Karmic Demons and the Power of Compassion: Buddhist Philosophy in Modern Myth

Chuck Palahniuk | startribune.com
Photo: Tim LaBarge / StarTribune.com

I would put forward that the next thing is going to be a story, because right now, people really don’t have a big story, a big software. . . . They don’t have a big meta-narrative story; they don’t have a big story like Christianity was a big story. So right now, we need a really big story. And that story doesn’t have to be in conflict or in reaction to the current story, because I would say, right now, you don’t change anything by protesting anything. . . . You give people a more effective way of living their lives, they won’t give a shit about foreign oil, you know? You give them the right story, and you make their cars obsolete, it’s gonna be like, “We are just swimming in oil. What are we going to do with all this oil?” And you can do that within the culture without reacting to the government, the war, whatever. Because in a way, by reacting to it, you’re wasting energy. You are making it stronger by giving it this token little resistance, keeping it in place. So your job, I would say, is to come up with a story like that, that makes all of the things we worry about so much right now completely beside the point. We won’t even think about them, because your story will be so incredible. I don’t know what that story is, but that’s why . . . if I can make my case, somebody’s gonna come up with that story.

—Chuck Palahniuk, Postcards from the Future

Palahniuk’s words are inspiring because, as readers and storytellers, we would like to imagine that our most beloved fiction could somehow transcend its obligations to be merely entertaining and truthful; that a story could have such profound ideas, and be told in such a monumental way, that we could feel its impact throughout global society in the form of positive change. Embedded in Palahniuk’s lecture is the notion that whatever the earth-shattering myth of tomorrow proves to be, it will have to resemble in no way the current model for human life. It will have to be recognizable right away as something wholly new, that both challenges the current sociopolitical system and calls readers to action—compels them to live as few or none have lived before.

David R. Loy and Linda Goodhew, authors of The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy, argue that “Traditionally the most important [stories] have been religious. According to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, religion is the metaphysics of the masses, but it is just as true to label philosophy the religion of intellectuals” (2), and also note that within the context of religious teachings, “it is chiefly the stories that we find meaningful, because stories speak to us and move us in ways that concepts do not” (2). In other words, Palahniuk’s argument makes sense because for most of us, raw ideas in dogmatic form have little or no appeal, whereas a narrative gives readers a blueprint for living their own lives. Stories give us a means by which to understand ourselves and the world.

One criticism that many have toward a lot of commercially successful fiction being published today is, despite the obvious resonance and rapport between author and reader, far too often the ideas and morality presented by the work are, frankly, too comfortable. Too safe. They tend to reinforce, rather than challenge, the status quo.

Books that confront the ills of modern civilization, that expose tyranny and dispel its illusions, have always been the ones to endure through the ages: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men. These sorts of books outlive their authors precisely because of the authors’ desire for subversion.

So what would be the most controversial philosophy to put forth in contemporary fiction? What could possibly have the kind of effect on today’s consumer-driven, individualistic world that those novels had in their own time? Well, how about a philosophy that claims the physical, observable world is empty and impermanent; that says we have no essences or souls, and can therefore not be seen as individuals in any important sense; and that says our only hope for salvation, for enlightenment, is to free the mind of our worldly desires and attachments—to let go of our possessions and loved ones for the sake of purifying our consciousness?

On the surface, Buddhism sounds more radical than almost any other system of belief, in stark contrast to notions of egoism and the individual put forth by works like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but within Buddhist thought are some of the most powerful and resonant truths on Earth. Glimpses of ideas like selflessness, compassion, karma, and nonviolence can even be found in countless works of Western literature, in fact. As Loy and Goodhew point out, while Buddhism may not be the primary source of truth in most contemporary English-language novels and short stories, “it makes their Buddhist resonances all the more interesting and important” (7).

Pump Six and Other Stories | StrangeHorizons.com
Credit: Night Shade Books

One exception would be Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story “Pocketful of Dharma,” a gritty post-cyberpunk work set in Chengdu, China, whose title explicitly denotes the teachings of the Buddha. In this story, a desperate beggar-boy stumbles into possession of a “blue datacube” (6) that is eventually found to contain the computerized consciousness of the Dalai Lama. After witnessing the murder of a foreigner by a Tibetan criminal, the beggar, Wang Jun, is asked to deliver the victim’s datacube to “the Renmin Lu bridge across the Bing Jiang” (6) in exchange for the pair of light amplification glasses the dead man had been wearing.

