The Buddha on PBS

Buddha PBS Review

I did what, I think, not many did.  I did not watch one trailer for “The Buddha” or read one link, article or blog post on it before it aired.  Hell, I even avoided the tweets on it and the YouTube teasers.  The only things I saw were the 500 bookmarks delivered to the library (100 of which still sit on my desk).

Like Aliens:Resurrection, I wanted to be completely hype free for my viewing.  Narrated by long-time celebrity Buddhist (or Buddebrity) Richard Gere and featuring the   Lama, W.S. Merwin,scholar Robert Thurman and others this presentation of the The Buddha’s life was entertaining and broad but came off at the end as rather shallow and dull.  I didn’t particularly enjoy the “scholarly” tidbits throughout the documentary although I can’t find any fault with the opening statements by the Dalai Lama.  Personally, I think they would have been more stirring if placed at the end.

You are your own master

Future, everything depends on your shoulder

Buddha’s responsibility is to show the path, thats all.

There was also a lack of commentary from everyday practitioners on the life and teachings of the Buddha.  With the same 4 or 5 talking heads speaking, the conversation got redundant after a while.  The artwork and animations were a nice diversion for me but the mixing of spectacular myth with biography became convoluted.

I’m nitpicking.  I enjoyed the film immensely.  The best part was my daughter transfixed on the animated elephants and loudly trumpeting and laughing hysterically whenever the Dalai Lama popped up on the screen.  Over all, I enjoyed the relaxed pace of the film as well as the simple explanation of the teachings.  It served as  a welcome introduction to a path that always requires a reminder.  But I did, at the end, expect to see…

…next week on “The Buddha”.



For a fabulous review (and an honest one) of “The Buddha” check out My Buddha is Pink here.


15 thoughts on “The Buddha on PBS

  1. How about Celebuddhist?

    Funny, we had a 4-year old girl with us (“Four and a half!” she would say) who also lit up every time the Dalai Lama appeared.

    I agree with you, John, and I did the same, no promo. I think it’s simply not so useful a film for long-time Buddhists. I appreciated the sweet qualities of the monk and nun commentators, but wondered at the Western choices beyond Robert Thurman. It was also weird to see Asians depicted as practitioners, and Westerners as commentators.

    In any case, my main beef was that I felt it ultimately diminished the import of the Buddha’s enlightenment. It’s as if the filmmaker didn’t really understand what had occurred there and fell back onto allegorical whimsy. For a Western audience, I would have left the miraculous stuff largely alone. It also, like every other film on the topic, blew by the Buddha’s 45-year teaching career.

    It was, however, much more accurate in its use of root sources, and there were moments that truly moved me. You know what’s weird? I actually choked up during the long shot of the Bodhi Tree! I’m such a hippie…

    • Yes. Whimsy is the word I would use if I had a decent vocabulary. I would still recommend it to people to watch if they are curious but I feel like I will need to field the “Did lightning shoot from Buddha’s eyes question somewhere in the future.”

      I like Thurman as a choice since but the rest of the western commentators were weak.

      It was also weird to see Asians depicted as practitioners, and Westerners as commentators.

      Yes! Not one Westerner! Weird. All we do is talk!

  2. I thought it was very well done — especially as an introduction to the Buddha for folks who know little or nothing about him. I especially appreciated the explanation of dukkha as dis-ease rather than “suffering.”

    • As an introduction, yes. I can’t think of a better big production piece that compares. The explaination of dukkha was well done. I am being persnickity in my post. Overall I was happy with it and like Aliens:Resurrection I will probably watch it over and over again.

  3. You have kids – didn’t it remind you of that PBS Kids show Between the Lions with all the animated and soft spoken dramatizations? I would have liked to hear from some other varying practitioners. Poets and Shrinks are nice, but Thich Nat Hanh wasn’t available?

    • I actually had “Ice Age” lined up for daughter to watch but she gravitated towards the animations in The Buddha. It was funny. I don’t want to hear from poets and shrinks even if they are practitioners. Everyday Buddhists would have been more appealing.

