The Buddha
PBS // Unrated // $24.99 // April 27, 2010
Review by Elizabeth Neilson | posted May 19, 2010
Highly Recommended
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People have grappled with suffering throughout the ages. Nietzsche wrote, "To live is to suffer". Shakespeare's Hamlet lamented about "the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to". And Horace stated that "suffering is but another name for the teaching of experience, which is the parent of instruction and the schoolmaster of life".

Much has been written about the universality and timelessness of suffering, but few explain how to find peace in the face of illness, misfortune, and death. In THE BUDDHA, David Grubin explores the life of one man who came to terms with life's fragility over 2,500 years ago, and whose teachings still lead followers to understanding, compassion, and contentment today.

Grubin (an American documentary filmmaker whose award-winning works include Truman, LBJ, The Jewish Americans, The Secret Life of the Brain, and Napoleon) wrote, directed and produced this film about Siddhartha Gautama - a young prince born at the foot of the Himalayas in approximately 550 BCE. Siddhartha was raised in a palace and accorded every luxury:

"When I was a child, I was delicately brought up... A white sunshade was held over me day and night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, and dew."

"I wore the most costly garments, ate the finest foods. I was surrounded by beautiful women. During the rainy season I stayed in my palace, where I was entertained by musicians and dancing girls."

Shielded from pain and poverty - a curious, 29-year-old Siddhartha ventured outside the palace with his attendant and had four unexpected encounters (with a sick man, an old man, a corpse, and a spiritual seeker). Siddhartha, horrified to learn that impermanence and death were part of the natural order, renounced his wealth and began searching for answers to the puzzling questions: "Why do human beings suffer?" and "Is there any escape?"

For years, Siddhartha lived life on the edge - embracing poverty, starvation, grueling physical punishment, celibacy, and meditation in an effort to gain wisdom and come to terms with suffering.

"My body slowly became extremely emaciated. My limbs became like the jointed segments of vine or bamboo stems. My spine stood out like a string of beads. My ribs jutted out like the jutting rafters of an old, abandoned building. The gleam of my eyes appeared to be sunk deep in my eye sockets like the gleam of water deep in a well."

The ascetic Siddhartha became discouraged after six years of extreme deprivation failed to bring him spiritual understanding. Despondent and near death, Siddhartha accepted rice milk from a compassionate young girl. Feeling strengthened, he bathed in a nearby river, took shade under a fig tree, and resolved not move until he attained supreme and final wisdom. Siddhartha meditated throughout the night, looking within for the answers, and by morning had become the "awakened one". For the next 45 years, Siddhartha - the Buddha - devoted his life to helping others find the path to enlightenment.

Some documentaries are beset with shoddy reenactments, overwhelming narration, and extraneous experts. Grubin averted this triple threat with the use of animation and historic artwork, subtle narration, and thoughtful commentary by relevant scholars, poets, and spiritual leaders.

It's no easy task to effectively depict past events - especially when a story is mystical in nature. Fortunately, Grubin chose to use animation for surreal scenes and enlisted the help of Brian & Richard O'Connell from award-winning Asterisk Animation. The O'Connell team seamlessly morphs live shots into eye-pleasing, fluid representations which are sometimes full of color, at other times more subdued - but always to excellent effect. Grubin also incorporated archival images and works from the Asia Society Museum to bring THE BUDDHA to life. Richard Gere and Blair Brown provide well-paced, pleasant narration that moves the story along without drawing undue attention. The film also benefits from a wonderful mix of contemporary Buddhists, yogis, ascetics, poets and scholars, who provide great insight into Siddhartha's life and its impact over the course of two and a half millennia. Some featured speakers include His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet; Pulitzer prize-winning poet WS Merwin; psychiatrist Mark Epstein, Astrophysicist Trinh X. Thuan; and scholar Robert Thurman.



The release, which runs 115 minutes, is presented on DVD with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. James Callanan's cinematography strikes a perfect balance between beautiful landscapes in India and Nepal, and intimate close-ups of the spiritual followers who live there. Optional English and Mandarin subtitles have a slightly thick font, but are appropriately placed.



The audio track is provided in 2.0 stereo, and sounds dynamic despite the limitations of stereo sound. The ethereal music by composer Michael Bacon is outstanding and features Grammy Award-nominated violinist Philippe Quint and Steve Gorn on Indian flute.


The special features accompanying this film are thin (15 minutes total), but interesting and include interviews with David Grubin and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a segment explaining the film's animation process, and an exploration of Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Viewers hungry for more may be satiated by the articles and extra video provided at: PBS.ORG/THEBUDDHA about the history of Buddhism and how followers incorporate the teachings into daily life.

Final Thoughts:

THE BUDDHA is a thought-provoking and inspirational documentary that traces the life and legacy of Siddhartha Gautama. It's highly recommended for those interested in religious studies and for viewers who enjoy existential exploration.

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