Despite the fact that Bertolucci’s movie has a number of flaws, historical inaccuracies and a rather jumbled plot, it can still be considered a rather impressive and memorable interpretation of Siddhartha and the Four Noble Truths. The first noble truth, i.e., the truth of dukkha, or suffering and anxiety, is shown in Siddhartha’s battle with Mara, i.e., the demon representing the ego.
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In the process, Jesse practically defeats himself; thus, through the denial of his self, he learns the nature of non-self, which leads him to the Enlightenment. The Second Truth, i.e., the origin of dukkha, is represented by Jesse’s parents, whose ignorance prevents them from letting Jesse join the ranks of the Buddhist monks.
The representation of the Third Truth i.e., the cessation of dukkha, can be traced in Jesse’s way from a Buddhist to a Buddha. Eventually, the movie unwraps the secret of the Fourth Truth, which is the path to the cessation of dukkha, as the leading character fights his personal demons to become the Enlightened One.
The movie follows the source material very closely, representing each part of The Dhammapada in a unique and original way.
Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world.
By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased.
This is a law eternal (The Dhammapada).
In the scene with the serpent, the latter embodies hatred.
Just as rain does not break through a well-thatched house,
so passion never penetrates a well-developed mind (The Dhammapada).
The given concept is shown through Siddhartha’s fight with the serpent.
Heedlessness is the path to death (The Dhammapada).
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Ever grows the glory of him who is energetic
mindful and pure in conduct,
discerning and self-controlled,
righteous and heedful (The Dhammapada).
As Siddhartha acquires new skills and learns new ideas, he fights his heedlessness.
As a fish when pulled out of water
and cast on land throbs and quivers,
even so is this mind agitated.
Hence should one abandon the realm of Mara (The Dhammapada).
Whatever harm an enemy may do to an enemy,
or a hater to a hater,
an ill-directed mind
inflicts on oneself a greater harm (The Dhammapada).
Again, the scene with the snake represents the pitfall of hatred.
As a mighty flood sweeps away the sleeping village,
so death carries away the person of distracted mind
who only plucks the flowers (of pleasure) (The Dhammapada).
Upon a heap of rubbish in the road-side ditch
blooms a lotus,
fragrant and pleasing (The Dhammapada).
With lotuses representing pleasures, the movie portrays the dangers of indulging into pleasures well enough.
A fool who knows his foolishness
is wise at least to that extent,
but a fool who thinks himself wise
is a fool indeed (The Dhammapada).
Fools of little wit
are enemies unto themselves (The Dhammapada)
The concept of a fool is introduced by Siddhartha’s parents, who are at first unwilling to let their son become Sidhartha.
On hearing the Teachings,
the wise become perfectly purified,
like a lake deep, clear and still (The Dhammapada).
Those whose minds have reached full excellence
in the factors of enlightenment,
who, having renounced acquisitiveness,
rejoice in not clinging to things —
rid of cankers, glowing with wisdom,
they have attained Nibbana in this very life (The Dhammapada).
Wisdom, on the contrary, is introduced in the scenes with the monks.
The fever of passion
exists not for him who has completed the journey (The Dhammapada)
is that place where Arahants dwell,
be it a village, a forest, a vale, or a hill (The Dhammapada)
In the scene when the lead becomes Siddhartha, the latter is shown as a person who yet has much to learn.
Better than a thousand useless words
is one useful word (The Dhammapada)
Better it is to live one day strenuous and resolute
than to live a hundred years sluggish and dissipated (The Dhammapada).
The scene in which Siddhartha turns thousands of flaming arrows into flowers can be considered an allusion for Thousands.
Hasten to do good;
restrain your mind from evil.
He who is slow in doing good,
his mind delights in evil. (The Dhammapada)
The snake in the movie represents evil.
Some are born in the womb;
the wicked are born in hell;
the devout go to heaven;
the stainless pass into Nibbana. (The Dhammapada)
Siddhartha’s path to wisdom represents a progression from evil to stainless.
Putting oneself in the place of another,
one should not kill
nor cause another to kill. (The Dhammapada)
Speak not harshly to anyone,
for those thus spoken to might retort. (The Dhammapada)
In the movie, Siddhartha is intrinsically kind.
The man of little learning
grows old like a bull.
He grows only in bulk,
but, his wisdom does not grow. (The Dhammapada)
Those who in youth have not led the holy life,
or have failed to acquire wealth,
languish like old cranes in the pond without fish. (The Dhammapada)
The silly monks in the movie show that there are few links between age and wisdom.
One should first establish oneself
in what is proper;
then only should one instruct others.
Thus the wise man will not be reproached. (The Dhammapada)
By oneself is evil done;
by oneself is one defiled. (The Dhammapada)
By defeating his self, Siddhartha reaches his dhamma in the movie.
Lead a righteous life;
lead not a base life. (The Dhammapada)
Blind is the world;
here only a few possess insight.
Only a few,
like birds escaping from the net,
go to realms of bliss. (The Dhammapada)
The world is depicted as a very secular place in the movie.
