The Never-Ending Battle

Like most American kids growing up anytime during the past 75 years, I was an avid reader of comic books. One of my first heroes was Superman, and not long afterward, I got into Batman, Green Lantern, Flash and all the other DC Comics crusaders. That was an era when superheroes were pretty much one-dimensional. Comics didn’t get really interesting until Marvel Comics came along and brought us superheroes who had angst. The Fantastic Four and Spiderman battled not only evil villains, but personal problems. It was a subtle shift in the way superheroes were presented but it changed comics forever.

Over the weekend, I watched great documentary on PBS called Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle, hosted and narrated by Liev Schreiber. It traced the history of superhero comics from the birth of Superman in 1939 to the present, and it kind of made me regret giving up comics so many years ago. It was a purely economic decision on my part. My meager allowance did not provide me enough money to buy comics and records, and since I was no longer an adolescent but a teenager, rock and roll seemed much cooler.

But I’ve never lost my love for superheroes. I’ve seen most of the new movies and while I find the plots redundant, I can’t help but appreciate the special effects.

In any case, I highly recommend the documentary, especially if you ever loved comics. Among other things, it shines a light on how Marvel’s Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko both revolutionized comic art, and takes a hard look at how comics dealt with issues such as racism and feminism.

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superguru!

Now, this is a clumsy segue but today is Deepak Chopra’s birthday (he’s 66). One reason I mention both Chopra and superheroes is to give me an excuse to repost the image on the left that I Photoshopped and used in a 2011 post.

I like to call Chopra the Rodney Dangerfield of spirituality/alternative medicine, because he don’t get no respect. As Time magazine noted in a 2008 article, he’s “a magnet for criticism”, but because he is popular (and yes, a bit of a huckster), he’s sometimes used as a TV “talking head” on religious matters, and I think he offers an alternative to the view provided by the adherents of Abrahamic religions that seems to dominate the media.

Another reason I bring Deepak Chopra up is so I can quote from his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes*. Chopra talks about the Law of Transformation. He suggests that what makes superheroes both super and heroes is that they are able to “live without false boundaries between the personal and the universal”:

Transformation is the true nature of every being and of the universe itself. Superheroes are able to recognize their transformational selves and all the various forces at work within them and perceive the world from an infinite number of perspectives. In doing so, superheroes never face a conflict or adversary they are intimidated by or unable to empathize with.”

This may seem to be just more of the sort of easily digestible self-help pabulum Chopra is often taken to task for, but guess what? We can find essentially the same message in the Heart Sutra when it says,

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana.”

This world of suffering we inhabit is not different from Nirvana or peace, and when we base ourselves on the law of transformation, which the sutra calls Transcendent Wisdom, we open our lives to the infinite number of perspectives Chopra mentions above.

It’s said that the five skandhas or aggregates (form, sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness) are sources of suffering. Actually, we do not suffer from the five skandhas. Suffering comes from the value our mind attaches to them. Tantha (craving) is based on value judgments. If we can change our tendency to cling, to form attachments – in other words, if we change our perspective, then there is a real possibility for transforming our suffering into peace, happiness, Nirvana.

trio-4Superheroes have spiritual laws and they have wisdom, too. Here are some wise bits from my three all-time favorite superheroes.

‘What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?’ They surrender.”
– Superman (All-Star Superman #3)


With great power, there must also come great responsibility.”
– Spiderman (Amazing Fantasy #15)


The world must never again mistake compassion for weakness! And while I live — it had better not!”
– Captain America (Avengers, vol.1 #6)

‘Nuff said!

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The above drawings are by the original artists for the three superheroes: Joe Schuster (Superman), Steve Ditko (Spiderman), and Jack Kirby (Captain America).

* Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes, HarperCollins, 2011


What We Call Love and Enlightenment

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti (1895–1986). He was only 14 he met one of the leaders of the Theosophical Society who tried to groom him as the next “World Teacher,” a concept loosely based on Maitreya, the so-called future Buddha.

In 1929, Krishnamurti, then 34, rebelled against the World Teacher gig and disbanded the organization created to support him. From then on, he was a sort of roving iconoclast, who considered himself unaffiliated with any nationality, religion, or philosophy. He wrote books, traveled the world speaking to audiences large and small, and punched holes in many a cherished notion.

