an article about John Allen Gibel

This is an article about one my best friends’ recent journey in India and Nepal, and especially his experiences in Labchi, a Milarepa cave on the Nepal-Tibet border. It’s from my home town Uniontown Pennsylvania’s newspaper, the Herald-Standard.

John Allen has been one of my closest friends since we were 16 and in a school musical together. Our relationship could easily be called one of inner exploration and psychonautical acrobatics. We’ve influenced each other immensely over the years, and it’s impossible for not to see him as a brother; part of my heart. We’ve made films together, meditated for many many hours together, and deeply informed each other spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally. And made each other laugh like few others can.

I was fortunate enough to get to see John Allen in Kathmandu, and we had a monumental time. Many events took place, but most of all we both realized that we are the Great Stupa. About time.

That’s what happens when you are fully absorbed in presentational immediacy.

I’ll likely be translating the below-mentioned Tibetan interviews for his forthcoming film.

Uniontown man films documentary on Buddhist holy men
He explored a way of life that many revere but few ever see.
A Uniontown man spent five months in India, Nepal and rural Tibet, where he filmed a holy man on a pilgrimage to a remote area of the Himalayas.

John Allen Gibel, 26, is now in post-production on an untitled feature-length independent documentary film that explores not only this journey but also the lifestyles of the Buddhist holy men who live in the region.

“It’s a unique look at that part of the world, especially these remote locations. For the most part, they’ve practiced the same way of living for 800 years,” he said.

A son of John and Barbara Ann Gibel, he is a 2000 graduate of Laurel Highlands Senior High School and a 2003 graduate of Point Park University in Pittsburgh, where he majored in film and video production.

“I’ve been making film and video art since I was 11 or 12, working with a neighbor’s camcorder and a VHS deck – just home entertainment technology,” he said. “I just started experimenting and putting things together and doing vignettes and performances with groups of friends.”

In college, Gibel’s projects included creating a feature on 16mm film as well as several short films. Since graduation, his work has been screened in avant-garde, experimental and documentary film festivals in the United States and abroad. Last year, he had films shown in Berlin and China. He also has had films screened in Paris, New York City and Oregon.

Gibel’s film “Symmetry Break” is on a compilation from a San Francisco distribution company called “Experiments in Terror Vol. 2” that is available from Amazon. His “Gas Ain’t Ironing” was filmed in Laurel Caverns. “Bye Bye Parsifal” is a montage of Wagner’s opera “Parsifal” and the classic musical “Bye Bye Birdie.” “Cremassticparkinator III” was mentioned in the New Yorker. Many of these works can be viewed online on YouTube.

Gibel was working at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2004 when he met a Western Buddhist nun who lived in a hermitage in the Adirondacks. Her son worked for the museum caf? and she told Gibel about two monks who were visiting LaRoche College for a discourse on the teachings of the 10th century hermit and saint named Milarepa. He attended the lecture and became a student of the nun.

“Through my interactions with her, I met many other Tibetan holy men and one monk in particular – Lama Gursam. He was planning to go to retreat to a very sacred pilgrimage center in rural Tibet called Lapchi, where Milarepa, who moved from place to place, always returned,” Gibel said.

Gibel did most of his filming for the documentary at Lapchi, which is a place sacred to Tibetan Buddhists because it is where Milarepa performed miraculous deeds and achieved a state of Buddahood in one lifetime. A hermit with no possession, he lived a mendicant lifestyle, Gibel explained.

Lapchi, which has many caves, became a place frequently used by religious hermits called yogis, who following the same spiritual path. There was a time when thousands of yogis lived in caves on the Himalaya Mountains. They live for three to seven years in strict meditative seclusion but some spend a lifetime there. Lapchi is a major pilgrimage site but difficult to reach. Even today, it takes eight days to travel there on foot.

Lama Gursam asked Gibel to accompany him and document his journey to Lapchi because he heard that Gibel had done work for different Buddhist organizations.

“He asked if I’d like to accompany him to document his journey and look at the practices and lifestyle of these holy men, examine what conditions they live in,” Gibel said. “For my part, I wanted to understand their motivation, living in such remoteness and without access to amenities like plumbing and electricity. Food is scarce to them. Yak-herding nomads live there – a very small community moving about.”

They began making plans last summer. Funding came from various sources, including Outreach Partners in Florida and private investors. Gibel worked jobs in Pittsburgh and Uniontown to save money.

They left for Asia on Feb. 18, arriving in Delhi, India.

“It’s very crowded but very colorful, and there’s a lot of bombardment – sensory overload,” Gibel said. “There’s a sense of ancient history. It’s a very mystical place.”

After two weeks, they visited Dharmamsala, the residence of the Dali Lama, but did not see him.

“This was right before the major protests of the Beijing Olympics and security was very cautious,” Gibel said. “At the time, he was not receiving visitors. We did meet with Karmapa, the leader of another sect.”

