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The Most Spiritually Affecting Buddhist Movies

By Simon Augustine, Green Cine, July 21, 2008

"A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it is real, so he escapes suffering. " - The Buddha

"The highest problem of any art is to cause by appearance the illusion of a higher reality." - Goethe

"The secret to film is that it's an illusion. " - George Lucas

Los Angeles, USA -- The dramatic portrayal of Buddhist lifestyles and spiritual truths is perhaps more  difficult to accomplish in an exciting way than depictions of Western religious practices and stories, because the Dharma is geared to inner transformation. And while enlightenment may be one of the most profound experiences a human being can undergo, it doesn't exactly translate easily into compelling cinema.

Christianity, on the other hand, with its bloody and wrenching crucifixion story, its miracles, and a traditionally greater emphasis on social action, lends itself more directly to the external world and the sensationalism upon which cinema thrives - witness the extensive pantheon of superb films about Christ and his message from Passolini's The Gospel According to Saint Matthew to The Mission. The stuff of cinema is often about what is excessive in human nature: big emotions, big explosions, blood, passion, and lots of fighting and screwing (it could be argued that Christology is in some ways about excess, too.)

Yet much of Buddhist practice is about the refrain from excess - it is, after all, called "the Middle Path" - that is, it consists of stepping back from the entanglements of emotional attachment and aggressive desire, and understanding how to free oneself from these things by being more mindful and aware of them. Its teachings attempt to make us more human by questioning our usual human reactions.

Does this mean there cannot be a viable and entertaining Buddhist cinema?

Fortunately, the answer is "no," because the struggle of disciplining the mind away from excess can make for a fascinating struggle in itself. There are many examples in which filmmakers have made the purposes and consequences of relatively "passive" activities like meditation and non-violence into powerful narratives, featuring a more internalized struggle -- let's call them "inner explosions."

And as Buddhism becomes more pronounced and practiced in America, and even evolves into new movements such as "engaged Buddhism," which expands more directly into the social action typical of Christianity, filmmakers from the West have more opportunities to explore the Dharma from fresh perspectives.

The following is a list of films, from both the East and the West, that comment in some way upon the teachings of the Buddha, and that are both explicitly about Buddhist subjects, or more subtly so. (Alas, the first two listed are not yet on DVD, but hope springs eternal that at least one of them shall be soon.)

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8. The Cup.

Talk about good credentials for authenticity! Written by Buddhist monk Khyentse Norbu, who is the director of several spiritual centers in India and elsewhere, it features a group of young Tibetan monks playing a young group of Tibetan monks in Dharamsala, India, the exiled community of the Dalai Lama. The Cup is a refreshing and delightful antidote to more reverent and cautious films about Buddhist monastic life. In their daily life at the monastery, despite their relatively austere setting, and the gravity of their religious responsibility, we see that the monks are also regular boys - squirming with impatience during meditation, being playful, and acting rebellious. They are also obsessed with soccer. One of them, Orygen (Jamyang Lodro, whose father is an eminent Buddhist philosopher, and also in the film) is determined to watch the World Cup between France and Italy. After being caught trying to sneak out to see it with two friends, the abbot decides to allow him to bring the World Cup to the monastery by renting a television set from a local village.

The monks watch the action excited and enthralled, and there is a funny and memorable scene in which they try frantically try to get reception by struggling with a roof antenna. The Cup is about important subjects like the effects of globalization on ancient traditions, but it is also lighthearted and fun. The juxtaposition of devout religious practice with more seemingly mundane activities like watching sports is endearing, and actually constitutes a valuable lesson about not taking ourselves too seriously even in the midst of serious spiritual endeavors.

