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Buddhism in Film

Summary and Keywords

Film serves as one of the most recent contributions to the variety of Buddhist visual forms that can offer a perspectival shift in interpretation for its viewers akin to other meditative devices such as mandalas. As a relatively recent subject of study, Buddhist films present innovative opportunities to visualize the Buddha, Buddhism, and the self in nuanced ways. Buddhist film can be understood as a spiritual technology that reshapes vision, and the act of viewing becomes a ritual process and contemplative practice. Ranging from films with an explicitly Buddhist theme and content to more abstract films without obvious Buddhist references, Buddhist films have become the subject of scholarly studies of Buddhism as well as occasions to reimagine Buddhism on and off screen. Buddhist films found in Asia and the West have proliferated globally through the rise of international Buddhist film festivals over the past fifteen years that have increased both the interest in Buddhism and the field of Buddhism and film itself. Most studies of Buddhism in film indicate that what constitutes a Buddhist film continually evolves and, as such, can be seen as a contemporary instantiation of the skillful means of the Buddha.

Keywords: film, race, gender, Asian film, Western film, visualization, meditation, emptiness, Orientalism, culture

Over 2,600 years ago, the Buddha encouraged his disciples to explore and experience the dharma with his famed phrase, “ehi passika,” or “come and see” for themselves in order to dispel doubt. The Buddha’s invitation and exhortation to come and see demonstrate one of the central Buddhist teachings that in order to understand the dharma, one must first come and explore, engage, and see it.1 It is this emphasis on seeing that plays such a central role in the study of Buddhism and film, for it is through the act of viewing that audience members can develop nuanced understandings of self and other, emptiness, and interdependence. Viewing and seeing into the nature of reality through film are potent ritual activities that give rise to experiential insight. Seeing into the dharma and seeing the world through the dharma have become the cornerstone of what might be called Buddhist ways of looking.

Throughout the Buddhist sutras, references to visualizing the Buddha, various opulent Buddha lands, and seeing oneself as the Buddha abound, for the enlightened gaze allows one to see the origin of suffering, its causes, the ability to free oneself from suffering, and the specific prescription to do so. As primary forms of practice and focus in Buddhist traditions, the gaze and act of seeing are both a physical act and a transformative experience, for by gazing upon the Buddha, visualizing Buddha lands, and imaging oneself as a Buddha, one hones and re-creates how one sees reality.2 In so doing, seeing becomes a central Buddhist activity and a distinctly embodied activity precisely because it involves the senses and sense organs. Perspectival shift arises from the act of gazing upon the Buddha through form, which then gives rise to seeing beyond form; in this way, looking also encompasses seeing no-thing in everything and everything in no-thing, or that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.3 In the Heart Sutra, one of the shortest of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara observes all phenomena as empty of inherent independent existence, and uses his dharmic vision to see beyond form. As modern-day meditational devices, Buddhist films can provide a vision of the dharma and hone our dharmic vision; therefore, film viewing can undoubtedly be approached as a central Buddhist practice.

Over the past quarter century, scholars of Buddhism have shifted their own scholarly gaze upon a new field of study—Buddhism and film because both fields pay significant attention to the religious concept of gaze as opportune occasions for new ways of looking and being looked at. Given the import of the gaze and seeing in Buddhist practice and film spectatorship, the conjoining of Buddhism and film as a field of study seems a natural and generative fit. If Buddhist ways of looking are a sensory and embodied experience, then it certainly lends itself to the study of film as a sensory and bodily experience as the spectator can utilize all the sense organs while gazing upon a screen in a theater. The eyes see the screen and others in the theater; the ears receive cues from the screen through score and dialogue; the nose too is engaged as the ubiquitous scents of food and drink waft through the theater space making contact with the olfactory system. The mouth tastes as it takes in the fountain drinks, the tongue touches the often overly buttery salted snacks on sale in the concession, and the skin of the body makes contact with the theater seat and shifts hither and thither in its attempts to navigate a clear view amongst a sea of audience members. Additionally, the mind constantly processes and engages in the act of perpetual thinking in response to all the external and internal stimuli. Watching a film is an embodied ritualized activity much like Buddhist meditation, which too is an entirely embodied experience. Studies of Buddhism and film suggest that the spectator and the meditator are not so different, for it is in the sitting and the seeing that one gains dharmic insight. Film viewing and Buddhist ritual activities are really not such distant family members: they are closer kin than perhaps previously construed given their family resemblances.

