Strange Connections

Marvel’s latest release, Dr. Strange, will hit theaters in the U.S. this Friday, November 4th.  I suspect that for many moviegoers, this will be their introduction to the sorcerer superhero.  But for others, like myself, Dr. Strange is an old acquaintance.

In the early 1960’s Marvel Comics revolutionized the comic book scene with their innovative stories and more developed, and more human, superheroes.   Marvel had three great things going for it:  the phenomenal writing of Stan Lee, and two superb artists, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

strange-tales_110In 1963, Ditko came up with an idea for a comic about a mysterious master of black magic.  He and Stan Lee decided to call him Dr. Strange and this new ‘superhero’ made his debut in Strange Tales #110.  Ditko claimed Chandu the Magician was an inspiration, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mandrake the Magician wasn’t another one.   Dr. Strange was never as popular as other Marvel character, such as Spiderman, Hulk, and Captain America, but the story lines and Ditko’s surrealistic artwork were perfect for the psychedelic 60s that won a kind of cult following.

In a quote I’ve lifted from Wikipedia’s Dr Strange page, Mike Benton, a comic book historian, says,

The Dr. Strange stories of the 1960s constructed a cohesive cosmology that would have thrilled any self-respecting theosophist. College students, minds freshly opened by psychedelic experiences and Eastern mysticism, read Ditko and Lee’s Dr. Strange stories with the belief of a recent Hare Krishna convert. Meaning was everywhere, and readers analyzed the Dr. Strange stories for their relationship to Egyptian myths, Sumerian gods, and Jungian archetypes.

As Benton notes, there were overtones of Eastern Mysticism, and with the new Dr. Strange movie, there are some actual connections with Buddhism.

First, although Dr. Strange mainly hangs out in Greenwich Village, the mystical land high in the Himalayas where he encounters the Ancient One (aka “The High Lama”) is little more than a mythical Tibet.

Reuters reports that one member of the crew was a Tibetan Buddhist monk, Gelong Thubten, invited on set by Tilda Swinton, the British actress who plays the Ancient One.  Thubten taught everyone mindfulness and, I guess, provided good vibes.

Apparently, the actor who plays Dr. Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch is Buddhist.  Before he started playing Sherlock Holmes for the BBC, Cumberbatch taught English at a Buddhist monastery in India, and he recently narrated Walk With Me, a documentary about Thich Nhat Hanh.

I won’t see Dr. Strange until it hits cable some time from now.  I must confess that I am pretty bored with super-hero movies now.  The special effects are wonderful but the plots are the same: bad guy or group of bad guys or evil force out to destroy Earth and of course, the superheroes save the day.  I suppose the plots have always been the same but when you’re ten years old it doesn’t matter too much.  Coolness and thrill-quality trump redundancy any day.

One thing that didn’t register too much with me when I was younger was that superhero stories also have a theme of transformation.  To be a superhero, a person must change, literally.  Clark Kent changes into Superman, Diana Prince changes into Wonder Woman, Peter Parker into Spiderman, etc.  Some of these metamorphoses are not merely physical; they are personal.  For instance, Stephen Strange is an egotistic, materialistic surgeon, who loses his ability to perform surgery when his hands are wrecked in a car accident.  This sends him on a quest where he eventually encounters wisdom in the form of The Ancient One, and through the acquisition of wisdom undergoes a personal transformation, finds inner peace, and is transformed into a bodhisattva-like figure on a mission to help others, Dr. Strange.

Transformation is a major theme in the Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism.  In the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu says,

Seek to realize emptiness.
Maintain a peaceful mind.
All things are in process, rising and returning.
Plants will blossom, but only to return to the root.
Returning to the root is tranquility.
Tranquility is to see the way things are
And to know what endures.
This is wisdom.
To know wisdom is to know infinity,
And to not know wisdom is to invite danger.
Knowing wisdom is to be at one with the Tao,
and decay of the body is not feared.

Commenting on this passage, Lama Govinda wrote, “Changlessness is a sign of death, transformation a sign of life; decay is the negative aspect of transformation, while the positive aspect is generally hidden from our eyes.”*

When a flower blossoms, it is noticeable.  If right before our eyes, some guy was transformed into a raging giant green-skinned hulk, that would be pretty hard to miss.  However, most of the transformations that come from seeking wisdom are not as noticeable.   Many people quit meditation practice or move away from Eastern philosophy because the changes they seek are not immediately apparent.  This is simply confusing change with consciousness of change.  There can be change without any consciousness of it.