  4. My husband’s Zen Buddhist, and I have absorbed many of the precepts, attended his sangha, and have done some reading. But, of course, this does not in any way qualify me as a Buddhist. I think “Just Sit” is the key, and I haven’t done that.

    That being said, I am a librarian, and I trumped you on the bookmarks- I now have about a 1000, if anyone’s interested! I sit the reference desk, and I received about two questions engendered by the upcoming show. (That’s good even for a large regional library– bookmarks aren’t the best marketing tool) One wanted info on Buddhism- we have a decent collection – the other a bio. I suggested Karen Armstrong, but had to order it from another library, like a lot of patrons, he didn’t want to wait– well, maybe Buddhism isn’t for him… Of course I promo’d the show.

    Honestly, I was exhausted, and actually fell asleep during some of the talking heads (which is exactly what I thought of them). Did the show go into meditation as the key to achieving awakening? Sorry, missed that. Will try to watch it again. Hope I don’t get any questions on lightenbolts! lol

  5. Hi,
    I am trying to get my Mom to finish watching it today with me, but I still fear that she doesn’t get it, yet. As Martha said without sitting, everything you understand is academic. That is where the meat and potatoes exist. Also, she still thinks it is a belief, like god is in everything and should provide immediate benefits.
    I have even been a novice last year, and written a lot about it in my blog for her to read. Blind faith does not work in Buddhism nor colorful stories like this one.

  6. I liked it; a good little Cliff notes version of things, and the wonders and limits of television time means some things got so simplified even I understood some things better than dry words in a book.

    Thought it went a little weird at the transition point from ascetic (the confrontation/Earth Is My Guru) after all that academia..

    But that’s what happens after a few generations, the parables become history and folded within the ‘canon’.

    Did some of that happen? in a time, a world when humans were perhaps a bit more connected with the planet, who knows?

    Lots left out, how to compress all that into 2 hours, but at least it’s out there and if the ratings/donations suffice, maybe they’ll revisit the topic in the future.

  7. I didn’t much care for it. It was schlocky, and amateur.

    It focused on unimportant mysticism and scholastic blather.

    I don’t think your post was harsh enough.

    To be honest I couldn’t finish it. The cartoons were nice. If you drop out everything else it would make a nice children’s film.

    I see this is another attempt by a non-Buddhist to explain those weirdo Buddhists to everyone else and failing.

    I think he had right intention and I think the film was made without malice. IT was a an honest attempt, but I was bored, all in all.

    It was good and bad. How’s that for non-dualistic thought for you?

    • Again, I think they were trying to achieve two goals: To describe the life of Buddha (fine) and to provide a weird frame-of-reference for Christians to harmonize with the thought as Buddha as savior (which he was but in less of a “flames coming out of the eyes way”) which came out convoluted. At one point he was human and leaving his family on a spiritual quest and next he is in a bad Lord of the Rings knock-off.

      But I am the sorta guy who never really “hates” a movie. I can watch almost anything. But, in this case, my largest bitch is in reference to the talking heads they provided. For the most part they were just spouting off lame one-liners (although the nun. monk and Thurman were ok).

      Did you catch the “Unmistaken Child” on afterwards? Definately a strange and interesting look at the quest for a reincarnated lama. I much prefered that one.



      ps. care package is heading out tomorrow.

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  9. I found the film to be well done. While not a practicing Buddhist myself I feel more of a connection to his story and his journey towards Enlightenment than to Jesus Christs or Mohammeds. In my view the difficulty in comprehending Buddhism for people, especially Westerners is the idea of the internal journey towards Enlightenment. Most other religions promote the idea of looking outward for understanding or salvation. This doesn’t appear to be the way of the Buddha and in fact, there is no salvation so to speak. Just an understanding that leads to peace and harmony within oneself and within one’s life.

    The part that touched me MOST is when the Dali Lama expressed:

    You are your own master

    Future, everything depends on your shoulder

    Buddha’s responsibility is to show the path, thats all.

    My heart POUNDED at the Truth of these words and I felt a huge connection to them. If people take nothing else from this film then it’s done its job.

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