10 Leading Thinkers Choose Their Favorite Buddhist Films

We asked ten actors, filmmakers, and writers to each tell us their favorite movie that has a Buddhist message.

Lion’s Roar
23 June 2017
Photo (c) Alexander Podshivalov / dreamstime.com.

We asked ten actors, filmmakers, and writers to each tell us their favorite movie that has a Buddhist message.

We think the Buddha would have liked movies. Since he often taught through stories and parables, he would have appreciated the powerful spiritual stories that great films tell.

Perfect Sense, directed by David McKenzie (2011)

by Krista Tippett

I actually watch more television than films these days, but one film that came quickly to mind is Perfect Sense. It premiered at Sundance a few years ago but never got much attention. I found it exquisite. Ewan McGregor and Eva Green star. It brings together a few things I love: beautiful visuals and music, great acting and writing, a moving yarn, and a science fiction/thriller edge.

The premise is that one day a pandemic begins to hit the world in which human beings begin to lose one sense at a time. There are stages of grief in this, of course, and a certain amount of pandemonium and rage. All head toward a perilous ending, but there are also euphoria and deepening heightened pleasure in what remains.

Ewan McGregor plays a restaurant owner, and the most memorable scene for me is how human beings learn, after the senses of smell and taste disappear, to delight in the texture of food and the sheer joy and necessity of being together at a meal.

I have no reason to believe that the makers of this movie were Buddhist. But the absolute attention to presence in all its nuance—and the healing in and through suffering—seems to me a reflection of Buddhist psychology and humanity at its best.

Krista Tippett is the creator of the public radio show and podcast  On Being, a National Humanities medalist, and the author of the forthcoming book Becoming Wise.

A Man Escaped, directed by Robert Bresson (1956)

by David Grubin

A Man Escaped, Robert Bresson’s film about a French Resistance soldier sentenced to death who escapes from an impregnable Nazi prison, may seem like an odd choice. After all, the second part of its title, “The Wind Blows Where It Wishes,” comes from the Gospel According to John and the soundtrack features Mozart’s ‘Mass in C Minor.” Its narrative, the ostensibly predictable story of a prison break, promises more dramatic tension than it does illumination. But Bresson has something else in mind. Surprisingly, A Man Escaped is a spiritual film, decidedly Christian—unless you see it through a Buddhist lens.

Although the soldier’s situation is dire, he does not give way to despair. He is an inspiring presence, forging bonds with his prison mates through small, often perilous gestures. But it is his disciplined efforts to escape that parallel the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment. He intently studies his austere cell—the iron spoon, the wood paneling on the door, the bedsprings—and the prison walls beyond. He plans methodically, deliberately, bringing his full attention to the smallest detail, and then…

Without giving away the ending, I can write that it reminds me of the story of the young Buddhist monk who sees a wiser, older monk across a wide river. Desperately wanting to reach the wise man on the far bank, the young monk calls out, “How can I get to the other side?” The older monk responds, “You are on the other side.”

David Grubin is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose films include The Buddha, The Jewish Americans, R.F.K., and  The Secret Life of the Brain.

The Big Lebowski, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (1998)

by Jeff Bridges

Now, it could be argued that there’s no Buddhist theme in The Big Lebowski whatsoever. However, my buddy Bernie Glassman has another opinion. He said to me one day, “Did you know that the Dude in The Big Lebowski is considered by many Buddhists to be a Zen master?”

I said, “You gotta be kidding. We never talked about Zen or Buddhism while we were making Lebowski. The brothers never said anything about that.”

“Yeah,” laughed Bernie, “just look at their name—the Koan brothers.”

Koans are Zen stories that only make sense if you can see that life and reality are different from your opinions about them. Most of the famous ones were written in China a long time ago.

Bernie went on: “The Big Lebowski is filled with koans. Only they’re in the ‘parlance of our time,’ to quote the Dude. It’s filled with ‘em, like: The Dude abides—very Zen—or The Dude is not in—classic Zen—or Donny, you’re out of your element, or That rug really tied the room together. It’s loaded with ’em.”

See also: Read Roshi Bernie Glassman’s take on some classic Lebowski koans in “The Zen of The Dude.”

Now, my buddy Bernie is a Zen master himself, and he convinced me that The Big Lebowski has a Buddhist theme. In fact, we wrote a book about it called The Dude and The Zen Master (a portion of my answer to this question is ripped off from the intro to that book).

So, yeah, my favorite movie with a Buddhist theme? Gotta say, The Big Lebowski. But, as the Dude might say, “That’s just my opinion, man.”

Although many people think he is The Dude, Jeff Bridges is actually a multitalented actor, singer, photographer, and activist. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for Crazy Heart. Read Andrea Miller’s Lion’s Roar magazine feature about Bridges and his friendship with Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, “The Dude and the Zen Master.”

Kung Fu Panda, directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson (2008)

by Naima Mora

I’ve actually fallen in love with a movie that I think has one of the best representations of fundamental Buddhist principles: Kung Fu Panda.