7. The Dhamma Brothers. (Not yet available on DVD.)

This recently released documentary ably demonstrates the transformative efficacy of meditation on even the most unlikely candidates. Two teachers of Vipassana, known in America as "insight meditation," teach a nine-day retreat at an Alabama maximum security prison renowned for its harshness and violence. The teachers actually move into the prison, living and sleeping there. They inform the prisoners that the retreat, in which strict silence is required, will be more rigorous and disciplined than their regular schedule. The results are pretty miraculous. The participants find emotional wellsprings opening up, and their descriptions of the experience of intense meditation are extremely moving. Many of these men, who have committed crimes like murder and rape, will never see the outside again, and so the only prison they have a chance to escape is the one the mind creates. They even win over the skeptical guards (one says he has not heard this much silence "since kindergarten"!). With success comes controversy, as the Bible Belt southerners react against the "witchcraft" of the Buddhist converts. With Buddhism take increasing root in America, hopefully we will see more movies like this one about the practical application of a Western brand of the Dharma.

6. Peaceful Warrior.

Upon its release, many critics dismissed this as a New Age trifle, but unfortunately they weren't listening and watching closely enough. Take from Dan Millman's incredibly popular book The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, the film tells the semi-autobiographical story of a talented and driven college gymnast (Scott Mechlowicz) who is in a horrific car accident and realizes he may never compete again. Forced to re-evaluate the way he lives, he turns for help to an unusual and mysterious spiritual mentor he calls Socrates (Nick Nolte), whom he met in a gas station. This kind of crisis, in which one must re-examine one's purpose, is familiar to most; however, the kind of advice and wisdom dolled out by Socrates is less conventional and actually quite worthwhile. There are some silly scenes, such as when the mentor does a parlor trick and seemingly teleports himself to the roof of the garage. But what Dan learns - deep acceptance of the changes we cannot control, and equanimity when faced with difficult realities - are authentic lessons, not flaky hokum, and will hold up to the scrutiny of anyone who knows the basics of Zen Buddhism. The teachings mostly center around the complex difficulties involved in doing the most simple thing - being in the present moment.

It is not especially sophisticated stuff, but is philosophically consistent throughout and can serve as an inspiring introduction to Eastern types of thinking. Nolte, always an underrated actor, does a terrific, understated job with a role that could have descended into parody in lesser hands. Three great scenes to watch for: Socrates takes a cue from Jesus when faced with a couple of hoodlums, and surprises the hell out of his apprentice; Socrates throws a screaming Dan into a river, and then tells him his name for the experience is "Yaaaaaaaaaaah!"; and Dan sits on the hood of his car for hours literally waiting for some insight, any insight, to arrive.

5. Wheel of Time.

Thousands of faithful Buddhists and spiritual pilgrims flood from the Himalayas into Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment, to hear the Dalai Lama speak at a bi-annual ceremony in which Tibetan monks will be initiated into the fold. Werner Herzog, who has created some amazing documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Little Dieter Needs to Fly, here turns his considerable skills to the extended Tibetan Buddhist community. We hear Herzog's signature hypnotic voiceovers, equal parts quiet contemplation and determined curiosity, as we watch followers arrive, meditate, and pray while awaiting the Dalai Lama's appearance. Herzog is particularly fascinated with an intricate mandala being built for the occasion, known as the "wheel of time;" but despite some attempts he doesn't really create any penetrating insights or explicate the philosophical concepts at work with the mandala or elsewhere. Instead, moving the camera intimately among the throngs of followers, Herzog communicates the physical and emotional textures of quiet and powerful devotion. This is enough.

The level of commitment and perseverance will strike Western viewers; one remarkable sequence portrays a man who has traveled three years, ritually prostrating himself across thousands of miles, to be at Bodh Gaya. When the Dalai Lama ultimately cannot appear because of illness, the moment is heartbreaking, but the crowd's patient reaction makes them all the more impressive.

4. Revenge of the Sith.

Yes, no kidding! Buddhist imagery, especially of the Zen variety, has always been an important philosophical and aesthetic element of George Lucas's two Star Wars trilogies. The Force is a rough mix of Taoism (which influenced Zen) and Christian mysticism, and Yoda is really a loving and somewhat tongue-in-cheek Muppet (and later CGI) tribute to our popular images of the wizened Zen master. The advice Yoda dispenses to Luke Skywalker during his Jedi training, along with his bemused and curmudgeonly attitude toward him, resonate with those familiar with Zen stories and techniques. There are several notable Buddhistic moments in the series, as when, in Phantom Menace, Jedi knight Qui-Gon Jinn (whose name is a play on Qi-Gong, an Eastern movement practice much like Tai-Chi) calmly sits in a meditative posture in order to prepare to face the villian Darth Maul with his light saber. But it is only in the very last chapter (to be released) that Buddhist thinking becomes explicit. After two lumbering prequels, Lucas returns to form with an effective, tightly structured end to his saga.

