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Popcorn Schooling: 5 Movies For Learning About The Dalai Lama

From the origins of Buddha to the life of the current Dalai Lama, several popular movies have a lot to offer if you're hoping to learn about the spiritual leader of Tibet. Santa Clara University Associate Professor of Religious Studies David Gray tells us what armchair Dalai Lama scholars can learn from each of these films. More with Dr. Gray on the Dalai Lama:

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1. Kundun

(Directed by Martin Scorsese)

Based on the current (14th) Dalai Lama’s autobiography Freedom & Exile, this movie charts his life story before birth through his childhood until he fled Tibet in 1959. Kundun is a good film that stays true to the facts in his autobiography.

2. Seven Years in Tibet

( Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud starring Brad Pitt)

Based on Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer’s book by the same name, Seven Years in Tibet is about a volunteer who spent seven years in Tibet in the 1940s prior to China’s invasion of that country. It focuses on the figure of Heinrich Harrer, and includes several scenes of him interacting with the young Dalai Lama. It’s an accurate portrayal of Harrer’s life, and also presents a positive depiction of the young Dalai Lama.

3. Little Buddha

(Directed By by Bernardo Bertolucci)

Little Buddha explores a fictional family in Seattle that is suddenly hit with the news from a Tibetan monk that their son may be the next Lama Dorje. The film takes them to Bhutan on a spiritual odyssey that includes some helpful facts about the story of the Buddha and his origins as Siddhartha. While fictional, it is true that some incarnations of other lamas have been found among western countries. (There are four schools of Buddhism and each has numerous lamas, which means teacher, as well as one person who is the reincarnation of their highest leader. The Dalai Lama is the reincarnated leader of the Geluk tradition).

4. The Cup

(Directed by by Khyentse Norbu)

The Cup is a fictional tale of Tibetan refugees, including two novice monks, living in India, and their efforts to watch the World Cup in a remote Himalayan monastery. It was made by a filmmaker who is a Bhutanese lama himself (and a spiritual teacher to Bertolucci). It’s a touching and realistic portrayal of Tibetans in exile, and touches on Buddhist teachings like compassion. The Dalai Lama has cameos via pictures of His Holiness in some scenes.

5. Himalaya

(directed by Eric Valli)

A film with an all-Tibetan cast about village men going on a trading expedition, enduring hardships caused by extreme weather in the region. Himalaya, in Tibetan with subtitles, is a fictional drama about life for ordinary Tibetans before the Chinese takeover, and incorporates some key Buddhist beliefs such as karma.