Silver Screen Buddha

Buddhism in Asian and Western Film

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Sharon A. Suh
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , March
     2015.
     232 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781441105363.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

By critically addressing the complex relationship between religion, race, and gender, Silver Screen Buddha provides an alternative constructive framework for analyzing Buddhist films. As the author, Sharon Suh, illustrates, Buddhist films typically focus on elite male monks meditating. Suh suggests that the hypervisibility of virtuoso meditating monks on the screen represents an inauthentic picture of actual Buddhist practice, and, she goes on to argue, is ultimately patriarchal and orientalist. She points out that most Buddhists in the world are laypeople who practice little to no meditation at all. Also, Suh maintains, the overdetermined image of the meditating monk simultaneously eroticizes and denigrates Asia and Asians, and thereby makes elite white males the final and logical heirs of Buddhism.

Suh asks if there is another way to imagine Buddhism on the screen. Her concern is constructive, and Silver Screen Buddha seeks to refashion Buddhism into something less exotic and more salient to those who actually practice it. She writes: “A guiding concern of this book relates to the disconnect between what is projected in film as real Buddhism and what I see in real life when I visit Buddhist temples in Asia or America” (5). At the heart of her argument is the notion that Asian women’s sexuality should not be reduced to snares of samsara, but pictured as a powerful potential for liberation (19). 

Silver Screen Buddha breaks down into three roughly equal sections. The first section analyzes how film has transmitted Buddhism in the West as a type of “yellow face” through works such as Broken Blossoms (D.W. Griffith, 1919), Lost Horizon (Frank Capra, 1937), The Big Lebowski (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1998), and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999). The second section describes Buddhist films produced in Asia, such as Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring (Kim Ki-Duk, 2003), and Come, Come, Come Upward (Im Kwon-Taek, 1989). The third section is more overtly constructive. Utilizing the film Departures (Yojiro Takita, 2008), chapter six affirms the concept of ordinary life as a journey of liberation that comes from the understanding of the interrelated nature of the world.  Chapter seven looks at Passage to Buddha (Chan Sun-Woo, 1993) to suggest that enlightenment comes not from isolation, but rather from the interactions with other people, particularly the socially marginalized. Chapter eight takes an explicitly feminist hermeneutical approach to the film Samsara (Pan Nalin, 2001), to showcase a Buddhism engaged and enmeshed in women’s sexuality and desire.  In the conclusion, Suh uses the film Eve and the Fire Horse (Julia Kwan, 2005) as an example of what she believes Buddhist film ought to depict. A Canadian Buddhist film, Eve and the Fire Horse focuses on the everyday wonders that constantly creates the world anew rather than on meditating monks and white privilege.

Silver Screen Buddha is an excellent and valuable read, and I plan to use it in my introduction to Buddhism class this coming fall to help focus the course on Buddhism’s historically marginalized others, and to problematize the orientalist dichotomy between East and West. Suh’s study illustrates how Buddhist film, as a spiritual technology, can address the ordinary lives of laity, affirm everyday life as a potential ground for liberation, represent women as having religious agency, and include Asian and Asian Americans in the larger picture of what constitutes Buddhism. 

Suh is particularly effective because she considers how alternative images of Buddhism can be gleaned from mainstream representations. Rather than ignoring mainstream films, Suh wants to read the metanarratives of meditation and male monasticism against the grain. As she writes: “It is the theorization of sites of resistance and the development of agency and subjectivity in places that have not traditionally been viewed as particularly progressive that intrigues me” (178). She maintains that such heterodox counter-readings are a form of cultural poaching that pushes the boundary of what is considered acceptable interpretation. “Progressive standpoints can still be found in what otherwise might appear to be a rather backward vision of Buddhism on the screen” (188).

What Suh does not make transparent, however, is why she condemns some films as racist and patriarchal, when others, which may also have racist and patriarchal content, are acceptable sources of heterodox spiritual interpretations. For instance, Suh condemns The Big Lebowski, while Samsara is forgiven for its patriarchal portrayal of woman. Suh is aware of this difficulty, writing, “I hesitate in making such generalized statements about debilitating and commendable Buddhist films” (188). Given this, it would be helpful to have some sense of how Suh made her choices, and why she cherry picked these films, both for Silver Screen Buddha, and also for the larger project of reclaiming Buddhist film as a spiritual technology beyond the orientalist and patriarchal lens of the meditating monk.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gregory P. Grieve is Professor of Religious Studies at The University of North Carolina, Greensboro. 

Date of Review: 
May 21, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sharon A. Suh is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Seattle University, USA.

Keywords: 

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