Buddha's message explored on PBS
By Luaine Lee
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
It seems like a clash of cultures when you compare the razzle-dazzle of American life and the tranquil practice of Buddhism. But the two are completely compatible, says documentary filmmaker David Grubin, whose two-hour film, "The Buddha," premieres Wednesday on PBS.
"We try to set his life in its historical context, but it's so long ago that we don't know what he really did," Grubin said at a press gathering in Pasadena, Calif.
"But what I realized is, what he really did doesn't really matter. What matters is the story and the meaning of that story and the message of hope that the story carries. And so you won't find in this film a searching for the historical Buddha. What you do find is a great story with great interpreters of the story," says Grubin, who's made films on Napoleon, Teddy Roosevelt and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
One of Grubin's sources is American Buddhist Dr. Mark Epstein, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist who's promoted TV's "In Treatment" and played himself on "The L Word."
The disciplines of psychiatry and Buddhism may seem hectares apart, Epstein says, but that's not so.
"Buddhism is all about looking at your own mind, the power that self-awareness has to actually heal," he says.
"And psychotherapy is the same. It's about looking at your own mind in the presence of another person, using the help of conversation to look at your own mind. The idea being that self-awareness actually can help people change. So to me, they are two versions of the same thing."
Grubin agrees. "I think I've always been interested in psychology in my films," he says. "I think that's probably one thing that you can see from 'The Secret Life of the Brain' to 'LBJ' to 'Napoleon.'
"And the Buddha, you know, was really the first psychologist. He really thought about the human mind, the way our mind — our thoughts — buzz and buzz and buzz and what that all means and what to do about finding a way to be more in touch with our lives and ourselves.
"He was searching for a kind of serenity. As W.S. Merwin said, he was trying to understand suffering in the world. And he came up with some ideas about that, which I wanted to explore — aside from the fact that I think I'm reaching the age where I'm looking for maybe a deeper kind of wisdom than you could find in a film about LBJ."
Epstein, whose father is a doctor, became interested in Buddhism in college.
"I was studying psychology with a vague notion of wanting to be a psychotherapist, but not really knowing what that would involve, and I must've been taking a religion class. I started reading some of the psychological teaching of the Buddha and I thought, 'This really makes sense.'
"At the same time I was taking my first courses where we were reading Freud, and my first reaction to Freud was, 'This really doesn't make any sense. I really can't understand this.'
"So I pursued the Buddhist line first, then I came around and said, 'Oh, Freud is really amazing, and I can understand what he's saying, too.' But by then I was already looking at the Western psychotherapeutic material through the lens of the Buddhist material that I found. Then I went to medical school and became a psychiatrist and started doing therapy, which is mostly what I do. But I'd already gone a little bit deeply into the Buddhist reading and practice and meditation and so on. So that was influencing me all along the way"
Among the many Buddhists Grubin met on travels to Asia was monk Metteyya Sakyaputta, who wears his hair closely cropped and who dresses in a saffron robe and red shawl.
"Pardon me because I'm not very familiar with (the) West and also not very familiar with the kind of Buddhism that happens here," he says. "But with whatever experience I had meeting some Western people who practice and learn is that it happens with any person who starts on something as a fresher (beginner). He has no idea. So whatever he sees as one small part of it, he takes it as the whole. What it is really is only part of the whole thing. In our country, people grow up in that culture, and they see so many basic elements that are not discussed, that are not told, but they support that theory ... They create the mental software where they're receptive to that idea."
Sakyaputta, eager to learn about America, says, "I requested my dharma mother to learn more about Western culture and how things work here. And she was a little bit surprised, and she said, 'It's a vast thing. What do you want to begin with?' And I thought maybe movies. So she gave me some movies to watch, and one of the series was 'Friends.' So I'm watching that. And the next was 'The Simpsons' And I was surprised to learn that so much Buddhism is even there. Lisa Simpson, she's a Buddhist."