The film is for both children and adults, which I love. It really starts a dialogue about Buddhist principles with young people and their parents who see themselves in each other and learn from each other.

The protagonist, Po, is selected as the dragon warrior out of pure circumstance. He is the least likely candidate. He fights to acquire the dragon scroll, all the while believing and being told that he could never do it. He finally wins the dragon scroll that is supposed to reveal all the secrets of martial arts and life, only to discover that it’s blank.

Po’s father tells him that in order for something to be special, you only have to believe it is special. Po sees his reflection mirrored in the scroll, understands he is special, and finally sees himself to be the dragon warrior.

In Nichiren Buddhism, we chant this same thing to the gohonzon, a scroll that “mirrors our life as limitless as the universe.” This mandala allows us to understand that all things are intrinsically enlightened and contain buddhahood. That all things are special, and you only need to believe to manifest buddhahood in your life.

Naima Mora is an America’s Next Top Model winner, a singer, and the author of  Model Behavior, an inspirational book for young people based on her own life experiences.

Opening Night, directed by John Cassavetes (1977)

by Peter Coyote

There is a wonderful American film called Opening Night, by the great director John Cassavetes, that on the surface makes no reference to anything remotely Buddhist. It is the story of a grand and courageous woman played by Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Roland, an actress of great reputation and talent, currently felled by alcoholism of a savagery that has reduced her on occasion to crawling onstage on her hands and knees.

She is working with a younger actor (Cassavetes), a temperamental and equally talented star who is infuriated by her unprofessionalism, the problems she causes, and the difficulties she makes for him during production. He is heartless, self-absorbed, and very cruel to this woman who is suffering as if she were on fire.

At the film’s end, Gena is onstage, too drunk to remember her lines. She begins improvising when suddenly Cassavetes is struck by compassion for her, and in a moment that never fails to reduce me to tears, begins improvising with her, offering her himself, his talent and skill, to show her off in the best possible light. He recognizes her, which she sees and understands, uplifted by his expression of love and respect. It is one of the greatest examples of compassion that I have ever seen on film, and expresses perfectly the central core of Buddhism, echoing His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s famous remark, “My religion is kindness.”

Peter Coyote is an actor, award-winning writer, and ordained priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.

A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki, directed by Michael Goldberg (2006)

by bell hooks

Meeting many years ago with Gary Snyder, coupled with my passionate interest in the Beat poets, led me to Zen Buddhism. Indeed, it was at a May celebration at Snyder’s home where I first encountered Buddhist nuns. Up until that point I knew little about women in the spread of Zen Buddhism.

My interest in Snyder’s poetry and his critical thinking on culture and politics coincided with a desire to learn more about Zen Buddhism. Eager to “study” Zen, I began by reading the works of Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. This generous bringer of Zen to the West also brought Zen to me—as both a way to learn and a way to practice.

No wonder that more than thirty years later, when I heard that there was a documentary featuring the life and work of D.T. Suzuki, I immediately placed my order for the film, eagerly awaiting this opportunity to actually “see” images of this teacher whose lifelong passion was to bring awareness and understanding of Zen to the West.

The film begins with a historical overview so that viewers can understand the cultural backdrop—imperialist wars, Japanese resistance to colonization, and family history—to Suzuki’s development. Recently watching the film again, I thought about the resurgence of racial conflict and hatred in this society. I was fascinated by a black-and-white image of a white woman standing in front of a house with a large sign declaring “JAPS KEEP MOVING: THIS IS A WHITE MAN’S NEIGHBORHOOD.” Given the current public celebration of Buddhist Asian teachers (Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and so many more) it is easy to forget the fierce anti-Asian, anti-Japanese climate that was for so long a crucial aspect of U.S. ethnic politics and racial relationships.

Then viewers shift from the external chaos to see and sit with the quietly calm D.T. Suzuki. He is impressively the same in whatever culture he is teaching and learning. Always assuming a humble demeanor, he jokes, he laughs, he affirms the joy of community.

An aura of gentleness and tenderness surrounds Suzuki. That tender heart is revealed in his thoughtful consideration of the eighteen-year-old girl Mihoko Okamura who comes to him seeking spiritual sanctuary, a way to see life as meaningful. Throughout the film, we witness the role women play in his life, almost always in the background yet always working to help create a sustainable environment for Suzuki to live and work. It is impossible to watch this film and not want to know more about Mihoko Okamura. Though she is interviewed, she is never asked about her intentions, her motivations, and her lifelong service to Suzuki, and he is never asked about the significance to him of her service.

A Zen Life is on many levels a testament to contemplative life lived with devotion as its heartbeat. In the film, Gary Snyder comments, “To be devotional is to take great faith in life as it is.” D.T. Suzuki declares, “Real freedom is to see things as they are.”

bell hooks is a renowned feminist theorist, author, and cultural critic. Read her writing on Lion’s Roar.

The Matrix, directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski (1999)

by Jessica Pimentel

There are many references in The Matrix to Buddhist philosophy and the journey to enlightenment. The main theme of the film is that reality is not what it appears to be—it is a result of our perceptions and to know the true nature of all things requires us to “wake up” and to “free our mind.” This is a beautiful parallel to the Buddha, who is referred to as “The Awakened One.” The idea that the world around us can change if we learn to conquer our mind is an essential teaching of Buddhism.

