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.
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.
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