This is a repost of sorts, parts of this piece culled from a couple of previous posts, prompted by Thursday’s Turner Classic Movies schedule. Every year in August TCM does Summer Under the Stars where they dedicate each 24-hour period of programming to one actor or actress. Yesterday, it was Charlie Chaplin, and boy, I needed him.

charlie_chaplindChaplin was one of the world’s greatest comedians, and yet, I rarely laugh during his films. I am, however, captivated by his sublime artistry and touched by his sensitivity – he was a genius. There is something about his Little Tramp character that to me is not only timeless, but very Buddhist.

Although I’ve tried and I’ve tried, I have not been able to find a connection between Charlie Chaplin and Buddhism. Well, except for the Cao Dai (“high place” or altar) sect of Vietnam that worships Charlie. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say they worship Chaplin, but they do revere him as a saint, and then Coadaism is not exactly Buddhism, it’s a monotheistic religion that James P. Harrison describes in The endless war: Vietnam’s struggle for independence as “claiming inspiration from all the great religious thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus Christ and Muhammad to Victor Hugo, and even Charlie Chaplin.”

Now, at one time Chaplin was about as close as you can get to sainthood while still breathing. From the late teens of the last century and into the 1930’s, he was arguably the most beloved man on the planet. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. He was all of them, packed into one baggy pair of pants. When he kicked a cop or tricked a bullying boss or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he did what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Because his films were silent, they transcended language. People the world over considered Charlie to be one of them. The upper classes could appreciate his artistry and use of pathos, while the lower classes could cheer him on. St. John Ervine, in a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, wrote, “Mr. Chaplin has conquered the world because he has remained of the world.”

While there may be no direct connection between Chaplin and Buddhism, he did have a connection to Gandhi. He was a great admirer of the Mahatma. The two met in London in 1931. Gandhi was staying at Kingsley Hall Community Centre, operated by Muriel Lester, a Christian pacifist. In her 1932 book Entertaining Gandhi, she relates this story in which it seems Gandhi was one of the very few people who had not heard of The Little Tramp:

Chaplin sitting next to Gandhi 1931

One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying ‘But he’s only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.’ The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name.

“‘But don’t you know that name, Bapu?’ I inquired, immensely intrigued. ‘No’ he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give.

‘Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.’”

Off-screen, Charlie was not all that saintly. He had his peccadilloes, so to speak, which I will not go into here. But on-screen, as the Little Tramp, he seemed to perfectly capture the essence of the human spirit. He once made the Buddha-like statement, “Loneliness is the theme of everyone.” Chaplin knew loneliness, he knew suffering. He grew up in a hard era – the end of the austere Victorian age – his father an alcoholic, his mother* mentally ill, Charlie and his half-brother Sydney labored in a workhouse and lived in a home for orphans and destitute children. Charlie Chaplin knew more suffering by age 10 than most of us have known our whole lives. He understood in the depth of his being that when someone makes a declaration of no surrender and sticks to it no matter what, amazing things can take place in that person’s life. That sentiment is superbly  expressed in the transcendent final scene of his last ‘silent’ film, Modern Times.

Usually, it’s not a good idea to show the final scene of a film, but in this case it may inspire any who have not yet seen the movie or experienced Charlie Chaplin to make an effort to do so. You probably know the background music, you’ll say or sing the words in your head as it plays, a song written by Chaplin . . .

One of the most enduring, and touching, images in film . . . the Little Tramp – and this time, he gets the girl – and they walk off together down that long, dusty road . . .

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking . . .

 – – – – – – – – – –

* A somewhat interesting aside: Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, had an adulterous affair with a man name Dryden and 3 years after Charlie was born, she gave birth to George Wheeler Dryden, who in 1938 became father to a certain Spencer Dryden, later the longest-serving drummer for the Jefferson Airplane.


Talking About Depression

Sometimes great benefit follows great tragedy . . . Robin Williams’ unfortunate death by suicide has drawn some much-needed attention to the disease of depression.