As a relatively new area of study, beginning with the first course offered by Robert Scharf in 2005 entitled “Seeing Through the Screen: Buddhism and Film” (through the UC Berkeley Center for Buddhist Studies) and the establishment of the International Buddhism Film Festival series through the Buddhist Film Foundation in 2003, the subject of Buddhism and film has produced several standalone essays and volumes that address two primary topics: 1) the application of Buddhist themes and philosophical concepts to read and interpret a non-Buddhist film and 2) the analysis of film to understand something about Buddhist ways of looking and attaining dharmic insight. In her essay “Ethics of Inscrutability: Ontologies of Emptiness in Buddhist film,” Lina Verchery cautions against the unintended consequences of these two approaches—essentialism and reductionism in creating criteria about what Buddhism is and taking depictions of Buddhism as unquestioned actual reflections and representations of some real phenomenon known as Buddhism.4 The latter rests upon a utilitarian pedagogical approach to film where the film acts as an almost ethnographic glimpse into Buddhism. Thus, film becomes a function to support a particular definition of what Buddhism itself is. Verchery argues for an alternative to these dominant modes of scholarship on Buddhism and film and focuses instead on the ontologies of emptiness found in Buddhist films where the film alludes to what is not there, what is conspicuously absent from the screen, and therefore explicitly present. Verchery aims to draw ontologies of emptiness in film into dialogue with Buddhist concepts of emptiness or sunyata to reveal the consequence of relying solely on the two approaches above, that is, totalizing and utilitarian knowledge.5 Understanding and interpreting Buddhist films as ontologies of emptiness can propel us to recognize that unintelligibility and unreliability of our relative viewpoints are in fact hallmarks of Buddhist ways of seeing and knowing.6

The growing number of studies of Buddhism and film ought to give us pause to consider the medium’s potential as a new expression of a familiar Buddhist medium—from sutra to sculpture to thangka and mandala and, finally, to film whose form literally embodies emptiness and expresses the illusory nature of reality as a seamless whole and focus upon which to settle the eyes and transform one’s vision. If film can be a ritual implement like a sculpture or a mandala that can proffer new ways to visualize the self and other, then certainly one can make the case that the form itself belongs in the vast collection of ritual implements in the Buddhist world. But how can Buddhist films make us see the dharma and give rise to new ways of looking at self and other? Does a film have to be “Buddhist” in some particularly recognizable and knowable way for dharmic insight, or can any film be used as an example of skillful means and a dharma door to liberation so long as the insight derived from viewing it is dharmic in nature?

There are several skillful tools derived from studies of Buddhism and film that support the argument that indeed a film can elicit dharmic ways of looking. To date, scholars of Buddhism and film have contributed to a growing number of accepted criteria for establishing what makes a Buddhist film while keeping in mind the inherently essentialist effects of this endeavor. Some of the important questions to consider involve examining what makes a Buddhist film Buddhist and what are its primary characteristics. Establishing kinds of questions like the aforementioned are themselves implicated in a process of genre-making which involves methods for inclusion and exclusion, which according to the Buddha can be an inherently flawed approach according to Buddhist non-dualism. The establishment of criteria that define and constitute a Buddhist film lends itself to a multiplicity of interpretations among scholars who are simultaneously involved in naming and constructing a genre and defining a new field of study. Understanding the various methods and approaches to defining what makes a Buddhist film Buddhist enables one to “see” how Buddhist films are themselves instantiations of the multiplicity of interpretations that are central to Buddhist ways of looking.

If Buddhist films are invitations to come and see, they are also opportunities to examine how looking and seeing are expressions of relative truths that point toward ultimate truth and an ontological emptiness that can be gleaned only through form and conventional or relative truth. Each interpretation of a Buddhist film serves as a particularistic perspective that when drawn together become illustrative examples of a central Buddhism—perspectival awareness or the recognition that interpretation is more about the seer than the seen.

What Makes a Buddhist Film Buddhist?

John Whalen-Bridge’s comprehensive essay “What Is a ‘Buddhist Film’?” offers an excellent entrée into the study of Buddhism and film by establishing some preliminary criteria to elucidate what is meant by this emerging category in Buddhist studies.7 His method begins by examining films selected for international Buddhist festivals over the past fifteen years that provide opportunities to witness what Wilfred Cantwell Smith considered the “observables” of religion such as rituals and sacred texts in distinction to the more murky concept of faith.8 Whalen-Bridge distinguishes between “overt” Buddhist films and “draftee” films or those that might not have intentionally expressed Buddhist themes but nonetheless serve as potent sources of living, thinking, and seeing in a Buddhist manner. Here, intentionality of the director, screenwriter, and so on are of little concern. Rather the film is taken on its own as a meditative piece that can give insight into the nature of the dharma or express a particularly Buddhist perspective. Whalen-Bridge notes that this process of interpreting a non-intentionally Buddhist film qua Buddhist film makes the religion itself more palatable and less exotic to non-Buddhist spectators. One might conjecture then that a Buddhist-themed non-Buddhist film might well be a perfect way to learn how to be a Buddhist.

Whalen-Bridge notes that images of the Buddha, Buddhism, and Buddhist peoples have been on screen outside of Asia since before WWII but that it was not until 1989 that Buddhism became an object of filmic adulation with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama. The decade following the Dalai Lama’s award ushered in what he designates a “cinematic Buddha Boom,” with the release of three films depicting aspects of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama such as Little Buddha (1994), Kundun (1997), and Seven Years in Tibet (1997).9 All three films address the concept of reincarnation of lamas, the Dalai Lama and the plight of the Tibetans, and the “difference” that has come to define Tibetan Buddhist otherness. These films became significant entry points or gateway films for awakening American fascination with all things Tibetan Buddhist, although as Donald S. Lopez argues in Prisoners of Shangri-La, Western fascination with Tibetan Buddhism emerged out of the mutually influencing contexts of Orientalism and colonialism, which led to the later exoticization of Tibetan Buddhism.10 Orientalism rendered Tibetan Buddhists as timeless captives of some more spiritual and idealized past that locked them in sacred timelessness in contradistinction to Western notions of progress and the profane world. Thus, Westerners were compelled to cast themselves as the beneficent saviors of the last few vestiges of all that was sacred in the world with Tibetans serving as the new remaining holdovers from an ever-dwindling sacred landscape.

