Fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living.
– Ursula Le Guin
The tension between western Buddhists who embrace the traditional forms of the religion and those who blend it with modern culture is palpable at times. In some cases the friction is caused by literalism (from either perspective), and sometimes its source is cultural.
My own path has hewed a route that refuses to separate the modern and the traditional, holding both as equally important. The modern world is the one we live in every day, and the traditional world is an endless source of insight and inspiration. I can’t see a reason to abandon either, and my hope is that the two can be blended into something healthier. That hope has always been the driver of my interest, practice, and study of Buddhism.
David Loy is a contemporary writer who builds bridges on which modern culture and traditional Buddhism can consider each other. The Dharma of Dragons and Demons is a short collection of essays published in periodicals like The Journal of the Faculty of International Studies at Bunkyo University (Japan) and Nihon Jidoubungaku. Each article selects a number of western fantasies and draws out principles and themes they have in common with Buddhism. He and his wife edited five of these cross-cultural articles and republished them in this book.
Loy bases each article on a major theme of Buddhist thought: Social engagement, time, nonviolence, death and life. In each, he examines the stories that have captured Western imaginations: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Ende’s Momo, Miyazaki’s Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke, Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Le Guin’s Earthsea books.
What led me to this book a few years ago was my interest in Miyazaki’s films as well as Le Guin’s books. I’ve been particularly fascinated with Princess Mononoke because of the way Miyazaki creates a story about a three-sided conflict: Two warring factions with a third character who comes with wisdom to try to make a peace between them. This was so different from the typical western drama in which a hero simply destroys the “bad” people. Myazaki paints a more realistic story. Both sides have their virtues and their faults, yet one side is indeed the more dangerous one. Still, to make peace and stop the destruction, someone has to form a bridge between the two.
Loy relates this story to an incident in the Buddhist canon when the Buddha intervenes to stop a conflict between two cities. As Loy writes:
… the peoples of Kapilavastu and Koliya were about to battle over water rights to the Rohini River, which meandered its way between them. Due to a drought the river did not have enough water to irrigate fields on both sides. Instead of working out a way to share what was available, the two clans had an argument that led to name-calling and then appeals to both kings, who took up arms to settle the issue.
Using his siddhi (supernatural powers), the Buddha observed from afar that the two cities were about to fight, and that this would lead to widespread misery … [A]s the two kings approached the riverbanks, he appeared between them over the water, hovering cross-legged in midair, and spoke to the astonished combatants: “Is this water more valuable than all of the blood about to be spilled because of it?” His words brought both sides to their senses, and the two kings agreed to settle their differences nonviolently.
Buddhist scriptures often relate fantastic stories that involve miracles, supernatural beings, rebirth, and even beings traveling from one galaxy to the next. These elements make them very similar to modern fantasy and fairy tales in that they use these events that are not found in our common reality of everyday life. People can react violently to questioning these elements in scripture while dismissing children’s stories that include the same devices. In both cases, though, wisdom and truth can be represented without the rigid box of normal life. The point is not whether a story is 100% factually true, but that it communicates something we need to learn today.
Writers like Loy are what we need if we are to escape the literalism of scripture and science and rediscover the path of wisdom that we’ve wandered away from.