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Illuminating Prince’s Path That Led to Enlightenment

By MIKE HALE, The New York Times, April 6, 2010

New York, USA -- David Grubin, a prolific maker of television documentaries, specializes in profiles of American presidents and other prominent Westerners: Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman, Napoleon, Freud. For his latest PBS project, making its debut on Wednesday night, he has headed East, offering a two-hour introduction to an Asian with a large Western fan base.

“The Buddha,” in keeping with its unadorned title, is a simple, straightforward introduction to the life and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama. Written and directed by Mr. Grubin, it’s broken into roughly equal parts covering the Prince Siddhartha story — decadence, despair and deprivation leading to enlightenment under a fig tree — and the subsequent history and precepts of Buddhism.

The cast of talking heads includes, on the one hand, the Dalai Lama (projecting irascibility) and several other Buddhist monks, and, on the other, a larger and more prominently featured group of Western writers and scholars. Among them are the poets W. S. Merwin (compelling) and Jane Hirshfield (oddly intense) and the ubiquitous Columbia scholar and father of Uma, Robert Thurman.

The experts are often upstaged by the simple, slightly druggy animations used to tell the Siddhartha story and to illustrate concepts like the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. Sometimes these explications, like a passage about the three poisons that cause human suffering, can run on a bit long, as if the two hours proved more difficult to fill than Mr. Grubin had foreseen.

We also get a lot of pretty footage of the Indian countryside and various Buddhist pilgrimage spots, as well as Buddhist art. Little if any of the art is identified or explained, reflecting a larger tendency not to put what we’re seeing or hearing in a specific context. And it’s never clear whether the narrator, Richard Gere, is reading Mr. Grubin’s words or excerpts from an unnamed Buddhist text.

This can lead, despite the erudition of everyone involved, to a slight “Buddhism for Dummies” feeling — it seems unlikely that anyone who has even a slight acquaintance with the Buddha and his teachings will learn much here. And those already inclined to see Buddhism as a loosey-goosey religion that attracts Western space cadets probably won’t have their minds changed by “When this is, that is,” and Ms. Hirshfield’s wide-eyed statement on the miraculousness of drinking coffee from a mug.

For the sympathetic and uninitiated, though, “The Buddha” should prove a diverting couple of hours, whether they see the man’s legacy in terms of philosophy and ethics or in terms of lifestyle, aesthetics and exotic tourism.


On PBS stations on Wednesday night (check local listings).

Written and directed by David Grubin; Mr. Grubin, producer; Anna Bowers, associate producer; Deborah Peretz, editor; James Callanan, cinematography; Michael Bacon, composer; Asterisk Animation, animation; Richard Gere, narrator. Produced by David Grubin Productions.

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