As filmmaker and cultural anthropologist, Werner Herzog brings his unique powers of observation to Buddhist rituals in Wheel of Time. The documentary’s title refers to the central symbol that forms the physical and spiritual hub of an intricately detailed sand mandala that is the centerpiece of the Kalachakra initiation, a Buddhist ceremony that attracts several hundred thousand monks and pilgrims to Bodh Gaya, India (the original site of the Buddha’s enlightenment) in 2002.
Through well-chosen images and his own sparse but effective narration, Herzog chronicles this spiritual conclave, incorporating brief interview clips with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, a lively debate between high-level monks at the gathering, an interview with a Tibetan political prisoner who’d spent 37 years in jail, and a visit to the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet, where the faithful endure a high-altitude 52-kilometer trek to worship on holy ground. Having recovered from illness that prevented his full participation in the Bodh Gaya ceremony, the Dalai Lama appears at another Buddhist ceremony in Graz, Austria, where another sand mandala symbolizes the deep significance of Buddhist inner peace. Herzog’s fascination with these rituals is infectious, and with a powerful soundtrack of Tibetan music and Buddhist monks’ chanting, Wheel of Time achieves its own quiet quality of grace.