Some Buddhist Movies (A List of Six)

My mother, who loved poetry & the poetic, would have loved reading to me when I was a little boy, but I was bored by verse & wanted her to read books about fire engines & other machinery. When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, I burst into tears, terrified. And though I went on to write poems, I am still wary of stories, preferring accounts. Over the last eight weeks I’ve been spending a lot of time on a fold-out bed with a wide screen TV on the wall opposite. I had not turned it on for many months prior to my illness, but given the flat stretches of time adding up afternoon after afternoon, I began looking for movies to watch. But I don’t really like movies. I wound up scrolling through Amazon’s documentary offerings–full-length films as well as TV series. I filled several afternoons with shows about archeology. Most of the things I could find about Asia, Buddhism, or religion in general were awful. Junk New Age “spirituality” of a very low order. But there are some lovely exceptions, listed below.

  1. Journey with Robert Thurman in Bhutan: Did you know that Uma Thurman’s father is a big-time Buddhist teacher in the Tibetan tradition? I didn’t, until my friend J. who is a movie buff, told me. This is an hour-long travelogue that manages to fit in three or four major dharma talks by Thurman without seeming the least bit top-heavy. Thurman is, in the West, a Buddhist conservative. He maintains a strong, even combative, commitment to traditional doctrines such as reincarnation. I don’t always agree with him, but I have immense respect for him–& as time goes on, I find his doctrinal conservatism less & less of an issue. Visually, the film–just under an hour long–feels old-fashioned. The presentation is unified despite moving back & forth between straight travel film & the sections in which everyone sits down & Thurman teaches.2.
  2. The Zen Mind: This is a travelogue, too, though not in such an obvious way as the Thurman film. The filmmakers go to a number of Japanese monasteries and talk to Zen teachers. The discursive sections help explain things unfamiliar to Westerners without being intrusive. I was going to say that the film is more about Zen Practice than Zen Mind, but of course they are the same thing. The cinematography is effective, the structure a simple narrative.
  3. Zen Buddhism: In Search of Self. This film is pictorially gorgeous. It follows a group of Korean Zen nuns as they go to a remote mountain monastery for a 90 day retreat. The film provides subtitle translations of what the participants say, but almost no explanations or descriptions. What struck me is that the nuns perform many of the same rituals and behaviors that I am familiar with from my American monastery. They also play games during breaks that, without explanation, will mystify a Western viewer. The prize for the three winners in one of these games is that all they other players must give them three formal bows–a lesson in the reciprocity of winning & losing, but also a subtle critique of Zen’s penchant for hierarchy: usually we bow this way only to our teachers, but the winners receiving the bows are just part of the community, their status contingent & temporary. The film’s subtitle, “In Search of Mind,” seems misleading, since what these women are presumably in search of is no-mind.
  4. Talking with Buddha: This film depicts how Tibetan Buddhism is surviving in its Indian sanctuary. The opening sequence is really slow, but there is a lot of good photography and talks with monks and one brilliant Western nun. Filled me with hope and joy.
  5. Zen: This biopic of Dogen Zenji the 13th century Master & founder of Soto Zen was not new to me. I watched it first a couple of years ago. It also breaks from the first four movies in my list by being dramatic, not documentary, though what it documents is drawn from what we know of Dogen’s life. The film seemed more contrived to me on this watching, more didactic than I had remembered. Not surprisingly, I liked the commentary from Buddhist teachers & the filmmaker included on the DVD.
  6. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring: I haven’t watched this one yet. Another dramatic film, it comes very highly recommended. I expect to watch it sometime over the next couple of days.

Buffalo Boy (Ma Len Tru)

Watched Nguyn V Nghim-Minh’s Buffalo Boy the other night to see if I wanted to use it for myUnderstandingVietnam course next term. I’ve added a one-a-week evening film viewing to the course this time around & I’m still setting on the final list of films I’ll be showing. I’lldefinitelybe showing this film. One gets a panoramic view of the landscape of the southern-most parts of Vietnam; set in Ca Mau, there isn’t a frame in the film that doesn’t include water. Beyond the portrayal of landscape — important for my students, most of whom have grown up in the northeast United States — the film dramatizes the lives of people who live on the very margins of the socio-economic margin in 1940s Vietnam.

Based on a story by Son Nam, the film looks at the lives of young men whose parents, landless peasants, barely eke out a living as share croppers on large tracts of rice land, using their buffaloes to cultivate the paddies. The buffalo is the most valuable thing that the peasants own & the death of an animal is adisastrous event — literally a matter of life & death — for a family. During the rainy season when the floods come even the poorest peasant must hire buffalo herders to take the animals to pasture. Kim, the hero of the story, is the son of such a poor family & he refuses to go to work as a laborer for a landowner, so he takes the family’s two buffaloes himself when the floods come, one of the animal dying of starvation during the journey. The death of the animal marks the beginning of the disintegration of Kim’s family & the rest of the film chronicles his life after he joins up with the Lap, the leader of the largest “gang” of herders.

The depiction of the life of these herders is remarkably like the wild west, with drinking, dope-smoking, fighting, murder, & rape. The one thing the herders have is a kind of freedom — they are not farm laborers working for someone else. The plot of the film works out Kim’s coming of age & his coming to a kind of understanding. Throughout everything, the buffalo stands as a symbol of mute persistence in the face of nearly impossible adversity. The critique of French colonial economics is subtle, but clearly present in the story. It is not an accident that a French patrol walks past without concern while Kim is burying the remains of the family’s buffalo. Throughout, the hardness of the peasant’s life is set against breathtaking beauty and the characters are presented sympathetically but withoutanyhintofoverwroughtromanticism.

In looking around just now for commentary on the film, I discovered this post on the All In One Boat blog, which gives a fuller account of the story. The blog itself looks interesting as well, dealing with the environment, poetry, religion & all sorts of things I’m interested in — I’ll certainly look in again from time to time. And here is the NY Times review of Buffalo Boy.