Buddhism and the Film

Introduction and photo by Stewart Wachs

When Donald Richie, the renowned American writer who died recently at 88, arrived in postwar Japan in 1947 with the US Occupation, strict rules prevented any mixing with Japanese people, who seemed utterly different to Richie than their image in wartime propaganda. Unable to meet them directly, Richie stole away to cinemas (also off-limits) to encounter the Japanese in their own culture’s movies. “When I was a child,” he once told a reporter, “I grew up staring in wonder at the silver screen, and it became my alternate and preferred reality. So when I was presented with a new conundrum, an absolutely different kind of country, my learning method was to go to the movies and find out what it meant.” Watching film after film without understanding the dialogue, he gradually understood something deeper. Donald Richie would go on to become the foremost writer on the cinema of Japan as well as a pioneer in promoting Japanese film worldwide. He published dozens of fine books on other subjects as well. In 2005, Richie gave the illuminating lecture “Buddhism and Film” at Doshisha University. Kyoto Journal, which published many writings by Richie and a landmark interview in KJ #41, presents here the audio recording and transcript of that singular talk.


There are various ways in which to regard that anomalous object, a Buddhist cinema, but before I enumerate some of them we might first look at the aims of Buddhism itself.

In the view of the historical Buddha, Gautama, life is suffering (dukkha in Sanskrit). This we experience because everything is the result of ever-changing causes. Thus human existence is always in flux and transience (anitya, or mujo in Japanese.) It is therefore impossible to claim anything as belonging to a permanent self (atman) or to even assert that there is any such thing. There is thus no dichotomy between a subjective and an objective world. Rather, all things (including ourselves) came into existence through the conditioning of innumerable causes.

Our perplexing existence stems from these causes. If they are extinguished, however, then our confusions dissolve — a welcome event called pratiyasamutpada or, in Japanese, engi. Those who want to be freed from suffering must thus come to a clear understanding (sometimes called enlightenment) concerning suffering, impermanence, and the non-self (anatmanprajna). All attachment — the root of illusion — must be denied and there are various ways (spiritual disciplines such as meditation) through which this is achieved. Only then will one find freedom (nirvana).

As this atrociously simplified account indicates there would on the surface be little to connect the Buddhist faith with the cinema. This is an entertainment which is largely based upon satisfying our desire for the various attachments which Buddhism counsels us to give up. There are, however, a few promising areas where some agreement might be detected.

Cinema, for example, is famous for destroying the sense of self. Indeed, the reason we go to the movies is to be relieved for a time of this troubling companion. We habitually seek for situations where our difficult self ( a homemade and ill fitting invention) is sloughed off — drink, drugs, sex, gambling. All of these are unifying activities which elude our ideas of who we are and instead allow us to experience a cohesion we might never otherwise encounter.

Film famously accomplishes something like this. It has been variously called a waking dream, a mass illusion, pop propaganda, but no one has ever denied that it takes one out of oneself. This then is a promising beginning in any consideration of the Buddhist claims of cinema because this absence of self is precisely the condition which Buddhism counsels. From here, then, taking this theme as the ground, sounding its drone beneath our speculations, we may begin to enumerate a few qualities.


I spoke of some ways in which to regard that anomalous object we are discussing. From the simplest to the more complicated these might be: 1. Films about the historical Buddha; 2. Films about Buddhist belief; 3. Films on Buddhist themes; 4. Films which incorporate Buddhist beliefs. These and their implications will inform this essay.

1. Films about the historical Buddha are few, though not so few as those on the historical Mohammed since there is no proscription. Buddha and Buddhism are allowed to be pictured; Mohammed and Mohammedism are not. Yet there are many less films about Buddha than there are about the Hindu pantheon, the so-called Bollywood films, or those about the historical Christ, almost all of them Hollywood films.

One reason for this might be that the Buddha story is simply not dramatic enough. He laid down and died — which is much less sensational than being nailed to a cross. Also he did not expire in a melodramatic welter of treachery, ill-will and recrimination. Just the opposite — the disciples gathered, there were a few speeches, and the Buddha passed on in an atmosphere of brotherhood and accord — more pleasant certainly but not nearly dramatic enough to sustain a money-making movie.

An equally important reason is that the Buddha story has no political reason for any overt dramatization. Buddhism was not, originally at any rate, a prosyletizing religion, though certain sects certainly became so. Christianity on the other hand is. Buddhism thus does not have the propaganda needs that Christianity does. The Ten Commandments, The Robe, The Greatest Story Ever Told — all of these to an extent are intended to spread the good news, make new converts or to make secure the old. Christ so far appeared in 150 recorded screen portrayals (someone has counted them) which is more than the most enterprising of movie stars.

Compared to the various filmed lives of Christ there have been very few films starring Buddha. Those countries which might be inclined to make them (those where Hinayama — the Lesser Vehicle — Buddhism maintains) do not have the money, historical spectacular being expensive. Those countries which have the money (lands where Mahayana — the Greater Vehicle — maintains, Japan among them) are not inclined to make them. Actually Japan has tried – the 1961 Buddha, followed by bio-epics on Nichiren and Shinran. All, however indicated their incapacity by failing to show much profit. The basic story is perhaps just too non-dramatic to engage popular attention — even that attention which is engaged in trying to lose itself.

