Elephants of the Mind

You’ve probably seen this quote from the Dalai Lama many times: “My religion is very simple . . .  My religion is kindness.”

I imagine that all of us, at one time or another, has found that kindness is not so simple. Especially, when we have had to deal with difficult, unpleasant people. And we’ve all experienced anger.

Certainly, we have been in situations where someone has been angry with us. in such moments, it’s easy to return the anger, and then hold on to resentment.

In the Dhammapada, the Buddha is quoted as saying,

“Look how he abused me and beat me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.”

There’s the story of the Buddha’s evil cousin, Devadatta, who tried to kill the Buddha so that he could take his place. Of course, he failed, and the Buddha forgave him with loving-kindness (metta). Most of us would find that rather difficult to do. After all, he tried to kill me. But the Buddha was able to control his feelings, and redirect his negative thoughts in more positive directions.

That’s what anger is really about: control. Not losing it, that is. Or, from our Buddhist perspective, not losing grip of our mindfulness, our equanimity. Realistically, Buddhas, enlightened persons, do not have extraordinary powers or super-consciousness, they have simply mastered the art of self-control, self discipline. They have trained themselves to think and react mindfully, with equanimity, with direct insight into the heart of reality.

That’s why we often use the phrase “training the mind.” and that’s why in the Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva says,

MP836With the wish to safeguard my training,
I need to work hard and safeguard my mind;
If I’m unable to safeguard my mind,
I’ll also be unable to safeguard my training.

Left to run loose, the elephant of my mind can ravage me
With (a joyless realm of) unrelenting pain.
Untamed, rutting elephants in this (world)
Can’t cause me such harm.

But, if the elephant of my mind is firmly bound
By the rope of mindfulness on every side,
All fears will vanish and everything constructive
Will come into my hands.

– – – – – – – – – –

Shantideva translated from the Tibetan by Alexander Berzin, 2004


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.


What’s In A Name

Well, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge didn’t take my advice and name their royal son Gomez after all, or anything even remotely interesting as I had hoped. But as a famous British subject once wrote, “What’s in a bleedin’ name?”


You know, many of our English words have their origins in Indian Sanskrit. My last name, for instance, is derived from the Indian word raja, meaning ruler or king. It was mispronounced by the Gypsies and carried to the British Isles where it ended up as Riley. As a matter of fact, the very word “name” comes from the Sanskrit nama.

Nama is name or concept. A name is a symbol, used to indicate and symbolize a referent. In addition to names, referents have laksana, signs or marks, which allow the referents to be cognized.

Station Fire - Los Angeles - August 27, 2009
Station Fire – Los Angeles – August 27, 2009

In his treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, Nagarjuna uses the example of fire to describe the relationship between nama and laksana. Fire is the name, and smoke is one of its signs. When we see smoke, we know there is fire.

Likewise, “man” and “woman” are names, while bodily features are the signs by which we recognize man and woman. In this way, nama and laksana, names and signs, are interdependent. “Laksana is the root and nama is the branch.”

Then Nagarjuna explains that

When one sees with one’s eyes the bodily form, one seizes with a bias only such characters that one likes and cling to them; the others do not have the same interest in regard to these characters. [These] characters are capable of giving rise to passion and clinging . . .”

A name or sign cannot be the same as the referent. Nagarjuna says that if a name and a referent were the same, then the word “fire” would burn the mouth. On the other hand, owing to their mutual dependence, name and referent cannot be different, for it that were the case, there would be no cognizance of any phenomena.

The best way to sum up these relationships is with the Japanese expression nini-funi, or “two but not two.” On the conventional level, we see separation, but from the ultimate view is there is no separation.

The bias Nagarjuna spoke of causes us to make distinctions between things, to have preferences. Abiding only with nama and laksana, names and signs, is merely seizing upon appearances, which obscure the true nature of things. He notes,

The Buddha reveals the true nature of all things by means of nama and laksana, in order to enable all to understand the truth of things. [Most] people dwell only in nama and laksana, the thought-constructions that are devoid of substantiality.”

What is the true nature? It is akincana, “not anything specific,” and frankly, it is easier to explain what the true nature is not, that is to say that things do not exist as separate entities, nor do they posses any separate essence. Seizing upon names and signs, clinging to appearances, causes us to think that things have a separate nature, and to believe that they are ultimate in their separateness.

