So I have become accustomed to the recent Marvel movies having a relatively thin story-line when it comes to tricky moral questions. The movies are still exciting adventures in escapism, but the moral questions posed, “Is making weapons bad?”, “Is it okay to kill one life to save many?” and “Should we put ultimate power in the hands of a computer program?” are fairly well-traversed terrain with answers that don’t challenge the average viewer too much.
If found that Dr Strange, staring Benedict Cumberbatch, was a delightful diversion from this formula and tackled some of the genuine problems that face those who follow a spiritual path.
Those who go to Tibet sincerely in search of the Dharma
may settle down there once they arrive—those are true
– Li Hongzhi, Zhuan Falun, Lecture 4
As a practitioner of an eastern cultivation system myself, I found this movie fascinating. It provided a faithful recreation of many of the challenges facing someone who is seeking answers to the questions that our present science struggles to explain.
In the quote above, Master Li Hongzhi, speaks about the importance of Tibet, and the surrounding region to people seeking a spiritual path. We don’t have to go far to find movies that have made use of this theme, Bulletproof Monk, The Shadow, Johnny English Reborn and Batman Begins.
Batman Begins is unique in that the other movies all use the premise that spiritual cultivation in Tibet is genuine and the Masters of the Tibetan schools have something worthwhile to teach. Instead, in Batman Begins, Bhutan stands in for Tibet and the mystical eastern school is devolved into an equivalent of Al Qaeda.
This is woeful American misinterpretation of culture based on a superficial knowledge and subsequent misrepresentation as a plot device. Anyone who had done the most basic study into Tibetan Buddhism would know that these schools shun involvement in the conflicts of society and seek to detach themselves from the struggles of humanity.
** Beyond here be spoilers. **
Back to Doctor Strange, there were so many issues raised in this movie so I will try to select a few examples. The story covers the challenging relationship between student and teacher, the availability of knowledge and the underlying conflict between eastern and western science/medicine.
Zhuan Falun or Turning the Law/Dharma Wheel is the key text of the spiritual/cultivation practice of Falun Dafa. The text is a compilation of a series of lectures given by the founder of the practice, Li Hongzhi, in china from 1992 until 1994. The reason I mention this text in the context of Doctor Strange is that a large portion of the nine lectures is general commentary on the various spiritual cultivation practices that have been taught over the past 2500 years. Some of the lessons closely correlate with the issues raised in the movie.
The first lesson is around the relationship between student teacher, beginning with the reason why individuals seek out a spiritual teacher in the first place. In the movie, Stephen Vincent Strange, is set on this path by a car accident which destroys his hands.
As a neuro-surgeon, even science’s ability to restore some function to his hands is not enough to stop him from descending into a downwards emotional and financial spiral. His search finally leads him to a secret school in Kathmandu, Nepal.
There is a very poignant moment where the door to the Kamar-Taj school, which is very plain, sits opposite an ornate temple entrance with colourful Ascetics out the front. Students of Buddhism will remember Sakyamuni’s time with the Ascetics before finding his Middle Way. Here we see the lesson that finding a genuine school is often not about the loudest, shiniest or most colourful peddlers of spirituality, but the quiet, hidden and un-assuming.
While in this movie the motivation is health, there are a number of other reasons which prompt a spiritual search, including a great personal loss, a thirst for power or possibly just the feeling that what you have been told doesn’t add up and the true answers must be somewhere. It has always intrigued me, as someone drive to search, the way that some people accept the dogma of their parents/society’s faith without question and others are driven to question and search more widely.
The next step is the moment where the wise teacher has their ‘everything you know is wrong’ moment with the student. In the case of Doctor Strange, this is a very in-your-face demonstration of other-dimensions, opening of the Third Eye and an explanation of how this physical world is just one of many.
My favourite one of these in other movies has to be the levitation of the X-wing by Yoda in Empire Strikes Back.
Interestingly, the average student of a spiritual practice may spend a lifetime, or several lifetimes, experiencing nothing before a moment of enlightenment like the one portrayed in Doctor Strange. The relative ease with which Mordo reveals all this to Stephen should have been an indicator that all was not well in Kamar-Taj.
Some groups, which are not genuine spiritual schools but just thinly disguised pyramid schemes, are very careful about controlling the dissemination of knowledge. Freemasonry and Scientology immediately come to mind. The rule in Kamar-Taj that “no knowledge is forbidden”, as explained by librarian Master Wong, is quite unusual and brings me to the second topic of interest.
The dissemination of knowledge is a fascinating topic in spiritual schools. Some schools guard their secrets carefully, either because they want to charge ridiculous amounts for their piecemeal release or because they are genuinely concerned about the dangers of untrained use.
There is an episode of the excellent animated children’s series Kung Fu Panda : Legends of Awesomeness, Fluttering Finger Mindslip, where Po reads ahead in the teaching scrolls and wreaks havoc with some advanced mind-control techniques. The running joke in Doctor Strange is that in the books the warnings are written after the spells.
There is definitely something to be said for careful management of a student’s education, whether spiritual or academic. Then again, reading a text on advanced quantum mathematics probably won’t hinder your ability to grasp basic addition. However, breaking out the nuclear reactor kit on the first day of high-school chemistry could be disastrous. The shenanigans around Allegri’s Miserere is a good example of how powerful religious institutions seek to control access to knowledge, in this case in order to preserve the mystery.
I think that Doctor Strange did a good job of presenting this issue in the screenplay, as I was not ever exposed to Doctor Strange in comic book form as a child, I’m not sure how much of this was the screenplay writers and how much they were lifting from the original content.
The third aspect of the movie that I wanted to discuss is the difference between eastern and western medicine. The divide is probably not accurately portrayed geographically as there is evidence that western traditions, such as druidry had a certain degree of similarity with eastern philosophy in their understanding of the body.
There is a section in lecture 7 of Zhuan Falun where a comparison is made between western and eastern efforts when it comes to tooth extraction. One approach uses needles, drills, pliers and hammers resulting in lots of pain and blood, the other uses a magic ‘drug’ that causes the tooth to come out easily. This story references a similar case in India but frustratingly makes no mention of testing or synthesis of the ‘drug’.
During Doctor Strange’s first encounter with the Ancient One, played to perfection by Tilda Swinton, she flips through a book of ‘alternative’ medicine showing Chakra’s, Acupuncture and then an MRI scan. The implication of the conversation is that each way of viewing the body is only part of the picture. This concept of reality being made of multiple layers of perception, where the broadness of the view equates to the level of attainment is key in some spiritual teachings.
As an engineer, this concept is practically demonstrated in the limited capacity of the human eye to detect the full spectrum of electromagnetic radiation. We spend our lives perceiving in a tiny sliver of the full reality of what our world looks like.
These three small examples are just some of the ways that I found this movie enjoyable as someone who has spent a lot of time studying spiritual paths. It was definitely not what I was expecting from a Marvel movie.
The film is also full of in-jokes from the spiritual world. The Master/Servant switch to generate confusion in the new initiate, the ‘sink or swim’ nature of the training, the commercialization of enlightenment in Kathmandu and the assumption that spiritual equals cult.
I look forward to the inclusion of Doctor Strange in future Marvel efforts.