THE BODHISATTVA IDEAL IN WESTERN POP-CULTURE
The Bodhisattva is a central concept of Mahayana Buddhism. Are Bodhisattvas a uniquely Buddhist invention? We find Japanese and Chinese popular cultures influenced by the customs, religions, and philosophies of the societies, in which they emerged, thus showing, next to other cultural influences, the occasional Bodhisattva-like character. Are there similar Bodhisattva-analogous figures in Western popular culture, though? Can we find overlaps between the Bodhisattva idea and the Western hero myth in popular Western literature and storytelling? It is the purpose of this paper to examine such possible connections. If we do find any, the next question arises: Are such similarities the result of cross-cultural exchange, or are ideas of Bodhisattva-hood hard-wired into our being human and bound to emerge independently in different cultural circumstances? Last but not least, how does what we find affect our world view and practice as scholars, spiritual seekers, and human beings?
Western scholars define “pop-culture” or “popular culture” as “the totality of distinct memes, ideas, perspectives, and attitudes that are deemed preferred per an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture. Heavily influenced by mass media (at least from the early 20th century onward) and perpetuated by that culture's vernacular language, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of the society.” 
The exact nature and implications of the concept remain debated. Pop-culture affects larger segments of the population than the “high” cultures maintained by small, local ruling elites. Its spread and wide availability as well as its short half-life and quick turnaround time make it interesting to philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists. In a hunt for novel material, pop culture’s mass media producers mine traditional “high” cultures, folk stories, their own imagination, and our collective conscious and unconscious needs, hopes, fears, dreams, and desires to feed our voracious appetites for entertainment. At the same time, we, the audience, consume, celebrate, and/or reject this output, leading to interesting feedback loops between thoughts and ideas taken from our cultures’ subconscious underbelly and then fed right back into it. Pop-culture may be a huge money making scheme, but it is also a fascinating, wild-running, and completely uncontrolled psychological and sociological experiment that might have the potential to teach us more about the nature of who we are and want to be.
The Bodhisattva as a magical figure
There are Bodhisattva-like characters in pop-culture myth who feed into our sense of wonder and awe. It looks as if something propelled them beyond sheer humanness, as if they don’t even live in the same world as we “ordinary” humans do. However, their worlds intersect with ours. They interact with us, often as benign messengers and guides towards spiritual growth. The titular hero of the movie “Mary Poppins,” the wizard Gandalf in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Santa Claus, Glinda, the good witch in the “Wizard of Oz,” as well as the fairy godmothers of ancient folk tales belong to this type of kind, mysterious, and miraculous Bodhisattva-like character. They seem to have magical powers and usually lack a detailed background story. They suddenly appear and then, just as suddenly, disappear again. Their entrance and exit may be humble or, more often, accompanied by theatrical effects, smoke, mirrors, or a glittery light show. Is that how a fully manifested Bodhisattva comes across to a regular human being who is meeting him or her? Most Mahayana Buddhist writers emphasize that there is no true qualitative difference between a human lost in samsara, struggling with the forces of maya, and a true Bodhisattva. Nagarjuna reminds us that samsara is nirvana, and nirvana is samsara. Both are merely two sides of one coin. But to somebody in the middle of suffering the calm resolve and focused efficiency of an enlightened being can seem truly miraculous and supernatural, both a beacon of hope and a reminder of our own humble insignificance.
The Bodhisattva as a playful trickster
Sometimes characters appear that, upon a first look, aren’t as nice as the above mentioned benign fairies and wizards. Tinkerbell, the fairy in Disney’s “Peter Pan” movie is cute and sparkly, but has a dark side, too. The mischief of Q, a supremely powerful being in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek series’ universe, causes problems to the crews of various starships, just as the “little,” giant children in some traditional folk tales do, whose playfulness damages peasants’ houses and life stock, when mistaking them for their toys. The “Wizard of Oz” appears immensely powerful but turns out to be not more than a snake oil sales man with some machinery.
Philosophies with a strong dualistic emphasis, such as Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism, see the world as wrestling ground between opposing benign and hostile forces, good and evil, angels and devils. Buddhist theorists (and many Western psychologists) instead see most of such extremes as an individual’s expression of struggling towards balance and inner unity rather than as an aspect of reality at large. When we overemphasize Cartesian dualism in our own life, we see angels and devils all around us. When we manage to question and transcend the dualistic perspective on a moment by moment basis, we might find true compassion in our own heart and, during those rare moments, we no longer have to ask external forces for divine assistance or blame demons and devils for our disappointments. Lost in maya’s clutches, we seemed surrounded by devils and strife. When managing to see through maya’s veil, we may find with D.T. Suzuki that “our Bodhi or intellect, which is by the way a reflection of the Dharmakaya in the human mind, is so fully enlightened, we no more build the artificial barrier of egoism before our spiritual eye; the distinction between the meum and teum is obliterated, no dualism throws the nets and entanglement over us; I recognize myself in you and you recognize yourself in me; tat tvam asi.” 
