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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