Whalen-Bridge also points out that any attempt to define what a Buddhist film is “must consider the ‘Buddhist film’ in relation to film festival screenings partly because no one really knows what a Buddhist film is.”11 Therefore, if we want to determine what makes a Buddhist film Buddhist, then the criteria established for entry into Buddhist film festivals makes logical sense. An analysis of films collected at twenty-five international Buddhist film festivals from 2003 to 2011 indicates two major thematic differences between the selections—some of the films “foreground imagery, characters, and themes associated with Buddhism” presented alongside those that “are associated with the religion in a more abstract way or which would not be considered outside the context of a Buddhist film festival.”12 These “draftee” films act as veritable tugboats in that they helped usher in or assimilate Buddhist messages to largely non-Buddhist audiences. Films screened at festivals include those made in Buddhist countries where Buddhism was widely recognized as a religion that its viewers are familiar with yet screened for the unfamiliar spectator alongside other more “intelligible” films made in the West that may or may not explicitly address Buddhist themes for general audiences. In addition to the differences between Asian and Western Buddhist film, films screened on the festival circuit are either intentionally Buddhist themed and ones whose Buddhism may be more obscure and/or “thematically conducive to Buddhist allegorization.”13 Taking a familiar film in the West and providing a Buddhist reading of it renders the Buddhist tradition more knowable in this schema, which Whalen-Bridge contends helps render Asian cultures and religions less peculiar and, by extension, perhaps more palatable and consumable.

If the “thematically conducive to Buddhist allegorization” film helps make Asian religions and cultures more knowable, then, by extension, it follows that the religion and culture rendered intelligible in film has undergone a kind of domestication as well. The theme of Asian domestication is well documented in D. W. Griffith’s 1919 Broken Blossoms, which served as one of the first introductions of Chinese Buddhism to the West through the character of Cheng Hua, a Buddhist monk with high aspirations to convert the heathens of the West. Upon arrival in the Limehouse district of London, he fails in his civilizing Buddhist mission and winds up a poor shopkeeper in love with a gutter waif of a girl named Lucy and later a murderer who attempts to avenge her death by shooting her abusive father. This film served as one of the first visual introductions of Asian culture and Buddhism on the silver screen and made Buddhism both somewhat more knowable and yet more foreign and perhaps unassimilable.

Although Whalen-Bridge marks the 1990s as the cinematic Buddhism Boom, certainly film and television have been capitalizing on themes of Buddhist otherness with other earlier films like Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon (1937), which served as a precursor to the fantasies of Tibetan otherness and timeless captivity found in films like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. Capra’s film offers a vision of Tibetan Buddhist utopia in the mysterious mountainous Shangri-La, where its inhabitants never want for anything and live forever, unless they happen to cross over the threshold out of Shangri-La and immediately succumb to sickness, old age, and death (the most obvious signs of dukkha or suffering).

While not exploring film alone, Jane Iwamura’s Virtual Orientalism introduces a series of popular media forms of Buddhism through the icon of the Oriental Monk constructed out of Asian difference and exoticization who eventually undergoes a process of racialized abstraction whereby the Asian identity is taken out of the Buddhist monk and replaced by the image of the lone white male whose own Buddhist meditative (read: martial arts) strength serves as a tonic, salve, and salvific figure of both Asian and Western peoples and cultures.14 Iwamura situates the mediated image of the Oriental Monk found on the silver screen and television in the context of the arrival of D. T. Suzuki on American soil first in 1893 and later in 1950 for an eight-year stay. Although relatively unknown to Western audiences during his first sojourn, by the time he left in 1958, Suzuki had become for many the icon of Zen Buddhism for Western audiences, an iconic image of Zen difference that shaped the later rise of the David Carradine’s character, Kwai Chang Caine, in the widely popular Kung Fu series. Thus, prior to the cinematic Buddhism boom of the 1990s and Tibetan Buddhism, a Zen boom had already been underway popularized by figures such as D. T. Suzuki, Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts, and of course the biracial Kwai Chang Caine, who served as a “bridge figure” and precursor to the draftee film who could make Asian culture and religion more palatable and intelligible to Western audiences.15 In so doing, Kwai Chang Caine also cast the mold for later martial-arts masters popularized in film such as Mr. Miyagi of The Karate Kid films. Like Zen master D. T. Suzuki, Mr. Miyagi reflects a Zen-like antinomianism and unconventional wisdom, but also serves as a surrogate father to the angst-ridden poor and young white man, Daniel, who becomes his apprentice. Mr. Miyagi acts as a bridge figure and Asian surrogate of fatherless American boys like Daniel who come to martial arts out of self-defense but leave all the wiser from having absorbed the wisdom of the master through a master–student relationship.

