Reviews of “The Buddha”

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.

4 thoughts on “Reviews of “The Buddha”

  1. I was one who was less than thrilled with “The Buddha.” As a long-time member of the converted, I am bored with these mythological stories that add nothing to anyone’s understanding of Buddha-dharma. The purpose of a documentary is not to inform? That’s a new one to me.

    I saw no “Miracle of Mindfulness” in this film, but mostly “The Mindnumbingness of Myth.” If you want mindfulness, check out the Dhamma Brothers, also on PBS. A far superior film.

    True, Buddhism has never been a proselytizing religion in the Western sense of that concept, but don’t fool yourself into believing that Buddhism has never tried to reach out to the “unconverted.” The director of this documentary had an opportunity to reach a wide audience, consisting of great numbers who know little about Buddhism or has misconceptions about it.

    One has only to look at the fact that there are vast number of Westerners who consider Buddhism to be something akin to witchcraft to understand the value of any effort to clear up these misconceptions.

    It does matter how this teaching came into being, because much of what has been handed to us as the history of Buddhism is, in many ways, false.

    Forgive this shameless plug, and you can edit it out if you want, but I discuss the PBS show and the real story of the Buddha on my blog at

  2. Thanks for your contribution David. I can see why some people don’t like it. And I have to agree about the (possibly unhelpful) bias on mythology – not exactly my cup of tea either.

    Perhaps it’s my lack of imagination – but I can think of so many more ways one could botch a “documentary” on The Buddha than I can think of ways to make this documentary better that I rest “content with little”.

    Looking forward to “Dharma Brothers” – looks very interesting.

  3. The NY Times reviewer didn’t himself label Buddhism “a “loosey-goosey religion that attracts Western space cadets.” In the review he says that those who think of Buddhism that way (and as we know, many do) will most likely not have their minds changed by this documentary.

    I enjoyed “The Buddha” but also agree with David above that I wish there were also more there that would add to one’s “understanding of Buddha-dharma.”

  4. I am relieved that not everyone bought the information as factual as it was not. Buddha, to my disappointment, did not willingly allow women as his disciples – his own step mother begged him to let her in an he resisted Then she went to one of his most trusted disciples and pleaded with him to talk to Buddha on her behalf. If he really attained enlightenment and understood the interrelationship between all sentient beings, then the addition of women to the sangha should not have been such a stretch that he had to be talked into it. And nuns did not have the same status as monks. I too have a problem with his leaving his wife and newborn baby behind.

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