Literal vs. Philosophical: FIGHT!

Admitting I’m an atheist has seriously damaged my research, but not my enjoyment of cheesy martial arts fantasy films. Go figure.

Allow me to ‘splain. Or at least sum up.

I’m deep into research on the soul for the upcoming short story my Wise Readers have valiantly volunteered to vet. That research involves digging into the idea of the tulku, which seemed like a good philosophical idea to riff on. So I’m reading a book on Tibetan Buddhism.

It’s not a great book on Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, it’s shallow and silly. It focuses more on what you might call popular practice than the ideas. I know Buddhism, even the more religious kinds replete with gods and other such things the Buddha would’ve had no truck with, has some excellent philosophical depth. But this book wants to focus more on things like folks staking bits of the land down so they won’t run away.

So here I am, reading this, and instead of thinking, “Interesting – that could be useful for an alien culture, suitably camouflaged,” I’m thinking, “Do people really believe that silly shite? I mean, on a scale of everyday concerns, is this really important to them?”

I’m gonna have to stay away from the popular stuff for a while. Avoid people running around driving stakes through bits of ground so it doesn’t get filched by demons in favor of the stuff that treats such matters as allegory and philosophy rather than as matter of fact. Gah.

I must be an Elitist Bastard. Even with religion research, I prefer the hoity-toity, scholarly, metaphorical, very complicated theological systems advanced by deep thinkers than the stuff practiced by the simple folk. That’s not new, mind, just more pronounced.

And yet I can go to a movie like The Forbidden Kingdom and have absolutely no problem at all with Monkey gods and a lot of extreme silliness. Bronx geek with an unhealthy fascination for martial arts films ends up transported to another kingdom, has to return the Monkey King’s staff? Not a problem! Runs into a Taoist immortal who’s perpetually drunk? Better still! Nothing makes logical sense? Who cares! It’s beautiful and it’s fun and it works in the context of the story, even when it’s cheesier than a truckload of Cheez Whiz.

I thoroughly enjoyed picking up on bits and pieces of myth, legend and philosophy. There’s a lot more Zen in there than you typically run in to in Chinese flicks – a great moment where Jackie Chan’s drunken Taoist character, Lu Yan, is teaching Jason kung fu, and pours him a cup of tea as Jason’s going on and on about all the martial arts moves he knows from the movies. I knew what would happen: Lu would keep pouring.

It’s an old Zen story. A man comes to the Zen master for teaching, bragging about all the things he already knows about Zen. The Zen master nods and smiles and pours tea – and keeps pouring, until the cup overflows and runs all over the floor. “Stop!” the visitor protests. “The cup’s already full!” “Exactly,” the master says. “How can I teach you anything when your cup’s already full? Empty your cup!”

This is exactly what happens in the movie, and it’s a sheer delight.

Lu Yan’s based on Liu Ling, I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut hole. Don’t know Liu Ling? Hang about me for any length of time and you soon will. He was one of the legendary Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. One story about him says that he was followed around by a manservant who carried a jug of wine and a shovel. The wine was in case he sobered up too much. The shovel was in case he drank himself to death.

Now, that’s a man comfortable with his life!

Seeing as how Wikipedia already butchered my favorite story of Liu Ling, I shall retell it here:

One day, a Confucian friend of Liu’s went to his house and found him nude. Confucians, of course, put a lot of store by propriety, so the friend was a little discombobulated by this unashamed nakedness. They’re sitting there chatting, and the Confucian friend is getting more and more disturbed, until finally he can take no more. “Why aren’t you wearing any trousers?” he splutters.

“The universe is my house. This room is my trousers,” Liu says to him. “What are you doing here inside my trousers?”

I think you can begin to see why I love Taoist philosophy so very much.

And I think that may be what’s missing from that book on Tibetan Buddhism: the playfulness. The spontaneity. The delight in the absurd, the deeper meaning behind the seemingly meaningless. It’s one thing to go around staking down plots of earth in all seriousness. It’s quite another if it’s treated as something of an in-joke. The simple folk may seriously believe those stories about the land flying away if you don’t nail it down, they may believe in the objective reality of the demons and the gods, but that’s just a surface meaning. It’s not, when you get right down to it, what it’s really all about.

And I’m not even sure those Tibetan peasants are so literal. I have to wonder if that’s just the artifact of a Western mind trying to comprehend the Eastern. After all, Western religion got right out of the joyful absurdity business and took things way too literally for far too long. I find that strange, when you look at the New Testament and see how often Jesus taught in parables. If you ever wonder why I tend to giggle when fundies proclaim every word of the Bible is literal truth, there it is: Jesus himself said otherwise. So if you’re using the Bible to prove the Bible… watch out.

After a long and winding journey, we have finally looped around to the point: I can enjoy The Forbidden Kingdom without the slightest hint of annoyance because I know that while there’s serious stuff in there, it’s not meant to be taken seriously. No one is claiming these things happened in actual reality. These are true stories, but in an allegorical, not empirical, sense. This movie is sheer entertainment with a little bit o’ good philosophy mixed in. And there’s no silly Western bugger going, “Wow, people actually b
elieve the story of the Monkey King, and we have to treat it as The Truth, ‘cos it’s their religion.”

Unlike this bloody book.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go track down some bugger who knows what the tulku are really all about so I can tell a ripping good story meself.

*Bonus points to anyone who caught the Mortal Kombat reference in the title.