While there are messages in The Matrix that echo all schools of Buddhism, the one that resonates with me the most is the theme of the guru and the student

They say when the student is ready the teacher appears. Neo feels a deep discontent with the world around him and knows something is not right. As many of us who enter the Buddhist path do, he literally hacks his way through his reality to try to get the answers. Then he is met with the words of his teacher, Morpheus: “ Wake up, Neo.”

The teacher has the map, the cookbook, the training. The teacher is the one who advises, teaches, disciplines, and encourages us to go beyond our comfort zone in order to gain deeper levels of understanding. We will find ourselves having to take leaps of faith, as Neo does—literally—because the instructions of the teacher must be experienced directly to fully grasp their meaning and gain understanding.

But in the end the teacher can only show us the way. It is the student alone who must go forward. Like Neo, we must believe in our teacher—and in ourselves.

Jessica Pimentel plays Maria in Orange Is the New Black. Read our Q&A with Pimentel from Lion’s Roar magazine.

Groundhog Day, directed by Harold Ramis (1993)

by Mickey Lemle

By far the most “Buddhist” movie I’ve ever seen is not Little Buddha or The Life of the Buddha but Groundhog Day. This Harold Ramis film, written by Danny Rubin, captures the very essence of Buddhism.

Bill Murray’s character, Phil, keeps reliving the same day over and over. He goes through all of the human attachments in each new repeated day, each new incarnation: power, lust, greed for experience, and so forth.

Little by little, he catches on: that the purpose of life is serving others impeccably, without savoring the fruits of his actions. Finally, by living a “perfect day of impeccable service,” he is able to break the endless cycle of reincarnation and move on. Oh yeah, he is also able to love and be loved, finally connecting heart-to-heart with Rita, played by Andie MacDowell.

On a recent filming trip to India, I asked the Dalai Lama about a particular practice he’s been doing for decades. “Your Holiness,” I asked, “twenty-five years ago you told me about a daily practice you do called ‘Take and Give.’ You explained that every day, in your imagination, you take on Chinese anger, hatred, and bitterness and in return give them love and compassion. Your Holiness, you’ve been doing this practice for decades—has it helped? Who are you doing it for?”

Without missing a beat, he said, “For myself! It’s not going to solve the problem, but it keeps my mind calm. Love and forgiveness is for yourself. Altruism is for yourself.”

That is what Bill Murray’s character finally learns, one of the Dalai Lama’s greatest teachings: that selfless service for others is ultimately the greatest reward and the true purpose of life.

Mickey Lemle is currently finishing The Last Dalai Lama? his second major film about His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Double Indemnity, directed by Billy Wilder (1944)

by Seth Greenland

“I killed him for the money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money. And I didn’t get the woman.” So opens Billy Wilder’s noir classic, Double Indemnity, based on the brutal novel by James M. Cain. From that point, the movie flashes back and tells the lurid story that culminates in this foretold conclusion, a structure that subtly suggests that beginnings live side-by-side with endings.

Fred McMurray, in a role that will make you forget he played the dad in the sitcom My Three Sons, is a seemingly mild-mannered insurance salesman who is lured into a web of intrigue by the conniving Barbara Stanwyck. Together they plot to murder her spouse and split the insurance payout. The unfortunate husband is dispatched, but things quickly go south for the couple. McMurray’s boss, played by the great Edward G. Robinson, is onto them, and as the noose tightens the lovers turn on each other like scorpions.

The fundamental delusion the characters suffer from is that money and the promise of sex will make them happy. When the account of their descent has unspooled, we are back to where we were at the beginning and the characters are revealed in their meretricious striving and crippling illusions to be prisoners on the wheel of samsara. Far from a simple tale of lust and lucre, Double Indemnity is a Buddhist parable.

Seth Greenland is a playwright, screenwriter, and the author of four novels, including The Angry Buddhist.

For the Benefit of All Beings, directed by Christina Lundberg (2011) and Brilliant Moon, directed by Neten Chokling (2010)

by Michael Imperioli

I have two favorite Buddhist films. The first and closest to my heart is For the Benefit of All Beings, which is about the life of Garchen Rinpoche, who also happens to be my root teacher. The story of this great lama’s life and the difficulties he has overcome is a never-ending source of inspiration. Rinpoche spent twenty years doing hard labor in a Chinese concentration camp and yet has spent his life cultivating and teaching love and compassion for all sentient beings.

The other film is Brilliant Moon, which is about the life of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist masters of the twentieth century. This film has great footage of Khyentse Rinpoche teaching in his unique and inimitable style. I watch this film often and never tire of hearing this precious and inconceivable lama teach us the dharma.

Michael Imperioli is an actor and writer best known for his work on The Sopranos. He is currently appearing on the Amazon series Mad Dogs. Read Andrea Miller’s Lion’s Roar magazine profile of him, “Wise Guy.”

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Lion’s Roar

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