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.

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Tashi and the Monk

I watched a wonderful short documentary the other night on HBO, Tashi and the Monk.

tashi-monkThe monk is actually an ex-monk, Lobsang Phuntsok, who runs a school for orphans and abandoned children. Tashi is a 5-year-old girl whose mother died and father is an alcoholic. She is the youngest and newest member of the community. She has behavioral problems and reminds Phuntsok of his own childhood. He was born to an unwed mother and was often “very naughty.” Sent to a monastery, he continued to misbehave but eventually he changed. He’s hoping to see that same change in Tashi.

The Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community is located in the district of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, India, a place so remote it takes three days to get there from the nearest airport. The children come from nearby villages.

Lobsang Phuntsok studied with the Dalai Lama and taught Buddhism in Boston, before giving up his ordination in order to return to the Indian Himalayas to help unfortunate children. His work with the children is based on the principle that we should take good care of each other. Lobsang encourages an older boy to guide Tashi: “You must help her understand . . . what is right and wrong . . . this is your job as a responsible elder brother, OK?””

Jhamtse Gatsal is Tibetan for “garden of love and compassion.” The school is home to about 85 children. It is understaffed and overburdened.  Because of this, Phuntsok cannot take in as many children as he would like. However, he is like a father to all the children he has accepted and they call him “daddy.”

At one point during the film, the children, many of whom are motherless, sing a song:

In this great big world,
There is so much love and care,
But there is no kindness greater
Than my mother’s love.

From the Tibetan Buddhist perspective, no one is motherless. Recognizing that in the past all sentient beings have been one’s mother is part of the process of generating bodhicitta, the “thought of awakening”, along with remembering their kindness, and repaying that kindness with love, boundless compassion, and altruistic intention.

Nagarjuna said, “If we divided this earth into pieces the size of juniper berries, the number of these would not be as great as the number of times that each sentient being has been our mother.”

Directed by Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke, Tashi and the Monk is only 45 minutes long. If you watch it, that will be three quarters of an hour well spent.  It is showing this month on HBO and may be available from other services and on other platforms.

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Mentioned By Name

It has been exactly 156 days since I last mentioned Bob Dylan on this blog. By mentioning him today, I have corrected that horrible omission. I had to do it, it was haunting me.

But don’t ask me what I think about his latest album of “standards,” Shadows in the Night, because I really don’t know how I feel about it. Mixed feelings, says it best . . . and with that, ’nuff said about it.

In a Bob Dylan related mention, today is 105th birthday of Howlin’ Wolf (1910-1976) born Chester Arthur Burnett, who was the great Chicago blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player from White Station Mississippi. One of the true giants and pioneers of blues music. Lord knows Bob stole a lot from was heavily influenced by the man. Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer, Sam Lay, even played on Bob’s Highway 61 Revisited.

I’d also like to mention something that is totally unrelated to Bob Dylan or Howlin’ Wolf: today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sessue Hayakawa (1889-1973). If you recognize that name at all, it is probably from the film Bridge on River Kwai (1957), in which he played the commandant of the prison camp, Colonel Saito. That performance earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Early Hayakawa and as Col. Saito
Early Hayakawa and as Col. Saito

Hayakawa was a prolific actor, appearing in over 100 films, many of them silent, many of them Japanese productions. No doubt you have seen him in his other English language movies, such as Swiss Family Robinson, Tokyo Joe, The Geisha Boy, House of Bamboo, and Hell to Eternity.

Several years ago, when Turner Classic Movies had a month long Asian film festival, I watched some of his early work, including a couple of silents. According to Stephen Gong, Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media, “Hayakawa’s acting inspiration, his unique approach, which he attributed to Zen Buddhism, brought to the silent screen an acting style characterized by intuition, naturalness and the eradication of conscious effort. In Zen this is termed the state of muga—an absence of self-awareness. Contemporary critics hailed it as a “repressed” method of acting (and as such suitably ‘Oriental’).”

IMBD says, “The popularity of Hayakawa rivaled that of Caucausian male movie stars in the decade of the 1910s, and he became one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood.”

zen-hayakawaHayakawa was also a producer, author, martial artist and ordained Zen priest. He lived much of his life in Los Angeles, but after his wife, Tsuru Aoki, died in 1961, he went back to Japan, and wrote his autobiography Zen Showed Me the Way: To Peace, Happiness and Tranquility, and that’s when he became a Zen priest.

I tried to find his book on the Internet so that I could share a pithy or inspiring quote from it with you. The only thing I found (besides a pic of the cover) was this: “All my life has been a journey. But my journey differs from the journeys of most men.”

Well, everyone’s life is a journey and each journey is different, unique to each individual. So here’s something truly profound from that great WWII film Bridge on River Kwai directed by David Lean and in addition to Hayakawa staring William Holden, Alec Guinness, and Jack Hawkins. In the movie, Colonel Saito forces the British POWs to construct a railway bridge for the Japanese to use. At one point, the Colonel tells the prisoners “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

Today’s post has been a bit of play, but I hope also informative. Another piece of information: You’ve probably heard the words spoken by Colonel Saito many times before. It’s an old proverb that first appeared in James Howell’s Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish way back in 1659.

