“I DON’T BELIEVE IN REINCARNATION,” the husband says to his wife. “Not like this, anyway. ‘Coming back’ as a specific person. And neither do you,” he concludes. Then, after a poignant cinematic beat, he adds, “Or do you?”

“Cut!”

The cameraman—dolly, camera, and all—rolls back across the spacious room. In a house-turned-movie-set in Seattle, Bernardo Bertolucci and three-time-Oscar winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro converse in Italian. After a number of previous hits, they have joined forces once again to pull off what may become one of this century’s most remarkable transmissions of Buddhism to the West. Any Bertolucci movie is a media event of massive proportions, and if Little Buddha—which deals with both ancient and contemporary aspects of Buddhism—is half as successful as The Last Emperor, this movie may trigger ramifications for the future of Buddhism into the next century as well.

 

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Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Jeremy Thomas on the set in Nepal. Angelo Novi.

The main stateside location for Bertolucci’s venture is an ostentatious three-story mansion of concrete, glass, and steel that towers over the dignified residences of Queen Anne Hill, a conservative, upper-middle-class neighborhood overlooking Puget Sound. And although the house features every kind of modern convenience, after sixteen weeks of filming Little Buddha in Bhutan and Nepal, any location in Seattle would have been a luxurious relief for this crew.

Take two: Bridget Fonda, playing the wife, sits at her desk, wringing her hands. The husband, singer-turned-actor Chris Isaak, leans back against a bookshelf. He says, “I don’t believe in reincarnation. . .”

It’s an American family crisis—with a twist: a Tibetan lama residing in Seattle has identified the couple’s son, Jesse, as the reincarnation of his own late master. To further investigate this claim, a search party of three lamas has arrived from Bhutan. At this point, the lamas, having already surreptitiously watched the child, have introduced themselves to the parents, Mr. and Mrs. Konrad. The disclosure of their curious mission has left the family in a quandary, to say the least. The fact that Bernardo Bertolucci is about to introduce a mass audience to a Tibetan version of reincarnation has Buddhists around the world in a quandary as well.

In the third-floor living room, the maestro is surrounded by a tangle of wires, lights, and heavy cables. Physically at ease, he surveys the set from a classic director’s chair, his pleasant, slightly bashed-in face filled with seasoned elegance. Immediately before him is a small video screen. Leaning against the walls, with the listless anticipation endemic to being on location, are chic Italians in cashmere sweaters and beautiful shoes, and a youthful local production crew in shapeless, bulky jackets.

Retake: The wife (Bridget Fonda) is initially more sympathetic to the lamas than her husband is. “How often does a little boy from Seattle get to learn about another world like this?” she asks. “It’s like a fairy tale come true.”

“Except that it’s not true, is it? It’s a load of medieval superstition. I don’t believe in reincarnation. Not like this, anyway. ‘Coming back’ as a specific person. And neither do you. . . Or do you?”

During this soul-searching marital confrontation with the enigma of reincarnation, Bertolucci sits with his back to a wall of windows. Directly behind him, across Elliott Bay, looms the majestic Mount Rainier. To his right lies the snow-capped Olympia range; to his left, the snow-capped Cascades. Within this eye-level panorama of celestial white peaks, the miniaturized tankers, trawlers, and ferries that cruise far below look like toy reminders from a distant human realm.

As the story unfolds, Jesse (the young boy) goes to Bhutan, where he learns about Gautama Siddhartha’s life before he “woke up” and became Shakyamuni Buddha. This biography of the Buddha’s early years is depicted in flashbacks of the sheltered prince, played by Keanu Reeves. With black hair flowing and nothing more than a traditional silk dhoti covering the body of this part-Hawaiian icon impersonating the Buddha-to-be, Bertolucci’s fans can anticipate Reeves’ character being treated to the same majestic extravagance as that lavished on the Chinese prince, Pu Yi, in The Last Emperor. In addition to the exquisite drama of color, landscape, and architecture promised by the Indian setting, the presence of production and costume designer James Acheson has raised further the expectations of seductively lush footage. As Oscar-winner for The Last Emperor as well as for his work on Dangerous Liaisons, Acheson is known for his creation of sweeping epics through a minute attention to detail, and his fidelity to the facts and feel of history lends an authenticity to the celluloid world of make-believe.

