Many wonderful Buddhist movies have been made in recent years, both feature films and documentaries, and I listed some of them in a prior article, Buddhist Movies. However, there are also many films that are not explicitly about Buddhism, but feature themes and characters that might be considered Buddhist. What follows is a description of some of my favorites, and the Buddhist themes that I think are represented in each. Be sure to chime in with your suggestions in the related Buddhism forum thread.
Buddhism asks us to question our perception of reality, and the mental and emotional patterns that shape our perception. Many films explore this theme, The Matrix trilogy being central amongst them. Even the idea of ‘awakening’ from the Matrix mirrors the process of awakening in Buddhism. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) serves as a teacher to Neo (Keanu Reeves), in this regard, and at one point could almost be alluding to the Four Noble Truths on the nature of suffering when he talks to Neo:
“…you, like everyone else, was born into bondage…kept inside a prison that you cannot smell, taste, or touch. A prison for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. Remember that all I am offering is the truth. Nothing more.”
The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey, offers some similar themes regarding perception, reality, and truth. Unknown to him, Truman is trapped in an artificial reality constructed for a television show, with all the people in his life played by actors and actresses. As he begins to suspect this, he goes through an awakening process of sorts, and must adapt to his new perceptions of himself and the world.
Other films explore themes of reality, impermanence, consciousness and awakening by exploring the dream state, particularly lucid dreaming, in which an individual 'wakes up' inside a dream, aware they are dreaming while they are in it, and often exerting control over the dream itself. Tibetan dream yoga, taught within some branches of Tibetan Buddhism, works with this practice explicitly, while for other branches the link between dreaming and spiritual awakening is metaphorical. The movies Waking Life, Vanilla Sky (and the original Spanish film Open Your Eyes), the Japanese animated film Spirited Away, and the recent blockbuster Inception all play with this concept to some extent. A quote that might sum up the parallels between these themes and Buddhism is from a character in Waking Life:
"They say that dreams are only real as long as they last. Couldn't you say the same thing about life?"
Other movies that explore the nature of consciousness, although not necessarily awakening, are Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich. In the former, an exchange between two characters, about to have difficult memories erased, might sum up one view of impermanence, and mindfulness practice:
Clementine: This is it, Joel. It's going to be gone soon.
Joel: I know.
Clementine: What do we do?
Joel: Enjoy it.
Vanilla Sky is an example of a movie that might also be said to explore rebirth, albeit through cryogenics. Other films that explore rebirth are Being Human, starring Robin Williams, Dead Again, starring Emma Thompson, and Hereafter, starring Matt Damon. Two humorous explorations of rebirth are Defending Your Life, with Meryl Streep, and Groundhog Day with Bill Murray. Here’s a humorous exchange from Defending Your Life, between the main character Daniel Miller, and his after-life guide Bob Diamond, as they visit the 'Past-lives Pavilion':
Bob Diamond - Being from earth as you are and using as little of your brain as you do, your life has pretty much been devoted to dealing with fear.
Daniel Miller - It has?
Bob Diamond - Everybody on earth deals with fear. That's what 'little brains' do.
Daniel Miller - What are 'little brains'?
Bob Diamond - That's what we call you folks behind your back.
A big theme of Groundhog Day is kindness, and learning to give from the heart without expectation of return. This is also the theme behind the film Pay it Forward, in which a young boy attempts to start a chain reaction of kindness by doing three good deeds.
Mindfulness is also a theme of Groundhog Day, and other films that might be said to represent this theme are Being There and Forrest Gump, both featuring main characters with cognitive limitations, but a deep understanding of how to enjoy the moments of life, and how to truly love. One of my favorite lines from Forrest Gump, played by Tom Hanks, is:
"I’m not a smart man…but I know what love is."
Other movies that might be considered Buddhist-themed feature teacher/student relationships that are deeply spiritual, such as the The Legend of Baggar Vance, Star Wars (think Yoda), and The Razor’s Edge.
A fun book for exploring Buddhist themes in movies is Cinema Nirvana, by Dean Sluyter: