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Sunday, June 5, 2016
Art & Entertainment ... Spirituality ...

Being something of a Zen practitioner (i.e., I’ve been sitting weekly with a sangha in Montclair), I’ve heard a bit about bodhisattavas. I’m not an expert, but my basic understanding is that a bodhisattava is someone who really takes all the Buddhist stuff seriously and has gone through many re-incarnations and is now living a life that could be the last . . . i.e., they have realized full enlightenment and Buddahood, and are now ready to pass on into the realm of nirvana, whatever that is. Basically it means that you ain’t coming back again, you’re involvement with this world and universe are done, you have transcended suffering and have no need to come back for additional doses of it.

This is what the Tibetan Book of the Dead is all about, a set of rituals and prayers for those who have just died, that they won’t be re-incarnated (or if they are, they will be ready to go the next time). I.e., that they will be taken up from the bardo (which is something like a holding pattern, a temporary place to wait where your post-death fate is determined) directly to nirvana. Roughly speaking, nirvana is a mysterious, undefined state of non-being, that “beyond, beyond, totally beyond” situation. (You really can’t define nirvana, the whole thing is just a Buddhist word game — actually, just about everything in Buddhism is a word game; if you enjoy having your head spin, try to logically nail down most any Buddhist teaching or written / verbal expression; it must be fun being a “teacher”, as you can always escape the bounds of logic by telling a challenging skeptic that “you don’t fully understand”).

However, there are some people who don’t have to come back, but do so anyway! Over the centuries, some Buddhists realized that their whole tradition came across as being a bit cold and me-focused, and thus had to do some verbal / conceptual backfilling so as to integrate a bit of compassion into the situation. And thus the myth of the bodhisattava evolved, the story of those who had gained enlightenment but wanted to share it as much as possible to help other suffering humans, before they vanished into the nullity of nirvana. And so, according to certain strains of Buddhist teaching and myth, we may have fully enlightened individuals walking amidst us (rare though they might be) who are only here so as to help others gain enlightenment, and thus transcend human suffering.

You can look into various Buddhist writings and teachings, both ancient and modern, about what bodhisattavas are and what their role in things might be. But recently, while watching some good old American TV shows from the 1990’s, I saw two examples in the same evening of the bodhisattava concept at work, in rather unexpected settings.

On Friday nights, I usually have dinner out at a local restaurant with my brother. After we finish, I hang out for a while at his house, and we watch whatever he is in the mood for on TV. Over the past few weeks, we have been watching re-runs from a short-lived ABC show that was called “Nothing Sacred“. This 1-hour show about a young Catholic priest and his liberal urban parish aired in 1997 and 98 and was cancelled after 16 episodes were aired. There were a total of 20 episodes filmed, so 4 never made it to the airwaves. But thanks to the miracle of modern Internet technology, these final episodes are available for viewing on demand.

On the night in question, my brother and I were watching what was intended to be the final episode, number 20, which was entitled “Felix Culpa“. It was obviously intended as a dramatic finish to the series (by the time this episode was filmed, it was obvious to the producers that the show would not have a second season). The plot revolved around a catastrophic fire that mostly destroyed St. Thomas, the church where Father Ray was stationed. This happened just a few days before Easter, as the whole parish staff was busy preparing for the highest holy day in the Christian calendar.

Father Ray’s younger and more straight-laced sidekick, Father Eric, blamed himself for the fire, as he had been experimenting with a dramatic new pyrotechnic display for the Saturday evening vigil service. The evil Bishop had been planning to close St. Thomas anyway, and sent his henchman, Father Martin, to tell Ray, Eric and company that their parish would be merged with the neighboring parish, and that they would celebrate Easter together at that church. But of course, stubborn Father Ray and his spunky core of loyal congregants decided that they would have a last hurrah within the ruins of their own church, and started to prepare for a stand-up “unplugged” Easter Eve mass in the candle-lit remnants of St. Thomas church.

