Movies are a brilliant source of entertainment, but the spiritual minds may not like the debauchery, lust, or violence in movies that are often the center point of most movies.
When we look up movies about Buddhism or spirituality, we come across a lot of documentaries. They’re an excellent way to learn the spiritual elements.
- 1) Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East (1989)
- 2) Zen – The Life of Zen Master Dogen (2009)
- 3) Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)
- 4) Milarepa (2006)
- 5) Samsara (2001)
- 6) Kundun (1997)
- 7) Un Buda / A Buddha (2005)
- 8) Siddhartha (1972)
- 9) The Cup (1999)
- 10) Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014)
- 11) The Civilization of Maxwell Bright (2005)
- 12) Seven Years in Tibet (1997)
- 13) Little Buddha
- 14) Enlightenment Guaranteed
- Final thoughts
So, today, in this article, we’ll discuss the top 14 non-documentary movies about Buddhism and spirituality.
None of the following 14 movies are documentaries, and they all explore Buddhism in diverse ways.
Some explore the lifestyle and principles of Buddhism through the lives of famous Buddhists, while others use fictional characters to do the same or include monks in a comedic way.
1) Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East (1989)
This South Korean movie follows the lives of three Buddhist monks: an elderly monk, an adult monk, and an orphaned boy.
It’s a slow-paced, meditative movie that includes several flashbacks. This relaxing and beautiful film can be enjoyed as an introduction to Zen.
This film is about two Zen koans (a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution): ‘what was my original face before my mother and father were conceived?’ and, ‘(in death) where does the master of my being go?’
This movie answers these questions beautifully while making use of symbols and iconography.
It doesn’t try to teach you anything; however, it’s a meditation in itself.
I highly recommend watching it as it absorbs you with very little music, landscapes, or anything like that.
“There is no beginning and no end. Nothing is immutable, everything changes. That thing that does not come into being does not die”
2) Zen – The Life of Zen Master Dogen (2009)
This movie is a fascinating biography of Zen master Dogen Zenji. Dogen was born in Japan and started seeking liberation after his mother’s death.
He got his early training in the Tendai School in Kyoto. Dissatisfied with its teaching, he traveled to China and practiced for five years. Then, after attaining enlightenment, he returned to Japan and began promoting the practice of zazen.
This film follows Dogen as he tries to spread this ‘new’ Buddhism to transform people’s lives for the better.
His teachings were not accepted by the powerful Tendai School and after several years of friction, Dogen had to leave Kyoto and founded the monastery called Eihei-ji.
3) Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)
As it’s clear from the title, this movie looks at the cyclical nature of life.
This South Korean movie features a Buddhist monastery that floats on a lake. The story revolves around the life of a young Buddhist monk as he goes through phases of life.
The story is simple, but the movie excellently uses Buddhist symbols to comment on the consequences of the character’s actions.
It’s divided into four segments, which pass like the seasons. Each segment is roughly 10 to 15 years apart.
It starts with a very young Buddhist apprentice living with his master (Spring), and moves on to a teenager consumed by lust (Summer), a guilty adult seeking redemption (Fall), and finally a middle-aged monk (Winter).
4) Milarepa (2006)
It follows a young boy who is pushed into a world of sorrow after his father’s sudden death. To take revenge on his enemies, he sets out to learn occult and black magic. Finally, the consequences of his anger teach him a crucial life lesson.
This movie is the first part that depicts Milarepa’s revenge. Its next part, which would show him attaining freedom from his anguish, was set to be released in 2009.
Unfortunately, the film has yet to see its second installment as of writing.
5) Samsara (2001)
Samsara tells the story of a Buddhist monk’s quest to find spiritual enlightenment by renouncing the world. It captures the complications of spirituality and sexuality really well.
Tashi began his training as a Buddhist monk when he was five. After having practiced The Way for twenty years, he struggles with sexuality and starts having wet dreams. He ends up falling in love with a farmer’s daughter and decides to leave the monastery to live a normal life. The movie follows Tashi as his life gets complicated and things take an unexpected turn.
6) Kundun (1997)
Kundun is a biographical film of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. The word “Kundun” means “presence”, a title by which Tibetans refer to the Dalai Lama.
In 1937, a two-year-old child is identified as the reincarnation of the Compassionate Buddha. He’s brought to Lhasa where he grows up as a monk. When he’s 14, the Chinese invade Tibet.
The movie follows the Dalai Lama into adulthood as he deals with Chinese oppression and has to flee to India in the end.
The movie is visually stunning and has pleasant music. I recommend this film to anyone interested in the personal history of the Dalai Lama.
“Just like a dream experience, Whatever things I enjoy will become a memory. Whatever is past will not be seen again”
7) Un Buda / A Buddha (2005)
A Buddha in an Argentine movie stunningly depicts the experience of spiritual awakening.
It’s an emotional movie directed by Diego Rafecas, a Zen teacher in Argentina.
