Digital Dharma is an epic story of a cultural rescue and how one man’s mission became the catalyst for an international movement to find, save and provide open access to the story of the Tibetan people.
When ancient writings of Sanskrit and Tibetan texts vanish during the political turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s, the history of a whole society-–its beliefs, customs and roadmap to enlightenment-–is in danger of disappearing. Enter destiny in the form of American pacifist E. Gene Smith, a Mormon from Ogden, Utah, the unlikely leader of an effort to rescue these early insights from mankind’s consciousness, from the medical to the mystical.
While studying Sanskrit and Tibetan at the University of Washington in the early 1960s, Smith comes in contact with Tibetan refugees brought to the U.S. to teach. He is asked to help them assimilate into American life. For a while he lives with the family of Dezhung Rinpoche, one of the most learned lamas to escape Tibet. He becomes Smith’s friend and teacher, and enlists Smith’s assistance in recovering the texts lost during the turmoil in Tibet.
Throughout his mission, Smith faces formidable obstacles. In the 1960s, as a Library of Congress field employee working in a nonaligned nation, he is suspected of being a CIA agent or spy. The continuing political tension revolving around the status of Tibet vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China makes it impossible for him to work directly with China to recover many of the missing texts believed to be unaccounted for within that country. Smith, however, persists and, relying on his natural gifts in diplomacy, succeeds in assembling the resources he needs to continue his mission.
The beauty of Southern Asia and its native cultures envelops the film as Smith returns to India and Nepal in 2008, delivering to remote monasteries hard drives containing 12,000 of the 20,000 ancient documents he has salvaged. The recovery of missing texts continues, as Smith hopes to ensure the preservation of Tibetan culture for future generations. It is during this return trip that we experience Smith’s epic mission through his eyes. He provides us with unique access to the insights and way of life of the world’s leading lamas and lineage holders, monks, local “publishers” and other key players in this preservation movement. Their personal stories, told in their own voices, reveal the complexities, challenges and triumphs they have experienced in contributing to this cultural rescue. Smith’s travels take him to his old home in Delhi, the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, and monasteries of the four Buddhist sects and the Bonpo, the first documented religion in Tibet. Smith’s encounters with these traditions provide firsthand accounts of the challenges each faces in its efforts to preserve its roots and survive as a living tradition. Digital Dharma reaches an aesthetic and dramatic high point with Smith’s meeting at the Sakya Monlam (Mass Peace Prayer), where over 10,000 monks gather at the reputed birthplace of Buddha in Lumbini, Nepal, and his encounter with the incarnations of his first two teachers.
On his return to Southern Asia, Smith must address a major obstacle to his future preservation and publishing plans. In 2008, Tibetan protests lead to violence at the Summer Olympics in China and Smith’s delicate negotiations with the Chinese break down after years of planning and progress. It is a tribute to Smith’s tact and perseverance that talks are eventually restarted. The agreement reached between his organization (TBRC) and China secures the cooperation of the Chinese government in future preservation and printing efforts.
This feature-length HD documentary is more than the story of one person’s struggle, and ultimate triumph, in saving a culture. As political borders shift and societies merge, Gene Smith’s story stands as a powerful testament to the importance of protecting and preserving all cultures. And, although loud protests may attract the media spotlight, it may be the lifetime pursuit of wisdom and the quiet but effective exercise of diplomacy that are the real keys to achieving change.