Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A few thoughts about "The Buddha" on PBS

Tomorrow is the last day to watch "The Buddha" on the PBS website, This program is truly an event. Much of it is beautiful. It does seem to me, however, that it would be difficult for a person unfamiliar with the Buddhadhamma to discern the Dhamma in the program. The presentation is a blend of nuggets of wisdom, along with platitudes derived from the personal viewpoints of the participants, mixed together with selected historical details (with some glaring omissions).

Striking to me was the absence of individuals crucial to the life story of the Buddha. Most notably, there's no mention of Ananda, the Buddha's personal attendant who is credited with having such an astonishing memory that he was able to recall entire suttas in the Buddha's own words.

We hear in the program how the Buddha named his son "Rahula," rendered "ball and chain" in the words of one of the program's participants. But we hear nothing about Rahula's later going-forth, and the tender, one-on-one instruction that Rahula later received from his own father. Such as retold here.

Perhaps the most egregious historical inaccuracy is the program's suggestion that right from the start, the Buddha took the revolutionary step (for the time) of ordaining women. Left out of the storytelling is, again, an important figure from the Buddha's own family, Mahapajapati, who raised him as if she were his own mother, who begged him later to allow women into the community monks, and who at first was denied.

It's such a curious thing, the way the Buddha is treated in the program. In some respects, he is put up on a pedestal and seperated out of normal human interactions. If nothing else, from a purely cinematic point of view, the program could have made much more effective use of these "window characters" in the Buddha's life to give us a look at the man through the eyes of those who knew him best. That also would have reinforced the notion of inter-connectedness. This was an opportunity lost.

I'm not sure what kind of impression of Buddhism a person would have after watching the program, but I don't think it would be a very accurate impression of the Buddhadhamma. Part of the reason for this is the apparent lack of discernment in selecting comments and summaries of Dhamma to include from the participants. For example, near the end of the program, poet Jane Hirshfield offers this comment, and it is presented in a way that could be taken as a summary of the Dhamma:

"Everyday life around us is already so implausible and so glorious, that what need for further miracles? And that's the teaching of the Buddha. That's the miraculous teaching of the Buddha."

What does that mean exactly? In general, I think Hirshfield's comment includes a valid point, namely, that it's crucial to recognize things just as they are, right here and now, rather than to seek after miracles. Yet, like so much else in the program, this is presented as a happy platitude, as a viewpoint, as if the Buddha doled out scraps of advice fortune-cookie style. How do you apply this is your life? What practical application can this idea have?

In some cases, the program presents a wonderful Dhamma teaching, but then undercuts it with commentary from somebody who doesn't seem to appreciate its meaning. For example, the program offers a rendering of something that can be found here.

"When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn't, that isn't. From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that."

But then the program offers an interpretation from astrophysicist Trihn Xuan Thuan, who says, in part:

"Everything is connected to everything else. ... Our happiness depends on their happiness as well. How can we be happy if we're the only one happy in an island of happiness in an ocean of misery? Of course that's not possible."

And his comment has really nothing at all to do with what the sutta is talking about. Indeed, his comments fly in the face of other sutta teachings that describe how monks are happy-minded in the midst of suffering, how we must be an island, how the truest happiness is not conditioned by anything in this world.

In many respects, "The Buddha" is a wonderful program and a great service, but it does not appear to convey very well what the Buddha actually taught.