With money in his pocket for what seems to be the very first time, Jun stops at a street restaurant and orders “Mapo dofu, yu xiang pork, two liang of rice and Wu Xing beer” (9). Soon after, the cube’s buyer shows up and demands that Jun give it to him. Wang Jun hesitates, and the foreigner threatens to harm him. Jun reaches for something silver he spies in the buyer’s pocket, and pulls out the Tibetan’s severed finger, “its tarnished silver and turquoise ring still on it” (10), and, deciding that the foreigner is likely to make good on his threat, shoves “a handful of scalding dofu . . . full of hot chilies and peppercorns” (11) into the man’s eyes.

Free to do what he pleases with the cube, Jun takes it to a black-market salesmen called Three-Fingers to find out what it contains. After Three-Fingers attaches the datacube to an appropriate adapter cord, the computer speakers boom with the voice of “Naed Delhi, the nineteenth Dalai Lama” (14). The story then transitions from a primarily socioeconomic journey to an examination of the nature of identity. The Dalai Lama’s voice proclaims, “I am not software. I am the Dalai Lama of the Yellow Hat sect. The nineteenth to be reincarnated as such” (14), adding that he is skeptical of his situation: “How do you know I am in a computer?” (15). He describes this bizarre new existence as “Terrible and still” (15), and explains that “I don’t remember anything until now. But it is very still here. Deathly still. I can hear you, but cannot feel anything. There is nothing here. I fear that I am not here. It is maddening. All of my senses are lost. I want out of this computer. Help me. Take me back to my body” (16).

Wang Jun is then confronted by a woman in white gloves, who he quickly realizes was the intended recipient of the cube—the man at the restaurant had apparently intercepted the information that Jun was to deliver it to “the person who wears white gloves” (6). Her “foreign companion” explains that the Dalai Lama’s body is no longer viable, as “either the Chinese or the Europeans blew his head full of holes” (20). As a hostage, however, he is no longer deemed to have bargaining power, as intended by his enemies. The woman’s companion explains that “The Tibetans want us to destroy him. Keep whining about how his soul won’t be reborn if we don’t destroy it” (20). When she suggests that they map the Dalai Lama’s consciousness—his stolen “identity matrix” (16)—onto a new body, her companion replies that he will no longer be recognizable, and will no longer have a following (20).

The irony here, of course, is that identity is rendered meaningless, or at least trivial, through the theoretical technology of a cerebral-upload procedure. By removing the Dalai Lama’s consciousness from the physical form of the brain, an empty and transient organ of the body, the Dalai Lama ceases to exist for those around him, even as he speaks from a place of being, with sound memories and the ability to articulate his experience. In this way, the story confirms the Buddhist belief in “No-Self,” which Mitchell describes as “the Buddha’s view that the belief in a permanent substantial self is not only false, but also leads to selfishness and egoism . . . the absence of [which] leads to selfless loving kindness and compassion for others” (37). So in this story, at least, even the supreme wisdom of the Dalai Lama is corrupted by the human notion of a self-concept.

Beyond Lies the Wub | gutenberg.org
Credit: Planet Stories / Project Gutenberg

In another short story, titled “Beyond Lies the Wub,” Philip K. Dick uses parapsychology and metaphysics to describe a very different speculation on the nature of identity and karma. In this work of science fiction, a starship captain named Franco is in the middle of preparing for takeoff when one of his crewmen, Peterson, brings to the gangplank a “wub . . . sagging, its great body settling slowly. It was sitting down, its eyes half shut. A flew flies buzzed about its flank, and it switched its tail” (28).

Captain Franco asks what the creature is, and Peterson replies, “it’s a pig. The natives call it a wub” (28). After their departure from Mars, Franco is discussing how best to cook and prepare the creature; and then the wub speaks: “Really, Captain . . . I suggest we talk of other matters” (29). Astounded, Franco examines the creature, and says, “I wonder if there’s a native inside it . . . Maybe we should open it up and have a look” (29).

