With his film "The Cup," Khyentse Norbu, a high lama of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism (not to mention Bhutan's first feature filmmaker) has created an endearing comedy about a group of young monks with a disruptive mania for World Cup soccer, who come to realize that compassion can override the most burning personal desires.
"The Cup" also gives a subtle prod to Western misconceptions about Buddhist monks: Unlike Bernardo Bertolucci's "Little Buddha" (for which Norbu served as an advisor) or Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," Norbu's film shows the ordinariness and foibles of monastic life. The scrappy monks, who manage to introduce soccer magazines and ultimately a TV and satellite dish into the orthodox world of their monastery, are as charming and flawed as any character of Truffaut's. As Norbu-the-lama has said, "Buddhism is faultless. But Buddhists are just human beings."
"The Cup's" soccer nuts are led by a mischievous, elastic-faced 13-year-old named Orgyen (Jamyang Llodro), who goads them to sneak out at night to watch World Cup finals on TV, defying their monastery's supervisor, Geko, a strict disciplinarian who vainly tries to keep the boys from passing notes during chant sessions, playing practical jokes, or scrawling graffiti on the monastery walls. Geko harbors a secret yen for the game, but for him and the monastery's sage old Abbot (Lama Chonjor) soccer represents the invasion of material culture. They fear the young monks will never appreciate "the old Tibet"-the essence of the Buddhist teachings and a vanishing way of life.
But as with all good Buddhists, pragmatism wins out over worry. As Geko explains the principles of soccer to his superior: "It's two civilized nations fighting over a ball." "There's no sex?" asks the abbott. "No sex." "So what's the harm?" responds the sage, with a wry smile.
The movie also tells the story of China's brutal takeover of Tibet, but mercifully weaves in the politics with humor. The abbot, who has a penchant for postcards and travel memorabilia, is permanently packed, ready to return to his beloved Tibet. And two of Orgyen's cronies, who get sucked into the World Cup frenzy, are pitiful Tibetan refugees who have escaped to India with nothing but a gold pocket watch.
"Is it true you only bathe once in your life in Tibet?" asks Orgyen. "Of course not," shoots back the older of the refugee boys. "We bathe before every New Year." "Well, you're in India now," retorts Orgyen. "And here we bathe everyday." With that, he whips off his robes ("a 2,500-year-old fashion," he says) to reveal a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of the Brazilian soccer star Ronaldo.
Early in the movie, the boisterous monks play soccer with a crumpled Coke can, which ends up as a candleholder on the altar of an eccentric old lama. The gap between sacred and profane, we're meant to understand, is mostly in our heads. It's an important point for Norbu, who is recognized as a tulku, or incarnation, of a leading 19th century lama (Norbu is an alias for His Holiness Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche.) His father and grandfather are eminent lamas themselves, and he is spiritual director of three monasteries and several Buddhist colleges and meditation centers in India, Bhutan and Sikkim. He is certainly the first tulku ever to make a movie.
Norbu tacks on some Buddhist lessons, epigraphs to end the movie. One is a send-up of endings themselves, playing on the Buddhist tenet of being in the present moment. "What happens in the story about the rabbit," a boy asks Geko, referring to a fable he began telling earlier in the film. "What story?" Geko replies. "What's all the fuss about endings? You shouldn't bother with that."
Another lesson, a teaching by the 7th century Tibetan sage Shantideva, is related by the old abbot: "You can cover the whole earth with soft leather to protect your feet; or you can cover you feet and protect them from the earth." We can try to combat our enemies-as boundless as the earth itself-one by one, he says, or vanquish them by cultivating compassion and dissolving hatred in our own minds. The Buddha himself would surely give this ending two thumbs up.