Kundun (1997) is a haunting, beautiful portrait of the early life of the Dalai Lama and perhaps Martin Scorsese’s most underrated film. In the last scene, the Dalai Lama escapes his palace in Lhasa in the middle of the night, and flees to India pursued by Chinese soldiers under orders to kill him. He falls ill and has to be helped by his attendants as he walks the last few yards to the border checkpoint.
At his post, the Indian guard salutes him and asks him his name. The Dalai Lama replies “a man. A simple monk.” The guard then asks him “Are you the Lord Buddha?” And he replies with the film’s final line.
“I think that I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.”
Another iconic figure, another one who “(tried) to be a good man,” left us yesterday. Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. Mandela hadn’t always followed the non-violent path the the Dalai Lama committed his life to. He was a revolutionary and a political prisoner. But when he walked out of prison in 1990, after 27 years, he was able to forgive his captors, unite a country, and reconcile two peoples to one another.
We turn people like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama into figurative saints. We acclaim others like Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II as actual saints. In the process, we mythologize them beyond all recognition. We forget that they are no different from us, and that we are all called to that same goal. To be a reflection of the Image of God that is in each of us.
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” —1 Cortinthians 13:12.