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The 13 Best Movies About Zen Buddhism

10 September 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by Rafael Jiménez

The Fountain

In the age of high voltage violent films, spiritual films are deemed to be preachy and/or pretentious. Thus are given bad reputation from many of their viewers. However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have something important to tell us.

While many of this type of films may not be as good as others (this having to do with production values, actors, music and such), there are some that are really worth your time. While spirituality isn’t something many of us look for in films, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find. This list looks at some films that explicitly or implicitly carry, to some extent, traditional Buddhist beliefs.

 

13. The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)

The Dance Of Reality (2013)

This is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first biographical film, it follows his journey through Tocopilla, his issues with his father, the way he felt like an outcast for being different in his childhood and his controversial spiritual views. The story, as with any Jodorowsky film, is told in a very surrealistic way. Many times things are not what they appear to be, they’re covered with layers and layers of rich symbolism, making it the viewer’s task to decipher it all.

This might become an arduous task for anybody, but you will surely feel quite satisfied at the end. In order to understand many of the scenes in the film it wouldn’t hurt to read two of Alejandro’s books: The Dance of Reality and Manual of Psychomagic.

By now you’ll probably ask yourself, what does any of this has to do with Buddhism? The answer is quite simple. What dance of reality means, is the interconnection of things and how they’re always useful to do a certain task. In Jodorowsky’s own words, how things, even the most insignificant things, can help you to do something with it how even the smallest piece is always useful and it comes together as if it were dancing.

Reality is an illusion, it is what the subject makes it to be. We might think we own the territory, but this we know to be completely false. We only have maps to guide us, the subjective interconnections create our reality.

 

12. Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenábar, 1997)

Open Your Eyes

Alejandro Amenábar’s psychological masterpiece will make you question the very nature of your reality. Open your eyes deals with various themes like life, death, and our perception of reality. Once Amenábar was asked what he would like the viewers to take out of such an intense film, surprisingly his answer was very short. He wants the audience to imagine a future without morals, a world without human values and ruled by technology.

Imagine you get up one morning, go out into the street and find that no one is there. You’re all alone in the world. That’s what you feel throughout Open Your Eyes.” – Alejandro Amenábar, Director.

Open Your Eyes is a film about complete alienation in all its forms. It challenges our subjective perception of reality and our security in what surrounds us. It’s possible that you might see Open Your Eyes’ American counterpart, Vanilla Sky. If you liked it I can assure you that you will love Open Your Eyes, one of the best films of the 2000’s. There’s little you could say about this film without spoiling it, so I recommend you just go and watch it, it will blow you away.

 

11. 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)

12 monkeys

Based on the French short “La Jetée” 12 Monkeys gives us a glimpse into the reality of a schizophrenic world view. Though shot in a way that’s very confusing for the viewer it gives us one of the best cinematically unique experience one could have, after all it’s a Gillian film.

Right off the bat the film gives you a sense of false reality. It really makes you question what’s in front of you; Is any part of this even real? Without spoiling that much of the film, one of 12 Monkeys theme is time travel, through it we see the eternal circle of life and death. Now, according to Buddha we have all been in Samsara for an indefinite period of time, continuously suffering, dying, and getting born, only to suffer and die again.

The moment when one arrives at the peak of Nirvana, is when one is released from this eternal circle of birth and death. It could be argued that at the end of the film Cole ends his personal circle, reaching nirvana when his younger self merges with him. Though this and many other parts of the film are indeed quite provocative and controversial. 12 Monkeys definitely requires more than one view, and at times multiple views in order to fully grasp all of its religious symbolism.

 

10. The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)

The Truman Show

Truman Burbank’ lives in a world of lies and illusions, were things aren’t what they appear to be. For 30 years he has been living in the small town of Seahaven, his dream is to travel beyond the walls of his comfort zone. But, his wife always prevented him from following his adventurous nature.

