Cinema of spirituality: Buddhism in films

Thursday 28 March 2013, by Buddhachannel Eng.

Langues :

These films convincingly, even ravishingly, capture qualities essential to a Buddhist-themed cinema: Silence, suffering, contemplation, poetry and mindfulness. The characters in these films undergo various kinds of intense spiritual struggle. Spirituality as a theme in cinema is rare. It is often forsaken for more ‘exciting’ themes — sexuality, violence, romance, family melodrama. If the spiritual, the mystical are present at all, they are present only as subplots; minor themes in the background.

Buddhism as a theme seems to have had only a glancing presence in cinema until the 90s. Earlier films such as Lost Horizon and The Razor’s Edge were Hollywoodised versions of Buddhist monks and monasteries. The 1956 film version of Heinrich Harrer’s controversial autobiography, Seven Years in Tibet, was another instance of Tibetan Buddhism used as an exotic backdrop in cinema.

It is only with Milarepa (1974) — Italian director Liliana Cavani’s little seen film — recounting the story of the Tibetan spiritual master, Milarepa — that we have the first film exploring Buddhism as a full-blown theme in cinema. Tibetan yogi, Milarepa, is one of the main teachers of Buddhism. In Milarepa a car crash in Italy sends its victims adrift in time back to 11th-century Tibet where they re-enact the dramatic story of the poet-sage Milarepa. The film shifts from 11th century Tibet to contemporary Italy in a classic sinner/saint tale of a man who overcomes a life of black magic to embrace Buddhist teachings. As a film, Milerapa continues to be obscure and little seen except on festival circuits.

The handful of Buddhist films that followed it — mostly Korean — also remain little known to a mainstream audience. A pity, since they are such gems. One in particular is extraordinary for its contemplative quality: Bae Yong-kyun’s Why did Bodhi Dharma Leave for the East? (1989). The title refers to a Zen riddle for which there is no answer. Noted painter Bae Yong-kyun devoted several years to “carefully and lovingly creating this challenging, meditative and exquisitely photographed film.”

Buddhism as a philosophy, as a way of coping with contemporary living, had taken hold of the imagination today. Martin Scorsese’s beautifully shot, illuminating film on the early life of the 14th Dalai Lama is a deliberate attempt to make a less Hollywoodised, more authentic film on Buddhism. The script stays close to the Dalai Lama’s point of view: His discovery by Buddhist monks searching for the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama among the farming communities of northern Tibet in 1935; his upbringing and tutelage in Lhasa; through the Communist Chinese invasion of 1950, to his own exile to India nine years later.

Spurred by the interest stirred in Buddhism by Bertolucci, Scorsese and Annaud other Hollywood and international film productions followed with Buddhist-themed films. But only in the last five years have films on Buddhism emerged from filmmakers from the East. Most notably Pan Nalin’s Samsara, (his latest project is a long awaited bio-pic of the Buddha) Khyentse Norbu’s The Cup, Kim Ki Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...and Spring, Neten Chokling’s Milarepa, and Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s Dreaming Lhasa.
The couple have just made The Sun Behind the Clouds, a film about Tibet’s struggle for freedom.

Shot in Ladakh, Samsara is full of spectacular wide-screen landscapes of this Himalayan region. Nalin’s first feature was a huge commercial and critical success worldwide. It won him more than 30 international awards. In The Cup, young Tibetan monks in a monastery in India obsess over World Cup soccer. A brilliant and funny debut by Bhutanese filmmaker, Khyentse Norbu. Several of the actors, such as Neten Chokling, are actually Tibetan Buddhist teachers of note, and the whole film radiates warmth and reality.
Norbu’s last film, Travellers and Magicians is more subtly Buddhist.

Dreaming Lhasa is perhaps the first film to capture both “the majesty of Tibetan-Buddhist culture and the complexity of its ties to the outside world.”

Korean director Kim Ki-Duk is best known on the festival circuit for his studies in violence and cruelty, but Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ...and Spring is a spiritually austere and deeply involving film. “A young boy lives in a small floating temple on a beautiful lake, together with an elderly master who teaches him the ways of the Buddha. Years later the boy, now a young man, experiences his sexual awakening with a girl who has come to the temple to be healed by the master. The youth runs away to the outside world but his lust turns his life into hell, and he returns to the lake temple to find spiritual enlightenment.”

Milarepa from Bhutan is the second biopic about the poet-monk (1052-1135) who became one of Tibet’s great spiritual leaders. Its director, Neten Chokling, is a Buddhist monk and actor best known for his role in The Cup. Werner Herzog’s documentary, Wheel of Time, “Focuses on the details of two Buddhist events in 2002 — an enormous conclave in India (around the spot where Siddhartha became the Buddha) that draws half a million of the faithful, and a much smaller gathering in Austria later that year. These twin points of contact provide a glimpse of the events’ ritual — mandala making. In the process, the film elegantly sets up a space for contemplation.”

