List: The Most Spiritually Affecting Buddhist Movies

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By Simon Augustine

"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

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.)


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.

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