It has been Acheson’s job to piece together the scanty “real” information by which to replicate the splendors of Kapilavastu, the birthplace of the Buddha, located on what is now the southern Nepalese border. Shooting in the Kathmandu Valley, Acheson has combined salmon sandstone reconstructions with remnants of ancient India, and fiberglass lions have joined their ancestors in stone. And, while the Indian sets may be voluptuous and the cinematography hagiographic, in Rudy Wurlitzer’s script the palace life of Prince Siddhartha closely follows the classic text of Ashvaghosha, the great second-century B.C.E. poet, pundit, and Buddhist adept.

These flashbacks have led to two erroneous rumors: one, that this movie is about the Buddha, whereas the flashbacks actually end with Siddhartha leaving his father’s palace; and two, that it is a movie about an American reincarnation not of a Tibetan lama but of the Buddha himself. These issues will be put to rest by the release of the movie. But if Little Buddha is the award-winning hit that every Bertolucci production aspires to be, then by next Christmas, the question put to Bridget Fonda by Chris Isaak may well descend upon the dinner tables and school corridors of America with disarming frequency. And curiously enough, any honest inquiry into the nature of reincarnation leaves most American Buddhist practitioners as dumbfounded as the movie’s secular stars.

“I don’t believe in reincarnation,” Alex Wiesendanger, who plays the Seattle-born chosen one, explains to me on the lunch break. As a cute kid (and the only one on the Seattle set) the nine-year-old gets the lion’s share of attentive smiles and pats on the head.

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Keanu Reeves as Prince Siddhartha. © Little Buddha, Angelo Novi.

“I do,” says his real father, a letter carrier with the New York City Postal Service. A slight, intense man, Gary Wiesendanger took a leave from work without pay in order to accompany his son to Asia. Now, after a brief stint back in New York City, Gary has again left his wife and younger child behind in order to shepherd his son through a cinematic adventure story that fragments Western notions of biological parenting.

Alex turns and looks up at his father. Despite his urban roots, he’s the quintessential white American 4-H kid, relentlessly wholesome, with a winning smile and flawless teeth.

“You do, Dad?” he asks.

“Well, yeah, sort of. I mean, it’s not a totally foreign idea to me.” Facing me, Gary explains, “I’m Catholic.”

“I’m not Buddhist,” adds Alex, making sure to set the record straight.

By Jeremy Thomas’ terms, Little Buddha is already a hit, for, as the British producer explains it, the impetus behind this thirty-three-million-dollar project was to introduce people to new ideas. Thomas, a gregarious Englishman in his early forties who produced the highly acclaimed film The Last Emperor as well as Bertolucci’s subsequent commercial flop, The Sheltering Sky, says, “We want to make a film about Buddhism that is not interested in preaching but in stimulating new ideas.” By mass marketing a cinematic extravaganza with a Buddhist story line to the West for the first time, Thomas has at least secured the successful outcome of his stated intention at its most idealistic. But if there is one stimulating idea raised by the movie that is certain to have repercussions, it is the tantalizing and elusive concept of reincarnation, and what in the way of transformative value it offers this culture—if any.

Rudy Wurlitzer says that the subject of reincarnation presented him with the most difficult part of the film. Although long familiar with Buddhist ideas, he faltered when trying to penetrate this thorny subject. “I myself have a lot of questions about reincarnation. And my own obscurations, my questions and thoughts are mostly intellectual. But the more I wrote about it, the more I realized that my initial ideas were not correct.” Hitting a common chord among the Euro-American sangha, he adds, “reincarnation was always an idea that I had sort of suspended.”

It was certainly not “suspended” by those Tibetans hired either to act or consult—among them some of the most respected living lamas in the Tibetan tradition. Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, with an unusual and photogenic face, is a scholar of immense erudition. Chosen by Bertolucci to play an abbot in the movie, he has modestly headed The Tibet Center in Manhattan since 1975. Consultant Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is a thirty-something movie buff and son of the legendary peripatetic master Thinley Norbu Rinpoche; and Thinley Norbu himself is the son of the late Dudjom Rinpoche, who emerged as the head of the Nyingma School in the wake of the diaspora following the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Like Jesse, as a young boy Dzongsar was identified as a tulku, or reincarnated lama, one who is born with superior spiritual gifts.

