Movies are a great way to learn more about Buddhism, and these days there are many available to choose from. What follows is a list of five feature films and five documentaries that cover Buddhist themes. While there are many films that deal indirectly with Buddhist themes, this list is focused on movies where Buddhism is front and center. I tried to select films that were from a variety of Buddhist traditions. I also wanted to make sure all the films included were readily available for rent or purchase, so the standard I used is that a film had to be available for rental on the online movie service Netflix, and for purchase on Amazon.
Kundun - This beautiful movie by Martin Scoresese portrays the the Dalai Lama's early life in Tibet, his forced escape to India, and his initial time in exile.
The Little Buddha - This film by Bernardo Bertolucci cuts between two stories - a modern-day Seattle couple whose young son has been identified as a Tibetan 'tulku' (reincarnated lama), and the story of the Buddha's life (in which Keanu Reeves plays the Buddha.)
Enlightenment Guaranteed - This German film (with English subtitles) chronicles the journey of two brothers who travel to a Japanese monastery in search of peace. Along the way, life offers them many valuable lessons, Zen-style.
Spring Summer Fall Winter - In this lovely Korean film (with English subtitles), an elder monk teaches a young man Buddhist lessons over the course of a lifetime. Beautiful cinematography and feeling.
Travelers and Magicians - Directed by Tibetan Lama Khyentse Norbu (who also directed The Cup, a heartwarming tale of young soccer-loving Tibetan monks), this film chronicles the story of a government official who is forced to hitchhike with a monk (and others), and hears a story from him that reveals to him his own inner follies and desires.
Also consider: Seven Years in Tibet, Heaven and Earth, and Jacobís Ladder.
The Dhamma Brothers - Covers the experiences of a group of prison inmates who engage in a Vipassana meditation program, and go through profound transformations.
Zen Buddhism: In Search of Self - Follows a group of South Korean Zen nuns on their annual 90-day intense retreat, including rituals dating back 1000 years.
10 Questions for the Dalai Lama - Interview with the Dalai Lama interspersed with Tibetan history and views of modern-day Dharamsala, where many Tibetans live in exile.
Tibetan Book of the Dead - Chronicles this fascinating Tibetan text, and shows how the rites described are interpreted by various groups around the world.
Wheel of Time - Covers the annual pilgrimage of thousands to Bohd Gaya, site of the Buddha's enlightenment, as well as the Kalachakra initiation and creation of a sand mandala.
Two others to consider, although they are unfortunately not available on Netflix, are Peace Is Every Step-Meditation In Action: The Life and Work of Thich Nhat Hanh and Amongst White Clouds: Buddhist Hermit Masters of China.
Be sure to also check out my article on movies with Buddhist Themes.