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Buddha Realms

Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th Street, New York, NY 10016; 202-808-4980
A Film by Mark Edmondson for the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Directed by Mark Edmondson
VHS, color, 55 min.
Jr. High - Adult
Religious Studies, Asian Studies

Reviewed by Charles J. Greenberg, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University


For a Western audience raised in a theistic spiritual model, it must seem self-evident that the underlying principle of Buddhism is a higher supreme being known as the Buddha, a figure found in bronzed statues large and small, often seated in a meditative lotus position. Or perhaps the gentle, articulate, and red-robed image of the 14th Tibetan Dalai Lama produces a popular idea of a contemporary Buddha on Earth. Such convenient representations of understanding do not in fact adequately represent the diversity and pluralism of beliefs and practices that share the common denominator of Buddha. For that reason, the Australian Broadcasting Company’s decision to support Mark Edmondson’s production of the film Buddha Realms demonstrates a welcome commitment to better knowledge of what makes approximately 300 million global citizens seek the Buddha and a path to enlightenment.

Buddha Realms is a contemporary narrated documentary that blends realistic everyday scenes of historical settings with scholarly opinions to distinguish a variety of Buddhist practices, the nonstop eastern migration of Buddhism, and the increasing global popularity of Buddhism in general.

British Buddhist Scholar Peter Harvey, assigned to describe the most basic tenets of the Buddha’s teachings, introduces the history of the Buddha’s enlightenment in Bodhgaya, India. Despite the Buddha’s doctrine of impermanence, which posits attachments as the fundamental cause of suffering, considerable attention in contemporary Bodhgaya is paid to maintaining local tourist attractions and a proposed Buddhist theme park with an even bigger Buddha statue. The film then transitions to Thailand, the only country in the world where Buddhist state religion maintains a ritual of all young males fulfilling a commitment to spend two years in monastic poverty, dependent on the alms of the community. Viewers are treated to the traditional head shaving ceremony for these teenage monks-in-training and briefly follow them on their first tentative steps to do ritual begging in the street. In stark contrast to this tradition, Thailand is also revealed to have a popular contemporary Buddhist sect doing a brisk business in commissioning Buddha statues in one’s own image, costing more than a month’s salary.

As the descriptions and images of the migration of Buddhism to Japan and America are presented, several other notable Buddhist scholars lend their authority to explanations, such as McGill University’s Victor Hori, Pennsylvania State University’s Charles Prebish, and Columbia University’s Robert Thurman. Quite naturally and effectively, Hori and Thurman present their specific encounters with Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, respectively. The segment of the film that presents examples of Buddhism in America features the repeating theme of stark contrasts, starting off in a traditional Buddhist Church prayer service dominated by older Asian participants, and then abruptly introducing the social and therapeutic benefits of Buddhist meditation for prison and substance abuse populations. Blanche Hartman, the spiritual leader of the San Francisco Zen Center, portrays the evolution of feminist leadership in American Buddhism.

The closing sequence transports the viewer from a rural San Francisco meditation retreat to the Australian suburban outback to visit a multi-acre temple complex imported and erected by Taiwanese Buddhist nuns, who proudly share their optimistic expectation that it is only a matter of time (perhaps a long time) before the native Australian population will inherit both their Temple and their role in caring for it. The striking and ringing of ceremonial bells presents an effective sonic and visual closing sequence during the final credits.

The variety and diversity of Buddhist belief and practice presented in less than 60 minutes is this production’s greatest strength, along with high quality editing and superior audio and video production elements.

Inevitably, the obligation to attend to the Buddhist themes endorsed by well known Buddhist academics eventually shortchanges opportunities to actually follow Buddhist practice in everyday life, particularly in Western contemporary society. The necessity of lengthy travel to a meditation center or monastery in order to practice was a fundamental handicap to the broader popularization of some schools of Buddhism. Yet the Internet may be an answer to negate physical distance and provide connectedness for a body of believers (Sangha). This topic was absent from the presentation. Because of the tendency to portray the monastic traditions or facilities for worship in this film, very few scenes offer a view of home arrangements that accommodate Buddhist practice, such as home Buddhist shrines and alters. Some common themes in Buddhist practice, such as respecting each person as a living Buddha or the significance of the lotus flower in Buddhism are neglected in favor of satisfying the average curiosity of Australian television viewers. To their credit, the average curiosity of Australians puts Americans to shame.

Recommended for secondary, academic and public library collections on Asian culture generally and Buddhism specifically.