Movies are a brilliant source of entertainment, but a spiritual mind may not like the debauchery, lust, or violence that’s often the center point of most movies. Unfortunately, spiritual movies are far and few between, but they’re also intense and inspirational.
When we look up movies about Buddhism or spirituality, we come across a lot of documentaries. While they’re an excellent way to learn, a fictional or biographical movie with a spiritual element is always refreshing. 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: ‘what was my original face before my mother and father were conceived?’ and, ‘(in death) where does the master of my being go?’ It answers these questions beautifully while making use of symbols and iconography. The movie doesn’t try to teach you anything; 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 which 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.
The film follows Dogen as he tries to spread this ‘new’ Buddhism to transform people’s lives for the better. His teachings are not accepted by the powerful Tendai School and after several years of friction, Dogen has to leave Kyoto. He then founds the monastery Eihei-ji.
3. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003)
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. As is clear from the title, this movie looks at the cyclical nature of life.
Its 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).
Didn’t you know beforehand how the world of men is? Sometimes we have to let go of the things we like. What you like, others will also like.
4. Milarepa (2006)
This movie is about the life of the most famous Tibetan tantric Jetsun Milarepa. It’s filmed in the beautiful Spiti Valley and tells the story of Tibet’s greatest legend.
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.
I realize now that my task is not over, and so I will be returning to Samsara. I know that we shall meet again. Perhaps when we do you will be able to tell me what is more important: satisfying one thousand desires or conquering just one.
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 was 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 is an Argentine movie that stunningly depicts the experience of spiritual awakening. It’s an emotional movie directed by Diego Rafecas, a Zen teacher in Argentina. With beautiful music and cinematography, it absorbs you right from the beginning.
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, and 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. It’s a tough job to turn his book into a movie, 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 depicts the life of young Siddhartha who embarks on a journey to find a way to end suffering and attain permanent peace. He’s born into a rich family, surrounded by all kinds of pleasures, but he soon grows tired of them and sees the real world where suffering abounds. Disillusioned, he leaves his palace at night and sets out to find the meaning of existence.
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 reminder 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 becomes increasingly tired of his routine life and embarks on a journey to find the meaning of happiness. On his way, he meets various characters and situations that teach him valuable life lessons.
It’s not exactly a Buddhist movie, but Hector does 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 that the true Buddhist will gladly jump into hell in order to save another human being. It tells the story of a mentally unstable man who gets a mail-order bride. This is a wonderful 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 is fed with dating American women. He receives 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’s a former Buddhist nun, and her inner peace starts to affect 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 leaves behind his pregnant wife to climb Nanga Parbat in British India. World War 2 breaks out, and the mountaineers are arrested. He manages to escape with a fellow mountaineer, Peter, and they make their way to a Forbidden city in Tibet. Peter marries 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 sets out to search for a child who is a reincarnation of his teacher, Lama Dorje. His search leads him and 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 the middle way. It is the line between all opposite extremes.
Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha)
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 travel to a Buddhist monastery in Japan to seek answers to their lives problems. Uwe’s wife has left him, and Gustav has internal troubles of his own. They board the plane to Japan, and the adventure begins.
The two brothers share their problems with the Buddhist monk, and they gain 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. While others aren’t that serious and may not be centered around Buddhism, 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 very much like Why Has Bodhi Dharma Left for the East.
I hope you found some helpful movie recommendations in this article. If you think I’ve missed any movies, be sure to comment on them down below. I would love to check them out!