By ZEN T.C. ZHENG Copyright 2010 Houston Chronicle
Footage of a lush, idyllic landscape from the Indian-Nepal border region quickly morphs into hand-drawn animation of a woman dreaming of a white elephant, with a lotus flower on its tusk, entering the side of her body.
And so unfolds The Buddha, as an ethereal violin theme floats over the meditative drone of a sitar.
The woman, Queen Maya of Sakya, then gave birth to Prince Siddhartha who, after 29 years of palatial pleasures, ventures out of his royal confines to discover old age, disease and death, thereafter embarking on a grueling journey in search of a path to end sufferings. He became enlightened after meditating under a fig tree and became the Buddha, or the awakened one, and devoted the rest of his life to teaching the path.
Relishing the mythic mood his latest documentary creates, filmmaker David Grubin said the project helped him realize life is “mysterious and miraculous.”
How mythological the conception story is doesn't matter, he said. What's central is the message the Buddha's life conveys: Suffering is universal, but there is a way out.
That message is reflected in the four sacred places his film traces, which remain the world's centers of Buddhist pilgrimage and essentially form the Buddha's biography — the places of his birth, enlightenment, first teaching and death.
History abounds with accounts of the life of the sage, who lived more than 2,500 years ago, through oral tradition, written words and artwork. Since the 1920s, there have been more than a dozen undertakings to capture the story on film, including a handful of documentaries.
With an output of some 50 films from history and politics to arts and poetry and to science and health, Grubin, 66, sees his Buddhist project as a high point in his long quest for meaning of life.
“I learned so much from making the film,” he said.
He gathered a diverse group of Buddhists to help tell the story in the film: the Dalai Lama, poets W.S. Merwin and Jane Hirshfield, psychiatrist Mark Epstein, astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan, scholars Robert Thurman, Kevin Trainor and Max Moerman, as well as Ven. Metteyya Sakyaputta and Ven. Bhaddamanika from Lumbini, believed to be the Buddha's birthplace in today's Nepal.
The documentary will air on PBS on April 7. Grubin will be in Houston on Wednesday to discuss the film and play excerpts from it.
Q: Why did you want to make this film?
A: I've been thinking about telling the story of the Buddha for a long time. It's the type of story that has universal meanings and so much wisdom. The Buddha was the first psychologist and interested in how people think. His central concern was human suffering, which is appealing to me. Although I'm not a Buddhist, I found the story of the Buddha very fascinating and instructive. And I was moved by the message of hope that it carries.
Q:What is your spiritual leaning?
A: I am a secular Jew. I feel connected to the Jewish people, the history and the value of the ethnic group, but I am not connected to the religion. I'm interested in the spiritual aspects of life that are transcendent in nature, but I don't connect that interest to any religion.
Q: Why did you decide to tell the story of the Buddha now?
A:We live in a time of bewildering changes. Many people are finding a spiritual vacuum in their lives. They are searching. You see, in America, people are moving from one religion to another. They are looking for some kind of solid ground to stand on. Buddha offers that. It doesn't matter if you are Christian, Jewish or a Muslim. There are aspects of Buddhist teaching you can use.
Q:How do you think the story will draw viewers?
A: You don't have to be a Buddhist to draw knowledge and wisdom from the story. People can find so many different ways to be interested in it, from those interested in nonviolence to those in search of ways to calm their minds and anxiety.
Q: How did you choose the people who would help tell the story?
A:I wanted to find people who are very wise, from different areas of life, in Buddhism for a long time and who could look at the story and draw deep meanings from it.
Q: It seems Richard Gere ends up in everything done in America about Buddhism and has almost become a cliché. Did you look at other people for narration, too?
A: I could have had other narrators, of course. But I wanted somebody who understood the Buddhist teaching to narrate the film. Richard Gere brought real knowledge to his reading. He wasn't just reading the words.
Q:What are the ideas behind your film's rich animation?
A: I felt it was important to bring to life the mythology and the legends. How do you do that in a documentary, which is all about being close to the world we live in everyday? It occurred to me that animation would be the answer because it can create its own world. I wanted the animation to be beautiful, not computer-generated but drawn by hand. I wanted it to be fluid and dynamic and transforms from one form to another to carry the Buddhist message about change.
Q:There is such a sense of connection between the present and the past, as the film is dotted with footage of ancient asceticism and Vedic rituals and yoga still in practice today and historic sites still bustling with spiritual seekers. Did you do it deliberately?
A:You are so right. I didn't want the past to seem dead. I wanted the whole film to be in dialogue with the past.
Q: What have you learned?
A: I have learned that our spiritual natures are really about how much we don't know and how we can transcend our everyday lives. I've learned we are all connected, and the whole world is an ecological phenomenon — we read it in newspapers every day, but the Buddha realized that 2,500 years ago.
I learned that desire is not exactly a negative thing, as the Dalai Lama said: “You must have desires, a strong desire to become Buddha.”