Film

Ancient wisdom of the Himalayas

Taos filmmaker helps spread the importance of 'Bon and the West'

By Tamra Testerman
tempo@taosnews.com
Posted 10/23/19

When Taos filmmaker Andrea Heckman began the journey of making her third documentary in a series about the ancient teachings of the Bon tradition from Tibet, she thought the filming would begin and end in the Himalayas. What a Bon leader suggested for locations was a surprise steeped in wisdom and the recognition that the teachings of Bon extend all over the globe.

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Film

Ancient wisdom of the Himalayas

Taos filmmaker helps spread the importance of 'Bon and the West'

Posted

When Taos filmmaker Andrea Heckman began the journey of making her third documentary in a series about the ancient teachings of the Bon tradition from Tibet, she thought the filming would begin and end in the Himalayas. What a Bon leader suggested for locations was a surprise steeped in wisdom and the recognition that the teachings of Bon extend all over the globe. The film crew would travel to France, Poland, Mexico, India, Virginia, Texas and Colorado.

A screening of her film, titled "The Bon and the West," is planned Tuesday (Oct. 29), 7 p.m., at the Taos Community Auditorium. 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. Tickets are $10.

All proceeds from the screening will be donated to the new temple project at Triten Norbutse Bon Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung, abbot of the monastery, is planning to be present at the Taos screening, pending travel plans. Heckman said they always debut their work to the hometown audience "before first moving to the festivals."

Heckman's first film in the series "Bon: Mustang to Menri," delved into the story of Bon, thought by many people to have disappeared in the seventh century in Tibet. Her second film, "Bon in Dolpo," explored libraries of ancient texts, and the continuity of Tibetan traditions in Dolpo, Nepal. Heckman said the third film, "Bon and the West" continues the story of "how ancient wisdom matters, is relevant and helpful in the modern world." She continued, saying, "Scientists are researching how meditation practices affect brain waves - and are helping Western students in their everyday lives, cancer patients manage their pain and school children deal with the challenges of growing up in worlds full of demands."

Via email, we tracked down Heckman who is in Bolivia where she has been working as a cultural and trekking guide for 38 years, and her husband Taos artist Ken O'Neil at the family home. Here are the highlights of our conversations about the Bon teachings and how they differ from other meditation practices.

When did you discover Bon teachings?

Andrea Heckman: I have been working in Peru and Bolivia as a cultural and trekking guide for 38 years. One year in Peru, I met several Bon Western students of Tenzin Wngyal Rinpoche at the pilgrimage of Qoyllur Riti near Ausangate, where I was doing research on Andean textiles and rituals for my [doctorate]. I was living there in 1996 for one year on a Fulbright research grant. I realized similarities between ancient Bon practices and Andean rituals and wanted to learn more. I am a Latin Americanist focused in anthropology and art history. I learned very early that visual forms were the best way to express culture and art, so it was natural for me to find a home in visual anthropology. I can think of nothing more exciting than showing connections with other cultures through photography and documentary film.

Ken O'Neil: Andrea was always drawn to Buddhism but became immersed in the Bon tradition when a close friend in Taos - who was a close friend to the then-current abbott of Menri Monastery - invited her to consider doing a film on the subject. We had trekked in Tibet and were well exposed to Tibetan Buddhism. One major difference with Bon is that a practitioner can begin a particular practice without having to go through the more acceptable way of learning, i.e. do everything in a specific order. Westerners liked this concept for several reasons, perhaps because many lacked the patience or time to do things in order. This did not demean the value of the teachings ... Being involved in the production of the film I grew to understand this as well, and began my journey to this day.

What exactly are the Bon teachings?

O'Neil: Bon teachings offer similar subjects as do the five sects of Tibetan Buddhism, with different emphases of the various deities occurring between them, or different methods of teaching. In a traditional teaching situation the student sits at the feet of the teacher and absorbs the information as they present it in a way their culture expects, i.e. the teacher knows all. What attracts Westerners to Bon is the nature of Westerners to ask questions. Why? Why not? What about? The Bon teachings recognize this difference and respect it.

Heckman: Bon is the pre-Buddhist tradition of Tibet. I have always been interested in ancient Tibet. Bon includes shamanistic practices but is much more including the meditative and philosophical teachings of Dzogchen.

How does this practice differ from other forms of meditation?

O'Neil: We think the answer is simple. The teachers go into great detail about the physical process of getting into the state of meditation: posture, concentration, physical tactics that clear the body of interruptions. The Three Doors - body, speech, mind - emphasize quietness (body), silence (speech), spaciousness (mind). Using the four elements of earth, water, fire and air, Bon adds one element: space. Concentrating on the emptiness of space is a fine trigger to enter deep meditation. Using sound rhythms that tune the chakras is helpful in maintaining the concentration.Like the other sects within Tibetan Buddhism, the teachings remain the same. Bon teachers understand Western ways of thinking and questioning without being obstinate or pretending to understand. They have a great sense of humor. When a student asks a detailed question about some part of the teachings, the answer is often simple, but always ends with, "Just practice."

Heckman: Bon is connected to the natural elements, to dream yoga, to the bardo practices, to sacred sounds and much more. The meditative practices are very similar to Buddhism. Today, the Dalai Lama has recognized Bon as the important indigenous traditions and culture of Tibet and as a fifth branch of Buddhism.

Heckman earned a doctorate from the University of New Mexico in anthropology and art history, and is a filmmaker, photographer, author and lecturer who has researched indigenous traditions, festivals and rituals for over 35 years. She is also owns the business Andean Software with shops in Taos Ski Valley and in the town of Taos.

O'Neil is an oil painter, sculptor and artist in Taos. His work is in collections around the world and his book about his life and work, "Behind the Paint," is a collection of his art. He has co-produced many films with Heckman.

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