On his 30th birthday things felt like they were out of place, giving Truman a very surreal feeling of life. He soon discovers that he is the main role of a 24 hour television broadcast that has been running since the day of his birth. The film continues his journey to find what’s real, and who is in charge of the whole deal.

The Truman Show has been seen as a critique to the media, who it enters our life without any warning and how celebrities live alienated from the outside world. The quest out of Seahaven could be seen as his spiritual journey, an escape from the illusion that we live.

 

9. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Holy Motors

Lights, camera and … action? For those who have seen Leos Carax’s 2012 surreal masterpiece, you know what I’m talking about. This film sees life as cinema and cinema as life. At various parts of the film we see an event taking place an event that we, as an audience, question its reality. These events mix some actors with real everyday people, at the beginning of each act we don’t know who is who. Thus the act follows without question.

While Holy Motors is an homage to the history of cinema, it is also a parody on life itself. It tries to break the illusion of our reality setting it as a mere act. While this might seem very ambitious and pretentious, Holy Motors leaves its mark on its audience. Holy Motors might seem empty and devoid of meaning at first, but when you change your perception on it you’ll understand all of its symbolism behind it.

 

8. Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990)

Jacobs-Ladder

This movie left me reeling with turmoil and confusion, with feelings of sadness and despair. Those are the notes it strives for.” – Roger Ebert.

The film follows the life of Jacob Singer after all the postwar traumas on account of the Vietnam War. The story is told in such a nonlinear way that we as an audience feel the schizophrenic state of his mind. We are never sure of what we are watching, it feels as if the movie was lying to us; it bends the reality in such a way that we can’t distinguish one thing from the other.

Just like a David Lynch film, this movie is almost impossible to spoil being that the plot arrives, mostly, from pure interpretation. Now, this being told, there is one scene in the film that concerns reality and spiritualism. Louie, Jacob’s chiropractor, gives him some advice concerning life and emotions. “The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, and your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you, he said. They’re freeing your soul.

So, if you’re frightened of dying and… and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth. “- (Jacob’s Ladder, Adrian Lyne, 1990). This could easily be one of the biggest Buddhist toughs portrayed on film. Let go of all your physical attachments, it’s the only possible way to arrive at nirvana; true freedom.

 

 

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  • k0an

    How about Groundhog Day? One of the most overlooked philosophical films in my opinion.

  • Anurag Ratan Parihar

    With all due respect besides one movie not even one movie in this list comes close to show how ZEN works and please do a through search before coming out with such list and look like a total idiot.

    • lando

      I guess you totally understand zen calling somebody a total idiot. dork.

      • Anurag Ratan Parihar

        well yes I do, or why else would I say it …..besides that i didn’t call the writer an Idiot I am saying he is coming out as one becasue the writer don’t know what ZEN is and the people who do know can say that this list is not about ZEN at all.Chill out man.

        • lando

          so, what is zen buddhism? you apparently know a lot about it (i’m not been sarcastic). which movie qualifies as zen?

      • Anurag Ratan Parihar

        well here only one movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring can be said to be a ZEN movie and that too because ZEN is about understanding the existence through silence and by being concious of everyday actions this one movie touches it a bit…..ZEN is about being a no mind like a fluet through which existence can play its tune…it is to become one with the silence of a lake and the sound of rain or the flowering of a flower…..ZEN is about being a ZERO hollow No One.

        • lando

          thanks.

          • lando

            so what do you think about ozu, mizoguchi or hsiao-hsien? are those directors in someway zen buddhists?

  • Balassa Márton

    bald people does not equal buddhism!

  • KeepinIt Real

    This list should be renamed, “The 13 best movies NOT about zen buddhism, which I can link together as zen buddhist films through giant stretches.”

  • Jasmin Jandric

    The Big Lebowski should be on this list…….

  • Luis Velasco Schmiedl

    And what about “WHY HAS BODHI-DHARMA LEFT FOR THE EAST?”
    Perhaps the only true Zen film in history (Zen implies more than just budhism), and is not on the list.