Digital Dharma

Digital Dharma

A monk reading as seen in DIGITAL DHARMA, a film by Dafna Yachin. Picture courtesy Lunchbox Communications. All rights reserved.

Digital Dharma

Senior Editor:
Art Director:
Production Manager:
  • Tamela Knapp
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Digital Dharma (2011/2012)

Opened: 07/25/2012 Limited

Rubin MoA/NYC07/25/2012 - 09/05/201243 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Twitter, Facebook

Genre: Documentary

Rated: Unrated


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.

Director's Statement

In 2008 Gene gave me permission to follow him back to India as he set out to deliver, to the main lamas of the four leading Buddhist traditions and the Bon, 12,000 digitized texts of the 20,000 that had been salvaged. These lamas had also spent their lives finding and preserving the texts lost during China's cultural revolution.

For the next four years we were able to document key turning points of this cultural rescue and international movement through the eyes of its catalyst. We witnessed unexpected setbacks -- from salvaged texts ruined by flooding in refugee camps to Tibetan protests during the 2008 Olympics in China setting back 20 years of negotiations and progress with the preservationists.

Throughout Gene's journey, our film crew had unique access to leaders, locations and communities that could have happened only with Gene's blessing.

The sudden death of E. Gene Smith in December 2010 was a real-life dramatic twist that has underscored my urgency to tell Gene's remarkable story as soon as possible. The week Gene died, he became the lead obituary in world press such as The New York Times, London's Telegraph and The Economist, with leading headlines such as "The American Lama who Saved Tibetan Literature." I am fortunate to have over sixty hours recorded on HD of the text preservation efforts of this gentle giant of diplomacy and now-iconic figure in American/Asian history.

With this feature film, I want viewers to quickly move from asking why to wanting to learn how: how the mission will be accomplished, how it will all turn out, and perhaps even how they -- the viewers -- might become agents for accomplishing such a purpose in their own lives.

-- Dafna Yachin, Director