Wendy J.N. Lee on Tibetan Buddhism and saving the Himalayas

Wendy J.N. Lee on Tibetan Buddhism and saving the Himalayas

You were born and raised in the US. What drew you to the environmental issues in the Himalayas and how were you inspired to join the Pad Yatra and even made a feature documentary about it? 
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and grew up in a relatively progressive environment. As a kid in school, I was taught to respect the earth, and protect our environment, and taught to reduce, recycle, and reuse… I grew up hearing this message all the time. But I never really took it seriously, or thought about it that much. Then when I started traveling to the Himalayas, my view of the earth completely changed. For the first time in my life, I felt I was witnessing an environmental crisis first hand. Starting with the trash and pollution problems caused by modern waste, particularly non-biodegradables such as plastic.  

I started traveling regularly to the Himalayas as a volunteer with my family. And within a few years of traveling there, the escalation of the trash crisis was shocking. It wasn’t like, you could notice some differences, and casually think ‘that’s very sad…’ It was shocking. Within 5 years, the amount of plastic being used probably went up ten-fold, and the beautiful pristine landscapes were suddenly these enormous dumping grounds. As a result, the water sources were becoming toxic and locals were reporting more illness than ever. That is why I signed up for the Eco Pad Yatra. Designed to be a large-scale educational undertaking, the Eco Pad Yatra was initiated by The Gyalwang Drukpa, a Buddhist leader in the region, to educate locals on the dangers of modern waste, and how to reduce and reuse materials such as plastic. Seven hundred people from around the world would gather in the Himalayas and trek for 2 months, walking from village to village, not only to educate, but to show by example that ecological compassion is necessary for survival.  

Once on the Eco Pad Yatra, I realized exactly how important that message was. When we arrived at villages to explain the consequences of non-biodegradable waste in the water sources, many locals literally burst into tears. They had never been told that non-biodegradable litter and waste, while unsightly, was poisoning their water sources. They were horrified. That made such a big impact on me. Out there the consequences, the reactions, they are very immediate. When you go to a remote area, it’s easier to see the immediate impact of a single action. That was so new to me.  

So that inspired you to make the film? You said you signed up for the trip. You signed up with the notion to actually make a film about it at the same time?
I had just graduated from USC film school when I signed up for the Pad Yatra. I thought oh wow it would be really great to make a short film about it, and then it just grew in scale as things went. I did not realize how much was going to happen on that trip, and how challenging it would be, and how many adventures we were going to have along the way. So the film eventually grew into a feature-length movie.    

So did you ever expect it to be your first feature length film, an environmental documentary?
It just happened. I didn’t realized when we started that it was going to become a feature. I didn’t realize it was going to go to forty film festivals and we’re going to win twelve awards and all that... It’s my first feature. So that was all a wonderful surprise. Some environmental and social issues film can feel really bleak and dark and I think people have been surprisingly receptive to this film, maybe because it’s a more positive take on the environmental cause.    

You mentioned that didn’t really expect the extreme conditions in Himalayas right? So I’m sure you sort of prepared for it but you didn’t really prepare for it at the same time. So how did you overcome them in the process of documenting the whole Pad Yatra?
There was no way to know what it was going be. The ecosystem up in Ladakh, it was really unpredictable because of some of the weather shifts going on –due in part to global warming. So we were there in the middle of summer, and we were suddenly hit with blizzards and snowstorms and ice. With nothing but summer gear. It was really hard to stay warm and dry when you’re caught off guard like that. And also from a production point of view, it was really hard to shoot because we were using solar panels to charge the camera batteries so if there wasn’t that much sun one day, we could only shoot so many minutes the next day, or not at all. It was a huge physical challenge, trekking and crossing rivers and navigating snow… We lost several hours of footage just from weather damage. And, we couldn’t shoot in HD because of the power restrictions. So there were a lot of limitations that we were up against. It kind of added to the adventure of it all, you just didn’t know what is going to happen the next day. We were going to do our best to get every frame that we could get, and then see what happened in post. In post, we did a lot of work fixing the images and sound, redesigning the soundscapes, and things like that. So it definitely came together in the end. But at the outset, we were heading into the unknown, we just didn’t know what was going to happen.  

So did that affect the film in a good way or a bad way?
In a good way, definitely. There’s this spontaneity to it that it’s hard to describe. I think growing up in the developed world, you are used to things happening the way you want them to. Things happen on time, trains arrive on time, and everything works. You turn on a switch and it works. I think when you are vulnerable and out in the wild, the adventure really begins. And you really start connecting with one another. With 700 people on the trip, our relationships with one another changed drastically from the beginning to the end. Everyone from the developed world was relatively uptight from the first day. Everyone was nervous, panicking, and uncomfortable, and by the end, there was this level of friendship that is really hard to describe because we had been stripped down of everything. So people were just so grateful to have each other and we were all living in a way where we were helping each other so regularly that it just became second nature. So in that way, it really changed my life because it changed the way I view other people.  

