Among towering Himalayan mountains, the Mustang District in northern Nepal is home to one of the last places on Earth Tibetan Buddhists practice Sky Burials. A burial practice requiring the dismemberment of a human body to facilitate its disposal via Dakinis, or vultures. The practice is thousands of years old and reveals the complexity of the Buddhist philosophy as well as a brutally practical way to dispose of the dead with dignity in an ecosystem dependent on every resource for survival. The Mustang District is also a spiritual epicenter for Tibetan Buddhism with cultural, historical and legendary origins dating back to the 5th Century. Today, the area is protected by strict regulations but is not immune to the pervasive ripple effect of an emerging global community and Western influence.
Blue Kanglng is an observational film that takes place in the remote Mustang District and captures Tibetan Buddhists collective consciousness around death and the coveted Sky Burial ritual. The multifaceted point of view is established through intimate portraits and conversations with the generous people who invited us into their places of living, work, practice and worship. Their willingness to openly share beliefs and perspectives about the taboo topic of death and Sky Burials is a beautifully honest look at Tibetan Buddhism and human nature. Our cast is made up of spiritually reincarnated, culturally enlightened, traditional practitioners and common people who live and work according to these and other Buddhist philosophies.
From his Gumba in the small village of Tiri, Karma Tenzin Chopel, an incarnate and 14th generation Lama, explains the philosophical principles of Buddha’s teachings about death and their symbolic parallels to Sky Burials. He shares the significance of ritual ceremonies dedicated to transition the conscience into the Buddha Realm, the sacred role of Dakinis and the practice of summoning them. The Tiri Lama establishes his lead role as an existential authority providing an enlightened voice and perspective.
Across the rocky riverbed of the Kali Gandaki River, in the shadows of the majestic Annapurna peak is the village of Kagbeni. Here we find Phenclok Tesphan, also known as Dara, the village head and owner of YakDonald’s restaurant and hotel. Dara’s social responsibility and institutional knowledge combine to paint the picture of a shifting cultural landscape and the changing winds brought about by Western influence that’s eroding rituals and practices. Dara’s voice as a cultural authority may also be a grim omen for the future of Sky Burials.
Towards the north of the Forbidden Kingdom, in the village of Charang, Lama Tsering Gompo Gurung has sequestered himself to a small tent. He is performing a three day ritual to ensure a foundation is in spiritual harmony so a house can be built. From there, he shares the duties and Pujas, or acts of worship, he performs as a Lama. Tsering explains his role and most recent experiences performing Sky Burials. His supporting role as an existential authority also underscores the intersection of philosophy and a primitive reality.
Back in Kagbeni, we hear from Wangchok Gurung who recently retired from a 25-year career as a Rogyapa, or body breaker. Body Breakers have a critical role in the Sky Burial ceremony. They are asked with processing the deceased human body to be easily and completely consumed by vultures. The arduous task is rife with physical and mental challenges that would test the faith of even the most devout. Wangchok’s pragmatic voice underscores the harsh realities of a Rogyapa and Buddhist life in the unforgiving landscape. Despite the belief that Rogyapas have secured a place in the Buddha Realm for their services, his presence and character exude the toil of this taxing work. His voice provides a sobering reality of the difficulties required to carry out the coveted burial ceremony.
In the small village of Dakmar, surrounded by caves that were once home to the villagers, Thupten and Mingmar Gurung speak with us from an extremely modest home. The two are also Body Breakers who have found themselves burdened with this responsibility by no choice of their own. Born the sons of Body Breakers, the community pleads for them to carry on the tradition. Out of necessity and compassion for the grieving families they face a moral dilemma. Their voices expand on the rigors and details of the Sky Burial process and the unique relationship they share with the vultures. Their candid perspective challenges the philosophical and practical execution of Sky Burials for future generations.
Tibetan Buddhism is prolific. The success and consistency of the practice is partially rooted in the ability to preserve and pass along traditions and rituals from generation to generation. Dr. Khetub Bista, a traditional Tibetan Doctor, has been practicing medicine across the Mustang District. His voice personifies the dedication and discipline of carrying on tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. Dr. Bista shares ancient handwritten text, passed down for hundreds of years, that he used to learn and still uses to treat the spiritually and physically afflicted. Tradition alone is not the only solution for the doctor as modern medicine and treatment creeps in to the culture for better or for worse.
Our supporting cast is made ip of people from different villages across the region, a random cross-section of Tibetan Buddhists whose devotion ranges from philosophical practitioners to cultural stewards and some with serious doubt. Individually they share their experiences of life in the region. Collectively their voice establishes commonalities in human nature, life experiences that shape who they are, a shared desire for love and happiness, and the uncertainty of what happens when we die.
The result is Blue Kangling. A film dedicated to initiating and inviting conversation about mortality through an understanding of the Tibetan Buddhists concept of death and a dying practice of Sky Burials. Collectively these voices frame a perspective to intrigue, enrich and challenge the viewer to have a deeper appreciation for life through an expanded view of death.