Spiritual Doc Hannah Makes an Adventure of Buddhism’s Spread to the West


In 1968, when Westerners were traveling en masse to India, seeking enlightenment or the tokens thereof, a young Danish woman named Hannah Nydahl arrived in Tibet with her new husband Ole, and amid their adopted country’s political unrest the two Danes became the first Westerners to study under His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa of Nepal.

The new documentary Hannah: Buddhism’s Untold Journey details how Hannah and Ole, at the Karmapa’s urging, brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West, and it’s a good adventure story, but it’s not quite enough. Visually, the film is a pleasure, all bleached-out dreamy Sixties photographs and lush jewel tones on tapestries, temples, and statues, even as its subjects detail capture and escape in South American jungles or the split Tibetan-Chinese recognition of the Seventeenth Karmapa.

The soft focus makes the two narratives appear cohesive, but Hannah’s intimate story — how she is remembered by her loved ones, and even her life as a committed Buddhist who learned Tibetan and acted as a translator for a number of prominent Lamas — is unsatisfyingly intertwined with the larger political issues. There’s much to say about the politics of Tibetan Buddhism, China and Tibet, Westerners practicing Eastern religions, violence, and missionaries. Much is hinted at and little explored fully enough.

Yet Hannah is the film’s greatest strength. The calm with which she faces her death upon receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis is inspiring in its banality; death, of course, is a part of life. Maybe that patience, that mindfulness, comes from her Buddhist practice. Maybe it’s worth waiting out this lovely, slow film to see it.