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Where EAST meets the Northwest

From The Asian Reporter, V20, #12 (March 30, 2010), page 9.

A basic primer of "the one who woke up"

The Buddha

Directed by David Grubin

Narrated by Richard Gere

Distributed by the Public Broadcasting Service

Airing Wednesday, April 7 from 8:00 to 10:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting

By Ian Blazina

The Buddha, a new documentary directed by David Grubin and narrated by Richard Gere, is scheduled to air on Oregon Public Broadcasting next month. The film offers a brief history of the life of Siddhartha Gautama — the historical Buddha — through the perspectives of a collection of mostly Caucasian Buddhists and Buddhism scholars, including Buddhism scholar Robert Thurman, poet and zen practitioner Jane Hirshfield, and psychiatrist Mark Epstein. His Holiness the Dalai Lama also makes an appearance, along with an assortment of monks and South Asian ascetics.

The Buddha traces Gautama’s life from his birth into the royal family of a small Indian kingdom 2,500 years ago and his early life as a coddled prince to his death after eating spoiled alms. Between these points, stories of the Buddha’s life are used to explicate some of the main tenets of Buddhism.

In this light we learn of the Buddha’s first understanding of the existence of suffering in the world and his choice to abandon his family and renounce material possessions to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. The documentary explores his eventual awakening to the beauty and compassion inherent in the transitory world and within every living thing as well as his teachings upon achieving enlightenment.

The film deliberately avoids discussion of the historical authenticity of the account, noting that the first written biography of the Buddha was not created until 500 years after his passing. It further mentions the impossibility of separating the truth of the Buddha’s life from stories passed down through oral histories and the interpretations of his biographers.

However, within this limitation, The Buddha does an admirable job of situating the story in the context of what is known about the culture in the Buddha’s world. These historical and cultural moorings — including the common traditions of renunciation, yoga, and mediation — help to create a richer understanding of the Buddha’s life and the circumstances from which Buddhism arose.

The documentary is clearly oriented toward a western audience, especially those with little understanding of the basic story or fundamental beliefs of Buddhism. For people born into and raised within Buddhist cultures, the stories in The Buddha will be well known and told in a simplistic voice, while its use of many western perspectives may seem inauthentic or strangely contorted (as in Mark Epstein’s Freudian interpretation of the Buddha’s suffering at the loss of his mother). It is directed at the uninitiated, those rarely exposed to Buddhism as a culture, philosophy, or religion.

As the ascetic Bikopuri Shankapuir remarks about knowing the truth: "When you eat once every 24 hours, every second tells you what the truth is."

The Buddha airs Wednesday, April 7 from 8:00 to 10:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting with replays scheduled April 9 at 1:00am and April 11 at 1:00pm. To verify showtimes, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <www.opb.org>. To learn more, visit <www.pbs.org/thebuddha>.