A number of reviews have now been written about the recent PBS documentary “The Buddha” and I thought it worth while to devote a post to these comments.  (Note that the film can be viewed in its entirety from the PBS web site (if you are in the U.S.) or in 10-minute segments from YouTube if you are outside the U.S.  Then again, you can buy or rent it on iTunes.)

The New York Times weighed in with a somewhat cynical review that is typical of journalistic fare. The passage I found most saddening is:

… 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.

In other words, the documentary fails to convert the un-initiated and fails to inform the converted with anything new.  There have been other comments of that nature on “The Buddha” Facebook page: several commentator felt the film was preaching to the converted.

The assumption behind these comments, I think, is that the purpose and value of a documentary on a religious figure is to “inform” (as in “provide more data”) or to convince – as if there were no other modes of understanding.  But Buddhism, by and large, is not a proselytizing religion and I didn’t at all get the sense that filmmaker David Grubin was trying to do that.  My sense is that he was trying to convey something about what Thich Nhat Hahn calls “The Miracle of Mindfulness”.

Of course, the film does have “information content” at one level (dates, stories, interview, narratives etc.) but I thought it was the form– the images, music and mood of the film as well the manner of being and speaking of the interviewees – that conveyed much more of the spirit of the Buddha – his thirst for freedom, his awakening and his motivation to teach – than anything that was said. That the NY Times reviewer condescends by labeling Buddhism a “loosey-goosey religion that attracts Western space cadets” because they see miraculousness in the ordinary, is, at most, proof that Gruben didn’t entirely succeed in communicating the miracle of mindfulness to everyone.

A more subtle critique of the film came from Clark Strand’s blog post “How to be a Buddhist in America“:

I found its treatment of the life of Shakyamuni, historical founder of the world’s fourth largest religion, haphazard, impulsive, and at times visually disjointed. It seemed it couldn’t decide what kind of film it wanted to be or what aspect of the Buddha’s message it most wanted to convey. Likewise, with the exception of the Dalai Lama and Tibet activist/Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, the panel of experts seemed to have been assembled at random, without much thought given to recent scholarship or any sense of modern Buddhist culture.

One does indeed wonder about how the panelists were chosen given the abundant and stellar firmament of Buddhist scholars and practitioners of all stripes.  It is true that there seems to have been a preponderance of Tibetan Buddhists, but I expect that a lot more people were interviewed than made it into the film. It appears to me that the editing of what the talking heads said was for the primary purpose of explaining the narrative of the Buddha’s quest and realization.  And that, I thought, they all did quite admirably.

Strand’s qualms with the movie, it turns out, have more to do with how Buddhism is being assimilated in America.  And with that I have more sympathy, though not a lot of understanding.

I found “The Buddha” problematic precisely because, as an American Buddhist, I still find Buddhism problematic–profoundly problematic. Even as I practice and teach it, I live in conflict with it. What do we do with a religious founder born to privilege who names his son Rahula (literally, “fetter”), abandons his wife and newborn child, starves himself within inches of his life, and thereafter preaches almost exclusively to a celibate order of men and (after holding out against them for as long as he could) women–women who are required to follow twice as many monastic rules as the men and are subsequently regarded as a threat to male monastic authority and, yes, male monastic celibacy?

My reply would be – does it matter (much) how this teaching came into being? It was born of suffering, surely – loss of a mother as a baby, an over-protective father, not to mention the abandonment of his family.  Yes, of course there are several aspects of Buddhism – all religions for that matter – that are problematic, particularly in the way in which they have been assimilated into (problematic) cultures.  But why does one have to be in conflict with Buddhism because of it?  I guess I just don’t understand the need for one more thing to struggle about, particularly when these very teachings show the path to freedom from stuggle.

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