Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why “The Buddha” left me dissatisfied

In general, I thought the PBS special “The Buddha” was OK. That’s right, just OK. And one reason I thought it was just OK is that the documentary, in my opinion, brought up issues and raised questions that any reasonable non-Buddhist might have, and then failed to provide an explanation or context that would help a non-Buddhist resolve these issues or questions.

A second reason was it seemed to me that the producers of this documentary missed an opportunity to show to non-Buddhists how diverse Buddhism is. I will grant some leeway in this because, after all, the documentary was titled “The Buddha,” and not “Buddhism.” But many non-Buddhists tend to look at Buddhism as something Tibetan because of how frequently we see and hear about the Dalai Lama in the media. This documentary did nothing to dispel that misperception. In fact, I think it reinforced it.

My first issue with the documentary was quickly raised when the program began to cover the myth surrounding the Buddha’s birth. I am quite familiar with the story and I wasn’t surprised that it was brought up. What surprised me was that there was no explanation provided about the myth. The Buddha sprouted out of the side of his mother? She was impregnated by an elephant?

Like many cultures of that time – approximately 500 BC – Indian culture during the Buddha’s time regarded women with disdain and mistrust, even among the upper castes. A woman’s body was considered filthy, and for as a great a holy person as the Buddha was eventually regarded to be to have been created through such a mundane practice as intercourse, and to have been birthed vaginally, would likely have been viewed as unworthy of the Buddha’s stature. But another clue for me about this myth is that the Siddhartha’s mother reportedly died shortly after his birth. That leads me to think that Siddhartha’s birth was a difficult one. Because the tale describes his birth with Siddhartha coming out of his mother’s side, I am inclined to think that something like a Caesarean birth was necessary. Given the era when this occurred, such a procedure was certainly complicated and Siddhartha’s mother could very well have died from a post-procedural infection. And besides, many women during that time died during or shortly after childbirth. I’m not suggesting my explanation is the right one, but there was no explanation provided at all. For a skeptical non-Buddhist, such a myth would come across as being very similar to the more familiar birth story surrounding Jesus. And if Buddhism is such a rational religion, which is often how it is presented and viewed by others, why does it cling to such myths about the Buddha’s birth?

A similar problem with the presentation occurred during the descriptions of Siddhartha’s awakening. The graphical presentation has this gigantic monster Mara surrounded by hordes of demons attempting to deter Siddhartha’s eventual enlightenment. Again, no explanation of what this might mean, of what was going on, that could reveal to a non-believer in an intellectually palatable manner what might have been going on with Siddhartha at the time. In other words, what was the metaphor? Because Buddhism does not require you to believe that is exactly what happened. In fact, that event can be easily explained as a metaphor allowing someone who has no belief at all in spirits or gods to understand the final struggle Siddhartha faced before attaining enlightenment. As my first teacher explained to me, Mara represents the deluded mind, all the demons dancing around represent our chaotic thoughts. The final struggle for Siddhartha was to subdue the mind, to no longer let it control his actions and thoughts, but to reign it in so it could be directed toward more skillful actions. The mind rebels against this, as anyone who practices meditation can attest to. When the mind – as represented by Mara – is finally subdued, freedom is realized.

But again, all these “experts” who were brought on for the show didn’t touch any of this at all. And as one of my non-Buddhist friends commented to me, it just seemed like a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo no different from all the demons and angels and all that associated with Christianity. Rather than bringing a skeptical non-Buddhist closer to accepting Buddhism as a viable alternative to monotheism, it is my belief that this portion of the documentary pushed many away.

And then there is my second issue, which is more subtle, and that is this program did nothing to explain Buddhism is an extraordinarily diverse religion, represented by a wide variety of teachers and teachings. Nor did the program explain that there are many facets of the Buddhist practice that have little or nothing to do with what the Buddha taught, but are rather manifestations of local culture. Selecting Richard Gere as the program’s narrator makes some sense because he is widely known both as a public figure and as a Buddhist. But his alignment with Tibetan Buddhism only feeds a general misperception that anyone who is Buddhist practices the Tibetan form and follows the Dalai Lama as if he were a Buddhist pope. The fact the program included interviews with the Dalai Lama only reinforces this misperception. The other monk and nun interviewed for the program, who were they? Where were they from? What vehicle do they follow? Do they also follow the Dalai Lama? The entire program, in that respect, struck me as being very ethnocentric and culturally biased.

Granted, as I mentioned earlier, the show was titled “The Buddha,” and hence it was about the Buddha, not necessarily about Buddhism. Nonetheless, I was very disappointed by what I saw as a one-dimensional presentation that missed many opportunities.


  1. I agree Richard. I generally liked the show, I especially thought the poet Jane Hirshfeild(sp?)stole the show with her commentary. But you are right, they didn't explain the metaphors and, yes I am biased, but I didn't see one Zen person in the show. It is much more diverse than they portrayed, but like you said, it was titled The Buddha.

  2. That birth thing...lead my Mom, to immediately turn off her mind and label the whole thing as a nice made-up story. Her interest faded after that.

  3. Agreed! I thought the telling of the story of Buddha through historical and metaphorical methods to be clunky and unsatisfying. The images of Mara was like the lame 1970's version of Lord of the Rings.

    I could give two shits about fighting demons when the amazing thing was the Buddha's formulating of a method.

    For me, it seemed like it was targeted towards non-Buddhists in general but specifically to Christians that required a mythology to compare to.


  4. Interesting points John. And I love the comparison to that 1970s LOTR movie. That was lame, wasn't it? "Wizards" was far more advanced than that silly cartoon (and they only did one book, as I recall). Your characterization on your blog of "shallow and dull" hits the mark. Thanks for the plug, BTW.

  5. The worst part about the myths is that all of the "biographies" already go over them. When making a brand new documentary, they had an opportunity to try and paint a picture of a the historical, flesh-and-blood Buddha. But no...

    I wrote a little more about some of the disappointing aspects of the film:


  6. @vegan27, in reference to a comment you made at your blog (I couldn't remember my livejournal login):

    Two Suttas that you might be thinking of include the Channa Sutta (AN 3.71) and the Ariya-vamsa Sutta (AN 4.28), particularly the latter, which in part states: "Furthermore, the monk finds pleasure and delight in developing (skillful mental qualities), finds pleasure and delight in abandoning (unskillful mental qualities). He does not, on account of his pleasure and delight in developing and abandoning, exalt himself or disparage others. In this he is skillful, energetic, alert, and mindful."