The film follows the lives of two brothers who were orphaned during the wars in the 1970s in Argentina.
The younger brother starts experimenting with extreme Buddhist practices, while the elder one, who is a Professor of Philosophy at a University, questions his Buddhist revelations. They end up in a Zen monastery in the mountains of Cordoba, where their lives take a dramatic turn.
8) Siddhartha (1972)
Ah, the classic! Siddhartha is based on a novel of the same name by Hermann Hesse.
Turning this book into a movie is tough, but the film manages to capture artificial settings and philosophical sincerity.
It’s an inspirational movie and a must-watch for anyone looking to get into spirituality as it beautifully shows the quest of one of the most famous men in history.
This movie describes the life of young Siddhartha, who embarked on a journey to find a way to end suffering and attain permanent peace.
He was born in a rich family, surrounded by all kinds of pleasures, but soon he got tired of them and saw the real world where there is no suffering.
9) The Cup (1999)
The movie shows a side of monastic reality that may not seem proper. The monks of The Cup even become involved in a brawl. It’s a light movie, and a fun reminds that monks are human too.
This is a Tibetan story told from a Tibetan perspective. It ties in strongly with Buddhist teachings, and you get exposed to Tibetan culture.
In this movie, two soccer-enthusiast novice monks enter a Tibetan monastery. Soon, the serene ambiance is somewhat disrupted by soccer fever. They desperately try to find some way to watch the 1998 World Cup final. When circumstances prevent them from seeing the finals on TV in a nearby village, they set out to rent a TV set for the monastery.
10) Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014)
Hector and the Search for Happiness is a comedy-drama movie that tells the story of a bored psychiatrist named Hector.
He became increasingly tired of his routine life and embarked on a journey to find the meaning of happiness. On his way, he met various characters and situations that taught him valuable life lessons.
It’s not exactly a Buddhist movie, but Hector did spend some time with monks in a Monastery, and the film’s overall meaning aligns with some Buddhist beliefs.
11) The Civilization of Maxwell Bright (2005)
The Civilization of Maxwell Bright starts with a Zen saying, “the true Buddhist will gladly jump into hell to save another human being.”
It tells the story of a mentally unstable man who gets a mail-order bride.
This is a beautiful movie with a profound message, and it’ll blow your mind and leave you speechless if you stick with it.
After a series of terrible relationships, misogynist Maxwell Bright was fed with dating American women. He received a mail-order bride from China.
She appears as subservient as advertised, but soon he finds that she’s much more than just a typical housewife. She was a former Buddhist nun, and her inner peace started affecting him.
The movie follows Maxwell Bright as his life takes a turn, and he tries to free himself.
12) Seven Years in Tibet (1997)
Seven Years in Tibet is a biographical movie based on mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s book of the same name. It’s a beautiful blend of fact and fiction. The cinematography and landscape perfectly match the mood of the movie.
In 1938, Austrian Heinrich Harrer left behind his pregnant wife to climb Nanga Parbat in British India. World War 2 broke out, and the mountaineers were arrested. He managed to escape with a fellow mountaineer, Peter, and they made their way to a Forbidden city in Tibet. Peter married a tailor, Pema, while Heinrich befriends the young Dalai Lama.
The movie tells the story of the friendship between the Dalai Lama and Heinrich and what happens when China invades Tibet.
13) Little Buddha
Lama Norbu searched for a child who is a reincarnation of his teacher, Lama Dorje. His searching leads him to his fellow monks to young Jesse (son of an architect), Raju (a ragamuffin from Kathmandu), and Gita (an upper-class Indian girl). Together, they journey back to Bhutan where the three children must undergo a test to find out who is the true reincarnation of Lama Dorje.
Along with this, the film also tells the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who turned his back on his comfortable life and embarked on a journey to find the solution to the problem of universal suffering.
“To learn is to change. The path of enlightenment is in a middle way. It is the line between all opposite extremes”
14) Enlightenment Guaranteed
This is an excellent low-budget movie that’s funny and serious at the same time. If you know the basics of Buddhism, you’ll appreciate this film even more.
Two German brothers, Gustav and Uwe traveled to a Buddhist monastery in Japan to seek answers to their lives’ problems. Uwe’s wife had left him, and Gustav had internal troubles of his own.
The two brothers shared their problems with the Buddhist monk, and they gained fresh perspectives on life. The movie gives us some insight into Buddhist philosophy and practice.
Some of these movies are slow-paced or intense, so take your time and immerse yourself in their world.
However, others aren’t that serious and may not be centered around Buddhism, but I’ve included them because their overall meaning aligns with Buddhist principles in some way.
My favorites are Samsara and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring. They’re based on a similar theme and contain a deep spiritual message. I’ve watched both movies several times and thoroughly enjoyed them.
I also like Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East Movie.
I hope you will enjoy watching some of these movies.
If you think I’ve missed any movies, feel free to comment them below. I would love to check them out!