Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker David Grubin, a Manhattan resident whose last project was a history of American Jews, has now looked east. His newest documentary, “The Buddha,” about the founder of the Buddhist faith, premieres nationally on PBS on April 7. In recent weeks he has traveled around the U.S. for local screenings.
Q: How do you go from a project on American-Jewish history to a documentary on Buddhism?
A: I found the story of the Buddha inspiring. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to benefit from the Buddha’s insights. You can bring the Buddha’s ideas into your own life, whether you are a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim, or have no religious affiliation at all.
Most of us know little about Buddhism beyond Richard Gere, the Dalai Lama and jokes about Zen masters on mountaintops. You found more than that?
Buddhism begins with the recognition that life is hard for all of us. Everyone shares a similar fate: no matter who you are, you will grow old, you will get sick, you will die. What the Buddha discovered was how to live with a full awareness of the fragility, the precariousness of the human situation.
How familiar were you with Buddhism before you started your research for the documentary?
I begin most films pretty ignorant. That’s what makes doing the film interesting.
Is the influence of Buddhism — or of Buddhist principles — growing in the United States?
The number of Buddhists in America is small, but my own sense is that Buddhist practices are spreading. I’m always meeting people who are meditators or who have just come back from a retreat.
American Jews for a few generations have seemed to have an affinity for Buddhism. Do you better understand why that happens?
Perhaps too many Jews who explore other religious traditions in search of wisdom are missing what Judaism itself has to offer.
There’s the well-known story of the group of rabbis who visited the Dalai Lama, and asked him a similar question. The Dalai Lama said that when Jews come to him seeking to be Buddhists, he tells them that they should return to their own religion; he added, it’s important that there is something meaningful for them to go back to.
Judaism has its own great wisdom tradition and its own insights into making life richer, fuller, more meaningful.
People often say they come to understand their own culture by spending time in another’s. What did you learn about Judaism through Buddhism?
In important ways, Buddhism and Judaism are very similar. Both offer profound insights into the human condition drawn from wisdom and traditions that go back thousands of years. Both focus on this world and how to live in it. Both teach us in their own unique ways of how to live with a fuller awareness of the preciousness of life, and how to contribute to making our world a better place.
Which religion will be the subject of your next documentary?
I wasn’t so much interested in the Buddhist religion when I set out to make this film as I was in the life of the Buddha, and what I could learn from it. I don’t expect I’ll be making a film about another religion after this one. But you never know.
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