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Barbara O'Brien

Best Buddhist Films?

By July 22, 2008

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The film website Green Cine has posted a list of "The Most Spiritually Affecting Buddhist Movies." Here's the list:

  1. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (Korean)
  2. The Thin Red Line
  3. Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Come From The East? (Korean)
  4. Revenge of the Sith
  5. Wheel of Time
  6. Peaceful Warrior
  7. The Dhamma Brothers
  8. The Cup

Most of these I haven't seen, so I cannot comment on them. Of those that I have seen ... "Revenge of the Sith" had some pop-Buddhist moments, but a "spiritually affecting Buddhist movie"? I don't think so. I reviewed "The Dhamma Brothers" last April and gave it a B minus. It was OK, not great.

I did love "The Cup," however. It was written by Buddhist monk Khyentse Norbu and is about some young monks determined to watch the World Cup soccer match. If you've never seen it, rent it sometime. It's delightful.

The honorable mentions included "Kundun," which may be romanticized but is at least more spiritually affecting than "Revenge of the Sith," and "The Matrix." The Matrix? "For its extended metaphor that addresses parallels between the concept of samsara, the internet, and 'virtual reality,'" the reviewer says. A stretch, I say.

A film not on the list that I recommend is "Jacob's Ladder," which was released in 1990 and stars Tim Robbins as a Vietnam vet who seems to be having a hard time adjusting to civilian life. It's loosely based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, believe it or not. I think it's gripping. (If you comment on this, please don't spoil it for others.)

Any other comments or candidates?

July 22, 2008 at 9:32 pm
(1) elizabeth says:

Hi Barbara,

Thanks for posting this list :)

“Why Has Boddhidharma Left for the East” and “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … & Spring” are among my all-time favorites ~ both very beautiful, and “Zen” in form as well as content.

I also really like “Milarepa” which tells the story of the Buddhist yogi, from his birth until the moment when he leaves his black magic teacher, and sets out to find a Dharma teacher. Part 2 is scheduled for release in 2009, I believe.

July 22, 2008 at 10:20 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Elizabeth — thanks for commenting! Now I don’t feel so alone. :-)

July 24, 2008 at 9:32 am
(3) J.K. says:

Thanks for the list. I’d like to add “Milarepa – The Movie”.

July 24, 2008 at 10:22 am
(4) Dave O'Neal says:

For my money, the best Buddhist movie is “Groundhog Day.” It’s interesting that the films that come to mind for me when I think of Buddhist movies are not self-consciously Buddhist. I’d include on my list “Housekeeping,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” heck, even “Children of Paradise” viewed from a certain perspective seems like a Buddhist movie to me…

July 24, 2008 at 11:22 am
(5) elizabeth says:

gassho :)

July 24, 2008 at 1:01 pm
(6) J.K. says:

Hi, Elizabeth. Hi, Dave. I’m totally with you on “Groundhog Day”. The first time I heard that movie mentioned in a Buddhist context it was referred to as a bardo movie. Since then, I’ve searched for a list of “bardo movies” a few times, but so far I haven’t found one.

Some other movies that come to mind are:

Dead Man
The Deaths of Ian Stone
It’s a Wonderful Life
Donnie Darko
The Butterfly Effect, etc..

July 24, 2008 at 1:13 pm
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

I hope this doesn’t give away too much of the plot, but Jacob’s Ladder definitely qualifies as a bardo movie.

July 24, 2008 at 3:40 pm
(8) hpooley says:

Before I became a fringe Buddhist, I saw “The Burmese Harp”. Afterwards I really liked “Little Buddha”. “Seven Years in Tibet” is quite good. Mmmm, “Groundhog Day” ? – One of my favourite movies, but no more Buddhist, for me, than my favourite movie, “The Third Man”.

July 24, 2008 at 4:18 pm
(9) Ed says:

Kundun would probably be my favourite.
Other good ones:

Buddha’s Lost Children
Cry of the Snow Lion
(actually documentaries …)

I love ‘Donnie Darko’, but have never considered it to be a Buddhist movie since it is actually about divine intervention (deux ex machina), as the director explained in the Director’s Cut edition.


July 24, 2008 at 4:59 pm
(10) Jamie says:

Definitely groundhog Day.
Dare I suggest The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy,I know it is a wee bit far fetched. It does give a taste of Buddhism without going to deep though.

July 24, 2008 at 5:36 pm
(11) Lori says:

What’s a bardo?
I really like “Wide Awake.” It was a great film about a little catholic boy’s awakening and compassion.
I also like “Powder” and parts of “Phenomenom.”

July 24, 2008 at 6:25 pm
(12) denise says:

I particularlyenjoyed “A Beautiful Mind” withRussell Crowe, while illustratiing the experiences of someone with a mental illness, it seemed to bring to life for me the teachings on delusion, misperceptions and projections of the mind.

July 24, 2008 at 6:33 pm
(13) eugenie says:

It seems to me that the Matrix, while perhaps more gnostic than Buddhist, is far less of a stretch than, say…Revenge of the Sith – or any other of Lucas strained, academic oeuvre. Or the Thin Red Line, for that matter, although that movie has a lot to recommend it. Actually the Matrix would be among my 2 favortite Western Buddhist movies, the other being Groundhog Day. Darko I loved, but I don’t see it as particularly Buddhist – not everything w/ resonance is Buddhist, though there are some interpretations that can be used for Darko that might fit w/ some ideas in Buddhism.If you wanted to look at it that way.

