The Seven Wonders Of The Buddhist World, Wednesday 22nd August, BBC2, 9pm
The concept of Buddhism means various things to different people. Some will immediately think of the Dalai Lama, but what do we really know about this Pope-style spiritual figurehead? Others may picture Tibetan robbed monks chanting on a mountainside, but why do they chant, and to whom? A few may even see a bunch of long haired hippies smoking roll-ups and dancing down Oxford Street chanting Hare Krishna. Again, this certainly provokes a few questions…
Even with our preconceptions and assumed knowledge of the so called ‘religion’ or spiritual way of life, many of us know very little about this ancient belief system. With its beginnings going back to one man’s revelation about life 2500 years ago underneath a Peepul tree in India, the teachings of this Indian Prince known known as Siddhārtha Gautama, or Buddah, are followed today by an estimated 350 million people around the world, a figure which is growing year on year.
Human nature being what it is, these original discoveries and teachings about enlightenment have now become closely wrapped around religious practices, with the original concept of Buddhism evolving and spiking off into different factions as it has travelled around the world.
Seven Wonders of the Buddhist World attempts to pull back the curtain on what exactly these spiritual teachings are, with historian Bettany Hughes traveling around India and Asia visiting the most famous buildings erected in the honour of Buddha’s teachings.
In a programme that could have easily been called A history of Buddhism for Dummies, viewers are shown a variety of temples and structures erected as the faith spread, starting off in Northern India at the Bodhi Tree and the Mahabodhi Temple where the original revelation took place. In a similar fashion to Rageh Omaar’s excellent three-parter on Muhammad and Islam, we are shown how devotion to the original teachings has inspired breathless architecture, with presenter Hughes also delving further into the foundations of the belief system- looking at the three jewels.
At Nepal’s Boudhanath Stupa, the historian looks deeper into the concept of Dharma- the name given today to the teachings of the Buddha. If one follows the so called Middle Way-a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification- then they can eventually reach enlightenment.
At the Temple of the Tooth in Sri Lanka, which surprisingly has nothing to do with early dentistry, the historian explores the concept of Karma, the idea that our intentional acts will be mirrored in the future. Simply translated, it’s similar to the old saying of what goes around, comes around, reminding this reviewer of his regret for not tipping the waitress yesterday at a Chinese restaurant.
At Wat Pho Temple in Thailand, Hughes explores Samsara- the endless cycle of birth and death that Buddhists seek to end by achieving enlightenment. Again, put simply, this is the concept of reincarnation, and the teachings that one must understand to move away from the pain of human existence.
The spectacular and inspiring Angkor Wat in Cambodia provokes the historian to further explore meditation, whilst in Hong Kong Hughes she visits the slightly more modern Giant Buddha and looks more closely at Zen.
The final wonder was built around 20 years ago, with the presenter traveling to the Hsi Lai temple in Los Angeles to discover more about the ultimate goal for all Buddhists – Nirvana. And no, before you ask, we’re not talking about Grunge rock music here.
Overall, I found the programme thoroughly fascinating and very insightful. The concept of Buddhism is a subject that is difficult to grasp for many, and could have easily filled a series of episodes on the teachings. As an introduction to the spiritual teachings however the programme succeeds, being both accessible and easy to understand – two things any faith is often not.
The only thing the programme lacked however was the presenter’s passion for the subject. In Omah’s documentary on Islam, you could see how emotional he became as he delved into the criticisms and questions surrounding his faith. Whilst Bettany Hughes came across as informed and thoroughly interested in the subject, you do sometimes wish that the BBC had brought in a follower of Buddhism who would get involved in some of the practices. However, in the corporation’s defence, Buddhism is much more fractured than Islam, and therefore perhaps a one size fits all worshipper would be hard to come by.