There are those who think that enlightenment must be some big earthshaking event or a kind of psychedelic explosion in the mind.  But we find actually that it is the small, subtle shifts in awareness and thinking that often have the biggest impact on our lives.  We just don’t always see them or experience them in the short run.  Change in the manifestation of one quality for another is often gradual and becomes apparent in the long run, over time.

Well, enough of that.  It’s Halloween and this is a post about Dr. Strange “the Master of Black Masic”, so I feel I should share with you some words the Buddha had on the subject of the black arts:

You are not, O Bhikkhus, to learn–to teach–the low arts of divination, spells, omens, astrology, sacrifices to gods, witchcraft, and quackery.

– Vinaya Pitaka, S.B.E, Vol. XX

Let him not use Atharva Vedic spells, nor things foretell from dreams or signs or stars; let not my follower predict from cries, cure barrenness nor practice quackery.

– Sutta Nipata, IV., 14

In other words, don’t do it.  Take my own example.  I tried quackery once, and I look what I was turned into:

howard4cThat’s right.  I was transformed into a gin-swilling duck.  For some reason, people kept calling me Howard, and I felt trapped in a world I never made . . . Anyway, I gave up quackery and I’m all right now.


Tagore’s Nobel and the Notes of Forever

This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan, is not the first lyricist to receive the award.  In 1913, it was given to Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who also became the first non-European awarded a Nobel.

Some of you may be aware that the title of this blog, The Endless Further, is borrowed from Tagore (see About).

rtagore3According to the Nobel website, Tagore received the prize “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

Wikipedia tells us that “the Swedish Academy appreciated the idealistic—and for Westerners—accessible nature of a small body of his translated material focused on the 1912 Gitanjali: Song Offerings.”

I’ve published a number of posts on Tagore so I won’t go into details on the man’s life.  For that, you can read the previous posts or visit the Wikipedia link above.

I will tell you that Tagore remains a towering figure in Indian literature, but today in the West he is largely forgotten and his poetry unknown.  Tagore’s poems are songs, chants.  In English, they become prose poems.  His work is lyrical, moving, graceful, and subtle in self-knowledge.  He composed hymns both sad and joyous, universal songs that touch on an experience ultimately personal.  With his meditative rhythm and evocative lyrics, Tagore gave the world something more than poetry or literature.  They touch our heart, inspirit our mind, cause us to cry or shudder or want to float up and dance among the stars.

The songs of Gitanjali (which literally means “an offering of songs”) are love songs; love for something divine, love between human beings, and love of life itself.  Like Whitman, Tagore did not shy away from the sensual.  He made the sensual beautiful.

In his introduction to the 1913 edition of Gitanjali, W.B. Yeats wrote that “Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.”

Here, then, are two poems from Gitanjali:


I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms, hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.

No more sailing from harbour to harbour with this my weather-beaten boat. The days are long passed when my sport was to be tossed on waves.

And now I am eager to die into the deathless.

Into the audience hall by the fathomless abyss where swells up the music of toneless strings I shall take this harp of my life.

I shall tune it to the notes of forever, and when it has sobbed out its last utterance, lay down my silent harp at the feet of the silent.


Ever in my life have I sought thee with my songs. It was they who led me from door to door, and with them have I felt about me, searching and touching my world.

It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt; they showed me secret paths, they brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart.

They guided me all the day long to the mysteries of the country of pleasure and pain, and, at last, to what palace gate have the brought me in the evening at the end of my journey?


Poets to Come or Stuck Inside of Vegas with the Nobel Blues Again

Bob Dylan getting this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been a hot topic on the internet and this week I’ve seen more than the usual number of Whitman comparisons reeling in the air.

A critic for the NY Times opined that “Mr. Dylan is among the most authentic voices America has produced, a maker of images as audacious and resonant as anything in Walt Whitman . . .” From the Desert Trip stage, Mick Jagger said, “I want to thank Bob Dylan for an amazing set.  We have never shared the stage with a Nobel Prize winner before.  Bob is like our own Walt Whitman.”  One guy even had the audacity to write “Bob Dylan has surpassed Walt Whitman as the defining American artist, celebrating the capacity for self-invention as the highest form of freedom.”

whitman-dylan2c Bob has put his changeling persona to good use, but the reason he has been given the prize is, according to the Nobel committee, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  Just as Whitman did with the American poetry tradition in the 19th century.

Comparisons are odious is an old expression dating from the 15th century, and it’s true that usually it is unhelpful and unfair to compare two different things or persons.  Nonetheless there are some interesting similarities between Mr. W and Mr. D.