Iwamura’s analysis of the icon of the Oriental Monk and his continued rebirth in virtual Orientalism lays bare larger geopolitical anxieties at the root of Orientalism in its desire to know and therefore contain “the other.” Thus, Western films about Buddhism in the Buddhism Boom of the 1990s might also be explored in terms of their own projections of geopolitical angst vis-à-vis U.S.–China relations, and the reincarnation of Orientalism in new forms such as Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, which incited great fear among Westerners that Tibet as the last hold of enlightened wisdom was on the verge of mass destruction. In the case of Tibetan Buddhist films, however, it was the Westerner again who could protect the religion from the onslaught of the Chinese military occupation and the subsequent and potentially inevitable demise of all things spiritual from Tibet. The geopolitical investments and spiritual yearnings for the difference that Buddhism represents cannot be abstracted from those films that make it into Buddhist film festivals, for they reflect that selection and popularity of chosen films often say more about the audience in its particular time and place than about the Buddhism of the film itself; hence, a Buddhist film can be one whose theme, form, and content are intentionally Buddhist and those that lend themselves particularly well to a Buddhist interpretation.

Whalen-Bridge’s categorization of Buddhist films is nonetheless extremely helpful in urging scholars to consider the following factors in creating a category and genre of Buddhist film: representation, intention, and interpretation. Representation refers to all the Buddhist observables through sight and sound such as Buddhist chanting, an image or images of Buddhists, Buddhist ways of life, temples, and so on. Intention refers to the viewer’s own perspective more so than the director’s in that non-Buddhist films can “become Buddhist” and are, therefore, draftees. It is helpful to reconsider Verchey’s point that any film that is seen through a Buddhist lens or given a Buddhist interpretation may in fact become entangled in processes of reductionism and essentialism with regard to what Buddhism is, but as Whalen-Bridge argues, these kinds of draftee films are intended to do precisely that—render Buddhist difference into something more manageable and intelligible for non-Buddhist audiences. Intention and interpretation are quite interchangeable as well because it is really on the part of the viewers themselves and their own inference that a film is about Buddhism at all. That a non-Buddhist film can be a deep reflection about Buddhist philosophy should of course come as no surprise in Buddhist philosophical circles precisely because the form and derivation of the film and lack of explicit Buddhist reference do not preclude it from becoming an object worthy of giving insight into the Buddha dharma. It is like any other skillful means that the Buddha discussed—we simply should not get stuck on the form, the content, or the origin of the film. Instead, it is the nature of the perspectival shift that comes from engaging the film that should be highlighted and given pride of place. Perhaps the Buddha himself would encourage scholars not to get too stuck on these distinctions, which are ultimately empty of inherent characteristics anyway.

Because of the difficulties associated with trying to establish the concrete criteria for Buddhist film, differences that pertain to the very nature of the ultimate emptiness of Buddhist categories, Whalen-Bridges encourages an exploration of the International Buddhist Film Festival (IBFF), whose webpage notes that there are both “Buddhist-themed” films that are included with a Buddhist intention on the part of the makers of the films and more easily recognizable as Buddhist in form, and “Buddhist-inspired” cinema that allows for flexibility of interpretation.16 Gaetano Maida, the executive director of the Buddhist Film Festival, offers an easy and provocative explanation of what “makes it” as a Buddhist film—those born Buddhist or “Buddhist by birth” and those made Buddhist on the part of the viewers or “Buddhists by conversion.”17 Both approaches, when viewed through the lens Buddhist philosophy, are certainly legitimate types of Buddhism films. Buddhist-themed films, Buddhist-inspired cinema, Buddhist films by birth, and Buddhist films by conversion reflect the Buddha’s own teachings of non-attachment to the origins of a particular viewpoint and the significance of the effects of the teachings. Hence, in his famed discussion of a man wounded by a poison arrow, the Buddha reminds his disciple Malunkyaputta that it is ultimately of little value and even more of a hindrance to focus too much on where the arrow came from, who made it, what kind of bow shot the arrow, and so on. Instead, as the Buddha advised, the wounded man should simply remove the poison arrow immediately to end his own suffering.18 By extension, we might well argue that it really does not matter whether a film is or was Buddhist in intent; the fact that it can be viewed as a means of affecting some kind of perspectival shift in awareness might be more useful or at least practical if arguing the case in Buddhist terms.

Scholarly Approaches to Buddhism and Film

Given the popularity of Buddhism and film, there are a number of highly creative and popular book-length studies of the subject ranging from Dan Sluyter’s Cinema Nirvana, The Dharma of Star Wars, and The Dude and the Zen Master, to name a few.19 For the purposes of examining academic approaches to the subject, the most recent books coming from scholarly circles will be discussed: 1. Ronald Green’s Buddhism Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Buddhist Thought and Practice, 2. John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff’s Buddhism and American Cinema, 3. Sharon A. Suh’s Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film, and 4. Francisca Cho’s Seeing Like the Buddha: Enlightenment Through Film.20 These four book-length studies of Buddhism and film are relatively recent publications that reflect the growing interest in this field of study. Each book contributes its own approach to Buddhist films in terms of the definition of Buddhist film, methodology employed, general scope of films covered, and their central argument for conjoining of Buddhism and film as an area worthy of serious scholarly attention.