Addiction is often a gateway to depression, and vice versa. Williams may have had a genetic predisposition toward developing both. The major surgery he underwent in 2009 to replace his aortic valve may also have been a factor. As I recently learned firsthand, major surgery can lead to major depression.

Last photo of Robin Williams via Instagram, July 21, his 63rd birthday
Last photo of Robin Williams via Instagram, July 21, his 63rd birthday

During an appearance on the Ellen Degeneres show, Williams dismissed any suggestion that he may have suffered from depression after the surgery. I suspect he was either in denial or uncomfortable talking about depression.  He did have this to say: “they literally open you up, they crack the box, and you get really vulnerable . . . and you get very, very emotional about everything.”

That was my experience in the hospital following my liver transplant. I was extremely emotional, crying at the drop of a hat. Not sad, I was happy, appreciative. I came home, was fine for a few weeks, and then . . .

Depression following major surgery is caused by a complex mix of physical, emotional, and behavioral changes a patient goes through, and in my case, there was also the medication to suppress my immune system so my body will not reject the new liver and the medicine I take to offset side effects of the anti-rejection meds. Quite a combo.

Like most people, I get depressed from time to time. It usually doesn’t last long. This was something else entirely, and it came to a climax over the 4th of July weekend. I felt alone, hopeless, helpless. I couldn’t eat, read, do any of things I would normally do when I feel blue. All I wanted to do was sleep . . . and I was thinking about the Big Sleep and how to induce it.

For the first time in my life I was afforded a glimpse into the desperation someone in the grip of severe depression must feel, when the agony of trying to get through another day seems so overwhelming that you think, what’s the point? Why try? Who cares?  You sort of just want it over.

That Sunday, I heard from my cousin. She was sick. She was afraid her cancer was back and that it was spreading through her body. I only felt worse after that. The next day I went on a clinic visit and had a meltdown in front of my doctor and the social worker. They were very patient, spent lots of time with me that morning. My doctor wrote a prescription for anti-depression medication. He said it would take 6 weeks for the drug to take effect. Listen, when I take pills, I want ones that are fast acting. I still haven’t filled the prescription.

On the way home, I began to fell lighter. Maybe it was just getting everything off my chest – and I was brutally honest about what I was going through, I didn’t hold back. I began to think about my cousin. What she was facing was much worse than what I was going through. When I got home I had some unexpected interaction with another USC transplant patient, a guy who has been on the waiting list for a transplant six years. I was on the list only a year and a half, cancer put me on a fast track. I reflected on all the people I had met during the that time, some who were very sick and weren’t going to make it, some that I saw just that morning, who had transplants also and were not doing nearly as good physically as I was.

What was I grousing about? I was so fortunate. My recovery was coming along phenomenally.  So many people had gone to bat for me, invested time and energy. What was wrong with me?  Look at all the others who are having a much rougher battle, my dear cousin was probably dying . . . Empathy began to kick in.

One of the books I relied on during my journey through liver disease and cancer was Ultimate Healing The Power of Compassion by Lama Zopa Rinpoche. It is about inner healing, based on the traditional Tibetan Buddhist healing philosophy where to cure any disease, you must first cure the mind.

I went back to the book, found a passage that had always stuck in my mind:

A compassionate person is the most powerful healer, not only of their own disease and other problems, but of those of others. A person with loving kindness and compassion heals others simply by existing.”

When you are suffering from depression, you question the value of your existence, and in your twisted thinking, you wonder if life is worth holding on to, but, here it says that just by existing your life has meaning.  A very powerful thought. Very easy to forget. Analyzing my own situation from a Buddhist perspective, I would say the root cause of my depression was self-centeredness. I was indulging in self-pity, feeling sorry for myself.

Compassion gets you out of yourself.  You can take the Noble Eightfold Path, the Bodhisattva Path, and all the 80,000 Buddhist teachings, and distill them all down to this: the enemy is your self, the battle is to win over yourself.  Compassion is the art of this war.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche has a section on dealing with depression.  I glossed over it before.  I wasn’t depressed then.  He writes,

What made you experience this depression? Your ego, your self-cherishing thought. There is an immediate connection between depression and the strong cherishing of I. You become depressed basically because the ego doesn’t get what it wants or expects.”