After the captain calls the wub into his office for questioning, the creature describes its diet and survival mechanisms: “Plants. Vegetables. We can eat almost anything. We’re very catholic. Tolerant, eclectic, catholic. We live and let live. That’s how we’ve gotten along” (30). Having revealed its seemingly Buddhist inclination toward compassion and nonviolence, the wub goes on to ask “how can any lasting contact be established between your people and mine if you resort to such barbaric attitudes?” (30), perhaps implying that vegetarianism, or even veganism, is the necessary first step for humanity to take if it is to have an ethical, harmonic relationship with animals and the whole of the universe. A more conservative reading, however, might be that the wub’s intellect qualifies it as a sentient being to be privileged above the realm of the animal; but other short fiction of Dick’s, such as the stories “Roog” and “Fair Game,” both of which affirm his regard for humankind as being equal to animals, serves as evidence to the contrary.

Unconvinced of the wub’s relevance to Buddhist thought? This is a question worth asking, but the creature’s intellectual leanings reveal much more of its nature than can be inferred from its grotesque appearance: “Eat me? Rather you should discuss questions with me, philosophy, the arts” (30), it says, before delving into an examination of Jungian archetypes in human myth. It explains, “I find in your Odysseus a figure common to the mythology of most self-conscious races. As I interpret it, Odysseus wanders as an individual aware of himself as such. This is the idea of separation, of separation from family and country. The process of individuation” (31). After much deliberation, the captain eventually decides to kill the creature by shooting it in the head. Later, as the crew is feasting on the wub, Captain Franco—the “only one who appeared to be enjoying himself” (33)—comforts Peterson by saying, “It is only organic matter, now . . . The life essence is gone” (33). Peterson realizes that the wub’s consciousness has seized the captain’s physical body when the man says, “As I was saying before I was interrupted, the role of Odysseus in the myths . . .” (33), and the reader learns that identity in Dick’s universe is like the state of being described by the Buddha himself.

Mitchell writes that “The Buddha always affirmed that persons have an empirical selfhood constituted by a body and a mind” (37)—two entirely separate concepts, then, that intersect in complex ways to comprise a living creature. So whereas Bacigalupi’s story describes consciousness as being a very real existence from the sense-experience perspective of the individual, but rendered irrelevant in the context of a society that cannot be certain of that consciousness’s identity, Dick’s “wub” illustrates the manner in which we experience the state of being. To qualify an individual’s distinct identity, especially in fiction and other types of stories dealing with these kinds of issues, we often use the deductive reasoning of exclusive knowledge. We ask the questions which only a given individual would be able to answer. When the wub speaks of Odysseus, we gain an understanding of the creature’s mind, of its distinctive selfhood; when more discussion of the myth is spoken from the captain’s mouth, we recognize that Captain Franco has ceased to exist, despite that his body endures. We also recognize that the wub yet lives, despite that its brain was destroyed and its physical form is being eaten by the starship’s crew. But because there is no definitive methodology for what constitutes identity, we must conclude that the Buddhist doctrine of “No-Self” is generally truthful; and the wub’s physical destruction for the sake of others’ sustenance proves the Buddha’s assertion that “the belief in a permanent substantial self . . . leads to selfishness and egoism” (37).

While science fiction may seem the most boundless canvas for exploring the implications of Buddhist thought, authors working within the narrative frameworks of fantasy and even mainstream fiction have managed to illustrate the concepts of compassion, karma, and the bodhisattva ideal with equal nuance. For example, the novels of Joe Hill may at a glance seem to be fairly conventional examples of popular horror fiction: suspense-based, often terrifying, and with an emphasis on mystery, atmosphere, and character. All these things describe his works accurately enough—but they are also so much more, beneath the surface.

