Book Review: The Dharma of Dragons and Demons (David Loy & Linda Goodhew)

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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.

 

Wealth, Knowledge, and Wisdom

Human beings are like rats: We like to acquire things. I recall a rat I once took care of for a friend. I had never known a rat before, so it was a learning experience. The most striking thing about the rat to me was that it had a home, a little dome in which to eat in private, and it liked to store all the food it could acquire there.

It had a food bowl in its cage, but it never ate at the bowl. When I put food in its bowl, the rat would hurry over and pick through the day’s winnings, stuffing as many valuable items into its mouth that would fit and stowing them in its house–and with a sense of urgency! Not knowing exactly what a rat likes to eat, I gave it biscuits, seed, nuts, vegetables, and sometimes fruit. From time to time, I would hear it eating in its home, but I had no idea what it was eating. I assumed it took the food it wanted to eat and left the rest.

When I cleaned its cage and lifted its home up for the first time, I discovered the things it didn’t like to eat but wanted to add to its larder anyway. I learned that rats are indeed like people. They have things they want to use now and things they want to accumulate for some future time that may never come. The desire to possess something that might be useful someday but not today wasn’t invented by humans.

Wealth in Material

In the human world, we have material wealth in addition to food that we acquire and use. We own land, homes, vehicles, appliances, clothing, and a whole gamut of personal items. We take it to a level of abstraction never known before modern technology: Wealth in the form of numbers in an account that exists in a computer system. Like the rat, we acquire and accumulate wealth because we want to use it in our daily lives but also because it has some value that makes us desire having more of it.

Our society has become one obsessed with quantities rather than function. We fill our larders for the future, then continue filling beyond present and future need. Worse, we fill our larders so that we can compare them to the larders of other people and feel happy we are ahead of them. At the end of a person’s life, this turns out to be an absurdity similar to a pet rat stowing great piles of unwanted food when it’s well fed every day. The desire to acquire takes on a life of its own, providing a sense of satisfaction when nothing is accomplished but to move something from one place to another.

Wealth in Knowledge

Knowledge is very similar to this. Like wealth, knowledge can be acquired, and it has value because of its usefulness. Knowledge makes it possible to accomplish tasks, solve problems, and acquire new abilities. Knowledge can also be lost when it isn’t used.

If I want to translate an ancient language to English, I have to acquire the knowledge about both languages, my readers, and the original author of the ancient text. Otherwise, the translation will be inaccurate or impossible to comprehend.

Knowledge, though, like material wealth, activates the rat in people. We like to acquire it for reasons other than its use. We want to know everything about a subject and become an expert in it. We want to defeat others in debates by never having the wrong answer. We want to have complete certainty about the unknown. We want to enjoy the pleasure of learning new things.

A single person can study a subject and never reach the end of all the knowledge that can be acquired about it. They can become very admiring of themselves and other people who have become experts in a topic, yet they may only know a fraction of all the knowledge about it that exists. There is simply too much to learn in a single life span. The acquisition of knowledge, like material, can become an endeavor without a purpose beyond piling more into one place.

Wealth in Wisdom

This brings me to another subject: Wisdom.

Wisdom is a kind of meta-knowledge. It answers “Why?” questions, like why we value one thing more than another, for example. In discussing wealth of material and knowledge, I’ve been careful to avoid mixing in wisdom. People can do the same thing for foolish or wise reasons.

A person can acquire great financial wealth for the purpose of creating a charity that can help society as a whole, or they can acquire great wealth to control society with the power than it makes possible. Knowing which goal is wise and which is foolish is the acquisition of wisdom.

Like material and knowledge, wisdom comes in different kinds. There is wisdom about what is wise in our personal lives. Why are we in a given career? Why do we have the friends and relationships that we choose? Why are we pursuing the long-term goals that we’ve set for ourselves? These are difficult questions whose answers change over the years. The answers never seem to be final. Experience and perspective as we move through life make us re-assess the answers. Often, though, we neglect asking these questions until the answers become so obsolete that we have to stop and rethink our lives.

There is also wisdom about society. We have individual lives, but we exist in larger societies that have their own goals and group wisdom. A company can begin life making a given product that’s innovative and useful. It changes people’s lives for the better. Over time, the company’s purpose can change from providing that innovation to simply controlling a stream of income. The answers to its “Why?” questions can go unquestioned for far longer than an individual person’s do, and its wisdom can dwindle away or grow depending on whether its managers and employees make a habit of asking them or not.

Wisdom also can be about a person’s inner life, which is the kind of wisdom religions and philosophies like Buddhism acquire. This type of wisdom draws conclusions about basic questions like why we are unhappy and why we are satisfied in one situation or another. They ask questions that drive all the other forms of wisdom. They are the core questions whose answers inform the “Why?” questions about relationships, careers, and society.

Unfortunately, these core questions are also often the last “Why?” questions that we ask, and many people only ask them in times of crisis and turmoil. They don’t spend enough time developing the answers, and so personal and societal wisdom goes underdeveloped, being based on poor answers to these core “Why?” questions.

Societies and people who make a conscious habit of acquiring wisdom have a better sense of purpose, have the ability to correct themselves, and have the flexibility to adapt to change. When wisdom is neglected, we become more mechanical in our behavior and thinking.  Habits are difficult to change, systems are difficult to reform, and ideological paradigms become inflexible.

Modern society in America has become very good at acquiring wealth in material and knowledge but not wisdom, and this turning away from wisdom has been exported around the world. It is to me the root cause of many crises that we face in the world, such as income inequality, ethnic conflicts, or ecological disaster, and only wisdom will allow us to solve them.