Little Buddha is a classical drama filmed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1993 and valued by the audience worldwide for its outstanding description of Buddhism, magic, spiritual attitudes, and society’s biases. The plot is based on the reincarnation of Lama Dorje and the Buddhist monks’ search for their teacher’s rebirth in young children (Bertolucci). As the Tibetans arrive in the United States and reach a Seattle family claiming that their son Jesse is a Buddhist guru, the interactions between the characters revealed distinctions in their world perception. This review aims to explore the religious tradition, philosophy, theological and ethical questions raised in Little Buddha.
The movie’s plot is based on the story of Jesse Conrad, a boy from Seattle who claimed to be the Lama Dorje reincarnation, and Prince Siddhartha’s who influenced early Buddhism. The interconnected themes are necessary to provide a deeper view of the Buddhist world, history, and culture. Jesse reads about Prince’s journey of searching for the “middle way” and becoming the first Buddha from the book given by the monks. Siddhartha’s story takes place in ancient India, where he seeks to eliminate the world’s suffering and battles the demon of ego (Bertolucci). By the end of the movie, the monks found out that three selected children, Jesse, Raju, and Gita, together are the reincarnation of Lama Dorje (Bertolucci). The experience is accompanied by various ceremonies that show the origins and traditions of Buddhism.
The contrasting portrayal of the monks in Seattle and Jessy in Tibet showcases the dramatic difference in Eastern and Western cultures’ lifestyles, values, and beliefs. Seeing significant distinctions in appearance, priorities, and behavior makes the audience not only wonder about the other civilizations’ traditions and philosophies but also revise their own. Indeed, while Americans are described as somewhat skeptical and atheistic, Buddhism appeared to be the main value of life in Tibet, and Bertolucci showed it through the characters’ appearance and attitudes (Bertolucci). Additionally, religious traditions are more valued in the West, and Prince Siddhartha’s path of overcoming the ego through fights, affairs, sufferings, and decisions explains why. The value of the approach of seeking peace in harmony and the good for all contrasted to the egoistic success achievement in life is the philosophical question raised in Little Buddha (Bertolucci). The scenes of Tibet, challenges Jesse and other children overcome, and the story of Prince Siddhartha reveal the importance of balance rather than any kind of material success.
The critical theological difference revealed in the movie is the nature of the religious traditions and values. While Christianity and Eastern cultures perceive the creation of the world and its significant changes through the lenses of divine power, Buddhism centralizes human experience. Indeed, the achievements of Prince Siddhartha and other Buddhas resulted from their dedication to exploring themselves and providing more excellent value to the world (Bertolucci). Jesse is a decent, calm, and clever boy, which makes the audience think he was chosen from the beginning or that his karma and good behavior made him earn to become the rebirthing of Lama Dorje (Bertolucci). Moreover, the tests children get through to verify they are reincarnated based on their experience rather than on some divine powers could identify the new Buddha.
Little Buddha is filled with many colorful scenes of Tibetan life, Buddhist practices, and historical passages. Although the story is somewhat unrealistic, Bertolucci created the perfect setting for the audience to compare the religious traditions of Buddhism to their own. The movie also encourages revising the modern values of success and luck to consider the importance of peace, balance, and responsibility for all actions and choices a person makes.
Little Buddha. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, performance by Keanu Reeves, CiBy 2000, 1993.