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(RNS) Siddhartha Gautama was suffering. For six long years the young spiritual seeker had practiced strict asceticism: surviving on one grain of rice a day, sleeping on nails, drinking his own urine. His arms were thin as vines; his spine looked like a thread of beads.
But none of these yogic practices had pacified his body’s desires or illuminated life’s mysteries. So he ate a big bowl of rice porridge, sat beneath a fig tree, and pledged not to move until he gained enlightenment. After a night of sustained meditation, Siddhartha became the Awakened One — the Buddha.
Even as Buddhism gains in popularity among Westerners, the Buddha himself remains a mysterious figure — more myth than man, said filmmaker David Grubin. His new documentary, “The Buddha,” which is scheduled to air on April 7 on PBS stations, aims to present the person behind the legend, and to demonstrate the relevance of his message for modern seekers.
In some ways, the Buddha’s life and message are indivisible. “He who sees my teaching sees me, he who sees me sees my teaching,” he once said.
But seeing the Buddha’s life through the forests of myths and legends about the man is harder than it seems. Buddhists did not begin to write down the Buddha’s biography until centuries after his death around 500 B.C., and successive schools and generations have added various layers to the tale, making fact and fiction nearly inseparable.
Grubin, who not a Buddhist, said his unsuccessful struggle to find the “historical Buddha” who was born in modern-day Nepal liberated him to tell the tale in his own way. “This is not a film about history,” he said. “The purpose of this film is to reflect upon the meaning of Buddha’s life and his teachings.”
For that, the film features interviews with the Dalai Lama, Buddhist poets Jane Hirshfield and W.S. Merwin, scholar Robert Thurman, astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan, psychiatrist Mark Epstein, as well as a number of Buddhist monks and nuns.
Narrated by Buddhist actor Richard Gere, the two-hour documentary also features fluid animation to help explain the Buddhist concepts of impermanence, reincarnation, and the interdependence of all living things. Elephants morph into butterflies, cats change into dogs, seedlings grow into towering trees.
Grubin, who has directed films on former U.S. presidents, the brain, and Napoleon, said he was attracted to his latest subject by profoundly nagging questions like: Why do we suffer? How do we find peace and serenity? How do we lead a good life? These are all questions the Buddha tried to answer, the filmmaker said.
But rather than deify the Buddha, Grubin takes pains to emphasize his humanity — how he despaired when his home village was ransacked by marauders, and worried that people would think he was crazy before he began to preach.
“The Buddha never claimed to be a god, or God’s emissary on earth,”
the filmmaker said. “He was a person who taught how to lead a fuller, happier life. The message is that you can be the Buddha, too, to some degree.”
Also on April 7, PBS is broadcasting “Unmistaken Child,” an Independent Lens documentary about the search for a reincarnated Buddhist master in Tibet. It is scheduled to air after “The Buddha.”
Check local listings for exact times.
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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