Wolverine, staring Hugh Jackman, slashed its completion at the box office this weekend, raking in $55 million dollars. If you’re not familiar with Wolverine, he’s a superhero appearing in Marvel Comics: a mutant, with animal-like senses, extraordinary physical prowess, and a super-healing power that allows him to recover quickly from any wound or disease and which slows down the aging process so that he’ll stay forever young.
Evidently, Wolverine is Buddhist, or has practiced Buddhism, I’m really not sure because I’ve haven’t followed this character and, in fact, I’ve only read about four comics in the last 35 years. But from what I’ve read about Wolverine, he at least spent some time in Japan, which is where he probably acquired his skill at martial arts.
In the early days of comics and pulp fiction, there was no shortage of characters who received their training or powers from some mystical master in the Himalayas, or some other Eastern location. This remains a familiar trope, as used in the 2005 film Batman Begins, and it seems there are a whole host of current comic book characters, both heroes and villains, identified as Buddhist. Check out this list.
But as far as I know, the first comic book Buddhist superhero was The Green Lama. I’ve mentioned The Green Lama a few times on the blog, and have even adapted some Green Lama images in a couple of posts (here and here).
The Green Lama did not start out in comics, however, but in pulp fiction. He first appeared the April 1940 issue of Double Detective magazine. The Green Lama, in that issue, is the title of a novelette, authored by Kendell Foster Crossen, writing under the pseudonym of “Richard Foster.” Crossen later wrote a fairly successful series of detective novels featuring insurance investigator Milo March (played by Jack Palance in a 1958 film, The Man Inside). Crossen wrote 14 Green Lama novelettes altogether and and many of the comic book stories.
The Green Lama’s secret identity was Jethro Dumont, a rich kid from New York City, with degrees from Harvard, Oxford, and the Sorbonne, who later traveled to Tibet to study Buddhism at Drepung College, where he learned all the mysterious powers and secrets that high lamas are supposed to posses. When he returned to the United States to propagate the teachings of Buddha, he discovered that Americans in the late 1930s and early 40s weren’t very interested, so he became a crime fighter, which is more fun anyway.
According to Wikipedia,
The Green Lama stories display a sympathetic and relatively knowledgeable portrayal of Buddhism, both in the text of the stories and in numerous footnotes. From Crossen’s own comments, in his foreword to Robert Weinberg’s 1976 reprint of the first Green Lama story, it is clear that this was not proselytism on his part, but simply because he wanted to create a Tibetan Buddhist character and then read everything he could find on the subject.
The most frequent reference to Buddhism in the stories is the use of the Sanskrit mantra “Om mani padme hum” (roughly “Hail, the jewel on the lotus”, though the actual phrase defies exact translation), which would indeed be used by Tibetan monks. However, the majority of other references to Buddhism in the stories, while accurate, relate to the Theravada form of Buddhism rather than the Tibetan form, with frequent use of Pali words such as “Magga”, “Nibbana”, and “Dhamma”, rather than the Sanskrit equivalents “Marga”, “Nirvana”, and “Dharma” used in Northern Buddhism.”
The Green Lama is not the only recurring Buddhist character in popular literature.
I’m not sure Charlie Chan was Buddhist. He always seemed to me more Confucius-like than Buddha-like. So, Mr. Moto was probably the first Buddhist character to appear in a series of books, starting in 1935 with Your Turn, Mr. Moto. However, Buddhism didn’t figure too much in these novels by John P. Marquand. In fact, neither did Mr. Moto, actually. He was usually regulated to the background, mysterious and stereotypically inscrutable, playing a supporting role to a white, male hero.
Beginning with The Case of the Angry Actress in 1967, Howard Fast (Spartacus) wrote seven detective novels featuring Detective Sergeant Masao Masuto of the Beverly Hills Police, a Zen Buddhist. In these books, Masuto sometimes meditates and sometimes muses over his karma, and always solves the case. Fast, a practicing Buddhist himself, wrote a small book, The Art of Zen Meditation, published in 1977.
Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the son of a Thai prostitute and an American soldier, is a Thai Buddhist detective in the novels of John Burdett. Bangkok is Jitpleecheep’s beat and through his eyes, we see the dark, gritty, and dangerous side of that city, and of Thai culture. Somehow, as the author says on his webpage, the detective manages to keep “his Buddhist soul intact.”
Inspector Shan Tao Yun, the creation of Elliot Pattison, is a former Bejing detective who ran afoul of the Chinese authorities and now lives with a group of outlawed Buddhist monks in the mountains of Tibet. It’s a well-written series. I snatched up the first book, The Skull Mantra, when it first came out in 2001 because the title was just too cool to pass up.
There are a few other regular characters who are Buddhist, but these I’ve mentioned are arguably the most notable.
I don’t know of any series characters in Science Fiction, but Buddhism has shown up frequently that genre. One outstanding example is The Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, one of the true SciFi masters. The novel revolves around a character named Sam who returns from Nirvana to battle the gods of Earth. Sam’s story is based on a number of myths, including those of the Buddha and the future buddha Maitreya. It’s hard to do justice to this book in a few words. You can read more about it here.
And Buddhism has been a popular subject in what some people may still call “serious literature,” such as Kim by Rudyard Kipling, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, and Jack Kerouac’s novels (although Kerouac’s characters were based on real people).
One lovely book that few people know about is Lady of the Lotus by William E. Barrett. It’s the traditional story of the Buddha but from the perspective of Yadohara, his wife and the mother of his child. Barrett, the author of The Left-Hand of God and The Lillies of the Field, really captures the flavor of India during the Buddha’s time, and as well, the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings. Lady of the Lotus was published in 1975, and Barrett noted in his forward that hundreds of books had been written about the Buddha, but this was the only one about Yadohara. I imagine that may still be the case. I highly recommend this wonderful novel.
To cover the entire range of Buddhism in fiction – pulp, comics, and otherwise – would be just too much for one post. But I hope some readers have found this short survey interesting. And, so, for now, as Stan Lee used to say on the old Marvel Comics letters page, ’nuff said.