So as to console Father Eric, Ray demanded that he give the homily. Eric refused at first; he didn’t want to face the most loyal parishioners of the church that he had just burned down. And anyway, the Bishop and Father Martin were sympathetic to Eric, given his somewhat more conservative style; he would certainly be welcomed warmly at the newly combined congregation up the street (where he would listen to another priest, perhaps Father Martin, give the Easter homily). As such, Father Eric avoided the usual academic preparation that he would normally put into his sermons.

But at the last minute, Eric found the courage to show up at St. Thomas, and decided to “wing it” as far as the homily goes; one of the parish staff told him to “just talk to us”. So Father Eric decided to go off-script and speak from the heart. He thus gave a memorable reflection on what Jesus might have been thinking in the hours between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection into the flesh on Sunday morning. Eric imagined that the physically dead but still spiritually conscious Jesus would rebel against the notion of going back (perhaps Eric was feeling something similar about going back to St. Thomas that night). The last thing Jesus would have remembered from his time as an embodied human being was hanging in anguish on a cross under exhaustion and extreme pain, and seeing a Roman soldier thrust a lance into his side. Not a nice world at all. Why would anyone who could escape from such a world want to go back?

Eric told the assembled faithful that when Jesus heard the call to go back, his first reaction was a strong NO !!!! But of course, the Church teaches that Jesus DID go back, he somehow did accept that call. Hmmm, in all my time as a fairly devout Roman Catholic and Episcopalian, I never heard the Passion and Resurrection Story put quite that way. Whoever wrote Eric’s lines seemed to have been thinking about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with Jesus in the bardo during those hours between his Friday evening burial and the rolling of the big stone Sunday morning. They also were thinking about the bodhisattava theme — Jesus was ready to enter nirvana and disappear from this painful world. And yet, he heard the call to go back and help others to find the enlightenment that had found him. Yes, that last episode of Nothing Sacred definitely served up a Risen Jesus with a twist of Buddhism.

Now here’s what really got me. Right after we finished watching Nothing Sacred, my brother started flipping the channels, just looking for some mindless entertainment to chill out to. He finally settled on another 1990’s re-run, the Drew Carey Show. And I’ll be darned, but the particular episode that my brother settled on was ALSO about a bardo-like experience, where someone (Drew Carey himself, believe it or not) was called to forgo transcendence and go back to earth to help the suffering.

I mean, Drew Carey!!! Who’d a thunk? (that’s a popular mid-western colloquialism, appropriate here given that the Drew Carey Show was fictionally based in Cleveland). The episodes in question involved Mr. Carey being hit by a car while running to catch a bus, and going into a coma. He is taken to a hospital and put on a ventilator, with his friends surrounding him doing bizarre things to wake him up (including a cameo visit by former Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh to crank out a few of Drew’s favorite tunes). Somehow, despite the coma, Carey maintains enough brain function to make up into his own dream world, with everything that he likes in it (not very medically accurate!). He becomes quite content with this arrangement, and thus refuses to make any effort to go back to the real world.

Eventually, though, the real world gives him an ultimatum. The doctor decides to take the coma-bound Carey off the ventilator, forcing him to either rally or die. The scene freezes right here, while Drew travels to the gates of St. Peter. He is met by an older guy in a white robe and glasses, who tells Drew that it’s time for him to be judged. But despite the ominous overtones, the news isn’t so bad after all. Drew’s sins and failings are judged to be “garden variety”, and he will be allowed into Paradise. But, the old guy then gives him a choice — he can still go back to his earthly life, but this is the last chance.

Carey makes quick work of that — forget it, I’ve had enough of the real world; Heaven here I come! In the following episode (Drew and the Baby), Mr. Carey is seen seated on a reclining chair made of clouds, happily drifting upward along with others who are making the final voyage. Coming the other way are various infants about to be born (hmmm, I believe that this violates the Catholic interpretation that life begins at conception, not at birth!). Drew stops to talk with one of those infants (yes, these infant souls can talk quite fluently, even if their real-life baby brains and bodies won’t be ready for speech for many months). It turns out that this baby was headed down to be born to Mimi, Drew’s co-worker and nemesis at the department store. Drew informs the baby spirit that he knows (or knew, depending on how you look at it) the people who will become his earthly parents. Drew informs the baby that his father is a great guy. So what about my mother, the baby asks? Well . . . Drew doesn’t want to say too much about Mimi.