So is the final film what you have envisioned from the beginning or while you were shooting it? Because you spent a few years editing it.
No, it was different. I had hoped not to just chronicle the journey from a logistical point of view. My hope was really to capture how it felt to be on it. And that was really hard since we had such limited footage. We didn’t have much electricity, we couldn’t shoot 200 hours of footage. We had very limited footage at the end so in that sense it was like solving a puzzle, taking the images we had and being able to express how it felt to be on there. It was a really fun process but it’s not quite what I expected, especially because at the outset, while we were shooting, we were just trying to get through the day. I wasn’t thinking too hard about structure or what composer am I going to use.

While I was there, I could barely think about the camera work. You were just trying to get to the next destination without passing out. So a lot of the production time was spent in survivor mode, and thinking to myself, let’s get as much as we can, and don’t get sick. And then post production was really when I sat down to think about how to convey the feeling of being on this thing. A lot of things came together in post that were really nice surprises.  Our two composers are amazing. Derek Zhao and Pilar Díaz. The music was a big part of recreating the feeling of being there. And then sound design was a big part of that too. Patrick Knipe did the sound design. Even the look that we gave the film in post. We put a lot of energy into the movie’s look. We had to up convert everything to HD, and through the process, we decided to embrace the gritty nature of the trek and give the images this filmy grain look. Bill Russell, our HD consultant, did that. So it was a really interesting process, which is to be a storyteller at the end of the day and not just someone who’s just trying to regurgitate literal images. You kind of piece it together in way that felt true. So that part was really fun.  

How did you get together such an amazing team?
Everyone was wonderful. Everyone working on the film was very passionate about the subject matter, so immediately, we had a bond. Like we’re in it together to help get this message out there. And that’s not always the case on other films that I’ve worked on.  

The film had a very strong and direct message about drawing attention to the effects of climate change and towards that particular region. What do you think is the significance of the film in inspiring change? How do you think you can actually connect with the wider audience all over the world?
One of the goals of the film is to connect people with the environmental cause. We screened in over 17 countries now and I’ve noticed in all audiences, they tend to be very diverse. Diverse in age, ethnicity, gender, socio economic status... I love that. My hope is that this film is entertaining, first and foremost. And in being entertaining, the film can carry this message along to a wider audience. The film has won several audience awards as well… It’s a crowd pleaser film. At our very first film festival, we won the Audience Award, and that had never before been awarded to a documentary over the competing fiction narrative films. So that was a huge accomplishment for us.  

My hope is the film inspires environmental compassion, through the experience of an adventure, and not just a list of facts. I hope audiences feel like they are participating and active, and when they leave the screening, they know there are so many things that you can do that are both fun and challenging. It is completely possible and you just have to take that one step forward. So I hope it’s is not purely a factual film but one that also entertains and appeals to our sense of adventure, and our sense of being able to make a difference, and our sense of having real fun.  

The landscape photography was amazing. Can you tell us more about it?
The Cinematographer, Ngawang Sodpa, is actually a Drukpa monk from Ladakh. He’s since won an award for his cinematography at Docutah Film Festival. Someone gifted him a camcorder several years ago and he just started documenting everything that he could. He studied all these National Geographic videos, Discovery Channel videos... He shot the entire feature and it’s amazing. You can tell he does all this from the heart. His motivation was to share this with other people, and he did such a great job with it. He was always ahead of people or behind them, running, to get a good shot. He did possibly 5 times the distance everyone else did. Ngawang Sodpa would often hike ahead the night before, in the pitch dark, just so he can get a single shot of us from an adjacent mountain at day break. Sometimes he’d be 10 hours ahead of us, just to get that one shot. And then once he got that shot, he had to trek back down across two mountains to catch up with us. And he did this all day. You’d often see him on top of trees to get a shot, too. I mean he was all over the place. He’s a local so he’s pretty well adapted to the altitude but even so, it was amazing what he was capable of. I could barely do anything in comparison, I had B camera on me, a DSLR, and I could hardly carry it on half the days, much less shoot. That extra 6 pounds was unbearable at that altitude to carry, for like a 10-hour trek. But Ngawang Sodpa was literally running back and forth. If something happened, word would spread down the line, the line of 700 trekkers, then he’d run over to whatever was happening. He’s like superman. Incredibly devoted.  

