With Little Buddha, Bernardo Bertolucci, the director of many great films, attempts to make a movie about Buddhism. It was the first in a handful of films to tackle the subject of Buddhism and Tibet during the 1990s. Others included the likes of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997) and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet (1998)]. Despite being less abstract than others, Little Buddha was one of three films on Buddha that did not do box office or find much critical acclaim.
The story begins with a narrator reading from a book titled Little Buddha, a colorful children’s tale. From here, Bertolucci and co-writers Mark Peploe and Rudy Wirlitzer overlay two stories, the second placed within and threaded through the first. The framing story, inspired by real events, is contemporary and set successively in Bhutan, Seattle, the Kathmandu Valley, the Terai lowlands of Nepal, then Bhutan and Seattle again. The second story is set 2,500 years ago: it follows the life of Siddhartha from the time of his birth to the point at which he became the Buddha.
The story brings us in modern-day Tibet, where some Buddhist monks begin to see signs that their spiritual master, Lama Dorje, who had died several years before, may have recently been reincarnated. So the aged Lama Norbu and his attendant Champa travel from the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to Seattle in search of the actual incarnation, a young American boy thought to be one of the possible “candidates” (the other two being a Nepalese boy, Raju, and a girl named Gita who lives in the Terai lowlands of Nepal, beside the garden and tree where Siddhartha achieved the illumination that led to the founding of Buddhism).
While in Seattle, the Lama meets the boy, who does indeed appear to have certain traits that the Lama’s teacher had. The two develop a friendship and soon, the Lama begins to relate to him the story of the birth of Buddhism, and of the young prince named Siddhartha who came to be called Buddha.
The Lama convince the child’s father to take the boy to Nepal to determine if he is, in fact, the reincarnation of his late master. Back in Kathmandu, they meet the other candidates and all the three children must undergo a test to prove which is the true reincarnation. As the film toggles back and forth between the present-day story of the search for the reincarnated Lama and the ancient tale of Buddha, the narration continues as the illustrations from the pages of the book come to life. At one point, the two stories magically merge, and the three children and Siddhartha appear in the same shots, beside the same tree in the same garden.
In the final scenes of the movie, it is found that all three children are rebirths of Lama Dorje, separate manifestations of his body (Raju), speech (Gita), and mind (Jesse). His work finished, Lama Norbu enters a deep state of meditation and dies. The sand mandala that was seen being constructed during the movie is destroyed, “with one swift stroke.”
While the story itself is very convincing, the film, by the end, particularly during the trip into the ritual at the monastery in Bhutan, leaves us with an odd sense of reverential awe. Particularly memorable is the picture of monks painstakingly creating a sand mandala and Lama Norbu’s passing comment that it is made only to demonstrate the ephemerality of all things.
Another magnificent thing in this movie is the Japanese pianist/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for the film. Outstanding music, beautifully designed and blending into the colors of the film, in some quiet and subtle ways that just slowly crop up, and start to make us feel it all.
Though somehow uneven, the film is engagingly moving and often humorous, as Bertolucci weaves between color-coded sections, cool blue for the western scenes, warm red-gold for those set in the ancient East. The Siddhartha scenes are amazing, filled with lovely, surprising effects that never try to seem realistic. It is a visual spectacle. The costumery is gorgeous. Bertolucci’s images of the fantastic during the flashback sequences – trees bending to aid Buddha’s mother, blossoms that flower in the young child’s footsteps, the Mara’s conjuring up vast storms, fireballs and armies firing flaming arrows – are striking.
This film was partially inspired by the story of Sonam Wangdu (born 1992), the child of a Buddhist family from the U.S. and the great, great nephew of Deshun Rinposte III, a revered Lama of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Today the two centers of the sect are in Seattle and Nepal. Deshun Rinposte rebuilt an important temple in exile in Katmandu. He predicted that he would be reborn in Seattle. Sonam Wangdu’s mother had dreams while she was pregnant that her son would be a great teacher. A leader of the Sakya sect also dreamed that Sonam Wangdu was the reincarnation of Deshun Rinposte. Sonam Wangdu is now living in a monastery in Katmandu and is studying to become the leader of his sect. It is reported by those that believe in the reincarnation, that at the child’s birth a golden light filled the delivery room, that the child was unusually compassionate with others, and that when taken to the room of Deshun Rinposte the child identified the Master’s chair.
Three Tibetan incarnate lamas have roles in the film. Sogyal Rinpoche appears in the earlier segments in the role of Khenpo Tenzin. The Venerable Khyongla Rato Rinpoche plays the part of the Abbot of the monastery in Bhutan. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche appears near the end of the movie when Lama Norbu is shown meditating overnight.
Little Buddha is a film with virtually no dramatic conflict, both storylines are linear and even-handed, focusing instead on the inherently philosophical themes. The biggest statement the film makes is that Buddhism and enlightenment are not geographically or ethnically restricted; that they are universal and are applicable to the human race as a whole. It also underlines the challenges we face when we are confronted with beliefs outside our comfort zone and that a conversation has been started, long time ago, between East and West.
Photo credit: alamy