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Review - PBS Documentary Film 'The Buddha'

PBS The Buddha In April 2010, the U.S. Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) aired its documentary 'The Buddha', by David Grubin, director of many acclaimed PBS specials, including 'Healing And The Mind with Bill Moyers'. The special is now available for purchase and rental on DVD, and may also be re-aired on various PBS stations around the U.S. (you can check if it will re-air in your area here.)

The documentary revolves around the story of the Buddha's life, as told in the first sutras on the subject, which began appearing around 500 years after the Buddha's passing. Richard Gere, a long-time celebrity Buddhist, narrates the sutra portion of the story, while beautiful Buddhist artwork from around the world is displayed, interspersed with shots of sacred Buddhist historical sites, and some original graphics. The artwork in particular is stunning, and of course Richard Gere's voice contributes a lovely and peaceful depth to the telling.

At each phase of the Buddha's life story, cutaways to well-known Buddhist academics, teachers and writers are incorporated, who share their own thoughts on that phase of the Buddha's life, and what it represents to the modern day Buddhist practitioner. In this way, the film serves as more than simply a documentary on the Buddha's life - it becomes a guide for anyone interested in exploring Buddhism, or for the practicing Buddhist.

Some of the better-known commentators include the Dalai Lama, Robert Thurman (the first American ordained as a Buddhist monk, acclaimed Buddhist author and speaker, and professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia University), Mark Epstein (Buddhist psychotherapist and author, and frequent contributor to the Buddhist magazine Tricycle), W.S. Merwin (practicing Zen Buddhist and acclaimed poet), and Jane Hirshfield (also a practicing Zen Buddhist and acclaimed poet.) Many others are featured as well.

All my favorite quotes came from Ms. Hirshfield, perhaps because of my interest in women in Buddhism, as she was one of the few women commentators. Below are a sampling of quotes from her taken from various points in the film.

On enlightenment, and the fact that it does not mean we will have a perfect life or live in a perfect world:

"Buddhism does not argue with reality. There will always be both the potential for awakening in any moment, and the potential for incredible damage at any moment. And if we fool ourselves into thinking we’re past that, we will do incredible damage."

On our efforts to change the world for the better:

"A tree lives on its roots. If you change the roots, you change the tree. Culture lives on human beings. If you change the human heart, culture will follow."

On the Buddhist notion of detachment, and the mistaken perception that it is about a repression of feeling or human expression:

"It's alright to feel what human beings feel, and we are not supposed to turn into rocks or trees when we practice Buddhism. Buddhists laugh, cry, dance, feel ecstasy, probably even feel despair. It is how we know the world. It is how we live inside of our hearts, not disassociated from them."

Overall, this film offers a beautiful introduction to Buddhism for anyone, and an enlightening and diverse perspective on it for the long-time practitioner too. Like many historical documentaries, it is not fast-paced, but provides a lovely and peaceful journey from start to finish.

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