Ronald Green’s Buddhism Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Buddhist Thought and Practice provides an overview of the three main schools of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantric Buddhism) and draws inspiration from the lama-director, Khyentse Norbu, who approaches film as a skillful means through which to question the self, the other, and one’s received assumptions about reality. Buddhism Goes to the Movies does exactly what its title suggests—it goes to the movies, those that are explicitly Buddhist and those that are Buddhist inspired, to make the case that there are several films that inspire Buddhist ways of looking and knowing. Therefore, Buddhism Goes to the Movies proposes that viewing a film in and of itself can be a religious experience; if the film happens to be Buddhist themed or Buddhist inspired, it will inspire a perspectival shift or transformation from one state of knowing to another. Khytense Norbu, an incarnated lama, on the one hand, utilizes film to demystify Buddhism as an otherworldly tradition by highlighting the antics of young monks in Nepal whose main goal is to purchase a television to watch the World Cup in The Cup (1999). On the other hand, Norbu also makes films like Travellers and Magicians (2003) to highlight the illusory nature of desire and how desire for escape and otherness can backfire and give rise to an appreciation of one’s situatedness in the present moment.

Set in the stunning landscape of modern-day Bhutan, Travellers and Magicians utilizes the device of frame-tale to illustrate the often fictional and narrated qualities of our own lives. The film presents a tale of a young man’s dangerous attachment to and lust for a woman that lead him to conspire to murder her elderly husband. As he hears the old man writhing in pain after ingesting poisonous herbs, the young man is suddenly filled with remorse, and as the camera pans to the tears falling from his eyes, viewers are suddenly awakened from the fantasy of the tale back to the young man’s real life. It turns out that the young man was unknowingly ingesting a doctored concoction offered to him by his younger brother, who brought lunch to the man’s school each day. The story of the young man deluded by lust is told in snippets by a wise monk to a petty official as they hitchhike to Thimpu. The official wants only to leave the village where he is stationed, catch a bus to Thimpu, and chase his dreams of becoming an apple picker in America. The monk’s tale serves as a cautionary story encouraging the petty official to enjoy the sweet fruits of home by showing the official the vagaries of desire, but the film also provides an opportunity to reflect upon the fictive nature of reality by explicitly highlighting the constructed nature of our own realities. Norbu projects our everyday reality as an illusion empty of anything enduring and presents film as a perfect facsimile of the self, for what a viewer sees as a seamless whole of reality presented on screen, in reality, comprises singular shots and scenes woven together into a whole.

Green’s study of Buddhism and film introduces readers to both the Buddhist themes found in contemporary cinema and the ways that film can re-visualize Buddhism; thus the encounter appears a two-way street, giving neither pride of place. In so doing, Buddhism Goes to the Movies introduces the basic teachings of Buddhism found in many Buddhist-themed and Buddhist-inspired films without getting overly caught up in any kind of theoretical arguments for the primacy of one of the other. Instead, his is an interpretive practice aimed at mining films for their Buddhist messages for the edification of the audience.

Each chapter of the book is given to exploring Buddhist teachings in non-Buddhist films such as the Four Noble Truths in Fight Club (1999), Buddhist Awakening in Waking Life (2001), and Dependent Origination in I Heart Huckabees (2004). Interestingly, non-Buddhist films are mined for their Buddhist themes and those that are overtly Buddhist are interpreted as representations of different forms of Buddhism such as Korean Seon, Theravada Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Shin Buddhism, and Thai Buddhism. In other words, Green’s treatment of Asian Buddhist films tends to be more reflective of the ethnographic approach to film where we go to the movies to learn about regional Buddhisms. Asian Buddhist films appear to be more pedagogical and about Buddhism, whereas the draftee films serve as translators, making Asian Buddhism more intelligible to American audiences through a form familiar to Western audiences. As cultural translators, Western Buddhist films become the necessary tool to ground Buddhism in a recognizable and presumably intelligible manner for Westerners.

Green’s primary aim is to introduce readers to the central teachings of Buddhism through studies of Buddhist-themed and Buddhist-inspired films. The book is divided into ten separate chapters, each devoted to a particular Buddhist theme or form of Buddhism found throughout the world. Each chapter opens with a synopsis of the film as well as an overview of the central Buddhist teachings to be gleaned from each film. Asian films such as Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989), The Burmese Harp (1956), Departures (2008), Windhorse (1998), and Nang Nak (1999), and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) are given their own chapters (minus the last two) and interpreted as films that tell us something about Buddhism and about the regional varieties of Buddhism from which they emerge. Thus, Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East? provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of reality, one’s own attachments, responsibilities to the “world of men,” and karma that all transpire in a Korean Buddhist temple. Thus, through Green’s reading, the viewer goes to the movie to develop insight into the nature of self and other as well as gets an opportunity to see “firsthand” and up close what Korean Buddhism looks like through the film’s depiction of the monastic lives of three monks: an elderly master, a young boy, and a young man who comes to the temple to avoid the suffering of the ordinary world. These Buddhist films become opportunities to imagine what Buddhism looks like on the ground.

