Blog Post · Film, TV and Literature · Spirituality and Philosophy

Strange Days Indeed

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.





Blog Post · Spirituality and Philosophy

The Death of Mí Xìn

I am not sure what it was about my upbringing that led me to question everything, trust no-one and expect the worst of people. It probably has something to do with the religion shopping that I witnessed my parents go through when I was a toddler. The types of religions they sampled were full of Amway sales-people and predators of every sort. My paranoia could also be related to the string of incidents that I witnessed in my later childhood, both personally and in the public media, that caused me to quickly realise that not everyone was what they presented themselves to be.

The trigger for this post was listening to the very poignant song Daisy, by Karine Polwart. A particular Facebook war involving some Pentecostal Christians brought this song to mind, I recorded my own cover here. The message in the song is a very sad one, it was apparently written by Karine to her unborn niece (who turned out to be a boy).

To crudely summarise Karine’s beautiful lyrics, “the world is full of horrible people”. I wouldn’t say the message is entirely depressing, because there is also a subtext about using your judgement to measure people by their actions and face the complicated world with self-worth rather than the worth rented to you by others, in exchange for their love, respect, money or just not hurting you.

This led me to the subject of this post, mí xìn (??). This Chinese phrase is now widely translated as superstition or superstitious belief; however, this translation is largely a result of the Cultural Revolution and its efforts to stamp out the Four Olds (Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, Old Ideas). The more finessed translation is one of faith, trust, or unquestioning loyalty.

I love looking into the origins of Chinese characters as the meaning is often much richer than that found in our non-pictographic language. The first character, mí, is made up of a character for walking/movement and another one showing lots of directions. The second character, xìn, is made of the characters for person and word, meaning trust, i.e. “A person’s word”. So putting this together we can get “following a person’s word whatever direction they send you in”. I’m sure many scholars of Mandarin will dispute my interpretation, but it makes sense to me.

So is this blind faith, that was so much a part of countless pre-modern societies, always a bad thing? Was Another Brick in the Wall, really a step forward for society? Many young people (and old) no longer respect their parents, teachers, policeman, doctors or anyone else in society with traditional authority. The respect seems to have shifted to winners of reality TV, pop-stars and actors.

This didn’t happen by accident. My year 6 teacher, who I never got on with, was jailed for abusing his wife and daughter. The incidents of corrupt politicians, negligent doctors, child abusing priests, corrupt policemen, judges and public servants are on a 24-hour repeat news reel. We live in a society where, just like in Communist China, we have torn down the traditional towers of respect.

I wonder if this is because the statistical likelihood of striking a bad apple in these fields has drastically changed, or because the global news cycle means that we now hear about them more often.

There are situations in society where this mí xìn is very valuable, if not critical, to stability. How can children learn without trust in their teachers? How can you do well at your job without learning from more experienced co-workers and supervisors? How can a government function if the populace has no faith in their elected officials? Unfortunately, the very people in these positions are failing us, and have been exposed as failing us for so long that their institutions no longer have credibility.

Obviously I don’t expect to provide the answer for a utopian society here, but I can say that the Chinese Communist approach of abolishing everything has had terrible consequences. The American reality-TV experiment has resulted in a farcical Presidential election campaign. There must be a way for a society to institute a process of rational judgement to decide who deserves respect, who is best placed to exercise authority and who can be trusted.

It is probably Orientalist nostalgia which makes me look at the Native American, Celtic and Aboriginal Australian societies and think that they seemed to have better ways of finding the right contributing role for each person and ejecting those who weren’t good for the society. In the west we seem to pick the people who are the worst and appoint them to rule us. Thank you Karine, for telling it like it is, I wish there were more people that thought about things.