We find out that the story of how Annakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader turns out to be a Buddhist lesson in space-opera garb: unable to accept the inevitability of his wife's death, Annakin adopts the evil ways of the dark side of the Force in hopes of using his Sith powers to prevent it. He thus embodies the dangers of attachment (an essential Buddhist concept), and the folly of trying to avoid the natural course of suffering. Annakin wants to find a route around the Buddha's First Noble Truth - "life is suffering," and a tragic perversion of his personality results. Ironically, his inability to accept the inherent loss and change of life leads Annakin to a worse form of suffering - that is, delusion. As Yoda says, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering."

3. Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Come From The East?

This Korean film is a different kind of movie-going experience - one not so much about receiving entertainment, or losing oneself in a story, but of setting the mind in a contemplative mood. It is about a dying old master, his middle-aged student, and a young boy all living and interacting at a tranquil, pastoral monastery. Because the film is so quiet, and proceeds with such a slow, deliberate rhythm, it serves as a kind of template against which the mind of the viewer can bounce and play and work. Ironically, because of its relaxed pacing, it demands a more active, vigilant audience - one willing to participate productively with not only the film but with their own buzzing mind that will inevitably fill in the long silences.

In this respect, it is similar to the recent documentary Into Great Silence, which takes place inside a French Carthusian monastery and, at over three hours long, contains barely any dialogue. In that film we watch the incredibly disciplined monks, who live in almost complete silence for most of their lives, go about their daily activities. On the face of it, the things we see them do are incredibly simple and mundane, but because the spiritual basis underlying them is always present and represents such an awe-inspiring religious commitment, the effect can be hypnotic. Most likely, with a film of this sort, a viewer will either be intellectually energized or fall asleep (which my mother did in the theatre several times; I kept nudging her.)

The same dynamic is at work in Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Come From East? In both films we see basic tasks - cutting wood, pouring tea, sowing - transformed into opportunities for being more absorbed in the present (as the saying goes, before enlightenment: "chop wood, carry water;" after enlightenment: "chop wood, carry water"). Bodhi-Dharma uses the method of dropping a nugget of wisdom and then following it with ample silence; it offers a provocation - such as when the master tells both his student and the boy, talking about the dangers of the outside world, that the human heart is misguided because it is "too filled with the idea of self" - and then invites us to chew over the words as we watch the characters absorb it themselves. In this sense, the film replicates (not duplicates) a kind of meditative experience. It also affords us a chance to see the Buddhist mind struggling for insight at three stages of growth, and how these stages "talk" to each other.

2. The Thin Red Line.

Terrence Malick's triumphant return to filmmaking is not explicitly about Buddhism, but in both its quietly observant tone and its subject matter, it is very relevant to core Buddhist ideas. Ostensibly about the invasion of Guadalcanal by American soldiers during World War II, the film is really a spiritual meditation (pun intended) on the forces of cruelty and peace, and on the possibility of transcending violence through the power of mind and sacrificial action. Many characters, played by many famous actors, move in and out of the scenes, representing various stages of moral evolution, but the main conflict guiding the narrative is between Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Sergeant Welsh (Sean Penn). The idealistic Witt is always trying to escape his duties for the tranquility he finds living with the natives, while the cynical Welsh is constantly dragging him back and reprimanding him.

But Witt feels the mystical impingement of a bolder duty than even the military affords, and signals his superior toward it. The crucial exchange between the two comes when Walsh tells him, "In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain't no world...but this one." Witt replies, "You're wrong. I've seen another world." He then comes to show, in Buddhist fashion, that the "other world" may not be another place but simply a different state of mind.

