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.


Pulp Fiction Buddhas

The-Wolverine2Wolverine, 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).

DoubleDetective-1940The 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.

GreenLama-PrizeIt didn’t take long for The Green Lama to get into comics. His first appearance was in Prize Comics in December 1940, and he’s been in the pages of comic books off and on ever since.

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.

Mr-Moto2I’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.

Bangkok8-SkullMantraSonchai 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).

Lady-LotusOne 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.


Spiritual Laws Du Jour and Tonight’s Big Numbers

Deepak Chopra is one of those guys who gets more than his fair share of criticism. Because he’s popular, he’s an easy target. There are folks who take exception to some of the things he says, especially in regards to science, but frankly I’ve heard Robert Thurman make some pretty wild claims too, and no one uses him for a punching bag. Not that I know of, anyway.

The way I look at it, Chopra provides a service. Because he is popular (and yes, a bit of a huckster), he’s sometimes used as a “talking head” on religious matters, and I think he offers a much needed alternative view. There may be some holes in his dissertations, but to me they seem consistent with the Buddhist view and Eastern philosophy in general, and I welcome almost any alternative to the spiritual dogma put out by the adherents of Abrahamic religions that dominate the media.

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

I have never read any of Chopra’s book and maybe if I did, I might change my mind. His latest one, however, intrigues me. It’s called The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes (HarperOne; June 2011; Hardcover; $25.99; ISBN 9780062059666). Now, if you have read this blog recently, you might have gotten the idea that I am still a bit of a sucker for comics and superheroes. Well, sort of. I haven’t read a comic book in decades. It’s more like nostalgia.

Without even reading his book, I can guess Chopra suggests that it’s possible for us to be spiritual superheroes. A few years ago he was telling people about “The Way of the Wizard” and how “A wizard exists in all of us.” But I can’t come down on him for that. I am guilty of the same thing, as demonstrated by my post of May 10th, Be A Hero of The Mind. On one hand, these are just analogies, nothing to take too seriously either positive or negative. Still, it seems to me that being a mind-hero or a superhero of your own life is more than just some spiritual taffy. Didn’t the Buddha put it terms of a Noble Quest? In the end, isn’t all about being a champion and winning over ourselves?

By the way, when I was six or seven I created my own superhero character. His name was Captain Virtue. The first installment of his saga was entitled, “The Virtues of Captain Virtue.” Sure, it was redundant but this was also around the time I also wrote my first song, “Your Love Gives Me Heartburn.”

Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers with Philson Ahn and Constance Moore

Superhero movies are in very much in vogue these days. Especially since they can finally do the special effects justice. As I write this, they are showing an ad for the Green Lantern movie on TV. Coming in June. Last week, I caught up with Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The effects were spectacular. When I was growing up they were so hokey. If you want an idea of the kind of special effects folks my age had to put up with, check out Turner Classic Movies on Saturday mornings and watch an episode of the 1939 serial Buck Rogers (and stayed tuned for a Tarzan movie). I wasn’t around in 1939, but special effects had not advanced much by the time I was.

Back in my day, you might have been able to make a reasonably decent Green Lantern movie but there was no way you could do the Fantastic 4. Kids today who are into this stuff are so lucky. And while I’m at it, I just have to tip my hat once more to Stan Lee and all the other creative geniuses at Marvel Comics, who in the 1960’s not only came up with great superheroes but also great super-villains. I mean the idea of a being who goes around consuming worlds to get the energy he needs to sustain himself (Galactus), aided by a “herald” who travels the universe on a cosmic surfboard (The Silver Surfer) is just, well, the only word for it is cool. Maybe they are just comic books, but the characters and story lines are a match for anything I’ve read in “serious” science fiction.


Be a Hero of the Mind

$66 million the first weekend.

Like most boys, when I was young I loved comic books. I was weaned on DC Comics, which had Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, and The Flash – the classic superheroes. As I grew older I came to feel that they were all one-dimensional characters. Then, almost as if someone had read my mind, along came Marvel Comics. One of the first new characters to emerge from Marvel was Spiderman.

Now, Spidey (AKA Peter Parker) was supposed to be a few years older but essentially he was just a kid like me. And he had problems. I mean aside from the problems associated with battling bad guys. Personal problems. Girl problems. He was misunderstood, he screwed stuff up. In other words, Spiderman was a superhero with more than one dimension. He was thoroughly human.

Marvel's Thor was the creation of two immortals: Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

Another character Marvel introduced early on was Thor, who was the exact opposite of Spidey. This guy was an immortal god, just like in the Norse legends. But in the Marvel version of the story, Odin, the king of the Norse gods and Thor’s father, resolved to teach his son some very human lessons and placed him in the body of a medical student named Donald Blake. I guess that made him at least part human.

