Monks, Strippers, and Monkey Spirits: Depictions of Buddhism on Film


Explicitly Buddhist films are not as common as explicitly Christian or Jewish or even Hindu ones. In fact, very few films can be considered exclusively Buddhist. Just as a Buddhist in China would believe Buddhism to be intrinsic to his or her identity as a Chinese person, and not contradictory with their also identifying as Daoist or Confucian or even Christian, a film that contains Buddhist themes would never be labeled as only Buddhist. This passive relationship to cinema and art in general is largely a result of Buddhist philosophy. In Buddhism, there is no self independent from the surrounding universe. Thus, for Buddhism, there is no Buddhist cinema that stands apart from cinema as a whole.

And yet, despite this passive nature, Buddhism has had a pronounced influence on cinema. This influence manifests itself more in theme and content than the actual formal construction of films. Buddhist concepts like samsara, reincarnation and karma have worked their way into countless films and greatly influenced East Asian cinema. In fact, several films have captured these core concepts so well that they essentially act as primers on Buddhism as a whole.

In western cinema, Buddhism has been mostly relegated to the sidelines, narratively and thematically. In Hollywood, Buddhism has been bandied about as a trendy religion for celebrities to get involved with; just think of how many times Richard Gere has shown up on talk shows and given shallow lessons on the merits of Buddhism. It also appears as a pious theme in pics like Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. Martin Scorsese’s Kundun is one of western cinema’s few articulate examinations of Buddhism. While functioning largely as a biopic of Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama and exiled leader of Tibet, Kundun approaches Buddhism with the same intensity and respect that Scorsese applied to Catholicism in his previous films. The film’s strengths lie in its look at reincarnation, which is shown in shockingly personal terms in the film’s opening scene where traveling lamas test the two-year-old Tenzin to see if he is the reincarnation of their spiritual leader. The film is also one of cinema’s rare examinations of Buddhism’s politics, exploring how Tibetan Buddhism encourages monks to enter politics and battle dukkha (suffering) through political rule.

Even better than Kundun is Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day, a light-hearted comedy that follows Bill Murray’s Phil Connors as he relieves the same February 2nd over and over until he learns to be a good person. While Groundhog Day is best remembered for its humour, the film is actually a savvy encapsulation of samsara, or the constant cycle of death and rebirth that forms a central tenant of Buddhism. As Phil Connors is reborn each Groundhog Day, he is given a new opportunity to right his wrongs and escape the cycle of suffering that his negativity has inflicted on himself and those around him. Finally, at the film’s climax, after having lived through almost 34 years of Groundhog Days, he learns all the right lessons and is freed from the cycle, achieving a sort of nirvana and being allowed to return to the linear path of his life now that he’s a morally righteous human being.

However good Kundun and Groundhog Day are—and they are good—they’re ultimately visions of Buddhism from a Western perspective. To get a fuller sense of Buddhism on film, one has to look to Asian cinema. Of all the films exploring the cyclical nature of Buddhist cosmology, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring from controversial Korean director, Kim Ki-duk, might be the best. It’s certainly one of the simplest. The film is divided into five chapters and follows a young monk over the course of his life at a remote, floating monastery. 

The film starts in Spring, when the monk is only a small boy, content to run about the mountains and enjoy nature. When it moves onto Summer, he’s a young man feeling the pangs of sexual yearning and defiance. In Fall, the young man is fully grown and returns to the monastery from his life in the city where he’s murdered his wife. In Winter, he returns again to the monastery after having been paroled from prison and restores the monastery, taking the place of his now-dead master. He also takes possession of a baby abandoned by his mother. Finally, the film returns to Spring, with the monk now an old man, resembling his former master, and the baby a child like the monk used to be. In essence, the boy has become his master, and his master has died and become the boy in reincarnation. This simple, gorgeous narrative is an elegant encapsulation of samsara, that never-ending cycle of life, death and rebirth.

While the main focus of the film is samsara, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring also takes time for lessons on other Buddhist tenants. Once such lesson focuses on the Buddhist belief that one must respect all natural life. Early in the film, the boy monk ties rocks to a fish, a frog, and a snake and takes pleasure in their torment. The boy’s master, the old monk who minds the monastery, watches him doing this but does not intervene, instead choosing to teach a lesson while the boy is sleeping by tying a rock to his back. When the boy wakes, he can barely walk, and the old monk tells him that he’ll only remove the rock if he finds the fish, frog, and snake and releases them. The boy sets about searching for the animals, but is horrified to find that only the frog has survived. His desperate tears at the snake’s corpse is especially devastating and drives home the lesson in a way that no words could. His master has taught him (and the film has taught the viewer) that even a snake deserves respect. 

