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10 April 2010

Review- "The Buddha" on PBS

I was looking forward to the premiere of the new PBS film "The Buddha" the other night after seeing the previews for it. Written and directed by David Grubin, narrated by Richard Gere and a whole cast of experts including the Dalai Lama, it seemed like it was going to be an enjoyable two hours of television. Usually after watching a program I can very quickly tell if I enjoyed it, or I didn't. This is one of the few cases where I'm still not sure.

Writing, producing and editing a program like this can't be easy. Condensing all of The Buddha's teachings, impact on civilization and examination of Buddhism today into two hours is a daunting task. If you're not a Buddhist, imagine trying to do the same thing with Jesus and Christianity- what to leave in, what to leave out while working against a defined time limit for the show. Unfortunately in the sake of brevity, a lot of stuff is going to be over simplified, rushed or omitted. Still, you would try to concentrate on the main points, provide a sense of reference for that time in history and offer some insights on how these beliefs impact people today. Whether because of poor editing, writing or directing "The Buddha" largely accomplished these goals but lost me at many points along the way.

I have a friend that is not a Buddhist, he's a good Christian and will be so for life. Still, he thought the show sounded interesting so he tuned in to watch it and we talked briefly about it a couple of days later. He was completely confused. While he learned something during the show, namely a little bit about The Four Noble Truths, Buddhist views on existence etc., he was mightily confounded by the constant cut aways to a yoga master doing contortions of extreme effort, Indians washing themselves in the Ganges and other vignettes of Indian life. I was confused by this too and I consider myself moderately well read and practiced on the subject. If the point was to show a setting for the story, and what life might have been like in India in ancient times, it succeeded but the point was labored to the extent that my friend thought such yoga practices, as well as ascetic sacrifice, were required of Buddhists.

Overall the film seemed to jump around a bit and was difficult, at times, to follow. Then again, I could have just been tired and my mind was wandering. Another omission from the show which I think would be an especially important point for non-Buddhists would be in explaining the different schools of belief instead of the giving the impression that the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere speak for all Buddhists.

One program that covers the subject of the life and teachings of The Buddha which I highly recommend is The Story of India which also aired on PBS in 2009. Michael Wood is an excellent guide and narrator for the BBC documentary which was beautifully filmed and very well written. Episode 2 "The Power of Ideas" includes a long segment on The Buddha, his teachings and his times and you can watch a brief clip of it here.

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