2. As to films about Buddhist belief these too are relatively few when compared with those about Christianity. There have been some twenty-seven films about Joan of Arc, and there are many picturization of various other Christian saints, nuns, monks, priests, and so on. And when such films picturing Buddhist convictions are made, the emphasis is often different from those films about Christian beliefs.

For example, in the various Korean films about Buddhist monks the emphasis is not upon exemplary lives but upon the do — the Way — itself. In both Im Kwon-taek’s 1981 Mandala and Bae Young Kyun’s 1989 Why did the Bodhi-Dharuma Leave for the Orient, two exemplary films, the title of the latter taken from an unanswerable Zen koan, the emphasis is not upon person but process, Again in Sri Lankan films about Buddhist monks and nuns the emphasis is not upon martyrdom but about some more peaceful manner of joining the elemental, as in Lester James Peries’ The Yellow Robe.

In popular Japanese pictures about Buddhist nuns, it is usually the link between religion and sexual expression that is candidly acknowledged — something which would never occur in a Christian film. That these cavorting creatures occasioned no public comment is perhaps indicative of differences between Buddhist and Christian means — one remembers the uproar occasioned by even something as mild as Martin Scorces’ The Last Temptation of Christ.

Thus no film has been produced in the East which is the moral equivalent of Bresson’s 1950 The Diary of a Country Priest or Kawalerowicz’s 1961 The Devil and the Nun, and there is no reason that they should have been. Buddhist tenets do not adapt well to the narrative needs of commercial films. Only when these are enlarged and socialized in a film such as the 1956 Japanese picture, Ichikawa Kon’s Harp of Burma, do they become useable.

3. Films on Buddhist themes themselves (i.e. pictures which animate known liturgical beliefs) are again more rare than like films concerning Christian themes. In the West, in the earlier days, there were many Christian propaganda pictures the burden of which could be reduced to: Love Thy Neighbor; Do Not Commit Adultery, and the like. In the East the Buddhist theme-film often attaches itself to the religious-bio. Thus the Japanese movies about the militant Nichiren are theme-pix: Give Your All for Buddha. The film about Shinran (being about Pure Land doctrine) is theme-reduceable to Speak Up for Buddha.

However if we enlarge our definition to include pictures which perhaps did not intend to mirror Buddhist theme but nonetheless do, then we have many more examples. As Ronald Dore has observed: Elements of Buddhist though are so thoroughly absorbed into Japanese culture that they no longer depend on Buddhist institutions for their perpetuation.

One such noted is the high value placed on the state of non-self. In Buddhist thought the concept of self is itself to be obliterated so that something like reality may be apprehended. In Japanese society, the idea of such an individuality is to be sacrificed so that the needs of the community may be recognized.

The desired result of this secular interpretation is what Dore has called “a fatalistic determinism emphasizing the necessity of a resigned acceptance of one’s lot.” The result is by no means an illumination in the Buddhist sense, but the two processes are similar.

This reference now entirely concerns Mahayana (Greater Vehicle Buddhism) than Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) and it should be known that this distinction in vehicle size is that of Mahayana which, having gone geographically furthest, still thinks that it did most of the pedaling.

Since it proceeded from India through Nepal and Tibet to China and Korea, ending — for the time being — in the Japanese archipelago, it might be well to examine just what Buddhism means, or is supposed to mean in this furthest flung of its provinces — Japan.


One of the enduring traits of Buddhism is its ability to tailor its nature to wherever it is — consequently the differences between the various Buddhisms of Asia rival the similarities.

In Japan the religion more strongly emphasized the impact of human institutions. It became a vehicle for practical morality and was able to accompany a decided work ethic. It more emphasized the importance of human relations, of family morals, it taught a reverence for ancestors.

At the same time it learned to compromise with nationalistic tendencies — the concept chingo-kokka, national peace through religious discipline. Along the way it became non-rationalistic— no rationalist speculation, no grand doctrinal system. And with this an acceptance of things as they are. Consequently an openness to other beliefs. In Japan there are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines but these are not viewed as mutually incompatible, like the cathedral and the mosque.

Instead, and in a very Japanese manner, the market is allocated. Shinto gets birth, coming of age, and marriage rites. Buddhism gets the much more lucrative market for death — funerals, posthumous names, grave rights, necessary and expensive ceremonies on death dates etc.

It might be argued that such tolerance for all religions indicates a certain lack of belief in any of them but this is not an idea which readily occurs in Japan where the major religion is perhaps neither Buddhism nor Shintoism, but rather, simply being Japanese.

4. It is from this point of view that one might consider then the last of my suggested categories — those films which incorporate Buddhist beliefs. These are, of course, everywhere since Buddhism is a part of Asian culture as a whole. Such elements are included along with chopsticks, saris, kung-fu, etc., with no one being the wiser — and no one intending to be Buddhist in the first place.

