These Movies Completely Encompass Buddhism


Although some rare movies don’t try to communicate any meaning at all, most movies have a message or meaning to them. But, rarely, a movie captures the feeling of something and communicates it in a way that words alone can’t compete with. Film can even be a kind of art that communicates philosophy in a way that inspires new insight

For a religion like Buddhism, communicating how it feels, and what it means, can be especially difficult for a Western audience unfamiliar with the different Eastern cultures involved in Buddhism. But there are some movies, both Western and Eastern, that managed to capture the essence and feeling of Buddhism in a way that transcends cultural boundaries.

From Tibetan Buddhism to Japanese Zen, here are the movies that best capture and communicate the essence of the philosophy and religion of Buddhism.

7 Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East? (1989)

Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East
Bae Yong-kyun Productions

Can a movie be an answer to a koan? Korean filmmaker Bae Yong-kyun certainly wanted to try. Known primarily for his career as an artist and a professor, Bae Yong-kyun was inspired to try his hand at filmmaking. In the early 1980s, he began to film Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East? He spent almost 10 years working on the film, finally releasing it in 1989. The title of the movie is a popular Zen koan. In Zen Buddhism (called Seon in Korea), koans are what you might call mental riddles, often posed as a question meant to inspire insight. They are typically cryptic and paradoxical. For this movie, Bae Yong-kyun wanted to address two other koans: “What was my original face before my mother and father were born?” and, “(In death) where does the master of my being go?”

The story follows the lives of three people: an orphaned boy, an adult monk, and an elderly Zen master. With the slow pace of the plot and the beautiful simplicity of the film, it is a meditative experience for the viewer, and communicates Zen successfully through feeling.

6 Little Buddha (1993)

Little Buddha (1993)
Buena Vista International

Though it was panned by critics upon its release, Little Buddha is a movie that has gained popularity and appreciation since then. Director Bernardo Bertolucci was thorough in his efforts to understand and communicate the story of the Buddha and the culture of Tibetan Buddhism. He even hired highly respected Tibetan Buddhist lama Khyentse Norbu to consult with them during the entire film. But what really makes this movie shine is the sense of wonder that is conveyed when Siddhārtha Gautama’s story is taught to the three children in the movie. As writer Karl Springer summarized it in the LA Times review of the film:

[Critic Kenneth] Turan’s estimation of “Little Buddha” as being a “children’s film” is far wiser than he may know. The profound teachings of Buddhism are all about cultivating “beginner’s mind,” about seeing reality with the openness and wonder of a child. That Bertolucci has succeeded in conveying this speaks volumes about the triumph of his skills and his understanding.

5 The Cup (1999)

The Cup (1999)
Fine Line Features

That consultant on Little Buddha, Khyentse Norbu, would go on to direct his own movie with The Cup, the first feature film ever made in Bhutan. It follows monks at a monastery who absolutely love soccer and want to watch the World Cup. But getting a television, satellite and a good signal all prove to be difficult. Imagining the daily life of a typical Buddhist monk might not seem like it would include watching soccer games – but this movie challenges that assumption. Roger Ebert praised the underappreciated film, calling it a “delightful demonstration of how spirituality can coexist quite happily with an intense desire for France to defeat Brazil.”

4 Groundhog Day (1993)

Bill Murray in Groundhog Day
Columbia Pictures

As the only movie on this list that isn’t overtly Buddhist, it might seem like a strange addition. But Groundhog Day has long been known as a spiritual and philosophical masterpiece. It aligns with Buddhist ideas of rebirth and attachment so well that it receives praise from religious scholars and is often shown at Buddhist film festivals.

The story follows weatherman Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, as he deals with the impossible reality of reliving the same day over and over. He fights his new reality, becomes apathetic towards it, and eventually finds his own kind of contentment by appreciating his time, even though he is trapped in this situation. It is only when he has let go completely of his attachments that he awakens back into the flow of time again.

Related:Mads Mikkelsen’s 15 Best Movies, Ranked by Rotten Tomatoes

3 Kundun (1997)

A scene from Martin Scorsese's Dalai Lama biopic, Kundun
Buena Vista Pictures

Martin Scorsese’s film Kundun is an epic and sweeping film about the early life of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Based on the Dalai Lama’s own writings about his life, the movie follows his life from when he is found as a child by Tibetan monks believing him to be the next reincarnated Dalai Lama, to the end when he flees Tibet.

25 years after its release, the beautiful film shows both the deep and timeless wisdom of the Dalai Lama, as well as the impressive reach and diversity of Scorsese’s work as a director. “As the Dalai Lama walks to the guard post, an Indian guard approaches him, salutes, and inquires: “Are you the Lord Buddha?” The Dalai Lama replies with the film’s final line: “I think that I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.””

2 Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring (2003)

The master writes out the Heart Sutra
Sony Pictures Classics

South Korean film Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, is perhaps the most treasured hidden gem of a movie among Buddhists today. At its release, it was praised by Roger Ebert, who said, “Rarely has a movie this simple moved me this deeply,” and called it a “story of timelessness, of the transcendence of the eternal.” The film has a quiet, subtle feeling to it, as it takes us through the seasons of a man’s life like the seasons of a year, starting with his childhood, into his journey becoming a monk, and finally, his final years.

1 Zen (2009)

Kadokawa Pictures

Unsatisfied with the teachings of Buddhism in Kyoto, Japanese monk Dogen Zenji traveled to China to find the original teachings there himself and bring them back to Japan. This movie tells the story of Dogen, and the Zen school he founded in Japan, called Sōtō. Director Banmei Takahashi also wrote the script, and his work results in a well-paced and balanced movie that is reverential to the subject matter, but not overly so.

In a praising review of the film, Variety magazine said, “Expert handling of inherently slow-moving material is neatly counterbalanced by a narrative that knows when to forgo unnecessary ‘chop wood, carry water’ detail in favor of dramatic momentum.” The reference “chop wood, carry water” refers to an old Zen quote: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

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