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Be warned: Thai film: "The Life of Buddha"

Several days ago, I saw the "major motion picture" titled _The Life of Buddha_ --a Thai-made cartoon, that will doubtless define many of the assumptions about the historical Buddha for some time to come (at least within Thailand, if not beyond, as English-translation DVDs are available).

Precisely because the film is regarded as an attempt to portray the historical Buddha, its wildly unhistorical character is difficult to behold without a wince.

Textual scholars will immediately recognize the events as hastily cobbled together from Ashvaghosa and the Lalitavistara --viz., non-Pali, non-Theravada, Sanskrit sources (now considered "Mahayana").

Thus, while the source material selected is fundamentally alien to the tradition of Buddhism in Thailand, the film-makers have attempted to impose "Thai" elements in a manner both artless and anachronistic.

Perhaps the most striking example: they depict Devadatta reading Pali from a manuscript written in Khom (classical Cambodian) orthography! Here is ancient Cambodia written into ancient India (with the ocean and the passage of over a thousand years that separates the two simply smeared).  Perhaps more disturbing: the Buddha's followers are depicted as exclusively male, with no female monastics of any kind --apparently just to avoid Thai discomfort on this issue (currently it is illegal for female renunciates to beg with bowl in Thailand, and charges are pressed on this from time to time, to keep the women "in their place" in the modern Thai notion of Buddhism --notwithstanding what the historical Buddha taught, or that he had female renunciates as disciples, etc.).

A long cataloge of such historical errors could be provided --and, presumably, somebody in a department of cultural studies will do so eventually.

As with many modern attempts to re-tell the life of the Buddha (even in contemporary Sri Lanka), the main defects of the narrative are: 

(1) the focus is almost exclusively on "magical" events surrounding the birth, childhood, and death of the Buddha --viz., omitting the actual philosophy and adult life that made the historical figure worth remembering in the first place,

 (2) instead of philosophic debate, the Buddha is simply depicted traversing the countryside of India to perform banal miracles (e.g., fighting a magic snake, making it rain indoors, etc.) to "win" the "faith" of converts --and this is both fundamentally boring to behold, and wildly extraneous to any reason (secular or religious) for respecting the historical Buddha or his teaching,

 (3) there is neither any interest in the social/historical reality that the Buddha spoke to (in India of his time), nor is there any interest in the social/historical reality that the audience now inhabits, and that the content of the film might address.

Under heading #3, we could note that a Sri Lankan (or mainland Indian) film along the same lines would at least mention the existence of the caste system, and the Buddha's critique thereof; but not so for the Thais.  It would also be easy to imagine some other film-maker 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.

So far as the dramatist's art is concerned, I here recall Schopenhauer's comment on Dante's epic poems: the first (inferno) had a great deal of dramatic interest, the second (purgatory) less so, and then the last (paradise) was an utter bore, as it simply floated from one cloud to the next, with no suffering or conflict to provide
dramatic interest.  So too, here, the film-makers never considered that it might be an aesthetic mistake to delete suffering --not only because the Buddha's philosophy is (in some sense) "about" suffering, but also because drama (_per se_) requires suffering to satisfy the requirements of the stage.  If we turn ancient India into paradise, and put a halo around all of the characters' heads, all that remains
is for a bunch of figures to float around, making resounding declarations in echoing voices --viz., there is, strictly speaking, no plot.

But ancient India was no such paradise, and the other parties the Buddha debated with (and preached to) provided much more than just mute astonishment before a haloed spectacle --they provided real opposition based on their own religious and philosophical views, and, moreover, they confronted him with real problems based on their own experience.

There was (and is) "a point" and "a plot" to the Pali canon; and it's a shame that both the film-makers, and so much of the Thai audience, simply miss the point.


Eisel Mazard, a scholar of the Pali language (Phasa Pali / Phasa Tham)
see his website at  He was working with starving people in remote villages in Bokeo province, and teaching English to agriculture technicians. He does not work in Laos anymore, he's currently looking to volunteer with refugees on the Thai-Burmese border.

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