Sogyal Rinpoche, who plays one of the lamas chosen to ascertain the legitimacy of Jesse as a tulku, is himself a tulku as well as the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. In this best-selling contemporary exposition of classic Tibetan teachings, Sogyal Rinpoche reflects the traditional Buddhist view, which insists on the veracity of reincarnation. Ironically, while the film is based on the traditional Tibetan view of reincarnation, Buddhists in the United States as well as in Asi—even contemporary lamas—have begun questioning the very assumptions that the script introduces.

On the set, Sogyal Rinpoche allowed that Americans approach reincarnation as if it is something to believe in or not. “In the West,” he explained, “there is an emphasis on belief. But in some ways, belief has nothing to do with reality. Just ‘believing’ in reincarnation is some kind of failure. What is important for us to realize is: What is the point of it?”

In traditional Buddhist teachings, from an absolute view there is no beginning and no end, no dying and no being born. Those states, which “appear” distinct, discrete, and separate, are in reality subtle manifestations of a continuous, ever-present consciousness. This view prevails—more or less—throughout all Buddhist cultures. But the unique tulku system of Tibet challenges Buddhist logic in an extreme way. And the film follows the ritualized Tibetan strategy of testing young children—almost exclusively male—to see if they are true incarnations of previous lamas by measuring their affinity for the material possessions of their predecessors, such as clothing or altar objects. The image this suggests is of some discrete packet of memory that has been transferred from one physical body to another; the correct identification of, say, one’s predecessor’s prayer beads indicates that the child holds the key to the invisible treasures of his predecessor’s wisdom mind. Furthermore, because the tulku system is dependent on such specific, material phenomena, it easily leads to the misunderstanding that the body itself incarnates. Speaking of Little Buddha, Dzongsar Rinpoche explains, “The American boy’s flesh is not reincarnated from the Tibetan body. Not at all. The degeneration of an old body and the evolution of a new one contributes to this concept of reincarnation, but reincarnation is based on the philosophy of karma: cause, condition, and effect. This much, even a child should know. If you eat food, then you have to go to the toilet. Buddhists talk about cause and condition of the body and cause and condition of the mind. If the cause and condition of the body degenerates, then the body degenerates; then death comes. That does not necessarily mean that mind has degenerated, because mind has its own cause and condition. Obviously, when death comes there is a big shock to the mind because mind and body are very, very related. But they have different conditions. So the death of the body can never destroy the mind.”

“What is the point of realizing there is life after death?” asks Sogyal Rinpoche. “In a sense, it will make you more responsible, make you realize that your thoughts, words, and actions have consequences in this life and in the future. You realize, as the Buddha said, that what we are now is what we have been. What we will be is what we do now. As Padmasambhava [one of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism] further clarifies, if you want to know your past, look into your present form and condition. If you want to know your future, look into your present actions. See, being responsible for your actions is, I think, the most important part. As long as you live a good life, what you ‘believe’ is not so important.”

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Chris Isaak, Bridget Fonda, and Alex Wiesendanger portray the Konrad family in Little Buddha. © Little Buddha, Peter Riches.

While Little Buddha is guaranteed to stimulate questions about reincarnation, it certainly won’t answer them. And whether a thirty-three-million-dollar Buddha movie can inspire people to take responsibility for living better lives is another open question.

“Did the movie Gandhi help the peace movement?” asks Wurlitzer. “No, it didn’t. Is Malcolm X going to help the black situation in this country? No it’s not. Do the movies about Christ inspire Christians? Or those about Joan of Arc or Saint Francis? I don’t think so. So what does it mean?”

Still, the philosophical scriptwriter, for all his tendencies toward skepticism, is willing to give this movie the benefit of the doubt. “If Gandhi helped a hundred people become aware of the possibility of nonviolence, that’s worth it. If some fraction of the audience is exposed to dharmic teachings, and in some way enters a path of understanding their own minds, that’s good. Whether that understanding takes a Buddhist direction or not is not important.”