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring is a wonderful film, patient and contemplative. It’s a great distillation of Buddhist asceticism while also being a great art film. It demonstrates the concept of samsara and explores reincarnation in its depiction of the old monk’s death and reincarnation as the baby. However, it doesn’t explore reincarnation as head-on as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. While Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring never explicitly discusses the fact that the baby is the reincarnation of the old monk, Uncle Boonmee directly explores the past (and future) lives of its central character.

As the title suggests, Uncle Boonmee follows the title character (Thanapat Saisaymar) in the final days of his life as his loved ones, both dead and alive, gather about him to hear his recollections of his many lives. (The film is inspired by an actual text Weerasethakul found in a temple in Thailand about a man who claimed to remember his past lives.) Aside from its dreamlike filmmaking and profound political statements, Uncle Boonmee is remarkable for capturing the radical (and rarely discussed) implications of reincarnation. In one instance, Boonmee recalls a past life where he was either a princess or a catfish with a knack for cunnilungus. In another, he dreams of a possible future life at a time when a military junta (purposefully reminiscent of the one that currently rules Thailand) is hunting down and capturing the country’s animals spirits. Weerasethakul’s preoccupation with spirits—explored in Boonmee’s long-lost son who reappears as a monkey spirit, a spectral figure with demon-like red glowing eyes—also shows how cultural animism—in this case, the existence of physical animal spirits—has bled into Theravada Buddhism. (It’s important to recognize that Buddhism is not monolithic. Its major strands, Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan, all vary in practice and philosophy.) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives captures the complexities of reincarnation, and the way that Buddhism allows for cultural traditions to enter its theological understanding.

A major aspect of Buddhism that is only hinted at in Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring and Uncle Boonmee is karma, the spiritual cause and effect where good and bad deeds affect an individual’s station during rebirth. Johnnie To’s Running on Karma is one of the few films to deal with karma in explicit terms. It’s a romantic thriller with one of the strangest conceits in all of cinema. Andy Lau stars as a muscular buddhist monk-turned-stripper named Big (Lau wears a fake muscle suit throughout the film) who can see people’s karma and eventual manner of death. He partners and falls in love with a cop, Lee Fung-yee (Cecilia Cheung), using his karma and martial arts abilities to help her solve cases while also protecting her from a grisly death that’s the karmic result of a past life.

Through its fantastic conceit, Running on Karma effectively conveys the idea of karma and explores the repercussions it can have on the lives of people living unaware of its influence. As Big strives to save Lee, he comes to understand that the effects of karma are often unpleasant and that karma is impossible to escape. The film sums up karma’s function when Big explains to Lee that she might not have literally been a Japanese soldier in a past life, but because that soldier did great evil, Lee has to deal with the cosmic consequences. This line conveys the mystifying nature of karma, while definitely explaining its concrete effects on life.

Running on Karma also touches on the profound connection between Buddhism and martial arts. As most legends about the founding of Chinese martial arts concern the Shaolin Temple, most martial arts films are indirectly or explicitly concerned with Buddhism. Lau Kar-leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin—widely considered the greatest classical martial arts film—makes Buddhism’s relationship to violence and war its central preoccupation. 

The film’s hero, San Te (Liu Chia-Hui), joins the Shaolin Temple in order to master its 35 chambers and become a champion capable of defeating the Manchurians who raided his village and killed his family. San Te’s quest for revenge brings him into conflict with Buddhism’s tenants for non-violence. After he completes his training, the temple exiles him and only accepts him back after he comprehends that the physical feats of martial arts are primarily meant to combat a person’s inner desires. Thus, San Te is only able to defeat the Manchurians and establish the 36th Chamber of Shaolin dedicated to teaching lay people martial arts, because he has surpassed his desire for revenge and grasped onto worthier ideals. While The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is primarily appealing as an action spectacular, it also captures the conflict inherent to Buddhism’s relationship with martial arts.

There are many other films that explore Buddhism or capture aspects of its philosophy. However, films like Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Running on Karma, and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin each offer a useful primer on many of its central tenants, capturing the essences of samsara, reincarnation, and karma, all while serving as excellent films in their own right.

Buddhism is a religion known for its detachment from the world and its presence is cinema often goes unnoticed. But just as its outer simplicity masks its unresolvable complexity, Buddhism’s passive relationship to cinema hides its undeniable influence.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.