For Nagarjuna, who was engaged in a critical analysis of the possibility of finding anything in reality that is self-existent, which stands on its own, independent and separate from other things, and who investigated every proposition, every argument, and concluded that self-existence was not tenable, nama and laksana are conventional entities that need to be transcended in order to see the true aspect of all phenomena.

That’s why Pema Chodron, the wonderful American-born nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, tells us

The cause of our discontent is our mistaken feeling of separateness. This isn’t based on anything tangible. It’s based on beliefs and concepts. The duality of subject and object, self and other, is an illusion imputed by the mind.”

– – – – – – – – – –

Nagarjuna quotes from N?g?rjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajñ?p?ramit?-?s?tra, K. Venkata Ramanan, Motilal Banarsidass Publ. 2002

Pema Chodron quote from No Time to Lose, Shambhala Publications, 2005


The Royal Baby

I usually blog three times a week, on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Those readers who have been paying attention will have noticed that there was no Monday post this week. That’s because I was completely beside myself, on pins and needles awaiting the Royal Birth. Now that the baby has finally arrived, and has made his first appearance, it’s time to get back to business, while at the same time anticipating our next public obsession (not that this one is quite over). The nice thing about the Royal Baby hoopla, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, is that with all the depressing stories out there, it is refreshing to be reminded that the idle rich can procreate.

Buddha's Royal Birth
Buddha’s Royal Birth

Speaking of royalty, most of you are aware that in the traditional story of the Gautama Buddha, he was a Royal Baby too, the son of a wealthy and powerful King. And as I have mentioned a number of times on The Endless Further, this story is almost certainly an exaggeration. There is no mention of this Royal Birth in the early accounts of the Buddha’s life. The appellation of Prince did not even appear until the Mahavastu (“Great Event”), a text composed between the 2nd century BCE and 4th century CE.

The Great Event would be perhaps the greatest event, if it were true, far surpassing this latest rather mundane and routine royal birth, for the traditional story tells how the Buddha entered his mother’s womb and then emerged from her side to be received in a net held by four angels of the great Brahma. And as Paul Carus described in his rendering of the story, based on ancient records,

All the worlds were flooded by light. The blind received their sight by longing to see the coming glory of the Lord; the deaf and dumb spoke with one another of the good omens indicating the birth of the Buddha to be. The crooked became straight; the lame walked. All prisoners were freed from their chains and the fires of all the hells were extinguished.” *

In the annals of royal births, I would say that one is hard to top.

As far Buddha’s royal life is concerned, I have previously quoted Prof. Trevor Ling, who in his book, The Buddha, offers a realistic and credible look at early Buddhism. Ling notes,

It is more probably that his father was the elected head of an aristocratic hereditary ruling class, having some of the rank, status, and prestige of the ruler of a small kingdom, but nothing more.”

The Shakya clan, to which Gautama belonged, did not have a monarchy, but rather a republican form of government, where “the common life was regulated by discussion among the elders or noblemen of the tribe meeting in a regular assembly.”

The story of the Buddha spending his life is royal splendor, and probably most of the other accounts of his life, may have been embellished quite a bit, but it does not dilute the value of the teachings attributed to him.

Buddhist mythology is an issue for some individuals, especially those seeking an alternative to the supernatural laden Abrahamic relgions. Buddhism at first seems reasonable and practical, but then as one delves further into it and encounters some of the same kind of mythological and supernatural elements, it can be confusing, and discouraging. It’s a topic I continue to write about because on one hand, it is important that we not take myths literally, but on the other, it is a mistake to simply dismiss these stories without making an effort to understand their underlying meaning and significance. We need myths, and we can learn from them. In The Power of Myth, the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell, said,

The myth is for spiritual instruction . . . The Sanskrit name for that is marga, which means “path.” It’s the trail back to yourself. The myth comes from the imagination, and it leads back to it. The society teaches you what the myths are, and then it disengages you so that in your meditations you can follow the path right in.”

Myths are untrue but they are gateways to truth. Through allegory they provide wisdom. These often beautiful and entertaining stories help explain our existence, and they inspire us to love, to quest, to empty the stables of suffering, to battle the dragons of evil, to dream impossible dreams.

In fact, myths come from the same part of the brain as dreams.

Personally, I tend to disparage the public’s fascination with the British Royal Family. Yet, I realize that this is a sort of modern myth making. It doesn’t rise to the same level as spiritual mythology, but myth making is fundamental to human nature, a process critical to civilization.

My favorite Gomez
The most famous Gomez of all.