At first glance, it might appear that Krishnamurti’s philosophical view is at odds with Buddhism. That would certainly be the case with some traditional Buddhist concepts, but overall Krishnamurti had great respect for the Buddha and his dharma. Asked once which of the great religious leaders came closest to teaching and realizing the ultimate truth, Krishnamurti replied ‘‘Oh! the Buddha . . . the Buddha comes closer to the basic truths and facts of life than any other. Although I am not myself a Buddhist, of course.’’ [1]

He made these comments on the subject of love in 1983 [2]:

One of our difficulties is that we have associated love with pleasure, with sex, and for most of us love also means jealousy, anxiety, possessiveness, attachment. That is what we call love . . . Is love the opposite of hate? If it is the opposite of hate, then it is not love . . . Love cannot have an opposite. Love cannot be where there is jealousy, ambition, aggressiveness.

And where there is a quality of love, from that arises compassion. Where there is compassion, there is intelligence – but not the intelligence of self-interest, or the intelligence of thought, or the intelligence of a great deal of knowledge. Compassion has nothing to do with knowledge.

Only with compassion is there that intelligence that gives humanity security, stability, a vast sense of strength.”

You’ll notice that Krishnamurti says the word “intelligence” several times. As he used it, intelligence did not refer to mental capacity, but rather to the faculty of recognizing that which is false, seeing that we are “surrounded by false illusory things.”

Here is what he had to say about enlightenment in 1973 [3]:

Enlightenment is not a fixed place. There is no fixed place. All one has to do is understand the chaos, the disorder in which we live. In the understanding of that we have order and there comes clarity, there comes certainty. And that certainty is not the invention of thought. That certainty is intelligence. And when you have all this, when the mind sees all this very clearly, the door opens. What lies beyond is not namable. It cannot be described, and anyone who describes it has never seen it.”

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[1] Susunaga Weeraperuma, Living and dying from moment to moment, Motilal Banarsidass, 1996

[2] [3] Selection from “What is Creation?” from the public talk at Brockwood Park on Sept. 4, 1983, “Enlightenment is Not a Fixed Place” from the public talk in San Francisco on March 18, 1973, in This Light in Oneself, Shambhala Publications, Ltd., 1999


True Happiness Pt. 1

I’ve shared some the writings of Chuang Tzu (369—298 BCE) before. He was an early and influential Taoist philosophers. Also known as Zhuang Zhou or Zhuangzi, he worked as a minor official for a small town in China during the late 4th century BCE,  and a follower of the philosophy of the Tao, which teaches the principle of wu-wei, “not-doing.”

His basic writings are known simply as “Chuang Tzu,” and here is the beginning of Chapter 18 Kih Lo or “True Happiness” based on the translations by James Legge and Burton Watson.

Chuang Tzu

Is there such a thing as true happiness to be found in the world or isn’t there? Is there some way to preserve your life or isn’t there? If so, what should you do, what should you rely on, avoid, stick by, follow, leave alone? In other words, what should you find happiness in, what should you hate?

The world honors wealth, fame, longevity, a good name. The world finds happiness in a life of ease, good food, fine clothes, beautiful sights, pleasant music. It looks down on poverty, meanness, early death, a bad name. It finds bitter a life that knows no rest, a mouth hungry for good food, a body with no fine clothes, eyes that see no beautiful sights, ears that hear no sweet music. If people do not get these things they fret a great deal and are troubled with fears – isn’t it silly?

Now, those who are rich wear themselves out rushing around on business, piling up more wealth than they could ever use – so concerned with external things. Famous people spend night and day worrying if they are skillful – indifferent to more important things. Birth is the beginning of a person’s suffering, and when there is longevity, people just become sillier, spending more time with worry than with living – what a great bitterness.

People of passion are regarded by the world as good, but neither their passion nor their goodness can keep them alive. I wonder if the goodness ascribed to them is really good or not. Perhaps it’s good – but not good enough to save their lives. Perhaps it’s no good – but still good enough to save the lives of others. Hence, it is said, if good advice isn’t listened to, sit still, give way, and do not wrangle. Tzu-hsu wrangled and destroyed his body. But if he hadn’t wrangled, he would not have acquired his fame. Was this goodness really goodness or was it not?