A former child star is taking some flak for tweeting that Williams was selfish by committing suicide. But he’s right. A person in a fog of depression has limited vision, and is capable of little wisdom. So wrapped up in their own pain, the pain that they will cause others with their act does not enter into the mind, or if it does, it is dismissed, or overshadowed by the darkness.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche offers three powerful techniques for fighting depression: remember impermanence and death, experience your depression on behalf of others, and give your depression to your ego. I like the last one. Why not? Since your ego is not you, and not real, but just a manifestation of self-cherishing thoughts, let the ego take care of the depression. Lighten your load.

orson-welles_trialI don’t know how serious was my bout with depression. It seems to be over and done with, although some residue lingers. When my thoughts were at their darkest, there was still the faint light of others that shined through – I could never intentionally do something that would inflict that kind of pain on my father and my other relatives or friends. Obviously, the darkness that surrounded Robin Williams was deeper.

I wrote above that Williams might have been in denial about post-surgery depression. It’s also been suggested that his periodic rehab check-ins to “maintain his sobriety” over the years, were covers for depression treatment. Strange commentary on our society where treatment for substance abuse has less of a stigma than treatment for psychological issues.

A few days after my cousin died, a tenant in my building left a few books in the laundry room for others to take, a romance novel, a science fiction adventure, and Against Depression by Peter D. Kramer. I grabbed the latter. I haven’t read it cover to cover but rather have jumped around. Kramer sees depression as a disease (some say it is a disorder), and he advocates an all-out, take-no-prisoners approach similar to the one that allowed us to eradicate smallpox. He says, “Not fearing depression, we might love more generously.”

Only 16 or 17 percent of Americans ever experience major depression, yet Kramer also says,

For a group that extends far beyond the minority who go on to suffer the syndrome, depression is the disease that stands in the wings. Many of us, and here I include myself, spend much our lives fending off depression, in those we care about, but also in ourselves.”

His message is clear. Anyone can have depression. Anyone can feel so alone and hopeless that almost on a whim, even though the thought has been thought many times before, they can try to cut themselves with a knife, hang themselves with a belt . . . unless someone is there to stop them.

Robin Williams has left us. He’s left us laughing, but he’s also left us talking about depression and that is a good thing. I think he would want us not to fear depression, and I think he would be pleased if by talking openly about depression we were able to love more generously.


A Kick in the Pants

Here is a well-known Buddhist story. There are a number of slightly different versions, this is mine:

A monk named Hung Chou came to visit the Ch’an master Ma Tzu one time and asked him, “Why is it said that in order to become Buddha you must give up both the idea of Buddha and the idea of yourself?”

Ma Tzu replied, “I will tell you, but when discussing such deep subjects, one should make a bow to the Buddha first.”

Hung Chou faced the statue of the Buddha and bowed. As he was making this prostration, Ma Tzu gave him a swift kick in the pants and knocked him over. Taken aback for a moment, Hung Chou was soon laughing hysterically.

He experienced immediate awakening, and later, he would tell people, “Ever since master Ma Tzu kicked me, I haven’t been able to stop laughing!”

If you have been around Buddhism a while, that is, brick and mortar Buddhism, you’ve probably had an experience similar to this, where you ask a teacher a sincere question and all you get is some cryptic answer. It can be frustrating. There are times when you want to say, for Pete’s sake, can’t you just give a straight answer for once? But a straight answer is not always what you need.

Ma Tzu (709-788) was a very famous Ch’an (Zen) master. He did stuff like that all the time, giving paradoxical answers and kicking students. Sometimes, though, instead of a kick he’d spray a little seltzer down their pants.

Now, had it been me in that situation, I would have asked, “Why do I have to bow to Buddha before we can discuss my question about giving up Buddha?” because that’s the kind of hairpin I am.

