The Greatest Buddhist Movie Ever Made!!
by Tom Armstrong
One thing that Shakyamuni Buddha, David Letterman and I all have in common is that we like lists. Our lists are different, certainly: Letterman's Top Ten lists are comical; Buddha's are not comical; and most of the ones I like are nonsensical. In this fractious season of Oscar competition, I view movies with nominations and rate and rank (and rant and rave about) films and performances, trying to decide which are best, and it what order, even though these are impossible comparisons. It is as foolish as trying to decide which (for all time) is better: the Fuji Apple, the Valentia Orange, or the Anjou Pear? [Ans: Pear] or, which noirish movie is the most fun to see a second time: "Out of the Past", "L A Confidential", or "Body Heat"? [Ans: "Out of the Past"]
To the question "What is the greatest Buddhist movie ever made?" there don't seem to be a great many possibilities. "The Burmese Harp" and "Why Did the Bodhi-dharma Go to the East?" are art-house movies that are brilliant and are very directly about the lure of Buddhism. Both, too, are heavily symbolic and are best viewed by a knowing audience of Buddhists. "Why Did the Bodhi-dharma Go to the East?" is particularly difficult for someone not versed in the symbols of Zen, since, while it is a beautiful film [Named by Photoplay magazine as one of the all-time ten best achievements of cinematography] it has very little in the way of a plot and can seem tedious.
Old Hollywood movies that have a Buddhist connection are "Lost Horizons" and "The Razor's Edge." In each there is suffering followed by a special experience in the Himalayas (a euphemism for Tibet). In each, while we appreciate the characters' transformations, the experience for the viewer is external. We may well imagine ourselves in the characters' situation, but it is hard to know how the experience affected them. Yes, Shangri-la is spiffy, but can a person bring Shangri-la back home?
As you all are probably aware, there have been two recent big-budget Hollywood movies about the Dalai Lama's youth. "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet" are both wonderful films and reveal a lot about Tibetan culture, but they are essentially biographies. The events are wrenching and our sympathies are with the Tibetan people, but it is a leap for any of us to identify with the Dalai Lama--who is majestical, and treated as a prince. Another film of recent vintage is "The Little Buddha." Here, in one of two story lines, Siddhartha's story is told. Perhaps it says more about me than the movie, but when the miraculous events in Siddhartha's life are shown with the literalness that cinema demands, the Buddha seems more like a celluloid comicbook superhero than an actual person who lived, experienced and taught.
All of the films I have mentioned are excellent. Writing what I have about them makes me want to jog over to Blockbuster and rent the lot of them right now!! But a really, really real Buddhist movie isn't about Buddhism in the way that ichthyology is about fishes. I want a Buddhist movie that can be the fish! I want to
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