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Kundun; A Contemporary Movie on the Dalai Lama and Buddhism

Kundun - the name of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, god-king of Tibet - generates many comparisons to Seven Years since they both concern the early life of the Dalai Lama, before his exile into India.

Based on the relative "flood" of Buddhism-inspired movies these days, the 1990's might be called the "Buddhism Decade." A few years ago, we witnessed Keanu Reeves starring as Siddhartha (the Buddha's name before his enlightenment) in Little Buddha (see Little Buddha review). Recently, we've seen the release of two new movies of interest to Buddhists, Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun.

Both of these movies concern the story of the Dalai Lama, and for American movie goers who might consider seeing either of these movies, there are likely to be several points of interest. Some might be interested in the Dalai Lama as a modern-day "god-teacher-hero" leading his people against the Chinese government's oppression, while others might have a specific interest in Tibetan Buddhism ("if it's good enough for Richard Gere, it might be worth checking out for me").

However, the majority of movie goers probably just have a general curiosity about Buddhism. In other words, for those of us not specifically interested in Tibetan Buddhism, how well do these movies explain the essence of Buddhism? Since all sects of Buddhism originated from the same teachings of the historical Buddha, the essence of his teachings should be common to all sects.

Kundun is a rare movie that offers a clear and non-sentimental look at one of the oppressed people in this world. It begins with the search for the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, culminating when a young boy is able to identify the objects that belonged to the 13th Dalai Lama. That boy, Kundun, the re-incarnated Buddha of Compassion, is taken to a monastery in Lhasa and is instructed in the ways of the Buddhist religion.

As he grows older, Communist China, probably in an attempt to handle its burgeoning population, invades Tibet and eventually forces the Dalai Lama to flee to India. The movie really picks up when the Chinese invade, but ends rather abruptly when the Dalai Lama reaches India. But this is where his real quest, to win the liberation of Tibet, really begins.

This isn't a movie for everyone, but it is one that basically sticks to the facts and doesn't really resort to emotional appeal. Even the scenes where we see glimpses of the Chinese putting a gun into the hands of children and making them kill their own parents is handled abruptly and briefly. However, it does have an intellectual appeal, and it is a great history lesson, particularly if you're familiar with what happened with the Dalai Lama after his exile. The music and the cinematography are the icing on the cake as far as this movie is concerned. I highly recommend it.

Kundun - the name of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, god-king of Tibet - generates many comparisons to Seven Years since they both concern the early life of the Dalai Lama, before his exile into India. However Kundun recounts much more of his life, from his discovery at age two all the way to his flight into exile at age twenty-four (in 1959), to escape the tyranny of Mao Tse-tung. In addition, there are no American stars, so the focus is entirely on the Dalai Lama. For this reason, those movie goers who are primarily interested in either the Dalai Lama's heroic struggle or in the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism will find Kundun the more richly rewarding experience.

Though it is beyond the scope of this review to get into Tibetan Buddhism, a few things can be said. First, Kundun is an extremely beautifully filmed movie, especially some of the scenes of the "magical" fortune-telling rituals, chanting and temple altars. Therefore, even if you are not Buddhist, you will enjoy watching the movie. Second, it may not really be all that important whether we Americans believe that the Dalai Lama is in fact the "fourteenth reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion" or not. This is because there are vast cultural/technological differences between Tibet and America. In Tibet, the townspeople passively get on their hands and knees bowing to Kundun and wait for him to "bless" them - he is like their hope, their savior; in America, and in most of the west, this is not likely to happen - in our "information age," what we want from the Dalai Lama is not so much his blessing, but his insight. In this sense, we can ask, "What insight does Kundun offer?"

If you get beyond the Tibetan-specific magic and rituals, the Dalai Lama comes across as really just a man, not a god. Of course, he is "special" in that he is believed to be an actual reincarnation of the Buddha. This is actually one of the more interesting facets of the movie to us in the west - what exactly is Kundun: god, man, or "spirit?" In any case, one of the points the movie makes is that not even Kundun is beyond criticism; there are some times when Kundun's teachers need to correct his thinking on key points. Interestingly, a central point of Buddhism is that we all need to have a teacher; we can't simply enlighten ourselves. In Kundun, these teachers are wonderfully played, and if we listen carefully to what they say, and to what Kundun himself says, we can receive insights into the truth of the Buddhist teachings. In contrast to Seven Years, Kundun includes more mention of some of the basic teachings of Buddhism, such as the Four Noble Truths, the Dharma of impermanence, and the awakening of compassion. Certainly, the extremely troubling destruction of Tibet by the Chinese army powerfully illustrates the truth of impermanence and compassion. In this way, even though the Tibetan culture on one level seems very "foreign" to us, on a basic human level, their story nonetheless is extremely moving.

So which of these two movies gets the recommendation? Actually both. My advice to the "Buddhist-inclined" or "Buddhism-curious" movie-goer is to set aside an evening or two and see or rent both Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun. These two movies are a kind of pair (although I'm sure producers Scorsese and Arnaud did not intend it that way). You should see both; Seven Years for its moving portrayal of the transformation of Harrer, and Kundun for its dedication to the story of the Dalai Lama and the struggle of the people of Tibet. And, in Kundun in particular, the cinematography almost seems to have a Buddhistic character in that it is calm and focused. If we can slow down and watch the movie on its terms, in a sense we become the Dalai Lama. In this way, Kundun, like the teachings of the Buddha, can help us to see the world anew.


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