For those just tuning in, this month has seen celebrations of the birth of the Buddha, around the planet, during the full moon. (The largest full moon of this year.) But I’m hard pressed to name a single film about his life that’s a flat-footed favorite. And that’s okay too.
The Buddha’s primary teaching is how to free ourselves from the inherent I can’t get no satisfaction aspect of human life. So it’s apt that films about him all share in a certain residual disappointment.
If it’s a documentary, it becomes locked into a format that’s become as dull as a stuffed owl, mingling footage from Asia, some talking heads in the present, and maybe some animated narrative, like parallel train tracks that never quite converge.
Or, if it’s biopic, difficulties are endemic, built-in, to the genre. A biopic isn’t documentary, but the story is already fixed. In straddling fact and fiction, there’s a deeper problem a cinematic fiction has to resolve: how to show us a human being standing beside a living tree in the present moment, dressed in a period costume and convince us this is the past. Not some actors in costume, uttering scripted lines—but, rather, alive and genuine.
The story remains. A human being (Siddharta, Gotama, Shakyamuni—or you or me) can awaken (“budh” means awakening). So how to portray inward trasformation?
There, the story is about our own potential, as well. Indeed, one of the radical teachings of the Buddha is that what he did we could too, since the seeds of awakening are within us all.
After all, he’d said he’d never wanted images made of him. (For that matter, has anyone seen any portraits of Lao-tze?) So, after he’d gone beyond, utter nirvana, popular devotional impulse remained. At first, he was represented by a wheel. An empty chair. Footprints. Then, via the influence of Bactrian Grecian sculpture in Afghanistan/Pakistan, little by little, people started making images of him. Still, they’re only representations of an interior experience. The Buddha lives within.
Deepak Chopra tried delving into the inner life of the Buddha, in his recent novelization, which might still make it to the big screen. And Thich Nhat Hanh’s beloved retelling, Old Path White Clouds, likewise has a screenplay awaiting production. Plus, a few versions are afoot in India’s Bollywood.
Then too the whole story inevitably gets cropped. No matter however many salient, juicy incidents a film has to omit in the lead-up to the Great Awakening—still, I’ve another bone to chew with any film about the Buddha. Ending typically in, on, or around the Bo Tree feels to me like a comparison to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I mean, in fact, the Buddha went on to spend 45 years of life teaching, which gave rise to a whole slew of amazingly dramatic stories well worth mounting for the screen. The whole panorama could run beyond Abel Gance’s famous five-hour film Napoleon. What if it were done the way Louis Malle made Phantom India?—one-hour segments for TV, to be screened in theaters in sets.
Okay, for now, I’ll pick Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha (1994).
The scenes of the life of the Buddha are in fine visual contrast with a parallel story taking place in the present. How closely the two parallel lines do ultimately converge, towards the end, may take some close watching. But it’s a nice ride, seeing the contemporary search for meaning alongside the Buddha’s, as not separate.
What film(s) about the Buddha have you seen? Liked? Disliked?
Editor: Hayley Samuelson
Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot’s to Buddhism, third edition (Nautilus Book Award), and editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop(American Book Award). His work has also appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including American Cinematographer, The Atlantic,Buddhadharma, Harvard Divinity Review, Language for a New Century, The New Yorker, Technicians of the Sacred, Tricycle, and Yoga Journal. He facilitates mindfulness practice groups in the tradition of Ven Thich Nhat Hanh, and a zen creativity circle in San Francisco. He’s also acted, done voice-overs and is a popular speaker and panelist. Gary’s Homepage