The participants were very much an important part of the film. How do you get them to open up to the camera and the film?
Because the cinematographer was a local monk, and also because I knew a lot of the people on the trek from previous trips to the Himalayas, there was already a familiarity there between us as the crew, and the participants of the Pad Yatra. It was all like a big family honestly. I know in some cases, especially for cultural films, it’s usually an outsider coming in, and then crews are in people’s faces with a camera, and it can feel invasive… but in this case, we were already familiar with everyone. On top of that, we weren’t really up in anyone’s faces either. You’ll notice in the film, there aren’t actually a ton of close ups. We wanted people to feel like they have their personal space. But for the most part, it helped that we were sort of “one of their own.” I had met Ngawang Sodpa years before, too. We would always talk about cameras, shooting and things like that. So he was pretty much prepared and ready to go. He added a lot to the film and he had such a loving eye, too. The film was shot with a point of view that really embodies kindness... Cinematographers have so much influence over what you see and feel, and Ngawang Sodpa added this gentleness that is hard to describe.   

The film is enjoyable and uplifting, especially with the appearances of the Kungfu Nuns. That added a different aspect to it. Could you tell us more about them?
They are amazing. I just saw them in March; they are now breaking bricks with their heads. And they have gotten really good at weaponry, too! His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa started this Kung Fu Nuns movement in order to empower women, not just to build physical strength but also to encourage leadership within the community, and to foster confidence amongst women. The Himalayas is still developing in terms of gender roles. Historically, women were quite respected in Himalayan culture, but not now. Right now, it’s quite flipped actually, and so the idea was to use Kung Fu as an entry point to start showing women that they can be strong, they can physically protect themselves, that they can take a leadership position, that they can do something that they usually only see men do. And this has had a huge effect on the culture in the Himalayas.

It’s been very inspirational.   And it’s an ambitious way to convey a message like gender equality; much like the Eco Pad Yatra. It’s different when you tell someone something, then when you show them. So for the Pad Yatra, we weren’t just trying to tell people pollution is bad, we were going to show them by picking up toxic litter, and carrying it out of their villages on our backs by the thousands of pounds. The Kung Fu Nuns follow a similar approach. If you just tell young women of the Himalayas, ‘you should be more confident,’ it might not make sense. If you show them that you can do Kungfu, and you’re good at it, and it’s admirable –that is actually inspiring to people. It makes empowerment feel possible. All of a sudden it comes alive. So now the Drukpa Kung Fu Nuns are doing demonstrations throughout the Himalayas, and they are drawing growing masses of people –women and men. They are being invited internationally to do demonstrations as well. They even did a demonstration at Olympic Park in London just before the Olympics. So there are a lot of really great things coming up because of it.  

These Drukpa nuns both surprise and inspire me in so many ways. You think of a typical Buddhist nun, I don’t know, like what you see on TV, and you just see them sitting on cushions meditating for world peace. Well, this really isn’t the case for the Drukpa nuns. They are so proactive and so physical, it’s almost jolts you awake to be around them! They are loud and sassy and witty and kind… it’s like Kindness 2.0. They receive a really well rounded education at the Drukpa nunneries. There’s actually like a five-year waiting list to become a Drukpa nun. You become a nun in this particular lineage you get to learn many different skillsets. They build and run their own websites, for example. They all speak multiple languages. They are just really savvy, smart women. It’s all about toughening up for them, and taking a more proactive role and not just sitting back.  

The story was also told from your sister, Carrie Lee’s perspective. Can you tell us more about your decision to include that?
I signed up for the Pad Yatra with my sister, Carrie. We are very close and share a similar point of view, and so it made sense to have her help guide us through the story of the Pad Yatra. Also I wanted her to be in the film because she’s your typical city girl… basically, the last person you would expect to do a trek through the Himalayas. She’s very well put together. She was at the time an aerospace finance attorney, working at a white shoe law firm. She had this very regimented lifestyle. So it was fun to watch all that come crashing down once we started the Pad Yatra.   It was especially great because a lot of times, you sit down for a movie about the Himalayas, and you expect to see a cast of earthy crunchy men with long hair on some quest to learn more about themselves... But I had never seen a movie about the Himalayas before, about this ex-sorority girl, who’s a lawyer from LA, who just want to help do something for the environmental crisis, and was thrown right in like a fish out of water. So from a story point of view, it sort of just struck me as the right thing to do. It also proves the point at the end of the film that you don’t have to look a certain way or be a certain way in order to do this. The Pad Yatra is for anyone, because if Carrie can do it, anyone can do it. You don’t have to be some burly outdoorsy person; you don’t have to be a professional mountaineer. You could be like Carrie, go on this trip, and have it completely relate to your life. When Carrie came back from the trip, she was totally changed. She has since left law, moved to New York and started a finance company, and she’s now president of Live to Love International. She was that inspired by the Pad Yatra. So for Carrie, her personal story is not limited to just environmentalism. It’s about discovering a new outlook on life, and feeling all things are possible.  