Of the others, I’ve sadly not seen the documentaries, couldn’t sit thru Peaceful Warrior ( a Buddhist after school special), and loved Spring Summer…and the Cup. Which Zidane ought to see…

July 24, 2008 at 7:33 pm
(14) Bill Webb says:

I like “Ten Questions for the Dalai Lama.”

BTW Barbara, not to be picky, but the link to my blog is misspelled: ditigal dharma. ;)

July 24, 2008 at 7:48 pm
(15) Brian Turner says:

how about “I Heart Huckabee’s”?

July 24, 2008 at 7:53 pm
(16) Shih-Fa Lu says:

Hi! I love “Erleuchtung garantiert” (wisdom guaranteed), an independent german film about two brothers traveling to a Japanese Zen Monastery for a retreat. It combines a lot of amusing adventures with showing the daily life in a traditional Zen Monastery. _/\_

July 24, 2008 at 9:13 pm
(17) Ben says:

Buddhist movies…. Hmmm… I liked Little Buddha. A good intro with some of the mythics aspects. Circle of Iron. Martial arts with strong Zen aspects. American Beauty. Especially the end.

July 24, 2008 at 9:32 pm
(18) Sofia says:

I think the best one is “Samsara”, I don’t remember who’s film is this but you should check it out.

July 25, 2008 at 12:23 am
(19) Poncho says:

“Erleuchtung garantiert” (wisdom guaranteed) its a MUST =)

And “Peaceful Warrior” (2006) with Nick Nolte as a kind of “teacher”… Well, look and see for yourself =)

July 25, 2008 at 3:47 am
(20) Berit says:

thank you for the list
Spring, summer…..ist really great, I went five times to cinema and everytime I found some new aspects. Now I have it on DVD :-)
Did anybody know “Tropical Malady”? It´s a Thai movie, not specially “Buddhist”, but very good (even if itßs a little bit disturbing)
What I also love is “Rivers and Tides”, a docu about Andy Goldsworthy and his work of art. I think it could be calles a “Zen Movie”

July 25, 2008 at 4:47 am
(21) c says:
July 25, 2008 at 6:24 am
(22) Dave says:

I haven’t seen any of the films on the list, but think that The Harp of Burma aka The Burmese Harp is an excellent Buddhist film. I’ve seen it several times and appreciated it greatly each time. I highly recommend it.

July 25, 2008 at 8:11 am
(23) joshua says:

While it wasn’t a perfect movie, I thought “Zen Noir” was a great take on Zen and Buddhism. Very unique film.

July 25, 2008 at 9:21 am
(24) SillyBoyBlue says:

I think that if a Buddhist ever needs an excuse to go to the cinema, she can say that she going to contemplate the following:
The impermanent nature of all things.(impermanence)
The laws of cause and effect governing actions and their consequences. (karma)
The hopes and fears of the ordinary deluded mind and all the suffering it causes. (samsara)
Can you think of a film that doesn’t deal with these topics? After all a film itself is just one big mental projection, isn’t it? So you could say that every film ever made is a Buddhist film. However, I would suggest that a real Buddhist film is one that liberates people from the sufferings of impermanence, karma and samsara, and I’m not sure if a film could ever do that.

July 25, 2008 at 9:22 am
(25) Brian Turner says:

also, I consider “Fight Club” a source of zen knowledge.

July 25, 2008 at 11:38 am
(26) lanux says:

1. Travellers and magicians, by Khyentse Norbu (http://www.travellersandmagicians.com/) is subtle and wonderful: sansara is nirvana, nirvana is sansara.
2. Samsara ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samsara_(2001_film)) is also delicious;

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring is marvellous!

July 25, 2008 at 3:58 pm
(27) Berit says:

To be honest, I never ever felt the need for an excuse to visit the cinema :-)
Barbara, I think you scored a hit with that list ;-) , a lot of cineastes in here…. :-)

July 26, 2008 at 5:56 am
(28) Abhishek says:

Hi, just wondering how come “Little Buddha” never made the list in spite of the fact that it is a movie completely dedicated to Buddhism and is probably one of the very few ones that actually shows the life of Siddhartha

July 26, 2008 at 6:04 pm
(29) jsq says:

Asoka, a Bollywood film about the Indian emperor who converted to Buddhism.


It’s Bollywood, all right, with lots of singing and dancing and melodrama, but is also about the political figure perhaps most responsible for spreading Buddhism in India, who turned to Buddhism after seeing the effects of his own wars.

July 27, 2008 at 12:10 pm
(30) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hi, just wondering how come “Little Buddha” never made the list

I thought about “Little Buddha,” too. Some Buddhists really hated it for some reason. I’d give it a “B,” in part for the scene in which Prince Siddharta (Keanu Reeves) asked his Dad why he could’t go out and get enlightened like the other kids. Well, that’s not exactly what happened, but it felt something like that. Also lots of people didn’t like the ending, but I thought the ending was interesting and a teaching on shunyata.

July 29, 2008 at 10:55 am
(31) tom says:

the razors edge

July 31, 2008 at 7:21 pm
(32) John Sell says:

Ugetsu! The nidanas come alive. Another vote for Ichikawa’s beautiful, deeply affecting The Burmese Harp. You can see something of the flip side of it in his Fires on the Plain, also very Buddhist in spirit, or really imbued with a dharmic understanding, although it’s a horrifying movie. Something about mind is really shown in Pan’s Labyrinth and All About My Mother (a wonderful bodhicitta movie).

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