To take a homely example from Christian culture. Walking along the street we see a ladder leaning against the wall and taking up most of the sidewalk. It is more convenient that we walk under it. But do we? Well, that depends upon who we think we are, but even if we do not it is not because we remember the ancient belief that first made the question necessary — that this is an analogous situation to the Devil’s sitting triumphantly under the ladder leaning against the cross upon which Christ was hung.

In this spirit of ignorant acceptance then let us look at the work of the Japanese film director, Yasujiro Ozu. A thoroughly secular man, he would doubtless be startled to find himself an exhibit in a talk on Buddhism, yet he belong here. Let us consider his style.

a. The camera gaze — his people often look straight into the camera lens (or so close beside it that the effect is the same) and one could find here a paradigm to Zen Buddhism, that straight-on view which, even when the eyes are veiled, as in zazen, sees directly.
b. The camera shot height: that of a person on a cushion — not only host-and-guest, but also tea-master, haiku-master, zazen practitioner.
c. The shot length, one which is long by other standards, which is not controlled by the exigencies of plot, which exists as though for itself — a paradigm is religious concentration.
d. The occasional awareness of a Buddhist concept. The noh theatre sequence in Late Spring, the coda of Early Summer which the director himself called rinne — that Buddhist apprehension of evanescence.
e. The mundane — Ozu’s films are filled with the ordinary, with the everyday, one of the qualities of the transcendental, that is, religious.

In stressing these qualities I am not arguing that Ozu is overtly Buddhist but I am suggesting that he is covertly so. His means are supportive of an attitude we would call religious (though we could also call it other things as well, modernist, for example) and Buddhism is the only religion he knew anything about.

Buddhist attributes are thus, unintentionally, willy-nilly, helplessly, to be found in film — often in large quantities.

5. Finally, there is a more important matter: the fact that film itself can be seen as a kind of paradigm of Buddhism since it shares so many of its properties. In a sense then the cinema may be seen as a Buddhist vehicle (though a strange one) in that so many of its observations are therein inculcated.

a. First, and not so frivolously as it might seem, film is an illusion. There are only shadows on the screen. Like the mere shadows in Plato’s cave, conjured up, they instantly vanish — the only difference is that Plato was watching shadows of real events. At the movies we are seeing only the shadows of shadows. Both are, in Buddhist terms, illusions — maya. We know what the Buddha, sitting under his bo tree, thought of these — they were to be vanquished and he stayed up late just to do so. The leading Asian film magazine is rightly named Cinemaya.
b. Second, the Buddha observed that all life is flux, transience and what are the movies but just this. And in a double sense: each of the images only last 1/24th of a second, and film itself (both nitrate and safety) only lasts a number of decades before it chemically combusts. (Tape is no less transient, and the time involved is even less; and if you think eternity is yours with DVD you are wrong — the matrix flakes after mere decades.) Consequently film is a double reflection of life. It reveals life’s surface and reflects life’s own mode since the major mode is flux.
c. Third, the Buddha held that all life is suffering (dukkha) and that the root of this suffering is illusion. We desire that which is transient and illusionary. Therefore the root of suffering is desire. We must learn not to want. However, wanting is the stuff of life.

This the movies amply indicate. They are about nothing but desire and suffering. In this sense, Douglas Sirk is a Buddhist sage and Lana Turner a bodhisattva. And in the larger sense, a conversion to the Buddha would mean the end of cinema since this is itself a compound of desire, suffering and illusion, and all of these are bad things.

d. Fourth, in the Buddhist limbo the deluded are forced to endlessly repeat those actions which led to their being put there in the first place. Again a parallel suggests itself. As anyone knows who has endured the same film twice, the film experience, like, I suppose, the life experience, is (except in rare cases) unduplicatable as experience (though not for study purposes, nor for the emotional aspirations — the need to cry, for example).

One of the ideas behind that of the dharma is that of karma — the repetition of life. And it takes many forms. The person who willingly saw The Sound of Music some dozens of times was, in my opinion, either undergoing a purgative or enduring something approximate to the Buddhist hell. In its infernal form, one of the most thoroughly Buddhist films ever made was — its hero forced to endure the same ordinary day over and over again — Groundhog Day.

6. Dharma comes from an Indian word the original meaning of which is: law, custom, duty, justice. Its contemporary meanings are double: (1) the teachings of the Buddha and (2) those various elements that combine to make up the physical world, including us.

This is not very helpful but it is clear that Buddha did not go to the movies and would not have approved of them if he had. They are distracting, illusionary, transient, and they inculcate desire. Also they encourage opinion and self expression, while one of the tenants of original Buddhism is atman, the impossibility of just this self.

There are no film critics in the Buddhist pantheon. In that sense then any stressing of the connection between dharma and film is anathema and a lecture entitled “Buddhism and the Film” adds insult to injury.

This essay has had a long gestation. It began as a series of notes for a speech given at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, in 1993. These were published in The Donald Richie Reader (Berkeley 2001). They were rewritten and formed into an address given at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003. Finally, they were reworked into the essay form above which was given at a speech at Doshisha University, Kyoto, in 2005.

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