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Sandcastles: Buddhism and Global Finance cover photo

Sandcastles: Buddhism and Global Finance 2003


Distributed by Distributed by First Run/Icarus Films, 32 Court St., 21st Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201; 800-876-1710
Produced by Produced by the Buddhist Broadcast Foundation
Directed by Directed by Alexander Oey
VHS, color, 88 min.

Sr. High - Adult
Japan, Popular Culture, Music Trade, Singers

Date Entered: 05/14/2004

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

Anyone who has chosen to scratch beneath the surface of Buddhist teachings would probably gather that a shared tenet among various schools and sects is the belief that the historical Buddha was concerned with the disconnect between illusion of life (the subjective) and the reality of life (the objective). That disconnect is the ultimate cause of suffering, and the point of compassion in Buddhism is to relieve suffering in others and experience the true reality of life. It is impossible to ignore the state of material desire that has permeated our global human consciousness, and desire for many is represented by the illusion of the necessity of wealth to become happy.

I am sure that Alexander Oey’s film Sandcastles: Buddhism and Global Finance started out with the very noble and necessary intent to use media to awaken those both inside and outside the global financial industry to the fundamental nature of their uneasiness and offer a path to better life. The preoccupation with global financial networks for many reflects both the desire to accumulate wealth and a notion of progress. Market watchers of the technology-driven global financial networks would seem, on the surface, to have little use for the calm, introspective mindfulness of Buddhist philosophy. But these are not normal times.

Terrorist attacks, Enron-style corporate meltdowns, and ever-widening gaps between rich and poor societies have brought renewed focus on the inherent potential of financial globalization for both great good or great unhappiness. Rather than accepting the pedestrian belief in ever-larger capitalization and the presumption that expanding global financial networks are good for everyone, both financial and belief system alternatives are being pondered, in the boardroom and the hearts and minds of individuals. Sandcastles is an attempt to raise the consciousness of viewers to the illusion inherent in the reality of global financial markets.

Sandcastles features alternating narration from a pair of university lecturers, American sociologist Saskia Sassen and Dutch economist Arnoud Boot, as well as regularly inserted commentary by a Buddhist teacher, Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche. The featured speakers never actually meet or converse with each other during the film, but alternate according to the film director’s editing. A recurring visual montage, a glowing global marketplace of floor traders pondering market movements with furtive eyes, is interrupted at least twice by unexplained footage of tourists ambling about a knee-high large scale model city. A rather hypnotic synthesized soundtrack adds to the general sense of the illusory nature of market forces at work. The film demonstrates that the subjective irrational exuberance of global financial wealth is merely an illusionary reality, divorced from the very real human crises created by abrupt profit taking in sterile, publicly invisible financial trading floors.

The film director chooses not to intersperse any visual exemplars of the human crises that are alluded to by sociologist Sassen, and I think the film might have benefited from something more visual diversity, particularly if the film was to appeal to younger viewers, such as high school or undergraduate college audiences. An additional deficit for this film is that only one speaker, Rinpoche, presents his thematic analysis of the illusionary nature of material wealth. While it might have been entertaining for Rinpoche to actually visit a global trading floor and conduct his own remonstration with either traders or academics, the film ultimately compartmentalizes each speaker in their own unchallenged monologue and apparent comfort zone. The entire affect, then, is more of a lecture than entertainment. The narrative by Sassen and Boot is necessary, yet disconnected and almost the equivalent of academic stock footage, a convenient foil for Rinpoche’s philosophical perspective on the distribution of wealth and the nature of compassion in a world dominated by global finance.

As a unique attempt to bring two complex world views together, I commend the Director Oey and hope his genuine interest in opening the eyes of others to the sources of unhappiness will continue.

Declaration of competing interests: I practice organized Buddhism with the Soka Gakkai International, which has no affiliation that I know of with the Dutch Buddhist Broadcasting Foundation.