Buddhism and American Cinema edited by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff provides regional and national boundaries by focusing on Western productions and interpretations of Buddhist films primarily for America moviegoers.21 Focusing on Hollywood versions of enlightenment on screen, the book is divided into two sections: 1. representation and intention, and 2. allegories of shadow, and light. The first section analyzes four films that contain explicitly Buddhist elements and places each film in the distinct cultural and historical context of the Vietnam War (Heaven and Earth) and Tibetan Independence (Little Buddha, Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun, and The Cup). The chapters in section 1 highlight the cultural context of Buddhism, the struggle to define what “authentic” Buddhism might be, and the Orientalist tendencies that serve as the backdrop and hidden transcript for much of the Tibetan Buddhist films. The latter section focuses on non-explicitly Buddhist films that nonetheless lend themselves well to a Buddhist reading and, as the authors explain, “many of these films occupy a semiotic ‘bardo’ space between the films that are intentionally Buddhist (both in terms of representation and thematic/philosophical emphasis) and films that are not about Buddhism but that can be understood from a Buddhist point of view.”22 Films this category include: Lost in Translation (2003), The Matrix (1999), Fight Club (1999), Star Wars: Episode III (2005), The Last Samurai (2003), Wall Street (1987), Annie Hall (1977), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Donny Darko (2001), and American Beauty (1999). Each of these American films illustrate Buddhist themes such as impermanence, desire, suffering, liberation, and bardo.

Like Green, the authors explore the cultural and historical elements in the more explicitly Buddhist films, and then mine the non-Buddhist films for their Buddhist messages; in this volume, films depicting Asian Buddhism are interpreted for non-Buddhist ends, and non-Buddhist films are explored for their insight into Buddhist thought and practice. In this way, films highlight how we might view Buddhists and how we might view ourselves through a Buddhist lens.

Drawing from the earlier argument set out in his previous essay, Whalen-Bridges makes the case that “Buddhism in popular culture can be overt . . . or it can be inferred,” and this distinction is made in this volume as well.23 As cultural translators, these films render what appears to be the otherness or exoticism of Buddhism into something understandable. The authors note, “[w]hether Buddhist beliefs (about karma or reincarnation) or practices (meditation, especially) have been in the foreground or in the background, it is uncontestable that films, even as they have traded upon the exoticism of Buddhism in the American imaginaire, have made Buddhism less exotic than it was previously.”24

Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film by Sharon A. Suh provides a comparative analysis of Buddhist-themed films in Asian and Western films to explore how Buddhism, gender, and race have been entangled in the media’s projection of the religious tradition.25 The underlying questions in this book are: How are Buddhists and Buddhism imaged on screen? What aspects of the tradition are normalized, and which are rendered invisible on screen? How do race and gender play into what we see in Buddhist-themed films? And, is there a way to revise what we see on screen to include a more capacious understanding of Buddhist peoples? The book proposes that film is a form of spiritual technology that can be considered a modern-day sutra or text. Seeing film as sutra expands what we understand to be appropriate religious texts and can also help re-imagine the tradition to include those who have been left out of Buddhist texts, both literary and filmic. Thus, the book sees Buddhist film as reflective and constitutive of how we see or do not see Buddhist monks, nuns, the laity, and Asians and Asian Americans. Unlike the previous two works, this book takes a distinctly revisionist approach by re-imagining and re-imaging what Buddhism looks like in the popular imagination both on screen and off.

Silver Screen Buddha begins opens with an analysis of Broken Blossoms (1919) and Lost Horizon (1947) as exemplars of an Orientalist tradition that views Buddhism and Asian as examples of otherness to be both emulated and avoided. The book then moves into a discussion of the antinomian antics of Buddhist monks or quasi-monks in three Zen-themed Western films—The Big Lebowski (1998), Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1995), and Zen Noir (2004)—and places them in the long lineage of Orientalist and racialized conceptualizations of Asians and Asian Americans as unintelligible or mysterious fonts of wisdom. The book then turns to three Korean directed films, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (2003) and Come, Come, Come Upward (1989), and Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East? (1989) and offers a feminist reading of each film to reveal the age-old tropes of women as the snares of samsara found in ancient texts and contemporary film, and the opportunity to read against the grain and highlight the roles of women and everyday life as the ground of enlightenment. The book then explores the everyday intimacy, gratitude, and interdependence of Shin Buddhism found in Departures (2008) and establishes the possibility of seeing film as sutra through an analysis of Hwa-om-kyung (Passage to Buddha, 1993), itself explicitly based on the Gandavyuha Sutra. Finally, the book proposes an opportunity to read against the grain by reinterpreting traditionally male centered films such as Samsara (2001) to foreground the other side of Buddhism—that is, the Buddhism of ordinary laywomen that often gets short shrift and little screen time. Silver Screen Buddha is both a cultural critique of Buddhism and a reconstructive approach to Buddhism to make space for those voices and faces often absent from the silver screen.