The widespread interest in films dealing with spiritual/Buddhist subjects has now inspired an entire festival devoted to this cinema. The International Buddhist Film Festival (IBFF) “presents, archives and preserves Buddhist-themed and inspired cinema of all kinds: Features, documentaries, animation, experimental work, children’s films and television programmes.”

One can even glimpse Buddhist-influenced themes in mainstream films: The Matrix, I Heart Huckabees, Dead Man, and Kung Fu Hustle have plot points whose philosophical premises are evidently Buddhist. Even the famous TV cartoon character from The Simpsons — Lisa — has now declared herself a Buddhist!

Source: deccanherald.com

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  • Cinema of spirituality: Buddhism in films 15 June 2010 08:42, by Rita Ronaldo

    For anyone talking cinema and Buddhism; I highly recommand the following brilliant and enlightening article written by Pan Nalin. Enjoy!! - Rita Ronaldo


    By Pan Nalin

    Was Buddha a filmmaker?
    What was he thinking when he said:

    “Each one of us sees the world through the frame of his thoughts.”

    Or was he a screenwriter?

    “Words can burn. Words can soothe. Use them wisely.”

    The very process of sitting in the dark and watching a shadow play is a sign of an open heart, an open mind and an open soul. Spectators, humble and venerable, throw themselves in the lap of filmmakers. They, sit there ready to receive.

    But rare are the filmmakers who would recognise and respect that openheartedness of those “chained to their chair in the darkness” as Plato predicted them in The Republic.

    What is to be in control of all senses of millions of human being, while they sit in that darkness for two to three hours?

    To entertain does not mean that one should proliferate our ignorance. It also does not mean that one should only propagate moral or meaningful cinema.

    All genre, all stories, all epics must be told. Must be shown. But how?

    Only with an awakened soul.
    Only through an awakened mind.

    While making movies an honest filmmaker will often reach a trance like level, that’s the reason they are often considered egocentric or insane.
    Selfishness is necessary to create a story for other souls.

    Creation of the film might be a totally selfish act. But projection of the film is totally a non-selfish act. The filmmaker is naked in every which way in front of his spectator when the light simmers down.

    Bodhisattvas are born to help others achieve enlightenment.
    True Filmmakers are born to help others inspire and entertain.
    Consciously or unconsciously, several filmmakers have taken path of Buddhist awakening through their works; Teshigahara, Tarkovsky, Godard, Bae-Kung, Shindo, Antonioni, Michael Mann…

    What is to be awake while making movies? To be awake is to be honest. To be awake is to be aware. To be awake is to be able to perceive life in its true light. To be awake is to have compassionate understanding of nature of things and beings.

    In Woman of the Dunes (Suna no Onna), when Hiroshi Teshigahara’s camera travels over sand dunes, then over the sand soaked, perspiring body of a woman. Sand has found a new home that of a lustful body. Sensation created is that of a very understanding mind. Two characters trapped in a deep hole, maybe forever. What Teshigahara manages with these two human beings and their longing -it continues to echo in hearts of millions till today.

    In Godfather, Al Pacino character looses his daughter in a shoot-out. Coppola takes away all the sound from the scene as the father begins to howl, scream and cry. Thus he creates an emotional space for spectators to feel the loss. We are moved, we are touched… but in silence. This powerful scene had such an impact that since then filmmakers have repeated (or copied) it in hundreds of movies all over the world. But if Coppola was not ‘awake’ -this moment would have been lost as a mere melodrama.

    Dreyer in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc creates a transcendental world, once you are in it; you are there till the end –mesmerized by haunting images and hypnotised by unbearable silences. Pain of Jeanne of Arc is so real that you can almost touch her tears.

    All these filmmakers, like many awakened souls, took enormous joy in creation of their cinema. Buddhism believes that all emanates from joy and returns to joy. To film is to find joy in every aspect of filmmaking; to find joy in writing, to find joy in directing a sad scene, to find a joy in playing a demon or divinity, to find a joy in showing a film. In the end, all must return to joy. Because joy is both, the knowledge and the bliss.

    Bliss is what transcends beyond. If each filmmaker begins to be honest with the self, then the self will disappear. An act of blissful filmmaking is selfless because beyond that lies a cultivation of an awakened mind.
    And cinema of an awakened mind always finds souls -that connect.
    It is that very connection gives birth to classics.

    Cinema of an awakened soul has rarely failed to entertain or inspire. Those films are archives of memories of humanity. Those films are our spiritual wealth. Those films are our eternal festivals. A celebration of life.

    The play of shadows and sound, light and darkness has deep relation to the meditation. The concentrated soul, sitting in the dark cinema hall, is soft and flexible because there is a notion of surrendering. And when one surrenders, one is able to touch the joy of action, humour, fear, thrill, sorrow, romanticism…. One is detached from the rest of the world, like a curious child, one is back to human basics –laugh, cry, feel… They sit there ready to receive. It is up to each filmmaker what would he or she do with each of that soul, chained to their chair in the darkness, waiting to be enlightened."

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