Iconoclasts, controversial.  Their writings celebrate freedom and individuality.  There is some mysticism in common and shared themes of war, death and democracy.  And the stand on public nudity: “Nakedness in Nature!  There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent,” Whitman proclaimed (A Sun-bathed Nakedness), while Dylan has murmured, “I run naked when I can” (11 Outlined Epitaphs).

One difference between them, is that unlike Bob, I’m pretty sure Walt Whitman did not receive any awards in his lifetime.  When Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, it was labeled “obscene” and literally banned in Boston.  Whitman was not a rich man either, for he died in what we call today relative poverty.

Dogging the announcement of Bob’s prize has been the question of whether or not he deserves it, do his lyrics qualify as literature.  I think that can be answered with another question: If the Nobel Prize had existed during Whitman’s time, would Whitman be deserving of it?

By the way, Bob has not commented publicly about winning the prize (evidently, he has not even returned the Nobel committee’s calls).  He’s currently on the road.  The same night as the announcement, he and his band performed in Las Vegas where he played guitar for the first time in four years (on Simple Twist of Fate), and of course, he played at Desert Trip on Friday.

I know Bob admires Walt Whitman and thinks of him as an influence, and I can’t help but wonder what Whitman would think of Dylan’s writing.  Would he consider it poetry, literature?  I think he would.  But that’s just my opinion.

In the poem below, Whitman speaks to the future, and he speaks of his identity and role as an artist, and who knows, perhaps in an moment of mystical prescience, he is also describing a poet to come, a poet who has written surreal, complex, and sometimes beautiful and tender songs from Desolation Row, and has explained them away saying, “It’s all math . . . There’s a definite number of Colt .45s that make up Marlene Dietrich, and you can find that out if you want to.”

Poets to Come

POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!    
Not to-day is to justify me, and answer what I am for;    
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,    
Arouse! Arouse—for you must justify me—you must answer.    
I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,             
I but advance a moment, only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.    
I am a man who, sauntering along, without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you, and then averts his face,    
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,    
Expecting the main things from you.

– Walt Whitman


Debating the Dharma: “You should shut your mouth.”

You probably watched the presidential debate the other night, and perhaps as I was, you found the mudslinging disgusting.  The less said about it the better.  But since we are on the subject of debates, here is an interesting Buddhist side bar.

tibetan-dharma-debatingIn the anthology Buddhism in Practice, George J. Tanabe, Jr. presents a transcript of a debate that took place in Japan in 1536 between a Tendai priest and a Nichiren layman.  Dharma debates (or dharma ‘combat’) are a tradition in some forms of Buddhism.  You might be familiar with the Tibetan style of dharma debating (left), which seems rather spirited as each debater punctuates his or her points with a slap of the hand.  In Japanese Buddhism, debates are called issatsu (“challenge”).

Now the Kamakura period of Japanese Buddhism (1185-1333 CE) was a particularly contentious time.  Many of the sects were set against each other, calling one another heretics, and so on.  Then there was Nichiren who said that all of Buddhism was in serious decline, a real mess that only he could fix.  Nichiren insulted everyone, including the government, and blamed others for his own misfortunes.  Tanabe says, “Persecution was an important part of Nichiren’s own mentality and religion . . .”

A former Tendai priest, Nichiren accused the Tendai sect of corruption and “losing sight of the principles laid down by their own [school] concerning which teachings are to be adopted and which discarded . . . It is a shameful, shameful thing they are doing!”  (The Tripitaka Master Shan-wu-wei )

In a nutshell, according to Nichiren, everyone who was not listening to him and practicing Buddhism his way, the way of the Lotus Sutra, would “invariably fall into the great citadel of the Avichi hell”.  (Essence of the Medicine King Chapter)

I can just imagine Nichiren with a Twitter account . . .

One day a Nichiren lay believer named Matsumoto was in Kyoto and saw a Tendai priest giving a dharma talk.  He interrupted the Priest Keo and proceeded to engage him in a debate.  From our modern view their arguments seem ridiculous, as both men were seeped in a mythological understanding of Buddhism.  Much of the debate revolved around who is the best Buddha, Shakyamuni or Great Sun Buddha (Dainichi), and it got acrimonious a couple of times:

KeoThe Great Sun Buddha is the buddha of transcendent truth and is therefore not something for the ordinary person to know.  You should shut your mouth.
Matsumoto: No, I will not shut my mouth just for that . . .
Matsumoto:  Well, now, [the Shingon school] speaks of becoming a buddha, but there is no such thing.  You should shut your mouth.  Or perhaps Your Eminence knows of people in this degenerate age who have becomes buddhas?
Keo:  What a man of capricious words . . .
Keo:  Nichiren’s belief was such that he slandered Amida Buddha and said that the Pure Land sect was the teaching of the hell of unending suffering.  He is really a criminal guilty of making light of the buddhas.

Alas, no one watching the debate could chant “Lock him up!” because Nichiren had been dead for 254 years by then.

The Matsumoto debate was actually rather mild, but it set in motion a round of strong, violent action.

“Angered by Matsumoto’s rudeness and chagrined by his apparent victory, the Tendai monks sought revenge.” * Rival factions within Tendai joined forces to attack the Nichirenites.  “Somewhere between 30,000 to 150,000 warrior monks were amassed on the Tendai side, while the Nichiren temples had a estimated 20,000 troops.”** They fought a battle that went on for five days.  In the end, the Tendai troops destroyed 21 Nichiren temples and burned the southern district of Kyoto to the ground.

Although it was the Tendai side that initiated the violence, it was the Nichiren folks who were condemned for it, and I suppose that I will get some comments complaining how I seem to pick on poor Nichiren, that I don’t understand his teachings, and I should shut my mouth.  But I think I understand his teachings well enough, and I take an objective view of them, from the perspective of modern scholarship not ancient mythology or cult propaganda.  I’m sorry but I can’t help but see Nichiren as a kind of medieval Trump.  However, demagoguery is a subject for another day.

In the meantime, don’t harbor doubts about anything you read on this blog.  I know more about dharma than the monks.  Nichiren was the founder of Isis.  The Dalai Lama was not born in the U.S.  I want to make Buddhism great again . . .

– – – – – – – – – –

* Donald S. Lopez Jr., The “Lotus Sutra”: A Biography, Princeton University Press, 2016

** “The Matsumoto Debate” George J. Tanabe, Jr., Buddhism in Practice, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., ed., Princeton University Press, 1995


You got to go back to Mother Earth

One person I greatly admire is David Suzuki, the Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist.  He is perhaps the most iconic environmental activist in North America, and in the last ten years or so, he and his foundation has worked to raise awareness and promote dialogue about the critical issue of global warming.

I ran across something on his blog the other day that I want to share with you.  In a post from January, he says,

We can’t just look at the world as a source of resources to exploit with little or no regard for the consequences.  When many indigenous people refer to the planet as “Mother Earth”, they are not speaking romantically, poetically or metaphorically.  They mean it literally.  We are of the Earth, every cell in our bodies formed by molecules derived from plants and animals, inflated by water, energized by sunlight captured through photosynthesis and ignited by atmospheric oxygen.”

feuerbach_gaea2Modern archaeological findings suggest that ancient peoples may have worshipped the earth as a living, female being.  She was part of the mythology in a number of cultures.  In Greek mythology, Mother Earth was a goddess called Gaia (“earth” or “land”) who represented the earth and was the mother of all life (Gaia, by Anselm Feuerbach, 1875 at right).  The Romans called her Terra.  The Hindus knew her as Parvati.  And Damp Mother Earth is the most ancient deity in Slavic mythology . . . As far as I am aware, Buddhism did not have a specific  “Mother Earth” deity, except for some cultural figures in various Asia countries that were independently incorporated into Buddha-dharma.

Nonetheless, Suzuki’s remarks are in line with the Buddhist concept of interdependency (pratitya-samutpada) that maintains we are all inter-connected.  And when we talk about that we don’t mean just people, we are interconnected with the earth, the ocean, the sky, even the most distant stars – everything.

Thich Nhat Hanh has said,

You carry Mother Earth within you.  She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment . . . Many people get sick today because they get alienated from Mother Earth . . . When we recognize the virtues, the talent, the beauty of Mother Earth, something is born in us, some kind of connection, love is born . . . We want to be connected. That is the meaning of love, to be at one.”

I imagine most of you are already on board with this thinking, but it is good to be reminded from time to time that we’ve got to go back to Mother Earth.

In 1951, blues singer Memphis Slim wrote a song called Mother Earth:

You may own a half a city even diamonds and pearls
You may buy that plane baby and fly all over this world
Don’t care how great you are, don’t care what you worth
When it all ends up you got to go back to mother earth

Now you know where Bob Dylan got the idea for his song, Gotta Serve Somebody.

In 1968, a band called Mother Earth recorded Slim’s song.  Here it is, featuring the vocals of the great but still to this day relatively unknown Tracy Nelson.