Perhaps of all the religions, Buddhism truly is a religion of peace, self discovery and of course enlightenment. Writer-Director David Grubin creates a collage of beautiful animation, location shots across Northern India and Nepal, showcases the finest Buddhist sculptures and art, recites philosophical quotes from Buddhist texts, includes a voice over from a practicing American actor and opinions from fellow Buddhist who do not preach, but rather direct you to a way of life that has benefitted them immensely.
As the title suggests, this is a story about a man who said in order to gain anything, you must lose everything. Siddhartha Gautama was born in what is now Nepal to ruler of the Sakya people. He lived the privileged life of an Indian Prince who had everything his heart could desire. Within his palace walls, his father kept him secluded from the outside world in an artificial environment for it was prophesied that he would either become a great warrior king or a wise teacher. To keep him tied to the Kingdom, Gautama’s father arranged his marriage to his cousin who bore him a son. Life was absolutely bliss until his curiosity took him beyond the palace walls where he encountered four different types of men illustrating the life of a true commoner and the fates that await them. His eyes had been opened to the suffering of the outside world and was deeply overwhelmed with his knowledge; so much so that he left his family, his ancestry and royal luxuries to become a beggar in the open wilderness where he cut his hair and wore simple garments. He was 29 years old. Alone. Unsettled. Confused. And hungry for answers. At this stage, he didn’t have an insight or any solutions to his predicament – he only understood the problem. And it’s a problem he struggled to deal with for the next six years where he become a disciple to a couple of gurus and abstained his body from nourishment to eliminate any pain (which led to suffering) – neither of which worked. It wasn’t until the grace of a young girl who offered him some food did he retain some strength and managed to meditate under a Bodhi tree where he finally achieved enlightenment or dharma. For many years, he was ignorant, ostracised, deeply asleep but now he considered himself a ‘Buddha’ – the awakened one. He was finally ready to advise and teach others who would follow. And what he taught them was that humans were not special or had dominion over the natural world as other religions preached, but they were in fact connected. Insects, trees, rivers everything is connected. We are all one. But with that connection came suffering, attached at your birth and retains itself to your life until your death. The only escape is through enlightenment.
There is very little that can be said about the general arc of the documentary for it’s simply a story of a man who lived over 2,500 years ago and came across a problem he managed to solve via personal discovery. However Grubin tells this story using a myriad of techniques assisted by the likes of Richard Gere, who narrates the story, and is interjected by scholars and poets such as Jane Hirshfield, W. S. Merwin, Robert Tenzin Thurman and his holiness the Dalai Lama himself. The animations are a joy to watch as one particular scene morphs the Buddha into the different animals and people representing his reincarnated self from past lives or how his body was projected in different position across the sky. The sculptures and ancient art work, showcased in conjunction with New York’s Asia Society Museum, are captivating and illustrate a man’s legacy that still thrives in contemporary times. It makes for an engaging experience as you’re never quite sure what to expect next from a story you’ve probably heard before.
The purpose of the documentary isn’t to encourage you to follow or look up Buddhism. It actually encourages you to question it – as did the Buddha to his own disciples who devoted their lives to him. It highlights the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and explores suffering in ways you wouldn’t imagine. At two hours long, it is a demanding watch and often the same philosophy is reiterated with peculiar examples. Do Buddhist really look at others as potential Buddha’s? Are we all really capable of change? Do the answers to enlightenment really lie at the end of a mug after you drank coffee from it? At times, the contributors do become a tad nostalgic, drunk on poetry, mysticism and folktales – however it never seems naive only sincere. The Buddha’s followers presume nothing from you except to contemplate this question… are you awake? It’s a question Neo from The Matrix asked and it led him down the rabbit hole. Or did it?
In one of his recorded quotes, the Buddha said “He who sees me, see the teaching. He who sees the teaching… sees me”. This documentary explores just that – his teachings. And if anything, they are valuable teachings applicable to anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.
The Buddha will have its UK Premier on Wednesday, 11th April at the International Buddhist Film Festival
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha