CULTURE OF SUPERHEROES
Since my family has been in Spain, I have had time to surround myself with things that I had hoped would inspire me. I am grateful for the supportive environment that my work and co-workers provide for me. In returning more deeply to meditating, reading, exercise, and life logistics, feeling myself again as an aspiring 'good man', someone suggested I look at the new Netflix series of Marvel's Iron Fist because of my monastic and Buddhist background, and having lived in NYC.
I have never openly discussed what it was like to be a monk, in detail. What happens there, what the daily life is like. What the people there talk about, care about, interact about. Nor do I choose to openly discuss all the reasons why I left, and what that was like. It is not something easy to articulate. To have chosen to train in an ancient tradition over 2,500 years old with an undying succession of master to student, to be taught in an ancient monastic tradition in their own language, join that tradition, and be somewhat accepted therein. To see and experience things that we read about in fairy tails, comic books, and myths or legends. It is not something easy to talk about, because it necessitates a background knowledge in that culture and how they view life and the universe. The bond between members of the monastic community is strong. As it is so old, and profound, it has an inherent power and force to it.
In the Buddhist traditions, it is considered honorable to ordain. Inspiring. Noble. And once ordained, it is considered more honorable to stay ordained for life, i.e. to not leave the family of the monkhood and to fight the good fight there with them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this view, as the purpose of preparing for ordination is that one learns what it means to be a monk and if that is the right life choice for that person. So, out of one’s own free will and accord they decided to step into this life, and accept it’s lifestyle; e.g. not try to change the ancient tradition to fit one’s desires and passions so that it is more agreeable with them.
I have issues with the Iron Fist series, particularly their depictions of “Buddhist” practices, the shortcomings of monastic living vs. the ‘real’ world, and the incredible emotional instability (and acting) of the protagonist - especially after 15 years of hardcore training and being chosen as the bearer of great power. It shows poorly on his training and the ‘Buddhist’ culture he is representing. Although, in fairness, the antagonists in the series do continually refer to the emotional immaturity of the main character, it’s weakness and crippling effect, and the all-around destruction that came about as a result of it. It should be stated that the sect of Buddhism depicted in the Iron Fist series is from the Chinese tradition, perhaps during the Sui dynasty, when there was a time in the culture where war was everywhere and the monks chose to arm themselves, otherwise they faced total annihilation. However this is not original Buddhism, as it directly goes against the teachings of Lord Buddha. Here is an example found in the Ovāda Pāṭimokkha Gatha of the Pali Canon:
Khantī paramaṃ tapo tītikkhā
Nibbānaṃ paramaṃ vadanti buddhā,
Na hi pabbajito parūpaghātī
Na samaṇo hoti paraṃ viheṭhayanto.
Forbearance is the best austerity,
"Nibbana(Nirvana) is Supreme", says the Buddhas.
He is not one gone forth (a term for a monastic) who harms another.
He is not a recluse who molests (physically, mentally, or emotionally abuses) others.
Chinese Buddhist culture aside, what I found myself seeing in the character of Danny Rand (Iron Fist) I see also in myself. I am no Iron Fist, nor do I have aspirations to be a White Savior. I am a simple stumbling fool finding a sense of remorse and therapy from writing “notes” in Facebooklandia.
What I see in myself with Danny Rand, is the beauty of the temple / order that we associate ourselves with. The love towards our Brothers and Sisters and especially our Teachers. The power and miraculousness of the training we went through, and having been chosen to be close to our Teachers and learn directly from them. The feeling of family and of purpose. Of being a warrior of that order and lineage, and of striving to bring honor and integrity to that title. Yet, at the same time, simply not fitting in with their culture because we are outsiders. We felt that there was something calling us back to our culture. And although I had the blessing to leave on good terms, unlike Danny Rand, it was not wholly good in my heart because I know that I disappointed them. Much as Danny Rand felt in his heart too and that guilt doesn’t easily go away. Nevertheless, we followed our heart to return.
Although I have never been in the military or in war, I have heard that there are similarities between people formerly of the monkhood and military when they leave and return home. In returning home, everything we thought was home had changed, as we had changed. And we again felt like outsiders. While still trying to keep the pieces of what philosophy and path we followed and believed in while there, people did not understand. Nor could they, it would seem like a foreign language, almost crazy at times. Often, or eventually, we revert to the familiar language and behavior that they understand in order to fit in, which in turn causes more internal conflict. And this internal conflict expresses itself in our actions: confusion, debilitation, lack of purpose, lack of remembering, frustration, suppression of emotion, self-destructiveness, alienating ourselves from people, not letting people in, not understanding why people don’t see things as we do. All these things are compounded by the feeling of being alone, not in the community any more where the student could approach the Master for advice when in such trouble, although the spiritual connection is still there.
