Buddhism In Art: On Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” (1997)

A stylized shot of the child Dalai Lama in Martin Scorsese's "Kundun".

Wondering whether any works of art profit from the richer aspects of Buddhist philosophy, I mostly found mediocre films such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, which miscasts a wooden Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha Gautama, or biographies on well-known monks, that, although interesting to someone already familiar with their lives, are not any more compelling. One of the few exceptions to this is Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, which owes its success not only to excellent cinematography (Roger Deakins) and scoring (Philip Glass) but especially to Scorsese’s ability to exploit core Buddhist concepts to striking poetic effect.

The film follows the fourteenth Dalai Lama’s childhood and his subsequent struggles with the Chinese invasion of Tibet. From the opening shot, there is a dynamism to the film’s editing (Thelma Schoonmaker) and cinematography characteristic of Martin Scorsese’s best films. The film begins with an image of the Himalayas, which transitions into a reverse video of a mandala as it is blown away, making it seem like the wind itself was creating the sandpainting. There is an elegance to this opening that makes it clear, from the start, that Kundun is a work of art first and an act of devotion second.

One cannot deny, then, that there is a significant devotional aspect to the film. Among the early scenes featuring a young Llamo, we are shown how he spends his free time separating brawling scarabs while boys his age are busy playing and having fun – as if to say there is something innately different about the child who will become a Dalai Lama. However, screenwriter Melissa Mathison usually balances this adulatory slant with a detail that sustains the narrative’s dramatic tension. In this case, after we see the kid separating the insects, we notice a lama (disguised as a servant) watching his act of goodwill from a distance. He is searching for the Dalai Lama’s current reincarnation, and such sights might be an omen that the quest is drawing to a close. This touch gives the scene suspense, bolstering it beyond mere hagiography.

Another element which subverts the hagiographical tendencies of the film is its strength of characterization. While Kundun’s characters are not in league with those of other Scorsese works, such as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, it still efficiently and consistently humanizes its main subject. Sure, there is a somewhat sacred air to the young Llamo; however, he can still be as loud and self-centered as any other kid. This is shown when he insists upon taking his father’s place at the head of the dining table, when he begs his mother and sister to tell the story of his birth for the hundredth time, or when we see him bicker or show off to other children his age. Even when the audience is introduced to an older Dalai Lama, who seems far more emotionally mature than most people, the film never fails to highlight his vulnerability. We often see him suffer the pains the Chinese invasion causes his people, and other times we even see him doubt himself to be the “right” Dalai Lama. He might be a holy man, but he is still a man.

Though Buddhist beliefs form a significant portion of the film’s themes, the viewer does not need to adhere to them in order to get value from the narrative. Soon after the disguised lama arrives, his lot seeks refuge from a snowstorm inside Llamo’s house. Immediately upon entering, the lama looks at the child. The meeting is full of touches that infuse the scene with intrigue, such as close-ups of the lama’s and Tenzin’s eyes, as they seem to recognize each other, or the fact that the horns underscoring the scene manage to be both otherworldly and dramatic. Although belief in reincarnation forms an essential part of these proceedings, it is not necessary for the viewer to subscribe to it to enjoy the scene, mainly because the visual storytelling and score are technical achievements most intelligent viewers can appreciate.

But what makes Martin Scorsese’s Kundun remarkable is its ability to articulate the more immediately verifiable aspects of Buddhism in memorable ways. Consider the film’s treatment of impermanence – a subject that plays a prominent role in Eastern philosophy in general. Initially, it might seem contradictory that the narrative’s approach to this matter is through the use of repetition, but that is before considering how, without repetition, change becomes unrecognizable. One of the clearest examples of this is how the line “Things change” is constantly uttered by different characters in various periods of the film. “Today you lose; tomorrow you might win.” A servant explains to a young Llamo after the kid is angered upon losing a table game, “Things change, Kundun.” A grown-up Dalai Lama repeats this axiom to his servants years later as they try to figure out how to deal with imminent invasion. Not only does this device clearly outline the film’s themes of impermanence, but it also demarcates the main character’s development and adds to the dramatic heft of its scenes.

Kundun also delves into one of the distinctive features of Buddhism as a religion: the fact that its central figures, such as Gautama Buddha and the many sages born after him, should not be thought of as exceptions but as examples. Take, for instance, one of the film’s concluding scenes. When an exiled Dalai Lama crosses the border into India and a guard inquires “Are you the lord Buddha?”, the Dalai Lama responds: “I think that I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself.” This effectively shifts the focus from the Dalai Lama to the inquirer. Though the film spends time highlighting the virtues of its subject, here it tells viewers that its saint is merely a reflection of something within themselves. Kundun never lets the audience mistake its admiration for idolatry and even tries to encourage its viewers to aspire towards what they see in its main hero. Because of this, not only does it manage to be one of the few good Buddhist films out there, but a good film, period, and more than just an oddity within Martin Scorsese’s filmography.

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