Seeing Like the Buddha

Enlightenment through Film

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Francisca Cho
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , March
     190 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A wooden platform floating on a lake, a statue of the bodhisattva Guanyin looking down across the landscape, the wraith of a lovelorn ghost. In Seeing Like the Buddha: Enlightenment Through Film, Francisca Cho demonstrates some of the ways in which films can use images like these to explore Buddhist moral lessons. She also argues that some films , even though they feature no Buddha statues, temples or monks, can also be called Buddhist because, Cho argues, they explore the very act of seeing itself. Clearly and creatively written, this forms part of Cho’s large contribution to the growing field of Buddhist film studies, such as in the special edition in Contemporary Buddhism (vol. 15, no. 2, 2014). While its a-historical mode of interpretation is likely to prove problematic to some Buddhist studies scholars, it is surely an excellent way to introduce beginning undergraduate students to Buddhist thought and aesthetics.

Cho organizes what she calls her “visualization” of Buddhist films on the model of the ancient Javanese temple at Borobodur, a model which she is at pains to point out is her own “artistic” creation. She first points us to the panels which are at the lower portion of Borobodur. These depict Jataka tales, tales of the Buddha’s former lives. Because the film also works with narrative to teach similar lessons on karmic cause and effect, Cho compares these panels to Korean director Kim Kiduck’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring (2004). The film follows the story of a young boy who lives with a Buddhist master on a floating island hermitage and whose attachments as he grows older lead him to ruin and, finally, to replacing his master. Cho argues that, while in a typical Hollywood film the plot is driven by the will of the main characters, the characters in Kiduck’s film“serve to illustrate the inexorable processes that condition both human and natural existence. The main character is the impersonal law of causality itself” (31). A statue of the Bodhisattva Guanyin gazes unmoving across this landscape of suffering and repetition, hinting at the possibility of escape. In this, and her study of this film and subsequent films, Cho brings her significant expertise in Buddhist narratives and symbols from across the world into conversation with filmic study. This is one of the book’s strengths—the sheer range of Buddhist thought and lore from across different traditions. She relates Akira Akutagawa’s Rashomon (1950) to Japanese setsuwa literature and the Salla Sutta (“the dart sutra”), which warns against adherence to dogma. Nonzee Nimibutr’s Thai ghost film Nang Nak (1999) is linked to several ghost stories from China, the Jatakas, and Thai cosmological texts. The book is almost calling out for a series of reflection exercises for undergraduates on such questions as what makes a film “Buddhist,” or exercises for students to apply Buddhist analyses to their own favorite films.

Cho next takes us beyond the panels and the balustrade that restricts our view. At the top of Borobodur, we no longer see images of the Buddha. We see an open panorama—we see as the Buddha. Cho argues that American auteur Terrence Malick’s war film The Thin Red Line (1998) could be considered a Buddhist film because, like the apex of Borobodur, it invites reflection on the act of seeing itself. Malick’s battle scenes are frequently interrupted by shots of flora and fauna in the jungle, by shots of light through the trees. At times Malick’s camera also crawls through the grass as the soldiers do and at other times flies over them, making them seem like ants. Seeing the character’s ambitions and suffering from multiple viewpoints in this way serves to de-center the human, opening up new perspectives of what humans’ place in the world is. Cho further interprets Malick’s film as one which endeavors to collapse in the viewer’s eyes the distance between samsara and nirvana, an important goal in some Mahayana philosophies and practices. For Cho, the film portrays a way of seeing the world in which wretchedness and grace or “beauty and pain are inextricably and paradoxically the same” (114). 

Cho makes it clear from the outset that she wishes to use Buddhism as the starting point for a mode of analysis, rather than as the object of analysis. Such a move is brave and a welcome intervention, but some Buddhist scholars may find this problematic. At times, her studies in the latter portion of the book seem more based on her own mode of interpretation than expertise in Buddhism. For instance, one might ask what the advantage is of saying Malick’s films, which are full of overtly Christian messages, are about collapsing the gap between nirvana and samsara rather than wretchedness and grace. Some are also likely to question Cho’s privileging of art as a mode of individual self-transformation over, for instance, didactic tales. Such a picture of the goals of Buddhist art and practice is not only “Buddhist” but, as David McMahan has shown in The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2008)is in large part a Romantically-inflected invention by recent interpreters. However, the very fact that this book raises these questions is part of what makes it such an excellent choice for teaching. It could go together with studies which take a Buddhist studies approach to film, such as Arnika Fuhrman’s Ghostly Desires (Duke University Press, 2016)Or it could be paired with other studies which explore the aesthetic dimensions of Buddhism, such as William LaFleur’s Karma of Words (University of California Press, 1984)or his anthology Flowing Traces (Princeton University Press, 1992).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul McBain is a graduate student in Religious Studies at th University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Francisca Cho is associate professor of Buddhist Studies at Georgetown University. Her books include Religion and Science in the Mirror of Buddhism (written with Richard K. Squier) and Embracing Illusion: Truth and Fiction in The Dream of the Nine Clouds, also published by SUNY Press.



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