Captain America is Buddhist. But Who’s The Most Buddhist Superhero?

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A few thought from the lighter side of everything…

Apparent, Captain America is Buddhist.

I saw The Avengers this week, which was about the best of what could be expected. Fluffy, superficial, and well-executed. The script writer in particular should be commended for taking multiple storylines that have absolute nothing to do with each other and somehow weaving them into a coherent and fun movie. It’s like an episode of the cooking show Iron Chef where the secret ingredients for each dish are Sea Urchin, Pickles, Limburger Cheese, Peach Sorbet, and Sriracha sauce. It was also possibly the most masculinized movie of all time (maximum SMASH, minimum Space), for which it should win some kind of Tantric Oscar. 

That movie, along with the re-re-re-re-re-remake of Spiderman about to hit theaters and the last of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy – The Dark Knight Rises – coming soon, made me think about our obsession with Superheroes, especially the Marvel and DC comic book heroes of those of us who came of age in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Of course it could be cynically chalked up to Hollywood profit maximization, but that would be a bit too easy a dismissal.

This need for heroes, people who can do things that we cannot do (at least not alone), is also a central theme in aspects of traditional Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, with its emphasis on Bodhisattvas (beings representative of  supreme compassion, wisdom, and effectiveness), Yidams (archetypal figures used in tantric meditations), and Dharmapalas (Truth-protectors).

During a recent casual conversation with my teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and my friend Lodro Rinzler, we had fun debating who might be the most Buddhist, or mindful, superhero. Lodro devoted a bit of his book, The Buddha Walks into A Bar, to something called “The Incredible Hulk Syndrome”, which grants Lodro expert status in debating Buddhist Superheroes.

I claimed that Batman (specifically the character in Nolan’s Batman Begins) should win the “most Buddhist” Super Hero title. The reasons for this are: 1) Batman does not have super powers or mutations, but instead is simply well-trained in Eastern martial arts and discipline. This ability to work with things as they are without relying on magical mutations would definitely have to be present in a Buddhist hero. 2) Bruce Wayne becomes Batman because bats represent a childhood trauma, and to move through his fear into fearlessness, he must embrace their identity. This is pretty much straight out of a Pema Chodron book, isn’t it? 3) Batman seems highly aware of the murky, inseparable nature of good and evil, a line which blurs frequently in his narrative. A Buddhist Superhero can’t have a simplistic view of right and wrong, for sure.

Lodro then argued that Spiderman was the most Buddhist hero. I can’t remember the details of his thesis, but he had some pretty good points. Perhaps he will clarify

Then Rinpoche considered for a moment and said he thought the winner was Gesar of Ling, a Tibetan folk Hero central to our Shambhala lineage, who came from very humble beginnings to become a great King, warrior, and teacher of the nature of the mind. All the qualities of a superhero were present in our own tradition. Rinpoche’s points reminded us that Tibetan Buddhism is itself a tradition of heroes and superheroes. In fact there is a multi-volume epic of Gesar’s exploits and adventures that could possibly read like a comic book series.

So here’s the question: is the naïve, child-like ability to idealize and mythologize others who possess a qualities that we do not (yet) possess necessary for the path of awakening?

If so, who’s the most dharmic, mindful, or Buddhist superhero?

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