BANGKOK – Religion can be a tough sell nowadays, so instead of waiting for disciples to make their way to temple, some promoters brought 36 films with Buddhist themes to the heart of modern Thailand earlier this month.
The International Buddhism Film Festival was an effort by the government and private religious groups to popularize Buddhism among the younger generations.
"It's like prescribing medicine to children, you have to add a little sweetener there," said Somchai Seanglai, the permanent secretary of Thailand's Culture Ministry. "City dwellers or our young people are not used to the traditional way of practicing Buddhism, so we insert Buddhist dharma into art and culture that people love to consume." Dharma refers to the Buddha's teachings on the meaning of existence.
Initiated by the California-based Buddhism Film Foundation, the movie festival came to Bangkok for the first time this year since its debut in Los Angeles in 2003, and pulled in 3,700 visitors.
"Now many youngsters think of Buddhism as a religion for old people, so the film festival is trying to engage Buddhism with the contemporary world," said Santi Opaspakornkij, executive director of the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives, an education center dedicated to promoting Buddhism through new channels in Thailand.
About 90 percent of Thailand's population is Buddhist, but many view the religion simply as a rough guide to social do's and don'ts, with vague notions encouraging good behavior.
"I don't go to temples very often," said Napasamon Jeeramaneemai, a third-year architecture student at Bangkok's Thammasat University attending the festival. "Buddhism for me is just a better way to resolve bad situations. Sometimes when you blame them on 'karma,' it's easier to accept them." Buddhists believe "Karma" rules a person's destiny depending on their deeds throughout their existence, which can span many lifetimes.
To make sure the films would cause no major offense, the Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives sought support from three leading Thai monks in the forefront of popularizing Buddhism, including the popular young preacher, Phra Maha Vudhijaya Vajiramedhi, who posts his teachings on his Twitter account for more than 500,000 followers.
The films included "Crazy Wisdom," a documentary released in 2011 by American filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas. It portrays Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a controversial Tibetan monk who preached to thousands of students when he lived in the West but whose lifestyle was in defiance of many of Buddhism's ethical principles.
But many people considered his unconventional style a challenging but effective way of presenting Buddhist concepts.
"I personally don't agree with the way Trungpa Rinpoche teaches," Nittaya Weera, a freelance writer on telecommunication, commented on "Crazy Wisdom." ''But I understand the real essence of Buddhism is in the belief itself. The way to get there doesn't really matter."
"Crazy Wisdom" turned out to be the most popular films. Other crowd-pleasers included "Abraxas," a Japanese film about a married punk rocker turned Buddhist, and "Karma," a lighthearted Nepali film about two Tibetan nuns on a journey to get repayment of a loan.