The traditional Thor may have been immortal but he was not imperishable. As I recall from my readings of the Norse legends, it was prophesied that one day Thor would die from a serpent’s poison. So even the traditional telling of the Thor story had a somewhat human element. The mythological gods of most cultures were anthropomorphic, endowed with human qualities such as anger, hatred, and jealousy. In presenting their gods with human frailties, the tellers of these myths imparted moral lessons, and by giving the gods superhuman powers, they inspired their listeners, as well as entertained them. In Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell notes that these stories,

[Are] telling us in picture language of powers of the psyche to be recognized and integrated in our lives, powers that have been common to the human spirit forever, and which represent that wisdom of the species by which man has weathered the millenniums.

Not only were the mythological gods representations of the human spirit, they also represented phenomena, the forces of the natural world. The gods of India were no different. They were called devas and this word originally meant something partaking of the nature of heaven. The Chinese translated deva as t’ien, which literally means “heaven.” Yensho Kanakura, in Hindu-Buddhist Thought in India, points out that “The noun and adjective ‘deva’ derives from a verbal root div, meaning ‘to throw’ or ‘to shine.’ Deva is a cognate of the Latin word deus.”

It’s said that Buddha did not reject the idea of devas but rather maintained a tolerant attitude. That may have been the case, however it seems clears from his discourses that he did not take them seriously nor did he feel that they deserved the same attention as they were given by the compilers of the later Abhidharma literature.

With the advent of Mahayana Buddhism, a different type of “superhero” was idealized – the bodhisattva. Although the bodhisattva was first represented in Buddhist literature as a celestial being, the path the bodhisattva traversed could be walked by anyone.

In his book Diamond Sutra: transforming the way we perceive the world, Soeng Mu informs us that

“In later Mahayana tradition, Indo-Tibetan scholars translated bodhisattva as jangchub sempa (“awakening mind hero”). This was an articulation of the bodhisattva as a new kind of spiritual hero . . .”

This is a great concept – mind-hero. The real personification of this ideal is the Buddha himself. Unlike Thor, Buddha was not a god. Unlike Jesus, the ultimate god/superhero for some, Buddha did not perform awe-inspiring miracles or ascend to the heavens. Unlike Superman and comic book heroes, Buddha did not have “powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.” Buddha was a human being. His powers and abilities were the ones he already possessed. Although it’s claimed he levitated above the Ganges, in truth the only thing Buddha ascended was his own mind. He was a mind-hero.

We can never become gods. We’ll never be faster than a speeding bullet or be able to fly through the air by swinging an incredibly heavy hammer around our heads. We can be bodhisattvas. We can be a heroes of the mind.

Becoming a mind-hero requires courage. It takes a certain amount of bravery to conquer one’s mind. The goal is to master the mind, instead of having it master you. It requires the courage to lay aside our preconceived notions long enough so that our minds are open and receptive to new ways of thinking.

In the Chinese language, mind and heart have the same character. In Japanese, it’s called kokoro – mind/heart. So we can also say that a mind-hero means being courageous in heart and spirit. It means opening our hearts to others, having a boundless spirit of compassion.

Spiderman often likes to meditate in the ancient Tibetan upside-down position.

If you are like me, often you do not feel very heroic. You may feel that to train your mind is a very difficult thing (and you’d be right) or that you often fail at mastering your mind. But being a hero is not so much about the results. More important is the effort you make. Heroes often fail to achieve their goals. Many have gone down in defeat, but they are heroic because they tried, they made effort.

In his Commentary on the Heart Sutra, Prasastrasena wrote,

Bodhi refers to the sphere of the mind. Because he exerts himself and tries to achieve that [bodhi, awakening], he is a hero contemplating enlightenment (bodhisattva).

When you study and practice Buddhism, you should feel empowered. You should have a feeling that you too can achieve what the Buddha and all those ancient masters and all mind-heroes have achieved – calmness of mind, happiness, wisdom. You should also feel encouraged, confident that you can transform your life and change your mind, because even the most fantastical stories in the Buddhist sutras are telling you truths others have realized, truths that you can realize too. Most of all, even when you stumble and fall and it might seem that you have been defeated, it’s actually a victory because you made an effort and in the end that’s all that counts. When you exert yourself in this way, you are a true mind-hero.

This is my constant thought: how I can cause all living beings to be the same as me and gain entry to the transcendent Way.

– The Buddha in The Lotus Sutra