(director/writer: John Bush; cinematographer: John Bush; editor: Donal O’Ceilleachair; music: David Hykes; cast: John Bush (Narrator); Runtime: 81; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: John Bush; Direct Pictures; 2001)

“An essential film if you have an interest in Buddhism.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An essential film if you have an interest in Buddhism. Dharma River is the first volume in the Yatra trilogy of sacred journeys in Buddhism by John Bush (followed by Prajna Earth in 2004 and Vajra Sky Over Tibet in 2006); it’s a visually stunning glimpse of a sacred world that includes an unobtrusive narration by Bush, indigenous music (classical Saung Gauk (Harp) of Burma; the Khene, the giant mouth organ of Laos, and the centuries old Pi Phat ensemble of Thailand which includes gongs, xylophones and cymbals), and harmonic chants (from singer and composer David Hykes with The Harmonic Choir).

Yatra is the Sanskrit word for pilgrimage or spiritual journey. This documentary takes the viewer on a picturesque river journey, suited for a pilgrim, through portions of Thailand, Laos and Burma. En route, the journey locales include the Emerald Buddha, the Royal Temple, the Ananda Temple built in 1091, Chaing Mai, Karen people, Mekong River, Shangri-la of Luang Prabang, Swedagon Pagoda, mystical sites and ruins of ancient civilizations, and in a fascinating way peeks at a myriad of iconic representations of the Buddha himself.

It might serve some as a meditation experience if used as an inner journey experience; it also sums up some basic beliefs of Buddhism. The Sanskrit word Dharma means universal law or that which upholds or supports the cosmos. The Dharma River is symbolic of the ceaseless stream of the life cycle, as it relates to how all things rise and pass away. The Buddhist’s aim is to raise consciousness and end suffering and fear; the Buddha nature is depicted as androgynous and the embodiment of radiance, a being understanding the truth of impermanence who is free of conditioning and of the imagined self. In Buddhism there is no supreme being, as the Buddha himself is depicted not as a God but as a fully evolved being.

The scholarship and the film-making is first-class. It’s a spiritual film with a big heart that dazzles with amazing imagery for the eye and its poetics are pleasing to the mind. It was made by a filmmaker living the trip and would probably be well-received by those who see it with an open mind.