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Shambhala Sun | May 2010
You'll find this article on page 29 of the magazine.

The Buddha on PBS

Melvin McLeod speaks to David Grubin, director of the 2010 documentary that will introduce Buddhism and the Buddha to millions of Americans. 

It will be the largest American audience ever for a serious—and positive—presentation of Buddhism. David Grubin’s two-hour documentary The Buddha—billed as a biography but much more—will air on the evening of April 7 across the PBS network. Structured around the story of the Buddha’s life as told in the Pali canon, it taps leading voices of contemporary Buddhism to explore Buddhism as an effective response to human suffering and the Buddha’s spiritual journey as a model for our lives today. The film and its website ( will also be the centerpiece of an extensive educational initiative, cosponsored by the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. That initiative includes a webinar for members of the 50,000-strong PBS teachers network on the life of the Buddha and introducing mindfulness into schools. I spoke to the film’s director, David Grubin, about introducing Buddhism and the Buddha to millions of Americans. —Melvin McLeod

You’ve produced a wide variety of documentaries, but none specifically on a spiritual subject. What was your inspiration for doing a film on the life of the Buddha?

I'm not a Buddhist, but I find the Buddha’s story inspiring and enlightening. It's an archetypal story, one that has a lot to teach, and I feel close to it. I think of myself as a spiritual person rather than, let's say, a religious person. I'm especially interested in psychology, and the Buddha is really the first psychologist. Poetry also connects me to this subject. Poets honor the moment, and many great poems touch the miraculous notion of being alive at a particular moment in time. That's what the Buddha taught, too.

Films of this nature are long processes that require deep immersion in their subject matter. What was your personal journey in making this film?

As I said, it isn't that I've become a religious Buddhist, but by the end of this journey I have a deeper appreciation of the mysteries of being alive, of how to live in the moment and how miraculous that is. I've also begun a small meditation practice of my own, you know, ten minutes a day, and I also sit with a group.

It was Jon Kabat-Zinn who first introduced me to the whole idea of meditation when I made the Healing of the Mind series, which has a kind of spiritual nature to it. So it isn't like I came to this with no knowledge. It's rather that I like to think of myself as ignorant when I begin a project and then see what I find. Over the four years of making this film, I talked with many experts on Buddhism. I had the chance to flounder and be confused and not quite know where I was going. That's the way I like to work.

What is the basic message that you are trying to communicate in the film?

I'm not trying to offer answers in the film. I'm really trying to stay within the questions. That's how I like to approach it. I screened the film for some students recently and I asked them what they thought the message of the film was. They each had a different message. They were all right, of course, but none of them was what I think is the basic message.

Which is?

For me, it comes out strongly at the end when the poet W.S. Merwin says, “If you're not the Buddha, you have no reason to be interested in the Buddha.” Mark Epstein says that the real work is to become the Buddha, and the Dalai Lama talks about our buddhanature. That to me is the message: that you have within you the potential to change, to grow, to lead a richer and more meaningful life, and the Buddha is your guide and model for that, and a very realistic model, too. As poet Jane Hirshfield says at the very beginning of the film, what the Buddha found, we can find too. That’s what I would like people to feel at the end of the film—that they can use the Buddhist teachings, use the model of the Buddha, to live fuller lives.

You’ve done a number of biographies of historical figures, like Napoleon and Lyndon Johnson, but the life of the Buddha as it’s been handed down to us is more the story of a spiritual journey than a collection of agreed-upon facts. How did you approach a biography that is as much philosophical as historical?

The fact that there isn't much known about the Buddha was actually my release. That is, I made the problem into the solution. I remember saying early on to one scholar that searching for the historical Buddha didn’t really interest me. He said, “Good,” that they had given up on that search in the nineteenth century. That freed me, because I'm interested in the meaning of the story and the message of hope it carries today. We can set the story in its historical context, you know, what India was like 2,500 years ago, but we can't say we know for a fact that the Buddha was born in Lumbini, and we don't care. As Merwin says early on, we don't care. So that allowed me to focus on the archetypal story, the spiritual, inner journey.

This broadcast on PBS will have the largest American audience for a serious presentation of Buddhism ever. You are introducing Buddhism to millions of people. That’s quite a responsibility.

Well, I recognize the responsibility. That's why I was glad to be able to screen it for people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Pankaj Mishra, the scholars advising me, and many others, so that they could tell me at an earlier stage that I had something wrong. The experts who've seen it felt confident, and that gave me the confidence that I'd done it right.

I would say the basic story you’ve told is the life of the Buddha as described in the Pali canon, and therefore reflecting the Theravadan understanding of who the Buddha was.

That may be in part true because the Pali canon is the one the scholars tend to turn to first, but it's a complicated discussion. I feel it’s the interpretations that are the story. It's midrash, but Buddhists do it too—it's people who interject their own ideas about the story. I would say that the interpretations of the story in the film tend to be more from the Mahayana or Zen points of view than the Theravada. I think the interpretations are the key to the point of view of the film.

That’s right. The facts of the Buddha’s life are beautifully told in the film, but the payoff is in the commentary by well-known Buddhist teachers, scholars, and practitioners.

Exactly, and there were a lot of choices I had to make there. For example, the Buddha leaves home when he's twenty-nine, leaves his wife and his child. I asked everybody, What about that? I only used one answer, but there are other answers to that question. So one way I hope the film and the website will function is to open up discussion of different interpretations.

The key moment in the film, of course, comes when the Buddha is meditating under the Bodhi tree. The film does a good job of describing the basic problem that Buddhism addresses, which is suffering. And the answer, which the Buddha discovers at that moment, is something called enlightenment or awakening. Millions of Americans are going to hear that message. How do you want them to understand it?

I love the way Merwin puts a cap on it: Pay attention. Just pay attention. It’s just this moment. To me, it’s that. It’s how rich it is to be present in the moment and to know that's where the miracle is. That is what I would like people to hear. That to me is what I think the Buddha’s basic discovery is, and then the rest is: How do we get there? How do we get to this joy?

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