Suddenly we notice we were walking with Bodhisattvas all along, cradled and supported by their kindness, wisdom, and deep compassion. Externally nothing has changed. It was a simple shift in perspective. Those pesky trickster Bodhisattvas, who viciously rattle the cages of our preconceived notions, appear as nuisances but do us a favor because they attack our complacency and with it the illusion that we control our life. Tricksters sabotage our prideful arrogance and assumptions of full understanding, leaving us baffled and, if we are able to recover from their blows, ready for new experiences and new learning. They make sure that new revelations won’t let us rest on our laurels but will ready us for further growth and ever more subtle understanding, thus celebrating both the consistent polishing of the practice mirror in Hui-Neng’s poem as well as its ultimate non-existence. Instead of respecting and admiring our carefully filled cup, they force us to empty it, maybe even shatter it onto the ground into a thousand pieces, while joyfully watching our jaw drop in utter confusion. The Wizard is nothing but a fun fair trickster, but he nevertheless manages to outfit the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion with rituals that help them move beyond what they felt their practice was missing, and he is an essential part in helping Dorothy find her way home.
Graphic novels are a fairly new literary medium. One subsection of the field is the superhero comic, telling and re-telling a type of story that reliably follows a specific, predictable pattern. Despite reiterating the same motifs, these stories fascinate readers of a wide range of ages, making us wonder if they touch on a deeper psychological nerve. Superman, Wonder Woman, Spiderman, the various X-Men, and similar characters share a deep compassion for the world. Ignoring danger and looking beyond the world’s prejudices against them for not fitting in, they fight for what they feel is good and right against a never-ceasing array of imaginative and powerful villains. Most of these heroes have special powers, form-fitting, colorful spandex uniforms, and a secret identity whose rather quaint disguises (such as a pair of thick glasses, unusually ruffled hair, or a particularly clumsy demeanor) rely for their functioning on most human’s lack of awareness. Are these escapist fantasies, or do such savior-figures respond to a natural Bodhisattva-craving in all of us? Do we have some sort of Bodhisattva-instinct that drives some of us to hold on to others for help, some of us to seek the Bodhisattva within, and some of us to find our own balance between independent strength and interdependent connection?
The Bodhisattva as ordinary person on a spiritual hero path
Other pop-culture Bodhisattvas are just like you and me, ordinary people on journeys of personal discovery. Tolkien’s Frodo Baggins is drafted into the job of destroying a magic ring that magnifies wearers’ greed, hate, and delusions. The Wachowski brothers’ “Matrix” movie trilogy follows its Hong-Kong movie inspired hero Neo from initial confused curiosity through adventures of love, war, and layers of self-discovery to ultimate self-sacrifice and ego-dissolution. The “Wizard of Oz” teaches its heroine Dorothy that the Kansas she longs for is a state of mind rather than a destination. Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker’s coming-of-age story includes difficult choices, dark secrets, and—in Master Yoda—an almost stereotypically classical Zen teacher and martial arts Sifu. Robin Hood risks his safety and freedom by becoming an outlaw who fights injustice robbing the rich and giving to the poor. All these heroes and heroines share typical characteristics. They start their respective journeys innocently, almost naive. They are typical members of their societies, yet they are also outsiders who suspect that there is more to life than what their cultures’ mainstream paths offer them. They are fascinated by adventure, but their stories’ events are generally set in motion by circumstances beyond their control that surprisingly thrust their lives from relative safety and boring predictability into grave danger and chaos.
Their individual growth journeys teach them about the Buddha (an appropriate attitude of focused mindfulness and practical virtue), the Dharma (an appropriate practice path that fully honors both what is and can be), and the Sangha (an appropriate understanding of social context and individual practices’ interconnectedness). Their journeys leave them wiser yet often somewhat damaged, a wounded healer, who comes back to the market place from which he or she set out, in order to freely share the gifts life has bestowed upon them and us. Joseph Campbell, comparative mythologist, anthropologist, and gifted writer, dedicated much of his life and work to examine the reoccurring patterns underlying such basic hero stories. 3 He noticed the similarities between heroic and Bodhisattva myths. Are hero journeys special types of enlightenment stories? Is the Bodhisattva merely one type of hero? Did the Bodhisattva concept arise co-dependently or independently in Western and Eastern minds and hearts? Campbell refuses to pass final judgment on this point.
