Friday, January 4, 2008

The unfulfilling Life of Buddha

I saw The Life of Buddha when it was premiered for the press back in November, and I gave it a non-committal review because I wanted to be kind for at least a couple of reasons:

  1. I have deep sentiments about animated films, which are rarely made in Thailand, and The Life of Buddha was traditional animation at that.
  2. I'm not Buddhist, don't really know that much about Buddhism, and so felt ill-equipped to really criticise what was an obviously well-meaning film.

The Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee does not operate under any such constraints, however. Here's a bit of what he wrote in his December 14 review:

The Buddha mirrors the national climate of institutional worship and the indifference, if not the ignorance, to how modern society has twisted Lord Buddha's teachings into something much less pure than their original meanings. This prevailing atmosphere feeds our hypocrisy, or maybe naivete, encouraging us to subject artists who ask tough questions - for example Anupong Chanthorn, who painted the 'crow-beaked' monks - to humiliation. At the same time it prompts us to embrace familiarity and numb comfort, as if there's no need for Buddhists to realise that to end earthly suffering means to confront it, instead of just having someone keep telling us about how to end it.

Now, via 2Bangkok's forums and Prachatai, Pali scholar Eisel Mazard is even stronger in his criticism, blasting it for historical and cultural inaccuracies. Here's more:

It would ... be easy to imagine some other filmmaker having an interest in issues that vitiate modern Thailand, such as alcoholism, drug-addiction, prostitution, etc. - but this is purely "cloud-cuckoo-land" filmmaking.

The film is garbage; however, the monks and laypeople that now step forward in praise of it (as an accurate depiction of the historical Buddha) do us a great favor in discrediting themselves.

The same may well be said of the craze for "Jatukam" amulets in Thailand; it is as if the most corrupt had devised these as a means of having the worst elements of Thai monasticism identify themselves, at the same time convincing all the dunces to wear a sign around their necks in public to declare their own gullibility.

The saddening question is this: will there ever be an interest in the historical material that the Pali suttas hold, such as might challenge the widespread assumptions built up from half-remembered legends of Ashavghosa, the Lalitavistara, and Jataka fables ("Wet-san-don", etc.)?

In Thailand, the answer is "no". The Buddha they believe in shaved his head, and yet maintained a full head of hair. He evidently never said, wrote, or recited anything of philosophic significance, and is instead an object of worship simply on account of his (supposed) royal blood and conjurer's tricks.

I would love to see a film that satirizes the tweaked version of Buddhism in Thailand, and there probably already have been a few. I think that Cherd Songsri's Muen and Rid had a thing or two to say about the situation, especially the type of people who promote amulet usage. Possibly also Ahimsa: Stop to Run or Mekhong Full Moon Party. Thing is, under the present cultural climate, I'm not so sure any filmmaker is going to get away with freely criticizing Thai Buddhism, as doing such might be deemed in violation of "good morals, national pride or state security" under the forthcoming new film act.

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