As to what ordinary people find happiness in – I don’t know whether this is really happiness or not. I see them in their pursuit of it, racing around as though they cannot stop – they will say they’re happy, or they’re not happy . . . In the end is there really happiness or isn’t there?

I consider doing nothing to obtain happiness to be true happiness, but ordinary people do not understand this. It’s said that true happiness is to be without happiness, the highest praise is to be without praise. The world can’t make up its mind what is right and what is wrong. And yet doing nothing can determine it. Since supreme happiness is found in keeping the body alive, only by doing nothing can you accomplish it!

Let me try putting it this way. Space does nothing, and thence comes its serenity; Earth does nothing, and thence comes its peace. Through the union of these two inactions all things are transformed and brought to life. Wonderful, mysterious, they seem to come from nowhere! Wonderful, mysterious, they have no visible sign!  Each thing minds its business and grows from this inaction. So I say, space and earth do nothing and there is nothing that is not done. But who among us can attain this inaction?


Sadhana and the Big Fish

I thought that today I would say a few more words about Rabindranath Tagore. I don’t remember how I came to be aware of Tagore. It was probably from some reading on Gandhi, as they were friends, and Tagore was somewhat of a mentor to the Mahatma, even though they had their disagreements. First, I was bowled over by his poetry. Those of you who read last Thursday’s post can understand why. Then I read about his life in Rabindranath Tagore The Myriad-Minded Man by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. His multifaceted mind and personality were the products of his intelligence and a certain amount of restlessness. Tagore wore many hats: family man, teacher, poet, playwright, novelist, painter, singer, musician, art and literary critic, businessman, fundraiser, composer of dance and opera, philosopher, political thinker, religious and social reformer.

Rabindranath-TagoreHe first drew the world’s attention as a poet, then as an essayist. In 1913 he published Sadhana – The Realisation of Life, a collection of essays drawn from lectures he gave at Harvard University that same year. The title explains much about Tagore’s philosophy of life. The word sadhana means “realization,” but it also refers to “spiritual practice.” My feeling is that Tagore’s spiritual practice of choice was prayer and the ways he prayed were as myriad as his mind.

In one of his poems, he wrote, “We live in this world when we love it.” Love is a prayer, song is a prayer, life is a prayer. Tagore revered the Upanishads, the collection of texts that form the basis for Indian religion, even as he felt they did not “sufficiently explore the approach to Reality through love and devotion.” Nonetheless, they left a deep impression and helped form the basis of his unique approach to reality. In Sadhana, he wrote,

The attitude of the God-conscious man of the Upanishad towards the universe is one of a deep feeling of adoration. His object of worship is present everywhere. It is the one living truth that makes all realities true. This truth is not only of knowledge but of devotion. ‘Namonamah,’—we bow to him everywhere, and over and over again.

I do not share his faith in a higher being, a “Him” (or “Her”), yet I am envious of Tagore’s sense of devotion, his reverence for life, his awe of nature, and his appreciation for the wondrous beauty to be found in the world. It comes through in nearly every word he wrote, be it poetry or prose. It makes my own feeling for the same seem puny by comparison.

I first read the following in the biography mentioned above. It’s from Sadhana, and is a simple story, beautifully told, that relates a great and profound realization:

One day I was out in a boat on the Ganges. It was a beautiful evening in autumn. The sun had just set; the silence of the sky was full to the brim with ineffable peace and beauty. The vast expanse of water was without a ripple, mirroring all the changing shades of the sunset glow. Miles and miles of a desolate sandbank lay like a huge amphibious reptile of some antediluvian age, with its scales glistening in shining colours. As our boat was silently gliding by the precipitous river-bank, riddled with the nest-holes of a colony of birds, suddenly a big fish leapt up to the surface of the water and then disappeared, displaying on its vanishing figure all the colours of the evening sky. It drew aside for a moment the many-coloured screen behind which there was a silent world full of the joy of life. It came up from the depths of its mysterious dwelling with a beautiful dancing motion and added its own music to the silent symphony of the dying day. I felt as if I had a friendly greeting from an alien world in its own language, and it touched my heart with a flash of gladness. Then suddenly the man at the helm exclaimed with a distinct note of regret, “Ah, what a big fish!” It at once brought before his vision the picture of the fish caught and made ready for his supper. He could only look at the fish through his desire, and thus missed the whole truth of its existence.


Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West?

The headline jumped out at me: ‘Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West’ to Give “Buddhism Naturalized” Talk. Wow. Most dangerous? Really? I had to learn more.

The man’s name is Slavoj Zizek, and he’s a Slovenian philosopher who will be speaking at the University of Vermont this Oct. 16. Now, what I wanted to know was why is he the ‘Most Dangerous Philosopher in the West’. Unfortunately the article, actually a press release posted on the UVM website, didn’t tell me. But it did say that Slavoj Zizek has also been called the “Elvis of cultural theory.” Whoa, that’s a big claim.

Sorry, Slavoj, but Elvis is still the ‘Elvis of Cultural Theory’ to me.

Naturally, I dug deeper. According to a post I found on what makes Zizek so dangerous is “his analysis of the worldwide ecological crisis, the biogenetic revolution, and apocalyptic economic imbalances.” Hmm, does that make him more dangerous than say, Al Gore? Maybe, but I’m not sure about it. Nor am I sure about why he’s the “Elvis of cultural theory” either. Maybe he swivels his hips when he gives talks.

Not yet satisfied, I went to Zizek’s Wikipedia page and found out that he was born in 1949, and that his first book in English, The Sublime Object of Ideology (which makes me think of the 1977 Bunuel film, That Obscure Object of Desire for some reason) was published in 1989. He has a lot more accolades than just the two I noted above; he’s also “one of the world’s best known public intellectuals”, “the thinker of choice for Europe’s young intellectual vanguard”, and according to the Telegraph in the UK, “the hippest philosopher in the world.” Damn, he must be a force to be reckoned with then.

I also learned that he’s a dogmatic Marxist. Cool! Me too! Who other than Groucho had more insight into society, economics and politics?

I am the most dangerous Marxist in the world.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

While money can’t buy happiness, it certainly lets you choose your own form of misery.”

Yep, for my money, Groucho’s dogma can’t be beat.

If you go to Zizek’s Wikipedia page, you’ll see about half-way down a notice that reads: This article may be too technical for most readers to understand. Well, that stopped me right there. I don’t want to read something I can’t understand. What’s the point?

I did learn one final fact, and that’s that Mr. Zizek is an atheist. Which begs the question, why is an atheist giving a talk on Buddhism? I wish people would stick to their own area of expertise. I’m a Buddhist so I don’t go around giving lectures on Zurvanism. Of course, one reason for that is because I’m not sure what it is. I have a sneaky suspicion that Zizek doesn’t know much about Buddhism either.

So, what does Slavoj Zizek have to say about Buddha-dharma? Here’s one example, from an essay titled From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism:

“Western Buddhism” is such a fetish. It enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always with-draw.

I never thought of it that way before. I think when I was in college I thought a lot about the frantic pace of the capitalist game, but it was too frantic. I couldn’t keep up. I was 32 when I officially became a Buddhist (my kind of Marxism and Buddhist don’t conflict). Since then, I’ve just been trying to overcome some suffering, find some enlightenment, and maybe help a few people along the way. But now, I may have to rethink things, because I certainly don’t want to have a fetish.

And while I’m thinking about it, I would like to know where you can withdraw your inner Self. Perhaps at a spiritual ATM? My ego tells me I’ve given too much of my self away. I think I want some of it back.

Zizek also says that “Nowhere is this fetishist logic more evident than apropos of Tibet, one of the central references of the post-Christian “spiritual” imaginary.” I think that means he’s not too hip on Tibet, but I can’t really tell because that sentence makes no sense to me. It must be too technical to understand.

I should be ashamed of myself for making fun of this guy. Obviously, I don’t know anything about him. I’m sure he’s a fine fellow, a great thinker, and probably a blast at parties. But then, in my book anyone who allows themselves to be billed as the most dangerous philosopher in the world West is sort of asking for it.

Besides, I feel there are too many philosophers around these days anyway. I’m all in favor of a moratorium on new philosophies.  Do we really need any more? I can’t handle what we got now. I say just say no to any new “isms.”

Or, as Groucho put it, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.”

The one and only Groucho in Horse Feathers.