Popcorn schooling: Buddhism and film

by David Gray |
SCU associate professor of religious studies David Gray offers suggestions on what armchair scholars of the Dalai Lama can expect to learn from several recommended films.

Since he was exiled from his homeland in 1959, the Dalai Lama has been a mainstay on the world stage. Several popular movies have a lot to offer viewers hoping to learn about the spiritual leader of Tibet, from the origins of Buddha to the life and times of the Dalai Lama we know today, who may be last to hold the title. Following are some suggestions by associate professor of religious studies David Gray, who teaches a course on Buddhism and film.

Kundun (1997)

Directed by Martin Scorsese, this movie is based on the current (14th) Dalai Lama’s autobiography Freedom in Exile. The film charts the Dalai Lama’s life story, from before his birth, through his childhood, and up to the moment he fled Tibet in 1959. It’s a good film that stays true to the autobiography.

Seven Years in Tibet (1997)

Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Brad Pitt, this movie is based on Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s book by the same name. The movie is about a volunteer who spent seven years in Tibet in the 1940s, prior to China’s invasion of that country. It focuses on the figure of Heinrich Harrer and includes several scenes of him interacting with the young Dalai Lama. It’s an accurate portrayal of Harrer’s life and also presents a positive depiction of the young Dalai Lama.

Little Buddha (1993)

This movie, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, explores a fictional family in Seattle that is suddenly hit with the news from a Tibetan monk that their son may be the next Lama Dorje. The film takes them to Bhutan on a spiritual odyssey that includes some helpful facts about the story of the Buddha and his origins as Siddhartha. While fictional, it is true that some incarnations of other lamas have been found among Western countries. (There are four schools of Buddhism and each has numerous lamas, which means teacher, as well as one person who is the reincarnation of their highest leader. The Dalai Lama is the reincarnated leader of the Geluk tradition).

The Cup (1999)

Directed by Khyentse Norbu, The Cup is a fictional tale of Tibetan refugees, including two novice monks, living in India and their efforts to watch the World Cup in a remote Himalayan monastery. Norbu is a Bhutanese lama himself (and a spiritual teacher to Bertolucci). It’s a touching and realistic portrayal of Tibetans in exile and touches on Buddhist teachings like compassion. The Dalai Lama has cameos via pictures of His Holiness in some scenes.

Himalaya (1999)

This movie, directed by Eric Valli, is a film with an all-Tibetan cast and is about village men going on a trading expedition, in which they endure hardships caused by the extreme weather in the region. This film, in Tibetan with subtitles, is a fictional drama about life for ordinary Tibetans before the Chinese takeover and incorporates some key Buddhist beliefs, such as karma.

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Winter 2014

Table of contents


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