Beautiful, exotic scenery
Unobtrusive background music
Interesting subject matter
Flow of the film is not always smooth
Journey Into Buddhism is a trilogy of films made by John Bush to illustrate the various Buddhist cultures of Asia. The first DVD in this series is a journey through Thailand, Laos, and Burma. What ties all of these countries together in thematic cohesion, as the title of the DVD suggests, are the rivers that flow through them. In Thailand, it's the Chao Phraya, in Laos the Mekong, and in Burma the Irrawaddy. The narrator likens the dharma, or the universal Buddhist law, to these rivers, because they are all unstoppable forces that cause inevitable change.
Probably the best thing about this film is the exotic scenery that those who have never been to Southeast Asia will appreciate and marvel at. The viewer travels through Bangkok's canals, a vantage point which makes the country look, as the narrator indicates, like a "floating world". One sees the Royal Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the city, and the viewer can marvel at its opulence. In Laos, the viewer can see the unique architecture of a temple known as Wat Xieng Thong in the city of Luang Prabang, with its overlapping roofs that tilt slightly upward, and the stunning gold bas-reliefs of a nearby funerary house depicting scenes from the Hindu epic the Ramayana. Burma's Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is breathtaking as well, and looks to be made of solid gold. At this site the film shows Burmese worshipping in various ways at various shrines, including saying prayers and making offerings. You also see a good amount of natural scenery, including river and some rainforest footage, plus numerous shots of Buddhist monks praying, chanting, or going about their daily routines. Also of note are the different ways that the Buddha is portrayed in statue form depending on the country of origin, which is further explained on the DVD.
The narration tends to be rather minimalist, and there are many scenes for which there is no voice-over at all. However, the very basics of Buddhist philosophy are explained, as well as a cursory description of the Buddha's early life. The narrator also tends to tie Buddhist concepts to the scenes one is viewing. For example, the ancient city of Pagan in Burma features more than four thousand temples and pagodas, which were once adorned with ornate plaster flourishes. However, time, sandstorms, and other natural phenomena have eroded much of these flourishes away, leaving behind the terracotta bricks. The narrator uses this history to illustrate the Buddhist teaching of impermanence, that all things must eventually pass away.
There are, however, some portions of the DVD that don't seem to make a lot of sense. For instance, one of the places the viewer is taken to is a village outside of Chiang Mai in Thailand, populated by the Karen people. You get to see, for instance, some of the clothing the people in the village wear, and the houses they live in, and you see a man riding on an Asian elephant through the village, but it seems like a side trip with no real point as far as the role that Buddhism plays in their lives. All the narrator does is point out this ethnic group and then move on. It's certainly interesting, but at the same time it doesn't really flow all that well.
Throughout the film authentic regional music is played, both instrumental and vocal varieties. Some of it sounds cheerful and welcoming, but at other times it comes across as plaintive or even mournful. But it could merely be contemplative. The very best part of the soundscape, however, is the hypnotic chanting that is common for one to hear at various temples and holy sites all around this region.
One does not need to be a Buddhist to enjoy this film. It helps, however, if you have at least a little curiosity about Buddhism and this part of the world. Otherwise you might not find it that interesting. The film's pace is quite ideal, as well. It moves just slowly enough that the viewer can thoroughly enjoy and take in the scenes, but not so slowly as to be boring, unless you are very easily bored, in which case you might not appreciate the film's overall meditative quality.