Towards the end of the story, he follows through on his spiritual vision with selfless action, when he saves his fellow soldiers' lives by letting himself be taken by the enemy. Throughout, Witt has an almost unnerving air of calm detachment and compassion that is one of the hallmarks of the Zen adept. He moves through the battle scenes as if one foot is already in the 'other world." Eventually, his altruistic death comes to move and change (in the deepest sense of the word) the mind of Welsh.

The character of Witt could definitely be considered a Christ-like figure, but he is also similar to a Bodhisattva, the Buddhist practitioner (and mythical figure) who delays his or her own enlightenment to help save all beings. Malick mirrors the state of Witt's mind with hypnotizing camera work that lingers and absorbs the scenes of nature, and also the scenes of battle, with an intelligence and purposefulness that will create a spiritual, watchful attitude in the viewer. The director is famous for this kind of thing, and he is only one of a handful of filmmakers (Kubrick, or Fellini in the last lyrical scenes of Amacord, or P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood come to mind) that has the uncanny ability to build atmospheres, full of tension, that heighten our senses and that are as palpable as any character.

1. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring.

In the small canon of specifically Buddhist films, Korean director Kim Ki-duk's is the first bonafide masterpiece. It tells the story of a master and apprentice who live on a secluded monastery floating in the middle of a lake. The master teaches the young boy lessons about cruelty and empathy, and awareness of other beings (tying a rock to his leg just as the boy has done to a helpless frog). Although portraying a monk's practice, Ki-duk suffers from none of the pious awe or idealization demonstrated by Western filmmakers like Martin Scorsese (who tackled the Dalai Lama in Kundun) or Bernardo Bertolucci (who missed an opportunity with Little Buddha). As he grows up, the apprentice eventually faces the most brutal challenges life can offer, and the director does not shy away from frankly engaging them. Knowledge of his budding sexuality comes to the monastery in the form of a young woman, and once he leaves the monastery for the outer world, he commits a sordid act of violence. Yet the most sophisticated form of a Buddhist life is not about naiive purity, or avoiding emotional extremes or temptations, but about penetrating more comprehensively into their psychological nature.

There is some "kiss, kiss, bang, bang*" here, although it takes place in a larger context of the reaching for transcendent understanding of one's own nature. Ki-duk, who has made films of harrowing violence and stark sexuality (such as in The Isle), in this film aptly takes his dexterity with extreme subjects and effectively applies them to hard-won spiritual lessons. The results are spectacular.

When the apprentice returns to the monastery a struggle for redemption and insight begins, portrayed in all its existential difficulty with harrowing and ingenious images. In the climactic scenes, the apprentice enacts a ritual exemplifying the wisdom he has gained, pulling a heavy stone seemingly for miles up a mountain in a grueling ordeal. Reaching the apex, he drops the literal and metaphoric weight and then meditates gloriously atop the mountain. The sequence is one of the most amazing and profound cinematic symbols of Buddhist spiritual practice.

Honorable Mention:

Samsara (for showing the difficult relationship between romantic love and the search for enlightenment; n/a on DVD);

Siddhartha (for its cinematography);

How to Cook Your Life for Zen in the kitchen;

Kundun (for its loving portrait of the Dalai Lama from a man usually obsessed with Christian hypocrisy and violence);

The Matrix (for its extended metaphor that addresses parallels between the concept of samsara, the internet, and "virtual reality");

I Heart Huckabees (for its comedic take on identity and the unforgettable line "What happens in the meadow at dusk?!");

American Beauty (for it's questioning of consumer culture, its "bag floating on the wind" scene, and the last lines by Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey): "...there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life... You have no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sure. But don't worry... you will someday.");

Tommy (for its somewhat muddled but powerful commentary on the nature of sensory information and its relationship to spiritual insight through the story of a "deaf, dumb, and blind boy");

and Fight Club (for illuminating the strange and complicated parallels between Buddhism, nihilism, and fascism that arise in the project of deconstructing the Self).



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