And if Ma Tzu had been in the right mood, he might been willing to provide a more straightforward explanation similar to this one given by Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind/Beginner’s Mind:

By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas. So there is no difference between [meditation] practice and bowing. Usually to bow means to pay our respects to something which is more worthy of respect than ourselves. But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”

And that is just about the best answer to why you must give up both the idea of Buddha and yourself that you will ever get, except for maybe a swift kick in the pants.


Black Rain

Today, August 6, is the 69th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It happened at 08:15 Japan time. The Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, released a bomb named Little Boy containing 64 kg (141 lb) of uranium-235 over the city. It took Little Boy 44.4 seconds to drop from 31,000 feet (9,400 m) to a height of about 1,900 feet (580 m) where it detonated.

hiroshima-damage4.7 square miles (12 km2) of the city was destroyed. Within seconds, 75,000 people were killed or fatally injured. 65% of the casualties nine years of age and younger. Beneath the epicenter of the explosion temperatures were hot enough to melt concrete and steel. 69% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. The bomb started fires that spread rapidly through wood and paper homes.

The blast released nearly 200 different kinds of radioactive isotopes (nuclear fission particles of uranium and plutonium that escaped fission). These particles and other materials irradiated by the bomb’s neutrons were carried high into the atmosphere.

The mix of massive amounts of airborne irradiated materials merged with heat and thermal currents from the firestorms caused it to rain within an hour of the bombing. Fallout particles mixed with carbon residue from fires created the deadly “black rain” reported by many eyewitnesses.

On that day, Hiromu Morishita was 14 years old and in the ninth grade. He survived. He became a calligrapher and teacher. He was president of the Senior High School Teachers’ Society and the Hiroshima Peace Education Institute in Japan. He wrote a poem:


MorishitaWatch dutifully
with your eyes.

Here, something happened that shouldn’t have.
Here now, something irreparable continues.
Here tomorrow, signs of everyone’s destruction
may appear.

Don’t watch with one eye.
Don’t watch with your arm or with your head.

With the heart of one who endures despair.

– – – – – – – – – –

“Hiroshima” (Morishita, Bradley, and Dougherty 14) Memories of the Future: The Poetry of Sadako Kurihara and Hiromu Morishita Commentary by Edward A Dougherty


The End of Psychology

In its July 31 issue, the Onion reports this shocking development:

The field of psychology was brought to an immediate halt this week as disillusioned and weary practitioners of the discipline reportedly concluded that the mind could never possibly hope to study itself.”

lucydoctor3Finally, the head-shrink community has accepted what the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna revealed some 1700 years ago:

The mind does not know itself, cannot see itself.”

Indeed, if the mind cannot know mind, or even see it, how could it possibly study itself? There must be hundreds of thousands of folks in the psychology field worldwide in desperate need of therapy as a result of this revelation.

Nagarjuna said that because of our fundamental ignorance, we seize the fixed nature of the mind, and as a result, the mind we seize is false. However, through an understanding of emptiness, we can comprehend the real nature of mind.

According to Tenzin Gyatsu, the 14th Dalai Lama, through meditation we can get a glimpse of what the mind is. When we are able to enter into the timelessness of now, the present moment, with no thoughts about the past or anticipations for the future, when our mind is not swayed by hopes and fears, or even thoughts, and that when

[You] are able to isolate your mind from such object oriented activity and insure that there is no thinking about the past or anticipation of the future, by trying to remain in the present, then gradually you are able to sense an absence, an emptiness, and that through persistent practice of meditation, slowly, I feel that you can begin to realize, experientially, what is this consciousness, which is the mere nature of experience and knowing, a form of luminous phenomena.

If you approach in this manner, I feel that there is a tremendous scope for discovery. I feel that at a certain point you will get, through your own experience, a sense of what [mind] really is.”*

Actually, the mind is like an onion, only by peeling it many layers can we get to the core.

– – – – – – – – – –

* UCLA, June 5, 1997