Bodhisattvas and the Messianic myth
Since Judeo-Christian beliefs dominate U.S. American culture, it is not surprising that those myths’ symbolism plays a frequent role in its popular story telling. There are Messianic figures, a Jewish concept of somebody “anointed” by God, who ushers in a new age (some say of war, others of peace). Christians, who supplemented the Hebrew Bible with their own set of scriptures, the New Testament, believe Jesus to be said Messiah. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross for the sins of humankind, thus leading to our salvation. In his comparing the concept of messianic Christianity with the ideas of Bodhisattvahood, D.T. Suzuki dismisses the “Christian interpretation that Jesus was sent down on earth by his heavenly father for the special mission to atone for the original sin through the shedding of his innocent blood […]” as “altogether too puerile and materialistic.” 2 Western popular mythologies are full of Christian images. The lethal injection scene in “Dead Man Walking” with its crucifixion motif and the “Terminator” movies’ idea of yet another J.C. (here John Connor) saving humanity are two of many deliberate or accidental examples. Christianity is not a homogenous movement but literally consists of hundreds of different schools of thought and practice, many of which are at odds with one another. Some of those are closer to Mahayana Buddhist interpretations of “salvation” and “liberation” than others. Specifically the direct God experiences of Christian mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, or Teresa of Avila show an understanding of “unconditional Love” that evokes Suzuki’s Bodhicitta. It is highly unlikely that either of these three mystics met a Mahayana Buddhist, thus leading more credence to the possibility that Bodhicitta could be an innate or instinctive force awaiting awakening and cultivation rather than a cultural concept created from scratch and then transmitted from one generation to the next.
The television landscape keeps changing, with “unscripted” shows forming a rapidly growing segment of the media market. Those shows are quickly and cheaply produced, needing only a basic premise, a host, some producers and technical staff, and a number of participants desperate for their fifteen minutes of fame. Contestant behaviors are filmed and then later edited into coherent narratives. Many of them show unbridled competition and cut-throat attitudes. Is it useless to look for Bodhisattva figures in “reality” TV? Bodhisattvas have a surprising way of popping up like the proverbial lotus in the mud in the most unlikely of circumstances. The stress of being watched while competing for rewards under challenging circumstances can bring out the best and the worst in people.
Looking at our many different Bodhisattva candidates it becomes obvious that the most striking characteristic they have in common is that each of them is completely unique. Are there even common threads we can list, or is uniqueness itself one of the hallmarks of bodhisattva-hood? Is this paper’s categorization trying to force labels on what can’t be labeled? Psychologists explain mythology as the response to basic human needs. It doesn’t seem too far fetched that we find similar needs when comparing individuals from Eastern and Western cultures. We all love our families and friends. We prefer to avoid pain. The content of individual and collective passions, hopes, desires, and fears changes when we move from one culture to the next and from one geographical region to another. The ways in which we practice with those forces are manifold. Practices vary individually and between cultures. But it is my understanding that the nature of sensations, feelings, thoughts, consciousness, and awakening transcends culture and that we can see some of these universal building blocks of what makes us human in anything that we do, including our cultural and pop-cultural products.
Essentially, Western Bodhisattvas teach us the same lessons as all other Bodhisattvas: Open your mind, heart, eyes, ears, arms, and spirit to what the world has to offer. Do not cling too tightly to your rational understanding, superstitious yearnings, and magical thinking. Value impermanence’s cathartic energy. If you experience loss, find out what you need to do to grieve in your own way and move on without looking back. Look beyond greed, hate, and delusions in your search for happiness. Learn from everything and everyone you meet. Trust that everybody has something to teach. And, above all, be kind and gentle with yourself and the world.
1. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, “Popular Culture,” Wikimedia Foundation Inc., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pop_culture
(accessed May 17, 2009).
2. Suzuki, D. T. (1907). Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism. London: Luzac and Company, Publishers to the University of Chicago.
3. Campbell, J. (1948). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. San Francisco: New World Library.
4. Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF). Conversations of a Higher Order. “The Bodhisattva ideal in popular Western culture,” discussion thread initiated by the author of this paper on April 16, 2009 at http://www.jcf.org/new/forum/viewtopic. ... sc&start=0
Acknowledgment: I sincerely thank the many Bodhisattvas in the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s discussion area for their perspective, kind input, and lively exchanges about Bodhisattvas and heroism. Even though it may seem that I did not use too many of the suggestions, the conversation inspired me and greatly shaped my thoughts about this topic.