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The day I met Orson Welles

This year is the centennial of Orson Welles; May 6th was the 100 anniversary of his birth. Welles was a great filmmaker and a colossal failure. He suffered from the curse of being his own worst enemy. He was one of those people who regularly shot himself in the foot.

f-for-fake-3After 1938, when he succeeded in pulling off one of the greatest gags of all time, Welles seemed to have a compulsive need to push the envelope on all his projects, and more often than not he pushed the project into commercial and critical disaster.   Of course, nowadays, those disasters are considered the work of genius.

I became a Welles fan in high school, after listening to a recording of the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. It sounded pretty hokey, but still, it was a cool joke, tricking half of America into believing Mars was invading the earth. My mother recalled people out in the streets in Wichita Kansas, all in a panic because the Martians were coming.

About a year and a half later, I saw my first Welles film, the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane. I had seen plenty of movies already in my young life but nothing like that. If you have seen the film, I need say no more.

Then, many years later, I was living in Los Angeles and working in Beverly Hills. Each day I rode the old Number 1 bus to and from my job.   The bus ran along Hollywood Blvd, that west of La Brea changes from a business thoroughfare to a residential street.

One afternoon I was headed home but decided to get off before La Brea to visit a friend who lived in an apartment building on the corner of Stanley and Franklin. As I walked up the hill, I saw a man standing on the sidewalk who looked very much like Orson Welles.

As I drew closer, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Orson Welles. A tall, massive, gigantic Orson Welles. Wow, it looked like I’d have a chance to see one of my heroes close up!

He was looking for something.   Walking back and forth, calling out “Rosebud . . . Rosebud . . . Here kitty kitty!”

I mustered up some nerve and came up and said, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”

Without bothering to look in my direction, he growled, “I looking for a cat.”

Orson Welles had a cat named Rosebud? Too much.

I said, “How did your cat get out?”

Now he turned and stared at me.  He took the longest cigar I’d ever seen out of his mouth and said, “Young man, do you know anything about cats?”

“A little.” I explained that when cats are scared sometimes they go into a super-freak-out mode and hide. If it’s an indoor cat, it’s not likely it will go outside because that’s even scarier that whatever frightened it in the first place. A freaked-out cat will head for the first good hiding place it sees and stay there, and no matter how many times you call it, the cat won’t come out until hunger become more overwhelming that fear.

“You’re saying Rosebud is probably still inside the house?”

I nodded. “Yeah, probably. I would be glad to help you look around, if you like.” Then I said something I thought might be the equivalent of shooting myself in my own foot: “I mean, I’m a really big fan and it would be my honor to help you find Rosebud, er, your cat.”

I thought it might turn him off, you know, acting like a star-struck fan, but he loved being adored.

He took me inside his house. It was a Colonial Revival style house, and like most Hollywood mansions I’ve been in, it looked big on the outside, but was rather small on the inside. We found Rosebud hiding behind a bookcase. Welles was grateful for my help. He never did explain what frightened the cat but he told me that his wife was out shopping and he thought the cat had escaped through the front door that he had left open by mistake.

At that moment, star-struckednes got the better of me and I told him I had seen all his films, or at least as many as I was able to because they weren’t screened very often and that when I saw Citizen Kane at age 17 during my first week of college, it completely blew my mind and I couldn’t of anything else for days afterward, and so on and so forth. He loved it.

A few minutes later, his wife, Oja Kodar, a very beautiful woman, came home and Welles told her what happened and she said, “Orson, where are your manners? You should offer our guest something to drink.”

Welles opened a bottle of Dom Perignon. Unbelievable. It was like 4 in the afternoon. First time I had tasted the stuff.

He asked me what I did for a living and I said I worked in the reservations department at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and he said he had stayed there many times but swore he would never set foot in the place again as long as Warren Beatty lived there, and I said Beatty didn’t live there anymore but a lot of people thought he did and women with names like Bambi and Trudi were always calling up wanting his room number.

He did not elaborate about what he had against Beatty but I think I got a clue when later on he mentioned that famous actors who were also producers and directors were always saying how great he was but they would never give him any money.

After I finished my glass, I got up to go. I didn’t want to wear out my welcome. Welles had already finished off the bottle and he was getting ready to open another one.  He told me to stay.  I did.

With the second bottle, Welles got really loose and started in on a monologue. Oja Kodar kind of rolled her eyes as if to say she had heard it all many times before, but I thought he was hilarious and he said some very funny things, like:

“If there hadn’t been women we’d still be squatting in a cave eating raw meat, because we made civilization in order to impress our girlfriends.”

“I’ve spent most of my mature life trying to prove that I’m not irresponsible.”

“When you are down and out something always turns up — and it is usually the noses of your friends.”

“I hate television. I hate it as much as peanuts. But I can’t stop eating peanuts.”

During his soliloquy, Rosebud had come up and rubbed herself (or himself, I never found out which) against my leg a few times, and then Welles said something that astounded me.

“Young man, you seem to know a lot about cats, and Rosebud has taken to you. I have need of a good cat person. We’re going to France next week to speak with some people about directing another Shakespeare film, and I need a cat-sitter.”

“A house sitter, too,” Oja Kodar added.

“Would you be interested?”

Would I? Damn! Baby-sit Orson Welles’s cat? And his house? What an opportunity! Maybe it would lead to something like being his assistant.  Who could tell? Stranger things have happened.

I couldn’t believe it. I thought I must be dreaming.

And I was. I woke up, took a shower, got dressed, and headed down to Hollywood Blvd to catch the Number 1 bus for Beverly Hills. It was another ordinary day.

I never had a chance to meet the great man. He died three months later.

Touch Of Evil2

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Smile

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.

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