NEXT TAKE: Jane Konrad (Bridget Fonda) walks to the window. Rigid, intense, she stares wistfully through the glass.

Each cut is announced by loud commands in English followed by a flurry of Italian.

With her neat blond hair cut just above the shoulders, sanitized, petite Jane Konrad looks a far cry from the fearless earth mothers of Tibet. Again, she walks to the window. Her archly Western face communicates serious concerns: a clenched jaw, vacant eyes, tight lips. Thinking, thinking, Are these lama guys for real or what?

“Cut.”

Fonda seems to be having some difficulty expressing the right nuance of self-preoccupying mental torture. One more time. Bertolucci calls out: “This is the heroic American housewife shot!” She looks pretty much the same—just a little lonelier. It works.

The story line is Bertolucci’s. It was his improbable idea to convert the tullm phenomenon into the main plot of a major motion picture. By the time he approached Wurlitzer, he had been reading widely in Buddhism and he himself gave the scriptwriter a copy of the Ashvaghosha text. But to tailor the American scenes to a style with which he was familiar, Bertolucci brought in his brother-in-law, Mark Peploe, who shares the script credit with Wurlitzer for Little Buddha, and who also has worked on most of Bertolucci’s movies for the last ten years. It was Bertolucci who wrote the first treatment and came up with the movie’s ending.

The script has been carefully guarded to protect what is being billed as a surprise ending; but if the tactic worked well to promote The Crying Game, no one is suggesting a shock along similar lines. In fact, Little Buddha is being touted as a movie mercifully devoid of sex and violence. And the title itself, along with a dimpled child star, suggests that this movie, with its potential to introduce radical alternatives to American views of reality, can enter Uncle Sam’s front door with a “G” rating.

Still, the title has been a bone of contention and has led to both misunderstanding and criticism. For all its allusions, the producers insist that it refers neither to the child-tulku nor to the young Siddhartha. And drawing a literal distinction between the young prince Gautama Siddhartha and the adult Shakyamuni Buddha, Jeremy Thomas says emphatically, “The movie is not about the Buddha. We only show the story of Prince Siddhartha. He became the Buddha after that.” As if warding off a level of moral scrutiny that might apply to a movie about the awakened adult Buddha, the producer is eager to clarify that Little Buddha is only about “Sid,” as Prince Siddhartha is affectionately called on the set.

Thomas refers to the title as a term of endearment, but since it refers neither to the tulku nor to Siddhartha it remains unclear exactly who the object of this endearment is. Furthermore, it has been interpreted as demeaning or pejorative by Buddhists who feel that the title “belittles” the Buddha. In their letters of complaint to the producer, Buddha is referred to as “The Holy One” and “Our Lord Buddha.” And while there is some controversy about whether or not the title is irreverent, many American Buddhists find it not irreligious but politically ignorant and condescending. “You can say it’s a diminutive, sweet way of referring to Buddha,” said a white male Zen monk in Los Angeles, “but only in the mind-set of white, colonial male attitudes would Asia’s most esteemed historic and religious figure be described as ‘little.'”

A woman who practices at a Kagyu center in Seattle, and who knows some of the Tibetans involved in the film, had a similar response. “They [the movie-makers] have gone out of their way to make a film that is correct from a dhanna view. They have had the best consultants, the best lamas, the best scholars. But with the title, they are so integrated into an imperialist view that they cannot—literally cannot—see the problem. To Westerners all Asians are effeminate; they’re ‘cute,’ ‘small,’ and ‘huggable’; they are not supposed to be a threat or to be as tall as we are. That was part of the trauma for Americans in losing the war in Vietnam.”

Common to all the criticism is a general mistrust of non-Buddhists being involved in such an endeavor. And not spelled out, but certainly implied, are sectarian concerns. To the chagrin of some Buddhists here and in Asia, the popularity of His Holiness the Dalai Lama has already generated the erroneous ideas that Tibetan Buddhism is the only Buddhism and that the Dalai Lama is the Buddhist equivalent of the Pope. Now comes a movie that will create enonnous exposure for Tibetan Buddhism and will introduce versions of reincarnation that are unique to Tibet.