Loy and Goodhew suggest that when looking at Buddhist teachings, it is more practical to view them with a skeptical, modern eye; that to question whether or not the teaching is literal does nothing to diminish it, so long as human psychology is kept in mind (34). They explain, “Karma need not be viewed as some inevitable calculus of moral cause and effect, because it is not primarily a teaching about how to control what the world does to us. It is about our own spiritual development: how are lives are transformed by our motivations” (36). For instance:

The traditional “six realms” of samsara do not need to be distinct worlds or planes of existence through which we transmigrate after death. . . . They can also be the different ways we experience this world, as our character, and therefore our attitude toward the world, change. For example, the hell realm becomes not so much a place I will be reborn into later, due to my hatred and evil deeds, as a way I experience this world when my mind is dominated by anger and hate. (38)

Ig Perrish | beyondhollywood.com
Credit: EW.com / Entertainment Weekly

Ignatius Perrish, the protagonist from Hill’s novel Horns, is the embodiment of this understanding of karma. Ig’s fiancee Merrin Williams, who was raped and murdered a year before the start of the story, serves as the catalyst for Ig’s nightmarish experiences throughout the book; as a source of goodness in Ig’s life when she was alive, she has become for him a fatal attachment—a wellspring of suffering, or dukkha, that can best be described as hell on earth. In the beginning of the novel, after “[spending] the night drunk and doing terrible things” (3), he wakes “the next morning with a headache, [puts] his hands to his temples, and [feels] somthing unfamiliar, a pair of knobby pointed protuberances” (3).

Ig Perrish is given the ultimate test of human compassion when his new horns grant him the power to hear the sinful thoughts of complete strangers, and not long after, the darkest, most guarded secrets of his friends and family. His spiritual journey begs the question: In the face of the gravest tragedy, of a total lack of compassion from one’s childhood best friend, and almost no external incentive for justice or closure—other than simplistic, personal revenge—what good are his parents, siblings, and friends, when they all believe him to be guilty of murder? Can they truly be seen as sources of love and compassion for Ig? As the novel proclaims, “It was difficult to maintain close friendships when you were under suspicion of being a sex murderer” (9).

During a conversation with his father, not long after the horns appear atop his head, Ig asks his him if he had ever considered the possibility that Ig might be innocent of Merrin’s murder, and his father replies, “No. Not really. Tell the truth, I was surprised you didn’t do something to her sooner. I always thought you were a weird little shit” (50). Things do not get much better for Ig; by Chapter Ten, he learns from his brother, Terry, that his best friend—”tall, lean, half-blind Lee Tourneau” (21)—was in fact the one who killed Merrin (55).

The story’s greatest challenge for both Ig and the reader is the prospect of sympathizing with Lee, despite all the evil things he has done. As if it were not bad enough that the reader is made to feel sympathy toward Ig throughout his transformation into the devil, a vengeful Judeo-Christian Satan, Hill, in what may be the novel’s boldest and most ingenious bit of storytelling, offers us an explanation for Lee’s murderous tendencies and objectifying regard for women: he was not born a sociopath, but instead made one through the misfortune of a single childhood accident.

A feral cat, we learn in Chapter Thirty-Six, stalked the perimeter of Lee’s home as a child, and at one point even slashed his mother’s hand open. The tom is described as having “ribs . . . visible in his sides [and] black fur . . . missing in hunks . . . and his furry balls were as big as shooter marbles . . . One eye was green, the other white, giving him a look of partial blindness” (271). This is an obvious parallel to Lee himself, who several years later loses sight in one eye when a cherry bomb explodes near his face. Lee’s mother warns him that “He won’t learn to like you . . . He’s past the point where he can learn to feel for people. He’s not interested in your, or anyone, and never will be” (271). This bit of advice foreshadows Lee’s own monstrous fate shortly before he sets out to befriend the cat, to tame it and disprove his mother’s hypothesis about the cat’s antisocial nature.

When Lee finally gets close enough to pet the cat, he’s balanced atop a fence, and when he moves to touch it, the cat “[lashes] out with one claw” (274), and Lee “[falls] sideways into the corn” (274). Falling six feet from where he stood on the fence, “The pitchfork that lay in the corn had been there for over a decade, had been waiting for Lee since before he was born, lying flat on the earth with the curved and rusted tines sticking straight up. Lee hit it headfirst” (274). Even though the pitchfork may be seen as a symbol of the modern, traditional Satan, this scene establishes that Lee’s future misdeeds are not the product of some abstract, cosmic evil, but rather the eventual tendency of one who has suffered from childhood head trauma. Loy and Goodhew write that the essence of compassion is that “we commiserate with the suffering of another because we share in it, because we are not other than it” (32). If Hill has been successful in convincing the rest of his readership, one may argue that we feel Lee’s suffering in this one chapter of tragic insight with the same intensity that we experience Ig’s suffering throughout the rest of the novel.