Everyone understands these feelings. You don’t have to have been a monastic to understand them. I understand this because I have been there -and in a way know Danny Rand’s monastic side - and do not always make peace with my demons. I do not think this kind of compassion is properly considered or validated in our society, because it is somewhat unprecedented. It is not mainstream. It’s foreign. Not many people go to become monks, learn and live the culture and tradition, and then leave it and come back. We read about it in tales, comics, and see it in the movies. But choosing to go out and live it, find Masters of ancient wisdom and put in the dues to learn it is a whole different thing.
As in the Iron Fist Netflix series, the western doctors and psycho-therapists would attempt to label such experiences in the realm of pyschological disorders and prescribe medicine to remove the problem. There are definitely times and people who need that, please understand that is not the point I am making. As in the series, Danny Rand is troubled, but not delusion or psychotic about his monastic experience and having seen and experienced things that “are not in the norm”. The trouble of when you walk between different social worlds, with different beliefs and life views, with different priorities, it can be confusing. Not just to the person experiencing it, but especially to those around them. It catches you off guard. There’s no reference point for a lot of this for most people in western culture. In this way, people like Danny Rand come to see how naive and foolish they are, but couldn’t see it right after the big return home, and at the same time so hopeful and believing in the goodness that lies within us all.
Going from a celibate life as a monastic, back to romance and the physical sensations between two lovers, is a whirlwind. And those who have ordained and renounced physical relationships in order to dedicate more time and energy to one’s own personal practice will understand that. It is not to say that relationships are bad, but they come with a price, no matter what level of romanticism we have. Turning one’s relationships into a doorway to constantly be reminded, and practice, to live a true and honorable life, following the teachings one has been taught by true Masters is something very notable and worthy of remembrance.
There is a scene in another Marvel movie of Dr. Strange whereby Steven Strange tells the Ancient One mockingly that he has heard of things like chakras and acupuncture in “gift shops”, mocking them as failing in comparison to “his” understanding of medicine and it’s superiority. The Ancient One then shows him how limited his knowledge is, and how little he knows. That scene is very meaningful to our society, and is prophetic. Flaws of the movie aside, I’m focusing in on the message there.
The modern problem is that there are things that commercial science cannot explain, although advances in quantum physics seems to be providing a way of giving language for expressing and understanding what we term “oriental mysticism”. However, what I would like to point out is that this is not about science vs. the mystic arts. In the culture of Buddhist supernatural practices and achievements, they are referred to as ‘Vijjā’ or ‘Śāstra’, ‘knowledge / wisdom’ and ‘science, rules, manual’ respectively. For example, the english word we use as ‘physics’ is known as ‘bhautikaśāstra’, where “śāstra” refers to scientific and basic knowledge on particular subject. The mystic arts and practices are not something that is etherial, they are considered sciences and knowledge that one can obtain through proper guidance and effort on the practitioner’s part.
We as a western culture are seeking superheroes. Many people flee their realities to play video-games and spend time in ‘living’ in that Marvel - or Superhero filled - world. In general, we are trying to find a refuge wherein we can believe that there is possibility to remove our suffering and the suffering of so many of our fellow humans. Where there is a possibility to overthrow and fight back against the injustices and defects of our society. Where our voice can be heard, and listened to. Or, where we can “become” or control a superhero, obtain supernormal powers and be badass.
Hollywood is amplifying and fulfilling this need, pumping our society with a cyber or cinematic world filled with the possibilities of greatness, or ‘super-powers’. None the less, just as in Marvel’s Iron Fist, they represent the heroes as somehow greatly flawed and haunted. Perhaps this is purposeful so that perhaps we can relate to them more and encourage them in their fight, as we wish to be encouraged in our fight.
This said, when I met real Masters, although they were not perfect and infallible, their quality of character and the wisdom - from years of trial and experience - was/is immensely profound. They are living embodiments of their craft and practice. They are Masters, or superheroes, because they have put immense effort, dedication, and sacrifice to train themselves to the highest level of their knowledge/science/Craft and they continue to train themselves. Moreover, they have learned it from and are tested in it by true and genuine Masters of the same.
Yes, it is a very imperfect world we live in, often filled the a dirty history. As you will see in this interesting YouTube clip highlighting the shortcomings of the Iron Fist series and the cultural dynamics around that cinematic world, we see the serie’s imperfections in its portrayal of all this. However, that doesn’t mean that the lessons they are meant to offer are not valid to anybody from any race, religion, creed, or nationality.
What I was taught is that, “to find wisdom, look within yourself. Do not fight others, fight and make peace with yourself. Blaming others leads to nowhere. To seek wisdom outside of oneself is to seek water outside of the ocean.”
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"In the divine scriptures, there are shallows and there are deeps; shallows where the lamb may wade, and deeps where the elephant may swim."