Seeing Like the Buddha

Seeing Like the Buddha: Enlightenment through Film by Francisca Cho is the latest arrival in the growing field of Buddhism and film and argues that film can shape not only what one sees on screen, but perhaps more importantly how one sees.26 Cho provides a deep reading of Buddhist philosophical teachings such as emptiness, the three emanation bodies of the Buddha, tathagathgarba (“embryo of enlightenment”) theory, and the phenomenology of the person. The author begins the book with an analysis of films that have an immediately recognizable Buddhist framework and content in films like Kim Kiduk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring, which reflects the cycle of samsara, karmic consequences, and Buddha-nature. The book then moves to Buddhist themes of meditative vision, ghosts, karma, and interconnectedness through Nonzee Nimibutr’s film, Nang Nak (1994), a popular Thai ghost story highlighting both the love between a young wife, Nak, and her husband, Mak. After Mak goes off to war, Nak dies in childbirth and returns a ghost attempting to resume her domestic life with Mak, who, unbeknownst to him, is rekindling a relationship with a ghost. To protect their reunion, Nak summarily kills those in the village who attempt to awaken Mak to the truth of his wife’s ghostly nature. The film concludes with the ghostly form of Mak put to rest by her husband, who has been ordained as a Buddhist monk. Cho categorizes this film as one that offers “visions of emptiness” in its ability to reveal the illusory nature of reality.27 Seeing Like the Buddha extends its emphasis on “visions of emptiness” to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), which deliberately rejects the “God’s-eye” point of view and follows this thread in an examination of Hirokazu Kore’ada’s Maborosi (1995) about the illusory nature of reality.

The progression of the book is structured to mimic a pilgrim’s progress through Borobudor temple in Java. The temple invites pilgrims to enter its space to encounter first images of the Buddha that are explicit renditions of his enlightenment. As the pilgrims progress through the stupa, the representations of enlightenment and wisdom become increasingly less particular and point toward ultimate reality. Once the pilgrims reach the central stupa, they cannot see the Buddha but instead encounter a far wider panoramic perspective of the world. In so doing, the pilgrims see what the Buddha sees and see like the Buddha. The book concludes with an analysis of Terence Malik’s films that reject linearity such as Thin Red Line (1998), The Tree of Life (2011), and To the Wonder (2013), which fit largely into the category of draftee films that, while not explicitly Buddhist, provide opportunities to visualize the self and the world as empty of inherent individual existence. Cho thus constructs her chapters around the visual experiences of pilgrims moving from very explicit narrative depictions of Buddhism to the more obscure utilizing of the blueprint of Borobudor as the books main structure. The reader, like the pilgrim, and the film viewer undergo a perspectival shift and growing awareness of the deeper layers of the Buddha dharma until they learn how to see like the Buddha.

The centrality of vision, seeing, and the gaze from the earliest Buddhist sculptures and texts to the present indicate that the Buddhist tradition has continued to evolve in its forms of ritual practice and modes of understanding. Buddhism in, through, and as film serves as one of the latest and most potent forms of skillful means that inspires new understandings of the dharma for its viewers.

Review of the Literature

The study of Buddhism and film is still a relatively new field that has grown tremendously in the area of dedicated scholarly research in the past fifteen years. It has been approached with multiple disciplinary lenses with several contributions from cultural studies, literary studies, film studies, cultural anthropology, theology, religious studies, Buddhist studies, feminist studies, and media studies, to name a few. Several articles on Buddhism and film can be found in the Journal of Religion and Film that address films that have an explicitly Buddhist content and context as well as those that are loosely interpreted as Buddhist on the part of the viewer and/or scholar. Most studies of Buddhism and film fall into either of two general camps: those that focus on films that are explicitly recognizable as Buddhist through character, context, and content, and those that focus on films that are not explicitly Buddhist but rather lend themselves to a Buddhist reading. For an excellent overview of essays reflecting these differences, see Almut-Barbara Renger’s introductory essay, “Buddhism and Film—Interrelation and Interpenetration: Reflections on an Emerging Field,” in the special volume on “Buddhism and Film” in Contemporary Buddhism.28

For book-length studies of Buddhism and film, see Dan Sluyter’s 2005 Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies. Sluyter’s book offers a Buddhist analysis of many popular films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Casablanca. Matthew Bortolin’s The Dharma of Star Wars takes up the Buddhist symbolism and philosophy found in the Star Wars series.29 Jane Iwamura’s Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture provides an excellent detailed analysis of the Orientalist context from which many popular images of Buddhism emerged and proliferated in Western media.30 Ronald Green’s Buddhism Goes to the Movies offers a wonderful introduction to Buddhist thought and practice through the analysis of specific films that he mines for Buddhist philosophical and religious context.31 Buddhism and American Cinema by John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff (also published in 2014) focuses on films that are explicitly Buddhist and those that lend themselves to a rich Buddhist interpretation. Sharon A. Suh’s 2015 Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film explores the emergence of Buddhism in film and its intersections with race, gender, and lay practice. The most recent book-length contribution to the field of Buddhism and film is Francisca Cho’s 2017 Seeing Like the Buddha: Enlightenment Through Film, which argues that Buddhist film can inform new ways of seeing like the Buddha. While there have been very rich analyses of Buddhism and film through several different disciplinary approaches, there has yet to be a single volume dedicated to analyzing those most popular Buddhist films that have received the most scholarly attention from a variety of perspectives such as Bae Young-Kyun’s 1989 Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East or Kim Ki-Duk’s 2003 Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring. Such a volume would contribute greatly to this growing field by drawing perspectival awareness and interpretive differences to the analysis of a single film.