Hard is it to be born a man;
hard is the life of mortals. (The Dhammapada)
Enduring patience is the highest austerity.
“Nibbana is supreme,” say the Buddhas.
He is not a true monk who harms another,
nor a true renunciate who oppresses others. (The Dhammapada)
As the movie explains, “the gods often betray the wishes of mortal men” (Bertolucci).
Happy indeed we live,
we who possess nothing.
Feeders on joy we shall be,
like the Radiant Gods. (The Dhammapada)
There is no fire like lust
and no crime like hatred (The Dhammapada).
The movie declares that the happiness is an unattainable goal, which is still worth striving for: “In the end, happiness to us all, My Lord” (Bertolucci).
From affection springs grief,
from affection springs fear. (The Dhammapada)
From craving springs grief,
from craving springs fear. (The Dhammapada)
Siddhartha is taught to take control of his passions in the movie.
Overcome the angry by non-anger (The Dhammapada).
Let a man guard himself
against irritability in speech;
let him be controlled in speech. (The Dhammapada)
The training that the leading character undergoes represent the process of fighting anger.
Make an island unto yourself!
Strive hard and become wise! (The Dhammapada)
Unchastity is the taint in a woman;
niggardliness is the taint in a giver. (The Dhammapada)
The concept of purity is expressed through using the pronoun “he” when talking about the female llama: “Llama Dorje wasn’t a woman. He was the abbessof a convent” (Bertolucci).
Not by mere eloquence nor by beauty of form
does a man become accomplished,
if he is jealous, selfish and deceitful. (The Dhammapada)
The sage (thus) rejecting the evil,
is truly a sage. (The Dhammapada)
The movie shows that being just is the ultimate path to Enlightenment.
Of all the paths
the Eightfold Path is the best;
of all the truths
the Four Noble Truths are the best;
of all things
passionlessness is the best:
of men the Seeing One
(the Buddha) is the best. (The Dhammapada)
The eight folds of the oath are shown through the stages of Siddhartha’s enlightenment.
“All conditioned things are unsatisfactory” (The Dhammapada)
If by renouncing a lesser happiness
one may realize a greater happiness,
let the wise man renounce the lesser,
having regard for the greater. (The Dhammapada)
Therefore, be not an aimless wanderer,
be not a pursuer of suffering. (The Dhammapada)
Suffering is mentioned several times in the movie as both the path to dhamma and something to free the world from: “I have been born to reach Enlightenment… and free all creatures from suffering” (Bertolucci).
There are many evil characters
and uncontrolled men
wearing the saffron robe. (The Dhammapada)
Any loose act,
any corrupt observance,
any life of questionable celibacy —
none of these bear much fruit. (The Dhammapada)
Weirdly enough, the idea of hell does not occur in the movie.
Best among men
is the subdued one who endures abuse. (The Dhammapada)
Better it is to live alone;
there is no fellowship with a fool. (The Dhammapada)
By being able to withstand the arrogance of the rest of the world, he is able to reach dhamma.
Whoever is overcome
by this wretched and sticky craving,
his sorrows grow
like grass after the rains. (The Dhammapada)
Beset by craving, people run about
like an entrapped hare. (The Dhammapada)
Siddhartha’s enemies are displayed in the movie as the people with wretched cravings.
The monk who abides in the Dhamma,
delights in the Dhamma,
meditates on the Dhamma,
and bears the Dhamma well in mind —
he does not fall away
from the sublime Dhamma. (The Dhammapada)
Empty this boat, O monk!
Emptied, it will sail lightly.
Rid of lust and hatred,
you shall reach Nibbana. (The Dhammapada)
The final scene in the movie shows Siddhartha reaching Dhamma.
The holy man:
He who is free of cares and is unfettered —
him do I call a holy man. (The Dhammapada)
Because he has discarded evil,
he is called a holy man. (The Dhammapada)
Both verses can be referred to Siddhartha’s path of becoming a holy man.
Two scenes stand out especially in the movie. To start with, Siddhartha’s first encounter with his demons is worth mentioning. Another impressive scene comes at the very end of the movie, when the sand mandala, which must have been representing the passage from the secular life to the Enlightenment.
The given scenes represent the key Dhammapada postulates, i.e., the pursuit of wisdom and the completeness of the Path. Finally, the showdown between Mara and Siddhartha deserves a mentioning. Though shot in a typically Hollywood traditions, it still carries the flair of the original story.
The fight with Mara can also be considered an attempt to cease dukkha, i.e., access the Fourth Truth, seeing how Mara clearly represents Siddhartha’s tortures: “You are pure illusion, you do not exist. The earth is my witness” (Bertolucci).
Bertolucci, Bernardo (Dir.) and Jeremy Thomas (Ex. Prod.). Little Buddha. Keanu Reeves, Bridget Fonda, Chris Isaac (Perf.). New York, NY: Miramax Films. 1993. Web. Netflix.
The Dhammapada. n. d. Web.