How are we to think about the relationship between the dharma and popular culture? What are we Buddhists to do about our daily interactions with the media? Is it possible to live off the grid, away from the siren call of TV, radio, and film? Or must practitioners consider mass culture, if only because it raises issues of right speech? If most people, most of the time, are more interested in film, television, and popular song than they are in books, articles, and dharma talks, then is there a responsibility to use contemporary media to teach Buddhism? And if the answer to that question is “Yes,” then we are forced to contemplate a koan: how to construct a compelling narrative about a man who sought wisdom by sitting still and doing nothing. An image of Keanu Reeves in Bernardo Bertolucci’s ill-fated movie Little Buddha comes to mind: a silent, immobile figure in the lotus position, impassive in the face of Mara’s forces; impressive, perhaps; but cinematic? Well, maybe not.

Of course it depends on how you define the word “cinematic.” And the Second International Buddhist Film Festival [IBFF], held this past winter in the San Francisco Bay Area, posed these questions starkly by including in its offerings everything from Hollywood blockbusters to independent documentaries; from lo-fi do-it-yourself movies to a cartoon sitcom. Organizer Gaetano Kazuo Maida sees the festival as a “signaling device” for audiences and communities, a means whereby we might learn more about what’s out there in the world of cinema and television. “We’re not interested in only preaching to the choir,” he says. The IBFF is meant to be a “big tent, no boundaries, everybody’s welcome. And by ‘everybody’ I mean all Buddhisms and all artistic efforts in that broad realm.”

The big tent metaphor is a compelling one. A film festival, like a circus, may be judged by its surprises, big or small. One might be lured under the tent by the promise of Martin Scorsese’sKundun or Liliana Cavani’s Milarepa (the latter film enjoyed its U.S. premiere at IBFF), but once you’re there it is the unexpected treats that stay with you. For cinematic blockbuster values one couldn’t beat Sutape Tunnirat’s Angulimala, a 2003 Thai feature film about the legend of the infamous bandit and murderer of Buddhist legend. Thomas Gonschoir’s documentaryBuddha’s Painter, a compelling portrait of a master thangkha painter and teacher in Mongolia, is a quiet study in perseverance and that intangible thing called charisma. For art movie fans, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man offered an extraordinary cast and settings (and haunting music, courtesy of Neil Young) in an existential Western that might now have an unexpected dharmic angle.

Indeed, the screening of Dead Man raised the question of how one might define a Buddhist film. Are Buddhist films only those movies that are explicitly concerned with the dharma or with its teachers? Or is any narrative that teaches something important about suffering, impermanence, and awareness somehow a “Buddhist” film? (This reviewer urges IBFF to consider Stephen Frears’ The Hit next time around as a non-Buddhist Buddhist entry.) It is perhaps less important to know how to answer these questions than it is to understand how a movie like Thomas Riedelsheimer’s Rivers and Tides brings us into the moment through its reorientation of our sense of time. At IBFF, Neal Hutcheson’s The Prison Sutras, the extraordinary story of Fleet Maull’s time in prison re-framed as a kind of retreat, showed us yet another paradox—how to make a film about a man who sits still in prison. It shouldn’t get any duller than that, but the odd juxtaposition of Maull’s motor-mouth delivery and the quiet wisdom of his practice was among the highlights of the festival.

While guest speaker Michael Wenger of the San Francisco Zen Center almost apologetically described One Particle of Dust as like a “home movie,” anyone who has ever encountered the teachings of Suzuki Roshi would be fascinated by these clips. And somehow at IBFF it seems not such a stretch to consider the TV cartoon show King of the Hill, in its send-up of Kundun(“Won’t You Pimai Neighbor?”), as not so much antithetical but complementary to the various documentaries about spiritual teachers such as Lesley Ann Patton’s Words of My Perfect Teacher and Rick Kohn’s Destroyer of Illusion.

Liberate this article!

This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.