Further Reading

Blizek, William L., ed. Continuum Companion to Religion and Film. New York: Continuum, 2009.Find this resource:

    Bortolin, Matthew. The Dharma of Star Wars. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005.Find this resource:

      Bridges, Jeff, and Bernie Glassman. The Dude and the Zen Master. New York: Blue Rider Press, 2012.Find this resource:

        Cho, Francisca. “Imagining Nothing and Imaging Otherness in Buddhist Film.” In Imag(in)ing the Other: Filmic Visions of Community. Edited by David Jaspers and S. Brent Plate. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1999.Find this resource:

          Cho, Francisca. Seeing Like the Buddha: Enlightenment through Film. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2017.Find this resource:

            Green, Ronald. Buddhism Goes to the Movies. New York: Routledge Press, 2014.Find this resource:

              Iwamura, Jane. Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions in American Popular Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

                Jaspers, David and Plate, Brent S., eds. Imag(in)ing the Other: Filmic Visions of Community. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1999.Find this resource:

                  Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                    Lyden, John, ed. The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film. Hoboken, NJ: Routledge, 2009.Find this resource:

                      Plate, Brent S., ed. Representing Religion in World Cinema: Mythmaking, Culture Making, Filmmaking. New York: Palgrave/St. Martins 2003. Find this resource:

                        Plate, Brent S., ed. Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World. New York: Wallflower Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                          Schell, Orville. Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000.Find this resource:

                            Suh, Sharon A. Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.Find this resource:

                              Sluyter, Dan. Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                Whalen-Bridge, John. “What Is a Buddhist Film?,” Contemporary Buddhism 15, no. 1 (2014): 44–80.Find this resource:

                                  Whalen-Bridge, John, and Gary Storhoff. Buddhism and American Cinema. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.Find this resource:

                                    Yi, Hyangsoon. “The Real, Anti-real, and Transcendental in Four Korean Buddhist Films.” In Pathways into Korean Language and Culture: Essays in Honor of Young-Key Kim-Renaud. Edited by Sang-Oak Lee and Gregory K. Iverson. Seoul: Pagijong Press, 2002.Find this resource:


                                      (1.) For a detailed discussion of the Buddhist emphasis on seeing rather than mere belief without experience, see Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 8–9.

                                      (2.) Malcolm David Eckel, To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992).

                                      (3.) Red Pine, The Heart Sutra: The Womb of the Buddhas (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2005).

                                      (4.) Lina Verchery, “Ethics of Inscrutability: Ontologies of Emptiness in Buddhist Film,” Contemporary Buddhism 15, no. 1 (2014) 145–163.

                                      (5.) Verchery, “Ethics of Inscrutability,” 147.

                                      (6.) Verchery, “Ethics of Inscrutability,” 158.

                                      (7.) John Whalen-Bridge, “What Is a Buddhist Film?,” Contemporary Buddhism 15, no. 1 (2014): 44–80.

                                      (8.) Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: Fortress Press, 1991).

                                      (9.) Whalen-Bridge, “What Is a Buddhist Film?,” 44.

                                      (10.) Donald S. Lopez Jr., Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

                                      (11.) Whalen-Bridges, “What Is a Buddhist Film?,” 44.

                                      (12.) Whalen-Bridge, “What Is a Buddhist Film?,” 45.

                                      (13.) Whalen-Bridge, “What Is a Buddhist Film?,” 45.

                                      (14.) Jane Iwamura, Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

                                      (15.) Iwamura, Virtual Orientalism, 16.

                                      (16.) Whalen-Bridge, “What Is a Buddhist Film?,” 50.

                                      (17.) Whalen-Bridge “What Is a Buddhist Film?,” 50.

                                      (18.) Students might find Walpola Rahula’s explanation of this story quite valuable. See Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 14–15.

                                      (19.) Whalen-Bridges, “What Is a Buddhist Film?,” 45; Dan Sluyter, Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005); Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman, The Dude and the Zen Master (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2012); and Matthew Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005).

                                      (20.) Ronald Green, Buddhism Goes to the Movies: An Introduction to Buddhist Thought and Practice (New York: Routledge, 2014); John Whalen-Bridge and Gary Storhoff, Buddhism and American Cinema (Albany, NY: SUNY, 2014); Sharon A. Suh’s Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film (New York: Bloomsbury 2015); and Francisca Cho, Seeing Like the Buddha: Enlightenment Through Film (Albany, NY: SUNY, 2017).

                                      (21.) Whalen-Bridge and Storhoff, Buddhism and American Cinema.

                                      (22.) Whalen-Bridge and Storhoff, Buddhism and American Cinema, 8.

                                      (23.) Whalen-Bridges and Storhoff, Buddhism and American Cinema, 1.

                                      (24.) Whalen-Bridges and Storhoff, Buddhism and American Cinema, 3.

                                      (25.) Sharon A. Suh, Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).

                                      (26.) Francisca Cho, Seeing Like the Buddha (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2017.

                                      (27.) Cho, Seeing Like the Buddha, 23.

                                      (28.) Almut-Barbara Renger, “Buddhism and Film—Interrelation and Interpenetration: Reflections on an Emerging Research Field,” Contemporary Buddhism 15, no. 1 (2014): 1–27.

                                      (29.) Bortolin, The Dharma of Star Wars.

                                      (30.) Iwamura, Virtual Orientalism.

                                      (31.) Green, Buddhism Goes to the Movies.