provides a home for 85 orphaned or abandoned children. A Buddhist monk trained under the Dalai Lama to share Tibetan Buddhism with the Western world, Phuntsokwill instead felt compelled to leave his life in the United States and return to his home village in India to devote himself to ending the suffering of children.
It is difficult to imagine that Tashi and the Monk is a mere 42-minute in running time. By the time the film ends, it feels as if we've traveled a journey with a monk, a naughty child, a village of children, and a small group of people who help to ensure the welfare of the children inside Jhamtse Gatsal.
Much of Tashi and the Monk centers around Tashi, a 5-year-old who is the community's newest arrival. Tashi's mother recently passed away and she has been abandoned by her alcoholic father. She is a wild child who struggles to adapt to the Jhamtse Gatsal spirit of love and compassion. Surrounded by 84 "brothers and sisters," Tashi rebels against structure, expectation and against feelings that likely feel strange and frightening.
There are those within Jhamtse Gatsal who wonder if she can be reached.
Phuntsok refuses to give up. After all, if we give up on a child it is as if we are saying "I don't want to help that child."
Can the community’s love and compassion transform Tashi’s alienation and tantrums into a capacity to make her first real friend?
It is to the credit of Hinton that running parallel to this question is the very real challenge of running such a remarkable community when the demand is great and resources are scarce. Phuntsok doesn't shy away from the fact that he must, despite his desire to help every child, discern those situations where he is approached by families to take their child or children into the Jhamtse Gatsal community. He must make choices, yes or no, that can and do impact the lives of children and their families. In essence, despite his desire to help children and despite the remarkable community that is Jhamtse Gatsal there's also no denying that it is impossible for one community to reach every child in need even in what many might assume is a small community.
While Tashi and the Monk doesn't shy away from the challenge of facing great need with limited resources, the film's overwhelming focus is on young Tashi and the challenge of reaching a child whom many might assume to be a lost child.
Phuntsok doesn't give up easily.
Tashi and the Monk is a beautifully photographed film that captures the heart and soul of a community where love and compassion are integral to every decision and every action. The film reveals the heartfelt reasons why Phuntsok was so willing to leave his Western life behind and immerse himself in the challenges of creating Jhamtse Gatsal, a community that has continued to grow and a community that remains committed to building a better world through love, compassion and wisdom. Jhamtse, which is Tibetan for "love and compassion," is also now supported in part by Jhamtse International, a U.S.-based non-profit that has as its primary mission to support the Jhamtse Children's community and Jhamtse Buddhist Center in the U.S.
It is a joy to watch the story of Phuntsok, Jhamtse Gatsal, and young Tashi unfold. It is a challenging story, heartbreaking at times, yet ultimately one that inspires and affirms the power of love and the power of community. It is a reminder that we do, indeed, belong to one another and we must envelope one another in a love so strong that it can overcome even our deepest traumas.
It is a reminder that when I am at my most cynical, I am wrong.
Love really does win.
Tashi and the Monk begins airing on HBO on August 17th. You can find out more about the film at their official Facebook page and you can discover ways to support the community at the Jhamtse International website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic