There are three distinct versions of the life and work of the Buddha, who is today thought to have been born between 500 and 400 BCE. First, there is the straightforward biographical approach, which is made difficult by the almost complete lack of first-hand information. Second, there is the folkloric or mythological approach, of which there are many variations. Most of these are drawn from the older traditions of Hinduism. Finally, there is the Hermann Hesse novel, Siddhartha (1922), which takes extraordinary liberties with the accepted biography of the prophet, creating a great deal of confusion and misinterpretation.
The Hesse novel enjoyed renewed popularity in the West during the 1960s among seekers of alternatives to the organized religions of the Abrahamic tradition. I confess that for a time I was among them. The little book, called Siddhartha, was given to me in 1960 by a kind of beatnik bodhisattva that I met during my three months at college. He told me it would change the course of my life and it did. Without knowledge of the ways in which it fictionalized the life of the Buddha, I was caught up in the parable. What appealed to me most was the idea that enlightenment was not achieved by following a teacher, but through direct experience.
Two of the films on my short list of movies about Buddhism are documentaries. The Life of Buddha (La Vie de Bouddha) (2003) follows the course of its subject down the Ganges. The cameras record key places along this route as they look to travelers today. No trailer is available. A PBS documentary movie called, The Buddha (2010), narrated by Richard Gere, can be found on YouTube. There is an animated film called The Legend of Buddha (2004), which is directed primarily at children. With Disney-like simplicity, including pretty songs and modernized language, it tells the abbreviated story of the Buddha as if for the first time. The full movie is available on YouTube. Warner Herzog made a film called Wheel of Time (2003) about a huge gathering of the Buddhist faithful on the River Ganges. The result was tinged with disappointment, however, when the Dalai Lama was unable to attend for reasons of health.
Little Buddha (1993)
One other movie that touches significantly on the life story of the Buddha is Little Buddha (1993). This film by Bernardo Bertolucci is rooted in the northern Buddhism of Bhutan. When a group of monks in the monastery at Paro determine that the incarnation of their beloved teacher is a small boy in Seattle, Washington, they make a journey to the United States. Managing to enlist the interest of the boy’s parents, they bring him back to their high perch in the Himalayas and teach him the story of the Buddha. The scenes of Buddha’s life are played out on the screen, with Keanu Reeves in the central role.
The early period of expansion for Buddhism was championed by King Asoka (r. circa 269 to 232 BCE). He was known as a cruel and violent ruler until he experienced an epiphany on a battlefield littered with the corpses of his enemies. This resulted in his embrace of the compassionate mission of Buddhism. He built temples and shrines in the sacred places of his new religion, and dispatched missionaries far beyond the borders of India. The cross-over Bollywood movie, Asoka (2001) tells this classic story punctuated with peppy pop songs and dances.
On our visit to India in 2011, we made a side-trip to the island nation of Sri Lanka. This was the southern refuge for Buddhism in its earliest migrations out of India. Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, achieved independence from the British in 1948 and changed its name in 1972. The Singhalese Kingdom was established long before the Common Era and embraced Buddhism as it’s official religion in the time of Asoka’s missionaries, circa 250 BCE. Travelers in Sri Lanka can visit the Dambulla Cave Temples marking the arrival of Buddhism on these shores. A multitude of Buddha effigies fill the ornately decorated cave chambers. The country has remained predominantly Buddhist into the present, though it is noted for its diversity of religions. The latest numbers show Buddhism at 70% and Hinduism at just under 13%. Islam and Christianity follow, each under 10%.
From the Caravan Journals: In the late afternoon we had a meditation lesson and group discussion with a Buddhist monk. The gist of it was that Buddhism had no argument with any nation or religion and views Buddha as the teacher of the Middle Way. We had been encouraged by our guide to ask difficult questions at the end. When none were forthcoming, I took a shot.
“You have spoken,” I said, “of Buddhism’s emphasis on finding one’s own path, and yet you have described yourself as a devout follower of Lord Buddha. How do you reconcile these two thoughts? The monk meditated for a little while and replied, “When you arrived in Sri Lanka, you had a guide to show you the way. Still, there were no obstacles to your finding your own path.”
I thought for a moment and said, “Good answer.”
Our eyes met, and he winked at me.
Beyond this, we learned of the terrible tragedies of the Sri Lankan Civil War, 1983 to 2009. Under the surface politics, this conflict was fought between Hindu insurgents and the prevailing Buddhist population. At the time of our visit, the country was in recovery. There are a number of Sri Lankan films dealing with the war, but they are mostly unavailable. Hollywood supplies only Elephant Walk (1954) with Liz Taylor as the wife of a colonial plantation owner. It pictures the precarious hold of the British brand of Civilization over a land that remained essentially untamed.
In ancient times, Sri Lanka had a reputation as an uncivilized place, wild and unruly. In the Hindu classic, Ramayana, it was the home of the demon Ravana, who plagued the kingdoms of northern India. See Hindu Southern India for more on the Ramayana.