Jekyll and Hyde

John Barrymore as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The other night I watched John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1920 silent version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale. Barrymore’s performance is commanding and holds up extremely well after 91 years.

You can just imagine what computers could do with this story today, especially the scenes where Jekyll is transformed into Hyde. But they didn’t have much in the way of special effects back then. Barrymore performs the transformation sans makeup, with no special effects, and in one take. He relied only on his skills as a masterful actor and his uncanny ability to contort his face. In subsequent shots, Barrymore does use makeup and prosthetics, which he created himself, but not in the initial transformation scene.

Now, if you know the story, originally titled “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in Stevenson’s 1886 novella, then you know the theme is the idea that human beings have two natures, one good and one evil. Here’s the intertitle from the beginning of the 1920 version:

It seems to me that this is somewhat at odds with some Western philosophy, and certainly religion, which, as far as I understand it, tends to view good and evil as separate “entities” or forces, represented by God and Satan, each opposing the other in the world. I suspect that for many the notion that human beings innately posses both good and evil may a bitter pill to take. Most would like to think they are inherently good and that some temptation or external force imposes evil upon them.

In Buddhism, the view is that both good and evil reside within each living being. As I have previously noted, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i maintained that the mind, although intrinsically enlightened, contains all the potentials for both good and evil, that it is both pure and stained, and that even Buddhas possess evil natures. While not everyone has been on board with that last point, this is essentially the Mahayana analysis, a non-dual acceptance of the identity of good and evil.

Like most movies, the 1920 production of Jekyll and Hyde departs significantly from the original source. In this version, Henry Jekyll is engaged to the daughter of a Sir George Carew, who at dinner one night chides Jekyll for neglecting his fiancée and other duties by spending so much of his time treating the poor in his free clinic:

Carew: “In devoting yourself to others, Jekyll, aren’t you neglecting the development of your own life?”

Jekyll: “Isn’t it by serving others that one develops oneself?”

Here, too, are parallels to both Chih-i’s thinking and Buddhism in general. One is the ideal of serving others, which Buddhism holds is the real key to liberation from suffering. Secondly, is the notion of entering into evil. However, Carew’s “method” consists of merely indulging in it. A frequent criticism of Mahayana philosophy is that non-dual notions such as bonno soku bodai, or earthly desires are enlightenment (actually, bonno refers to kleshas or afflictions), amount to nothing more than excuses to indulge in hedonistic activities and to commit evil. Perhaps some of the teachers in the Mahayana traditions misbehaving today, have rationalized their actions in this way, who knows?

But that’s not it. Chih-i, for example, taught that one “entered” evil in order to cultivate a mindfulness of evil, an awareness of its non-dual nature and inherent presence, for the purpose of controlling it. The kleshas, being mental states, are subject to change. Thus, it is possible for evil’s influence on each individual to be reduced, transformed, transcended.

In “The Profound Meaning of the Kuan-Yin Sutra” (Kuan-yin Hsuan-i), a commentary on the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra, Chih-I says,

Although the Buddha does not remove inherent evil (Ch. hsing-er), he fully understand the nature of evil. As a result, he is not defiled by it and can be the master over evil. Additionally, owing to his observation, evil never arises, and the Buddha does not create evil again.

So, it’s not really evil that is the issue, so much as it is our attachment to evil. Evil can exist, and will exist no matter what we do, but it has no power over us until we become entranced with it and attached to its ways. In being mindful of evil, we can connect with the real world of suffering, the first step in dealing with it.

Jekyll’s problem was that it was not enough for him to study his evil nature. He had to manifest it, and in doing that he began to lead a double life. He allowed himself  to be entrenched in his Hyde persona, becoming more evil. At one point, he even transforms into Hyde without the benefit of the formula. At the end of the film, of course, Hyde destroys Jekyll.

The practical aspect of this for us, is that we don’t need to be afraid of our inner evil, or put more delicately, our inherent non-goodness. At the same time, that is not a license to indulge in evil. We don’t want Mr. Hyde taking over. But, as the intertitle above indicates, it is up to us, and no one else, who we are, Jekyll or Hyde.

Hyde represents ultimate evil, in much the same way that Mara (“murderer”) in Buddhism does. Mara is the evil demon who tempts the Buddha during his night under the Bodhi Tree. In “Stopping and Seeing for Beginners”, Chih-i gives this guidance:

When the practiser is aware of these mara disturbances, he should avoid them. There are two ways of doing so:

a) By the practice of chih (stopping). When encountering these external mara states, he should know that they are all unreal and should never worry or be frightened. Neither should he accept or reject them and give rise to discrimination. Directly he stops all the activities of his mind and sets it to rest, they will disappear by themselves.

b) By the practice of kuan (seeing or insight). When these mara state appear, if he fails to avoid them by means of chih, he should look into the subjective mind that beholds them. He will find that since his mind leaves no traces, no demon can trouble it. By so practicing kuan, these states will vanish.

He should know that the (fundamental) condition of suchness of the mara realm is identical with that of the region of Buddhas. Since both conditions are of the same absoluteness, they are but one and are, therefore, non-dual. Thus he will understand that while the mara realm should not be rejected, the region of the Buddhas should not be grasped and, as a result, the Buddha Dharmas will manifest itself before him, with all mara states vanishing of themselves.

[Ku Kuan Yu (Charles Luk) translation]

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One thought on “Jekyll and Hyde

  1. I didn’t get that impression, but perhaps you’re right. I’d be ironic, though, because if you want a true “parable” about the evils of alcohol just read Dammed in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore by John Kobler.

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