Gibel explained there are four very large sects in Tibetan Buddhism. The Dali Lama is the leader of one sect and the sovereign of Tibet before the Chinese invaded. Many Tibetans recognize him as their spiritual and political leader in exile. Karmapa also is exiled from Tibet and lives near Dharmamsala.

Gibel also visited many Tibetan refugee communities in India.

“It was interesting seeing them try to preserve their culture outside of their own country and try to preserve a monastic tradition. It’s a religious and cultural heritage faced with extinction in the land of its origin,” he said.

Gibel said there also is a large refugee community in Nepal, which he reached around March 1.

“What interested me the most were the yogis, their unique inner exploration and religious lifestyle,” he said.

The yogis live in high altitudes in extremely cold temperatures, Gibel said, and they practice a special kind of yoga that generates an enormous amount of body heat. They are able to melt snow around them. They wrap cloths wet with Himalayan river water around them and they are able to dry them with the heat of their bodies. It’s called tumo. There are scientific studies of the practice.

On to Lapchi

In mid-March, Gibel and his group traveled to Lapchi. The group included the Lama Gursam, who is a native of India; the lama’s wife, Amber Moore, who is a native of Canada; a guide from the Lapchi Association and a group of porters who carried equipment and supplies. This was the Lama Gursam’s second trip to Lapchi.

Gibel explained Lapchi is a restricted area on both sides.

“Because of political tensions for China, Lapchi is considered off limits to foreign visitors and restricted by the government in Nepal. There is a conflict between China and Nepal as to whom it belongs,” he said. “Geographically and ethnically, it is Tibetan but it’s technically within the territory of the People’s Republic of Nepal and it just became the new Republic of Nepal during the time I was there. Their first Independence Day was May 29.”

He continued, “I was in Kathmandu (in Nepal) that day, just back from Lapchi, and documented some of the celebration. I was there before we went to Lapchi during the Chinese crackdown of protests of the Beijing Olympics. There are also communities of Tibetan refuges in Nepal and India and they organized a lot of demonstrations. They were protesting outside the Chinese embassy in Nepal every day. There was political violence on a daily basis.”

There was danger in going to Lapchi because it is a restricted area.

“We got there by evading the Nepali police. We crossed the Tibetan border without visas at a time when China was denying visas. We never had permission from Nepali and Tibetan administrations to be in this region,” Gibel said.

Gibel and his group lived in Lapchi for two months, chopping firewood and carrying water every day. The altitude is 12,000 feet and Gibel said, “It can (make you sick) but if you’re in good shape, your body adapts to it.”

Gibel filmed daily, using a 12-watt solar panel to charge his camera battery.

He said, “You have to be on the spot, ready to be spontaneous. It was difficult to plan things; hard to know what to expect.”

He did interviews of the yogis with the help of a translator, and noted he also will need a translator in post-production to do subtitles for the interviews.

“For the most part, I lived like the yogis lived, adapting their lifestyle and practices so I could be an observer/participant to document it more intimately,” Gibel said.

“It was very arduous,” he continued. “I was not able to bathe for two months. Water had to be carried from a spring. You have to be conscious of how much energy you expend on a daily basis and you become aware of how much energy we expend in comparison, living a very conventional lifestyle. There are no amenities. It’s a very rural area. You have to adapt, and trying to make a serious documentary in those conditions required a lot of exertion and persistence.”

Gibel added, “It really helps you to have a sense of gratitude and appreciation for essential things we take for granted. It helped me to appreciate the value of a much simpler life these people live and the state of contentment and happiness they have. They live in conditions and face hardships that to us seem unimaginable, but they’re very content.”

Gibel left Lapchi in mid-May to return to Kathmandu, hobbling back on three broken toes that he broke on a glacier, picking wild medicinal herbs. They arrived in Katmandu about the time of Independence Day.

“The king was deposed and forced to leave the palace. They had their first national elections and the Maoist party won. There was a lot of celebration. There was also political violence every day,” Gibel said, who stayed in a monastery called Palden Phag Dru outside the city in a region called Swayambhunath.

Gibel returned to the United States July 3 and is now into post-production with plans to film interviews with Tibetan religious scholars. Gibel is doing this work in his spare time as he is working full time for Kingfish Worldwide in Uniontown.

While there is still much work ahead, Gibel is pleased with the project so far.

He said, “I’m really excited to be able to put something together that brings awareness of the plight of Tibetans living in exile and preserve the unique spiritual heritage of the forest mountain hermit and their unique place in our spiritual heritage.”

Gibel added, “In Western culture, they think of someone who lives as a recluse outside of civilization as undesirable. But in this tradition, they are considered to be most valuable members of society because of their spiritual devotion and discipline and the merit of their practice that they share with others out of compassion. The main teaching for Buddhist holy men everywhere is to develop and share compassion.”

For more information on the documentary, contact Gibel at

Updated 08/31/2008 08:53:40 AM EDT

©The Herald Standard 2008

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