Dr. Havnapola Ratnasara of the American Buddhist Congress in Los Angeles is optimistic about the benefits of Little Buddha but—reflecting a concern common to many groups—he would like to see it overtly stated that this Tibetan version of Buddhism and reincarnation does not speak for all Buddhists. Dr. Ratnasara tactfully explains that Buddhists and scholars may not appreciate certain aspects of the film, yet he allows that the script works for a contemporary mass audience. A Theravada Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka, Dr. Ratnasara does take issue with the subtle ways in which the Tibetan view of reincarnation differs from the Theravada view of “rebirth.”

“Incarnated lamas are the ones who have reached nirvana which is nothingness and have come back to help others reach nirvana,” explains Alex, exemplifying Ratnasara’s concern. “They’re the ones who come back.”

But not all Buddhist paths embrace the bodhisattva commitment to “coming back” in order to help others. The Theravada ideal of an enlightened being, for example, is “a non-returnable,” one whose transformation is so seamlessly complete that returning in the form of a mortal being is no longer even an option. Furthermore, while reincarnation remains doctrinally essential to Buddhism, not all contemporary Buddhists agree on the value of any concepts that deflect the focus on here and now.

Some Tibetan teachers and their American students are struggling to separate cultural belief systems (concepts of tulkus and reincarnation) from the less literal but more profound understanding of what Dzongsar Rinpoche calls “continuous mind” (see interview). Yet there are Western Buddhists who think that any discussion of reincarnation is ludicrous, a harmfully misguided affirmation of religious superstition. To these critics, the vision of a movie that not only identifies reincarnation as essential to Buddhism, but popularizes it, poses the possibility of a setback to what Chris Isaak initially refers to as “a load of medieval superstition.”

 

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Bernardo Bertolucci greets Khyongla Rato Rinpoche on the set in Bhutan. © Little Buddha, Peter Riches.

What will also give particular poignancy to this discussion among American Buddhists is the recent examination of the politics of the tulku system in Tibet. Historically, the selection of small children designated to be powerful abbot-potentates of citadel monasteries has often been subject to political machinations. Poisoning, murder, blackmail, and every manner of intrigue have been implicated in the selection of certain heirs, including the lineage of the Dalai Lamas. A recent case in point is the drama that has flared up around the selection of the Seventeenth Karmapa; the animosity and public distrust between two camps of brother monks over the veracity of the new Karmapa has left idealistic Western students stunned. While a burgeoning Free Tibet movement has tended to obscure the dark side of this spiritually evolved culture, longtime Western students of Tibetan Buddhism are working hard to disentangle politics from practice.

If Little Buddha is any good at all, it will not please everybody. Yet despite the doctrinal controversy that it may catalyze, most members of the American sangha familiar with the making of the movie have been impressed by the moviemakers’ efforts to be historically authentic and dharmically correct.

RECOUNTING THE STORY of Prince Siddhartha Alex explains to me,”He was a prince first. And his father didn’t want him to see anyone old or sick or dead. But he did. Jesus was born into a low down family. Jesus wasn’t motivated to become holy. He was always holy. He knew poverty from the first day of his life. But Siddhartha was a prince, and he lived in a palace. Then he ran away with his chariot guy. And he sat under a tree meditating and Mara came along and tried to tempt him away, but it didn’t work, so the prince reached enlightenment and started teaching. And he motivated people to reach nirvana.”

Gary shrugs and says sheepishly, “He’s always been a very verbal kid. From the time he was in his crib. And he always had a great capacity to charm adults.”

Alex however is not charmed by the idea of nirvana: “I’d rather be reincarnated than reach nirvana, because nirvana is just emptiness and you can’t play baseball there. “

I try to make a case for the perfection of emptiness, but am quickly corrected.

“Nirvana is not perfect,” explains Alex, “because there is nothing there to be perfected.”

With that, I am reminded that there are no accidents, there are no coincidences; that we cannot say whether this will be good or bad for dharma, that we cannot pretend to foresee the effects in the big view of things, that whoever Bertolucci is and however pure or grandiose his motivations are, he didn’t just happen to make this movie—and who is this kid, anyway?

