Bernardo Bertolucci is one of the great storytellers of modern cinema. From the epic reconstruction of Chinese history in The Last Emperor to the intimate story of two Americans in Morocco in The Sheltering Sky, he has been interested in the intersection of the past and the present, the East and the West, the exotic and the everyday. These thematic strands are woven into a rich tapestry in Little Buddha (Miramax), a story about a boy's journey of discovery, a lama's search for his beloved teacher, and the legend of Prince Siddhartha and his path to enlightenment. This exquisitely beautiful film with its stunning visual sequences and its story unfolding within a story is a well-realized teaching parable about Buddhism.
In a monastery in Bhutan, Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng), a Tibetan monk, learns that some of his students in Seattle have found a boy who could be a reincarnation of Lama Dorje, a great teacher who died nine years earlier. He leaves for America accompanied by another monk. Dean (Chris Isaak) and Lisa (Bridget Fonda) Conrad live in a large house he has built overlooking Seattle. He's an engineer, and she's a math teacher. When Lama Norbu arrives at their door with the news that their son Jesse (Alex Wiesendanger) may be the reincarnation of his dead master, they are both stunned and mystified.
In order to familiarize the boy with Buddhism, Lama Norbu gives him a book entitled Little Buddha about the enlightenment of Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves). Jesse is caught up in the story of this royal son who lived over 2500 years ago. A tree bends over to support his mother at his birth. In the wake of the boy's first footsteps, lotus blossoms bloom. A hermit and an oracle predict he will be the master of the world.
Siddhartha marries and becomes an archer and a horseman. His father, the king, decides he should not see sickness, poverty, old age, or death. But Siddhartha goes outside the royal preserve and encounters the real world of human suffering. He gives up all he has and becomes an ascetic. Then one day he overhears a music teacher instructing his student not to pull the strings of his instrument too tight or leave them too loose. Siddhartha gives up asceticism, realizing that the path to enlightenment lies on the middle course.
In Seattle, the Conrads have to decide whether to allow Jesse to travel to Bhutan where tests can be performed to determine whether he was Lama Dorje in a former life. Finally, Dean, who has been devastated by the death of a friend and business partner, decides to accompany him. They are surprised to learn that two other possible reincarnates are under consideration a poor boy from the streets of Katmandu and a rich Indian girl. Jesse immediately befriends them.
Lama Norbu tells the three children the final segment of the drama of Siddhartha. They magically enter the story. Meditating beneath a tree, Siddhartha is assaulted by armies of demons. But he achieves great calm through detachment and oneness with the universe. He becomes the Buddha, the enlightened one. Similarly in Bhutan, the last chapter in the stories of Jesse and his two friends unfolds at the monastery. There they learn the true meaning of death and reincarnation.
Bernardo Bertolucci in Little Buddha has found a wonderful vehicle for teaching about Buddhism. One of the keys to the film's emotional undertow is the casting of Ying Ruocheng as Lama Norbu. This veteran of the stage and screen in China, who played the Governor of Fushun Prison in The Last Emperor, comes across as a wise and compassionate holy man.
In an important scene in the film, Lama Norbu explains reincarnation to Jesse's skeptical father: "In Tibet we think of the mind and the body as the content and the container." He holds up a cup of tea, then smashes it, and observes: "The cup is no longer the cup, but what is the tea?" He pauses and concludes: "Like the mind after death, the tea moves from one container to the next, but it is still tea." And to make a final point, Lama Norbu wipes up the liquid from the floor and squeezes it out. "Still tea," he chuckles.
There is something very appealing about a holy man who can tell a parable and end it with a chuckle. Even more impressive is the affection and respect Lama Norbu shows for Jesse and the other children. His approach is desperately needed in our culture where children are rarely honored for their innate dignity, curiosity, and spiritual wisdom.
Little Buddha also must be commended for its straight-ahead focus on death. It is a subject that everyone, including children, must face. Here the emphasis upon reincarnation stresses the Buddhist understanding of continuity and interdependence. And the final image we have of Siddhartha is a person who awakes in order to serve all beings. This gracious approach to dying and living is what makes Little Buddha such a spiritually rewarding film experience.