April 15, 2009

Pop Culture Dharma

“Illyria: We cling to what is gone. Is there anything in this life but grief?”

“Wesley: There's love.”

I admit, I cried my eyes out like a little baby.

My father owns every angsty, melodramatic, pseudo science fiction/fantasy, teen drama ever made. Don’t ask me why. And I steal them from him and watch them while I’m home working on my thesis, especially when I’m doing technical drawing or three-dimensional modeling. I have a habit of becoming too focused, I loose track of time, and my muscles cramp up from being too still. So, I leave something running in the background that will occasionally draw my attention and give me a sense of time passing.

For the last two weeks it has been the television show “Angel,” the spinoff from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” And I admit, when Fred died in Wesley’s arms in the middle of season five, I bawled my eyes out and made three handkerchiefs embarrassingly soggy. Fred is in so much pain and so scared, but she’s also so brave, and Wesley had loved her from afar for so long and had her for such a short time….sniffle. Then of course, her body is turned into a burned out shell for the demon goddess Illyria to inhabit, but hey, it was still a good scene.

Later, Illyria, a stone cold bitch if there ever was one, learns that her world is gone and she has lost everything. Through her own suffering she begins to understand compassion. She sees that same suffering in Wesley, who has lost so much, including the woman he loved. There, we find the dharma, in the most unlikely of places. It’s like the Force, “surrounding us, penetrating us, binding the galaxy together.” Of course, we can’t use it to move objects with out minds (that I know of), but no metaphor is perfect.

That’s why, no matter how cheesy, I like such shows. A friend of my regularly teases me about how completely unrealistic some of my favorite shows are, like Doctor Who or Stargate SG-1 or Firefly. And I always tell him, it’s not about realism, it’s about the emotion, the characters, the people and the way they constantly change and grow. The story at hand is just a mechanism for interaction, a tool. It’s amazing to me that the dharma can be found in such odd places. The Buddha said that we shouldn’t take his word for it, but seek to experience the truth for ourselves.

I experience the dharma in my everyday life, from washing dishes to going to class to writing theoretical papers. The fact that other people experience the same is demonstrated both by their actions and their artifacts, the things they make to share with others. Artifacts include stories, which I have always loved no matter what medium they come in, be it book, television, film, graphic novel, radio, song, or architecture. I love the stories. When I find the dharma in them I know that someone else put it there and that encourages me. Even if at the time they were just looking for a good line and didn’t even realize what they had, well that’s okay. Call it accidental dharma, if you will.

Everything we make is a reflection of something we have experienced, if all cut into pieces, jumbled up, and put back together inside out. Demon goddesses are a reflection of pain and suffering, anger and hate. And the fact that even they can experience compassion is a reflection of the human ability to do the same. This is the wisdom of Joss Wedon, who created shows like Buffy, Angel, and others. In its way, it’s not so different from the deity meditation of certain Buddhist practices. We just like our deities in smoking hot leather cat suits.

We like to think popular culture is devoid of the dharma, and look down on it for being exhibitionist, ego-centric, and exploitative. But that’s more about our own ego. We forget that within each person is the buddhanature and thus, it can also be found in the things they make. Not every thing, but any thing. And, in the end, even the parts of popular culture which are exhibitionist, ego-centric, and exploitative have dharma in their nature even if they can only point to the truth of suffering and the causes of suffering.

It’s up to us to discern which they are.


wolfie185 said...

Have you seen "The Reader" yet? I watched it last night, it just came out on DVD. Awesome movie, the Dharma definately runs through it, big dose of Karma.

The Bodhi story had a flyer on their door 2 weeks ago about the Lotus Temple, I have contacted them but not heard anything back yet. From the website it sounds really interesting especially for someone living outside of Lincoln, one of the training course is geared towards teaching people who can't attend regular meetings using email and phone conversations. I was excited to find them because I am willing step up my practice and hopefully find a good teacher to help me along the way.

Jack said...

I think it was sadder still when Wesley died. He was so willing to accept a lie to suffer less.
"Do you want me to lie to you now?"

Monica said...

Ah, yes, I just watched that one. Cried my eyes out a second time. I think the Fred/Wesley/Illyria subplot was the very best part of season five.