The Pad Yatra from what I understand is both a spiritual and an environmental expedition. What do you think makes this religious expedition relevant and how can it resonate with its viewers?
There’s a significant spiritual aspect to the film. His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, who founded and leads the Eco Pad Yatra, is a prominent Buddhist leader in that region. And so a large part of the Pad Yatra is incorporating principles of loving-kindness into everyday life and actions.   Even though I’m not very religious, this was so spiritually profound to me. To be in an environment where kindness and love were expressions of strength and will, and not weakness. We must have it backwards here in the West, because this blew my mind. In this case, being spiritual also meant rising to the occasion, believing that things are possible when they seemed impossible. To me, these were the core elements of our spiritual journey.  A lot of the participants on the trek are monks and nuns and it was very beautiful to be in that environment. But on top of that, the event attracted all kinds of people. Live to Love International organizes the Pad Yatra, and they are a secular organization founded by His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa –people from all faiths have joined in to spread the message of love and world cooperation over environmental causes. And since the inaugural Pad Yatra (it is now an annual event), His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa has spoken at several international forums on interfaith cooperation for universal goals. In part for his work with the Eco Pad Yatra, His Holiness was awarded a United Nations MDG Award in 2010.  

The film is a very organic and intimate experience. How do you think the younger generations can do to instigate change effectively and fulfill the message the film is trying to spread?
The most important thing is to remember that anything is possible. I think the generation below me is a lot more optimistic than mine. I grew up in an environment where everyone seemed a little jaded and cynical, and it was very easy to be discouraged. But I do feel like the general mood is changing in this world and people are feeling that progress is possible. We just have to remind ourselves repeatedly, that you just have to take one step. That’s the tagline of the film. Just “take a step,” one step, and you will be surprised. The Pad Yatra, on the outside, seems completely impossible, but just start with one foot after another and you will complete this amazing journey. We all have the will and the knowledge to achieve things, we just feel like we don’t have the permission to do it, and sometimes we get discouraged before we even try. So I just hope we can all remember that all things are possible.  

That’s the thing; it’s very easy to be apathetic. I was very apathetic before I went on this trip. I won’t lie. It’s so easy to be apathetic when you don’t see consequences to your actions. We live in a city, we live in a developed region, we don’t see the consequences… So you could litter, you could do something careless, and you are not going to see that one piece of plastic affecting, ultimately, the water sources and animals and other humans. We are so removed from consequences that it’s really easy to get apathetic, because we were generally comfortable all the time regardless of our actions. When I started the Pad Yatra, all of a sudden, nature was this totally interactive space. Things actually affect you. For example, we would see all these dead animals while trekking. I had never really seen a dead animal up close before, maybe just a few road kills. But the number of dead animals we passed really woke me up. We saw a dead horse one day and I started weeping… It was right there. The horse must have died while giving birth, because her womb was open, and her face went into rigor mortis during a final scream. The look of horror on the horse’s face was unbearable to me. So I wept, and I found myself suddenly thinking about mortality, and suffering, and the pain of others, and all the things I normally shut out day to day. I came away with this feeling of appreciation I had never felt before, and this strong will to help others who are suffering the next opportunity I had.  

For me, being in nature, and walking on foot through the mountains, it connected me to something bigger that normally goes hidden in modern living. And I thought, how could I possible be empathetic back at home, or useful even, if I’m shielded from the consequences of our actions? What a wake up call that was. The movie takes place in the Himalayas, but it really is a film for the rest of the world. Not because the Himalayas is necessarily the most important region on earth, but because it’s a beautiful example of one place where consequences matter. When you go there, you can see the ripple effect that your actions have. It’s a beautiful microcosm, showing us what we are really doing. The culture in the Himalayas is also so unique –it is a tradition built from the ground up on principles of compassion and a respect for nature.    

The Pad Yatra has since continued to happen at least once a year. Do you plan to go on it and shoot again?
Yes. If I go I would love to shoot, even just something simple to follow up with. I should mention that the recent Pad Yatras have been far more accessible than the one seen in the film –in case anyone is debating whether or not to join for one. It has really expanded as an event, and has grown to accommodate a wider range of people.    

If you were to go back in time, would you do it again?
Absolutely, 100%. I think about it all the time. I won’t lie, it was uncomfortable at the time. But wow, did it change me for the better. I can’t tell you how much I have changed since. For example, I used to be an insomniac and since the Pad Yatra, I’ve never had a bad night of sleep. You are grateful for everything. I was so grateful for my bed the day I got home. Even your food tastes different. It totally changed the way I view people, the earth, who I am and how I fit in. And also I just love Ladakh, so I hope I will always be visiting Ladakh for the rest of my life.   

Interview conducted by JianDe Li.