As a Buddhist from a devout Buddhist family, I was delighted to find a film about the Mahayana. I bought it and brought it to California with me on a recent trip when I visited my family, and even invited our teacher, a Vajrayana lama to watch with us.
I going to try to word my words respectfully. Though I appreciate what the author has done and I fully applaud all efforts in Buddhist filmmaking, I was left disappointed with 'Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East.'
The movie is indeed shot beautifully, with gorgeous images and very poetic scenes. However, imagery does not a movie make.
I can see the director's intentions, but some parts terribly misrepresent the path of cultivation. For instance, the old monk's body is in its current damaged state because he meditated up against a block of ice in attempt to conquer sleep. Not only is this not advisable and detrimental to health, but misrepresentative of the practice. Buddha starved with the ascetics only to come to the conclusion that to put his body through so much suffering is extremist, and instead, we should opt for moderation and the middle way. And why should we want to conquer sleep, anyway? What's the point? When Buddha walked the earth with us, even he had to bow to the physical limits of his nirmanakaya form and ate, slept, and cared for his body.
The Dharma should bring its followers peace of mind, fulfillment, contentment, and more and more happiness as we practice it more and more. However, this movie portrays monks undergoing mental torment and anguish throughout the movie. It seemed as if the movie piled more and more anguish on the monks as the movie progressed. The only scene I saw where they were at ease and happy was when the old monk pulled a tooth from the boy monk with the help of his other disciple. In my opinion, it should have been the other way around, with them growing freer and freer, happier and happier, more and more peaceful as the movie went on.
Zen is not abstract, it is actually a very straightforward practice, but I fear non-Buddhists who watch this and base all their opinions off it will take away the wrong message of not only Zen, but Buddhism in general. The concept of Bodhicitta (vast, impartial love for all beings) that is the very heart of all Mahayana practice isn't even addressed (a slight reference is made to compassion).
I would consider a successful Buddhist film to be one that inspires its viewers to arouse bodhicitta themselves and, like the Buddha, go forth into the world bravely to alleviate the suffering of the world. That was not the goal, however, with this film. It instead focuses on Zen, but without portraying and emphasizing the bodhicitta (or growing, budding bodhicitta) of the monks and how they progress towards that goal using Zen as a means of practice, the concept of "Zen" itself becomes pretentious, useless, and hollow. With this movie, it's as if the very heart of the practice- love, compassion, tolerance for all beings- was left out. Zen is just a way of practice. If Zen is the ship and wisdom the anchor, compassion is the wind that powers the sails. To make a movie just about "Zen" without giving equal (if not more) emphasis to the other two- wisdom and compassion- is to have a boat lost and just sitting out at sea. That's how I felt about the movie, that it had no sense of direction or point at the end.
That's how I feel about the movie, that it lacks heart. If you're looking for a Buddhist movie with plenty of heart, I would suggest the movie "The Cup" over this one (it was nominated for 'Best Foreign Film' from Bhutan, but lost the Oscar to 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'). It's absolutely delightful and wonderfully represents active compassion in practice.
I'm sorry if I offend anybody who enjoyed this film-- it's just one person's opinion =)