The story begins in modern-day Tibet, where a certain Buddhist priest or "lama" begins to see signs that his beloved teacher, who had died several years before, may have recently been reincarnated. The lama travels from Tibet to Seattle to locate a young Caucasian boy thought to be one of the possible "candidates" (he later discovers 2 others). The lama meets the boy, who does indeed appear to have certain traits that the lama's teacher had. The two develop a friendship and soon, the lama begins to relate to him the story of the birth of Buddhism, and of the young prince named Siddhartha who came to be called Buddha.
As the lama begins to tell the story, the scene switches to ancient India, and shows young Siddhartha (played by Keanu Reeves), living a carefree life in the palace. His father, King Suddhodana, is shielding him from all "unpleasantries" such as elderly , sick or dying people. Gradually however, Siddhartha begins to get curious about the world "out there," and one day sneaks outside the palace gate. Buddhists will of course recognize this as the well-known story of the Four Gates. In one powerful scene, he encounters a funeral pyre and suddenly, as he watches the flames consume the body, the truth of impermanence - of his and of every one's ultimate demise - hits him, and brings him to tears. This scene, although undoubtedly one of the highlights, is only one of many memorable and well-acted scenes as the setting switches back and forth between ancient India (the story of Buddha) and the contemporary search for the lama's teacher. Furthermore, the young children who play the candidates of the reincarnated teacher are all superb actors.
This movie will undoubtedly do a great deal to educate Americans about Buddhism. The "ancient" part of the story in particular is beautifully done, and portrays Buddhism as a compassionate teaching borne of Buddha's insight into the truth of impermanence. But perhaps even greater is a crucial point the movie implies, but doesn't actually state overtly. If Siddhartha had just stopped upon awakening to impermanence, he might have become a depressed, negative, complaining, or perhaps even suicidal person. Impermanence, after all, is not a comforting thought. Instead, the crucial point is that he also saw that suffering is universal - it wasn't just himself, but every living thing that must ultimately perish. The moment that Siddhartha sees this fundamental oneness of all life is eloquently portrayed in the movie. From this realization, his great compassion flowed, and he became the Buddha.