If Buddhism ranks among the three most accomplished missionary religions of the world (along with Christianity and Islam), then the filmmaker David Grubin can well be considered a successful contemporary Buddhist apostle. With his two-hour film, The Buddha (to be aired on PBS stations on April 7; see local listings), he audibly and engagingly continues to “beat the drum of the Dharma” that Gautama himself first sounded when he arose after his awakening in the Indian city of Bodhgaya, in Bihar, walked the 200 miles to Saranath (outside of Varanasi) and launched his life as a missionary.
Grubin employs all the standard techniques for this kind of historical, didactic documentary—shots of historic sites from the life of Buddha blend with ancient and modern paintings and sculpture. All of it is given greater color and meaning through interspersed commentary by experts both academic and spiritual.
But Grubin mixes these ingredients beautifully into a smooth, forward-moving flow that is made all the more engaging through modernistic animations, especially for scenes from Buddha’s life that stir the artist’s imagination—like Buddha’s virginal conception announced by a white elephant or the dawning of his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.
The star-studded cast of commentators is led by the Dalai Lama and framed by the mellow tones of his devoted disciple, Richard Gere, the film’s principal narrator. Among the experts who appear for sound-bite-like lessons or sermonettes are professors (Robert Thurman, Max Moerman, Kenin Trainor), poets (Jane Hirschfield, W. S. Merwin), a therapist (Mark Epstein) and monks and nuns (Venerables Bhaddamanika and Metteyya Sakyaputta). All of them speak not just knowledgeably, but passionately. They, too, are missionaries.
And it all works—not just because of the technical, artistic skills of Grubin and crew and the impassioned wisdom of the commentators, but also because the film is focused on the life and message of the man Gautama of the Sakyamuni who became Gautama Buddha. Viewers are not distracted by the complex differences among the three subsequent schools of Buddhism (Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana); they are not taken into the light and dark history of Buddhism’s practical extinction in India and expansion throughout Asia or its struggles to inculturate in Europe and the Americas. Only one story is presented: Who was this man? What was his historical context? And what was his message?
Grubin and the commentators point out that the man and his context can be seen only through the mist of myth and miracles. The historical Buddha is even more removed from us than the historical Jesus. But then, with the abandon of conscious second naïveté (if I may allude to the work of Paul Ricoeur), the film embraces the stories of white elephants and devils and dancing girls to show how this man was truly human in his struggles and searchings and mistakes but, at the same time, truly enlightened in what he discovered and how he lived thereafter. Whatever may be the historical uncertainties, there are no doubts about the efficacy of what this man discovered and taught.
I have seen many a film on Buddha, but few of them have succeeded as well as this one in so lucidly and compellingly presenting the transformative elements of Buddha’s dharma. Again and again we hear or see the simplicity and audacity of Buddha’s liberating announcement: Every-thing we need is given to us right now; it is available. All we have to do is open our eyes to it, be mindful of it, not cling to any of it, but let it be and be part of us. Watch life and be aware of life as it happens. Accept it and work with it. Then let it go in gentleness and compassion. How do you know this is true? You’ll know it when, in trusting and following Buddha’s path, you feel it.
All the commentators make clear that Buddha’s message was primarily a call to practice. Try it, he and they tell us; you’ll like it. And then you will know. On the basis of practice, you will begin to grasp some of the deeper truths (metaphysical truths) in Buddha’s message: the truth of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything; the truth of our nonindividuality (No-self) as we allow ourselves to be carried by and to contribute to this all-encompassing interbeing; the truth of the “natural law” (my words) of compassion. As one of the commentators puts it: Once you stop centering your feelings on yourself, compassion for all beings arises naturally, spontaneously.
Here, then, is Buddha’s “good news”: All this is available to all people at all times. As one Zen commentator in the film puts it: It’s our Buddha-nature. And everyone bears it. This is the ground for Buddha’s radical social message: The caste system was not, as we hear in the film, “hardwired into the nature of the universe.” Even more revolutionary is the fact that women, too, can be enlightened and can join the Sangha, or community.
Some elements in the film will stir scholarly quibbling. Buddha’s admission of women to the community was more ambiguous than the film implies. The same is true of the suggested equal standing of laity within the Sangha. And somehow the face of a Shaivite Hindu devotee, trident emblazoned on forehead, was shown as a Buddhist pilgrim at Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace. But these are quibbles. They melt away in the film’s overall beauty and power.
For the Christian viewer who engages the film dialogically, stunning, maybe unsettling, similarities abound in the lives of Gautama and Jesus: Buddha’s mother was a virgin not just “before” birth but even (as I was taught of Mary in my 1960s theology course at the Pontifical Gregorian University) in birth. The Buddha, too, was severely tempted by the “evil one” before his public ministry of calling for reform of his given religion. And in the film we hear Buddha’s declaration, echoing Jesus in the Gospel of John, “Who sees me, sees the Dharma.” Do similar claims about Jesus and Buddha on the part of their followers indicate similar effects in their followers?
For me, and I trust for many fellow Christians, this film can serve as another version of one of the most fruitful challenges that Buddha offers the followers of Jesus. Gautama’s good news (that in our human natures and situation, we are already given all that we need) is perhaps a reminder to repossess what Karl Rahner, S.J., insistently taught: that we live in a “supernatural existential,” that our human nature is graced nature. Like Buddha for his disciples, Jesus embodies this for his. To awaken to this is, for Buddhists, to be enlightened; for Christians it is to live the mystical depths of Christianity.