An Interview with Dzongsar Rinpoche

Tricycle: How did you become so interested in movies?

Dzongsar Rinpoche: Movies are a powerful way of teaching, or demonstrating, or manifesting. Also of manipulating, in the sense of influencing. There is now so much dissatisfaction and deception and corruption in this world, and part of this is because of the influence of television and the movies that we watch. But when I saw movies made by Andrei Tarkovsky and Satyajit Ray, those were very inspiring. And I began to see that movies could have a positive influence and could be used to teach dharma.

Tricycle: You think that the medium lends itself to teaching dharma?

Dzongsar Rinpoche: Sound and vision are so powerful, especially in our realm, this human realm where most sentient beings are sort of passion oriented or aggression oriented. Vision and sound are effective, quick, very fast. And they actually influence the human mind.

Tricycle: To most Buddhists, the ideal model of transmission remains the face-to-face version, as when Shakyamuni Buddha twirled a flower and Mahakashypa smiled. And this understanding of “direct transmission” has continued to influence all the various modes of the teacher-student relationships in all Buddhist traditions. Does film have the capacity to be a vehicle of true transmission?

Dzongsar Rinpoche: I think so. For example, in Mahayana Buddhism we speak of nirmanakaya, the human manifestation of Buddha. But a manifestation requires an audience. If there is no audience, then there is no manifestation. The purpose of nirmanakaya is not necessary if there is no audience; it is lost if there is no audience. Look at Shakyamuni Buddha—his realization, his renunciation, and his enlightenment are all a manifestation. A manifestation that is perceived by people like us. Now, how you take this manifestation is totally up to the audience. Some of us can take it as a teaching. For instance, some of us can think that Siddhartha lies among us, that each and every one of us is like—or is—Siddhartha.

Tricycle: As in nirmanakaya? As a manifestation of Shakyamuni?

Dzongsar Rinpoche: We each have our own palace, we each have our own queen, our royal luxuries, whatever, each according to their own capacity. But Siddhartha had the wisdom to ask, “What is death, what is birth, what is old age, what is sickness?” Whereas people like us are not even aware of those things, not aware of gradual old age, not aware of every second getting closer to death. We don’t even ask questions of our chariot drivers like Siddhartha did. Even if we manage to ask these questions, we still have no guts to escape from ourselves and search for the true meaning of life, like Siddhartha did.

Tricycle: And so film can generate spiritual aspiration?

Dzongsar Rinpoche: In a way, it’s already like a film. Even the manifestation of Shakyamuni with two eyes but not four eyes, having one nose but not two noses—all this manifests in this way because there is an audience that accepts it this way. And in the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition, we speak of deities and mandalas and visualizations-all of which are very sophisticated ways of creating positive circumstances for people’s minds, so that people can get closer to the true nature of mind which is clear, pristine, completely pure. The Vajrayana uses lots of different methods, so I don’t see anything wrong with using film to also clarify the mind. Especially at this age, when there is so much destruction to the environment and to the planet, and there is so much disharmony among us. Film and music have a really big part to play that we are not utilizing.

Tricycle: What do you think might be the benefit of this movie?

Dzongsar Rinpoche: The name Buddha will be heard by billions of people. And that’s very important because the world must know that an enlightened person has been here. There are so many people who have so much potential but they’re discouraged by themselves, thinking that there’s no hope: “I’m useless, I cannot change, I’m unchangeable.” And I have this motivation that the film will introduce a little bit of compassion, a little bit of what the Buddha tried to teach. And also, there will be an introduction to Tibetan questions and an awareness of the Tibetan situation right now.

Tricycle: You’ve been quoted as saying this film is more important than building a hundred temples.

Dzongsar Rinpoche: That’s what I feel. In Nepal and India, many times the monasteries are homes for some rinpoches like myself, which is like another sophisticated samsaric life. What I’m trying to say is that building a monastery has a better name, a better history, or a better label than, say, building a house for a family. But that better label doesn’t make it good. It’s actually harder to renounce because you are in the cocoon of the dharma, you are trapped in spiritual materialism. This film is better than a hundred monasteries because it will reach throughout the world.

Temple
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