Fight Club 10th Anniversary Blu-ray | wired.com
Credit: Fox / Wired.com

Perhaps the most potent example of Buddhist philosophy in mainstream Western culture, however, is the cult success of both the 1996 novel and 1999 film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. In his introduction, Palahniuk describes the novel as “‘apostolic’ fiction—where a surviving apostle tells the story of his hero. There are two men and a woman. And one man, the hero, is shot to death . . . a classic, ancient romance but updated to compete with the espresso machine and ESPN” (xviii); but one could argue that the narrative, and the “rules” that propel it, are really a kind of Dharma, or sutra, intended to show white-collar American males a new way to live their lives free from the dissatisfaction of an empty, consumer-driven existence.

Take the ideology of the protagonist’s “apostle,” for instance: Tyler Durden is the embodiment of the bodhisattva ideal, if one can overlook the necessity for consensual violence in the novel. Mitchell explains that the “bodhisattva life begins with what is called the ‘arising of the thought of Awakening,’ or bodhicitta . . . the altruistic desire, or heartfelt aspiration, to attain Buddhahood so that one can help others gain freedom from suffering” (104).

In Fight Club, Tyler Durden’s motivations for starting fight club, and later Project Mayhem—a kind of Zen monastic society within a soap production company within an urban terrorist organization—all stem from the most basic desire to jar hard-working, dissatisfied individuals out of their complacency and into a position where they can regain control of their lives and of their spiritual paths. Of the actual violence, the narrator explains that “Nothing was solved when the fight was over, but nothing mattered” (45). Fighting, for Tyler Durden and our unnamed narrator, is an enlightenment in itself; an escape from that which causes our suffering. The narrator describes fight club as a means of overcoming the fear that leads to dukkha: “Most guys are at fight club because of something they’re too scared to fight. After a few fights, you’re afraid a lot less” (45). In other words, a member of fight club is not really fighting his opponent, but is conquering his own inner turmoil. It is not a contest of violence so much as it is a therapy session.

The sense of community within Project Mayhem is strengthened through mantras chanted by Tyler and then parroted by his followers. He chants, “You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile” (126). This sounds dismal, but perhaps that is precisely why Buddhism has had such a difficult time gaining widespread appeal in the Western world; we overemphasize things like individualism and identity. Without them, we would have no capitalism in the way we have capitalism today, and we would have a vastly simpler society overall.

For many, this is no doubt the true appeal of Buddhism—it is simply the opposite, more or less, of the ideals that dominate our civilization at present. But we would do well to acknowledge the foundational truths of Buddhist thought, and the merit they carry, and apply them to not only our daily activities and interactions but also to our myths—because after all, stories are quite often the templates by which we pattern our lives. Our lives are impermanent, true, and they are by nature filled with suffering; but through compassion, nonviolent discourse, and seeking to impart kindness to those around us, we may one day cure some of this world’s many social ills.

Works Cited

Bacigalupi, Paolo. “Pocketful of Dharma.” Pump Six and Other Stories. San Francisco: Night Shade, 2010. 1-24. Print.

Dick, Philip K. “Beyond Lies the Wub.” Paycheck and Other Classic Stories. New York: Citadel, 1990. 27-33. Print.

Hill, Joe. Horns. New York: William Morrow, 2010. Print.

Loy, David, and Linda Goodhew. The Dharma of Dragons and Daemons: Buddhist Themes in Modern Fantasy. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2004. Print.

Mitchell, Donald W. Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club: A Novel. New York: Henry Holt, 2004. Print.

Postcards from the Future: The Chuck Palahniuk Documentary. Dir. Dennis Widmyer, Kevin Kölsch, and Josh Chaplinsky. Perf. Chuck Palahniuk. Kinky Mule Films, 2003. DVD.

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