This infant spirit comes with a fully developed mind, and thus picks up on Drew’s hesitations about his mother. So he decides that maybe he won’t go down to earth and be born, after all. Meanwhile, back on earth, Mimi is going thru the final agonizing moments of her pregnancy, and the doctor says that things seem to be delayed, the birth is going slower than planned. The baby spirit tells Carey that he’s going to do whatever Carey does; and since Drew has already decided that he’s heaven-bound, that means that Mimi is not going to have a successful delivery. Hey, the kid says, tonight is karoke night in Heaven — they’re gonna have a great time together up there!

But then Drew Carey somehow hears the call of the bodhisattava . . . yes, Drew Carey! Despite his feelings towards Mimi, he still likes Mimi’s husband Steve; and causing Mimi have a miscarriage is a bit too much, despite all the misery she has caused him. OK, says Drew to the baby, we’re turning around, we’re both heading to Cleveland. Carey also tells the child spirit that he will do whatever he can back on earth to help him cope with being Mimi’s child. So obviously, the episode ends with Mimi finally completing her delivery, while Carey makes a miraculous comeback and wakes from his coma. The transcendence of all this could have been overwhelming, but this is still a comedy show. So, as not to get “too heavy” about it, the final scene shows Drew himself being swaddled and presented to Mimi at the maternity ward, glasses and all! Somehow the infant spirit and Drew got their path’s crossed on re-entry from the bardo.

I then finished my glass of wine and headed off back to my apartment. But as I drove through Passaic and Nutley that night, I already realized that this was an extraordinary evening of television entertainment — two bardo and bodhisattva stories back to back, quite unintentionally!! The reference from Nothing Sacred was not too surprising, given that all religions and spiritual practices ultimately have something in common deep down; but as to Drew Carey . . . I wasn’t ready for that. However, I see an article saying that Carey belonged to a Pentecostal church as a teenager, and today has a personal Buddha shrine.

Carey had also attended a series of teachings by the Dalai Lama during one of his US visits. OK then, Drew Carey has a spiritual side after all! So, one more time . . . Who’d a thunk?!?

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:45 am      

  1. Jim, Surprising, isn’t it, how twenty some years can go by and here it is 2016! I wonder if such stories would captivate an audience as they originally did back in the 1990s. That really sounds weird because it seems to me that if I had to guess the 1990s were about 5 years ago; but they are maybe 25 years ago!

    The movies or programs you were watching were certainly surprising in the perhaps “hidden” Buddhist/spiritual message they contained. I find myself asking: Which would be more surprising if the reference(s) to reincarnation and other Buddhist concepts were deliberate or were simply meant to be a “joke” (much as RC comics make jokes about their religion they were brought up in)? What if the story ended up an unconscious reflection of some spiritual ideas Drew Carey had. Over the years he certainly has changed, and something has had its effect on him, or so it seems to me. Short of being able to ask him such a personal and intimate question, there’s no way to know.

    Your post also sets me to thinking about all the seemingly unnecessary deaths that are occurring throughout the world: Planes going down with large numbers of people dying in one fell swoop; very young people, children actually, dying all over the place in cities (Chicago had 70 shootings [they aren’t saying how many deaths] over the Memorial holiday); wars taking the lives of who knows how many thousands (millions?) of innocent people simply caught in fighting for possession of territory and/or power.

    It occurs to me that maybe among all these deaths of young people there are MANY Bodhisattavas who do what they came to do and leave again soon. If I understand the concept correctly, they should be returning to earth again soon. Seems to me that for all the rigid tenets of religions, few people, if any of us, have any real clue as to what the purpose of life might be. The best we can do is just that, the best we can do.

    It’s a good concept, that of Bodhisattavas, I think. It’s a good/nice (what poor descriptive words) thing to know that there is a spiritual practice (or whatever Buddhists may prefer to call their system of belief) with a concept that some people have as their purpose in life to do good for others. (Or am I missing the point of the concept?) That’s a concept that could use a little more “distribution” among people’s beliefs. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 7, 2016 @ 9:57 am

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