I can think of some modern myth making I’d be more interested in, but as they say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and even though I could really care less, I’ll be waiting with bated breath to learn the Royal Baby’s name. I think Kate and William should choose something quirky, just to be different. You know, like David Bowie named his son Zowie. Or Frank Zappa, who named one of his kids, Moon Unit. And, of course, who can forget Blanket Jackson? Since the Royal Baby shares his birthday with Selena Gomez (who is famous for something but I’m not sure what), that might be a way to go. Prince Gomez, future King of England. I like that.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Paul Carus, The Gospel of Buddha, Open Court Publishing Company, 1894



How Can I Heal Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

One way is through poetry:

A friend of mine sent me a recent Slate article titled Patients Need Poetry. It’s about Rafael Campo, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard, who was just awarded the Hippocrates Open International Prize for Poetry and Medicine. Who knew there was an award for poetry and medicine?

Well, unbeknownst to me, poetry and medicine have been entwined for some time. For about six millennia, to be exact. According to the National Association of Poetry Therapy, “It is documented that as far back as the fourth millennium B.C.E. in ancient Egypt, words were written on papyrus and then dissolved into a solution so that the words could be physically ingested by the patient and take effect as quickly as possible.”

The National Federation for Biblio-Poetry Therapy (NFB/PT) is the independent credentialing authority for the profession of poetry therapy. Evidently, the first recorded poetry therapist was a Roman physician named Soranus, in the first century A.D., who “prescribed tragedy for his manic patients and comedy for those who were depressed.” Interestingly, the Roman god Apollo is both the god of poetry and the god of medicine.

Over 260 years ago, the Pennsylvania Hospital, the first American hospital, founded by Benjamin Franklin, also used poetry therapy. The hospital published a newspaper, the Illuminator, that published patient’s poems for all to read.

Following in the footsteps of those pioneers of the Pennsylvania Hospital is John Fox, a Certified Poetry Therapist, who was featured in a 2008 PBS documentary, Healing Words: Poetry & Medicine. The film follows Fox and Dr. John Graham-Pole, working with the Arts in Medicine (AIM) program at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, as they enter hospital rooms and help patients write poems as a way to facilitate the healing process. “Compassion can flourish in the unlikeliest of places: a sterile hospital room.”

Rafael Campo, the winner of the Hippocrates prize mentioned above, practices general internal medicine and often gives poems to his patients. He also teaches writing at Lesley University, and has a book of poetry, Alternative Medicine, coming out this fall.

Verse by unknown poet found on a wall.
Verse by unknown poet found on a wall.

Although I had always felt that poetry and healing were somehow connected, until now I had no idea they have such an extensive history together, or that poetry therapy is so vigorously and comprehensively practiced.

How does poetry help with the healing process? Reading or listening to poetry can take a person out of their pain and misery. Exposed to the thoughts of others, reflecting how the words may apply to their situation, or recognizing perhaps that others have been through  similar suffering and they are not quite so alone, not to mention the inspiration that poetry often brings – all beneficial, even if it temporary. In writing poetry, there is also relief from suffering for a time. The exercise of expressing our feelings is cathartic. That’s just for starters.

In a Time Magazine article on poetry therapy some years ago, Yale Psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg wrote that “poetry by itself does not cure,” but the way it uses words, is “the lifeblood of psychotherapy.” Considering how major portions of the Buddhist sutras and commentaries, were written in verse form, we could probably say that poetry is the lifeblood of Buddhism, too.

In Buddhism, we are advised to practice Right Speech. I think Thich Nhat Hanh summed up what that means when he said, “To use words mindfully, with loving kindness, is to practice generosity.”

Shantideva, in his epic poem Bodhicaryavatara or “A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way Of Life,” wrote, “One should express one’s appreciation for all good words.”

I believe that you can find poetry anywhere, and everywhere, if you look for it. The same holds true for healing. One does not need to be a published poet to create poetry, nor does one need to be trained in medicine to help others heal. Speaking “good words” is all that is required. As Shantideva put it,

Speak with sincere and coherent words
In a soft and gentle tone,
Words that are clear in meaning
And rooted in compassion.

When looking at others,
Drink them in with your eyes
And open to them your heart, thinking
That through them you will come to awakening.

Great benefit arises from aspiring
To labor in the fields of virtue and kindness,
And from being the antidote
To the suffering of sentient beings.

From Chapter V “Guarding Awareness”