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How I ended up making a documentary about the most interesting Buddhists in the world

I spent one year traveling the world to find the most intriguing Buddhist monks and make a documentary about them.

buddhist documentary

A German filmmaker recounts his experience of producing his first feature length film “The Odd Monk” as a one man crew.

I have spent one year traveling the world by myself, equipped with a camera to find the most intriguing Buddhist monks and make a documentary about them. I ended up in places and situations I couldn’t have dreamed of: I attended a concert of a monk rock band in Tokyo, I got to meet the world’s first robot monk in China and I ended up at the inauguration of a Buddhist temple in southern Africa.

But how did this all happen? And what did I learn about Buddhism along the way?

Let me introduce myself: My name is Jesco, I am 32 years old, I was born in Munich and I am not a Buddhist. In fact, I am not religious at all. My „Gods“ are my favorite filmmakers: Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Werner Herzog and many more. That’s why it has been my dream since a young age to bring a movie into cinemas.

3 years ago I attended a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat where I got to listen to records of the ancient Buddhist stories. All of a sudden, I had a „heureka“ moment: Wouldn’t it be cool to make a movie about the return of Buddha and explore how his view of the modern world would be? 

I spent months and months brainstorming and writing the screenplay and eventually I found myself on a flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand to research Buddhism there. 

However, at this time it already dawned upon me that I was far away from bringing this movie idea into cinemas. Making movies is expensive!

So I brought a small camera along, ready to record anything interesting that would cross my path. Little did I know that I was about to embark on a journey to make a documentary and not a fiction film and that it would bring me closer to my dream than all my failed movie projects from the last decade…

Phra Julien – the Canadian monk

As I was talking to Thai people about their relationship to Buddhism, they told me about a Canadian monk who was posting pictures of the countless parcels of goods he had received as a donation. I got curious: Why would a westerner abandon his “modern” life and what did Buddhism have to do with it?

He invited me to spend a few days with him and I got to interview him and follow him around with my camera. 

Many things were remarkable about him:

His best friend was a vegan cat.

He did yoga, he exercised and he used a back inversion machine.

He lived by himself unlike most Thai monks who live in a monastery.

Most of all: his smile was so strong and content that it almost seemed too good to be true…

The following months I continued to travel around Asia while editing the short doc and I was pleased with the result, which you can watch here. 

I wondered: are there other unusual Buddhists out there and can they teach me as much about Buddhism as Julien did?

I decided to go on a journey across the globe to continue making short movies about Buddhists. My aim was to edit them all together in the end and show it in cinemas.

Here are some more places I visited and are included in my documentary:

The Buddhist Bar – Tokyo

The Buddhist branch Jodo Shinysu in Japan allows monks to marry and to drink alcohol. That’s why some Buddhist monks can even work as bartenders, comedians and musicians. At a place called „Vowz Bar“ in Tokyo I interviewed them in order to find out more about the current state of Buddhism in Japan. I learned that the Japanese are less and less interested in any kind of religion, so a place like this Buddhist Bar connects Buddhist traditions with entertainment in order to be attractive to its visitors. I enjoyed my time there but also was lacking a deeper spiritual experience, which I found in Ireland of all places:

Victor’s Way – Roundwood, Ireland

The German Buddhist monk Victor Langheld has built a sculpture park to offer visitors his modern views of Buddhism. The statues aim to offer the visitors a way of looking inside themselves. I was particularly touched by a huge statue of the starving Buddha, which reminded me of my previous failed efforts to find happiness by living a life of renunciation.

Victor stressed the fact how old the Buddha’s beliefs are and that they were falsified over time and aren’t up to date anymore anyway. 

The starving Buddha

Mongolia

After this bizarre experience my curiosity rose and I took the Transsiberian railway to return to Asia. My first stop was Mongolia where I found out about Buddhism’s difficult past. To be more precise: in 1937 the soviet communists led by Stalin initiated a cultural purge in Mongolia, where most Buddhist temples were destroyed and the monks were either murdered or imprisoned. 

These days, however, temples have been rebuilt and the number of monks is also rising again, although the country is still far away from reestablishing its past glory.

Longquan Temple, Beijing, China

China is the country with the most Buddhists in the world but this is only due to its big population. In reality, the temples are also looking for ways to increase their popularity. I ended up at the Longquan Temple in Beijing, as I was curious about their use of technology to spread Buddha’s wisdom. I was in particular astonished by their robot monk ca Xian’er, which can answer basic question about the human condition.

The robot monk and me

These are just a few examples of what I encountered on my journey. I have now finished the movie and you can follow its news on my facebook page.

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