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"Batman Begins" His Wrathful Bodhisattva Path
by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, June 22, 2005
Dharma inspired review: www.BatmanBegins.com
Singapore -- Though Batman was created way back in 1939, "Batman Begins" (2005) is probably the most credible comic book adapted movie ever - because it thoroughly tells the story of how a thoroughly fallible human being overcame his guilt, anger and fear to become a legendary hero for greater good.
It is the "darkest" yet most en-"light"-ening take to date, on the psyche of a fictitious "cartoon" character. I have always found Batman intriguing, because he is a "non-super" superhero. His evil-busting efforts rely entirely on his imperfect human strengths and human friends, as he strives diligently to perfect himself physically and mentally.
Arguably, his polar opposite is Superman, who is alien (not from our world), who has a host of convenient super powers ranging from incredible strength to near perfect invulnerability. For me, it's just all "too good to be true", hard to relate to. Superman is the nice and cheery gentleman in the constant limelight, while Batman is the dark and angsty knight hidden in the shadows. Yes, both are extremes, yet Batman is much more realistic.
As quipped by Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne (played by Christian Bale), as a "joke" to unsuspecting dinner guests, "A guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues!" The film clearly illustrates to us the struggles of himself as someone tormented by his childhood trauma of witnessing his parents die in a shootout. We get to empathise with his "issues". "Why do we fall? So that we can learn to get up." More importantly, we see how he "rises up" time and again to his late father's words of encouragement. He becomes the masked anonymous Bodhisattva to the citizens of Gotham city. Rather than focusing on the masked superhero, "Batman Begins" is more about the humanity behind the mask.
The film's dialogue explores much on the nature of fear. The mentor of Bruce Wayne, Henri Ducard (played by Liam Neeson) tells him, "You travelled the world... Now you must journey inwards... to what you really fear... it's inside you... there is no turning back." This inner pilgrimmage is self-reflection, a meditation of sorts to face one's inner demons. Once they are overcome, even Mara, the evil one who represents all our defilements, can only surrender to us.
Ducard further teaches, "To conquer fear, you must become fear." Conquering his phobia of bats, Bruce makes peace with the denizens of night, taking on the persona of Batman - a mysterious but swift and sure predator of evil. He explains, "I seek the means to fight injustice. To turn fear against those who prey on the fearful... As a man, I'm just flesh and blood. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, I can be everlasting. I can be incorruptable. I can be something terrifying."
The above brings to mind the Buddhist personifications of compassion and wisdom in the form of wrathful deities - as Mahakala (a manifestation of Guanyin Bodhisattva) and Yamantaka (a manifestation of Manjusri Bodhisattva) respectively, who are amongst the most ferocious in Buddhist imagery, complete with glaring eyes, menacing sharp teeth and multiple weapon-wielding arms. To the already wrathful, stronger wrathful skilful means are sometimes needed to transform them, though the gentle heart and intention of compassion and wisdom remains steadfast. In Buddhism, wrathful deities are seen as both mind-made (manifested by Bodhisattvas and/or meditators) and real. However, in the West, they are often wrongly regarded as merely mythological or symbolic characters. This parallel applies to Batman too - he might be seen as an urban legend by Gothamites in the comic book universe, yet in its context, he is also "real".
Bruce's father, Dr. Thomas Wayne (played by Linus Roache) had told him as a child, after rescuing him from a fall (into what later became the Batcave), that the "scary" bats he encountered, like all other creatures, know fear. They were probably more afraid of him when he fell into their nest. In fact, scary creatures especially, have more fear. This later relates to Bruce's realisation that outwardly "scary" criminals are a cowardly, guilt-ridden and superstitious lot, to whom the demonic form of Batman is ominous, which "paralyses" them out of fear to his advantage. Fear is a delusional mix of attachment to the familiar and aversion to the unknown. What is really frightening? The villian "Scarecrow" (alter-ego of Dr. Jonathan Crane, played by Cillian Murphy), who uses "fear gas" to intoxicate his victims with terrifying self-created hallucinations, gives the answer - "There's nothing to fear... but fear itself!"
Coupled with fear is Bruce's unresolved anger at the sudden loss of his parents. Bruce tells Ducard, "They told me there was nothing out there, nothing to fear. But the night my parents were murdered, I caught a glimpse of something. I've looked for it ever since. I went around the world, searched in all the shadows. And there is something out there in the darkness, something terrifying, something that will not stop until it gets revenge... me." Ducard comments, ?Your anger gives you great power... You fear your own power, your own anger - the drive to do great or terrible things." Bruce realises that the most terrifying is not any monster without, but that within him. Bruce learns not to be lost in the monster of anger, but to use the monster instead, by harnessing its energy, thought-transforming it into fierce unrelenting compassion to protect the innocent. As warned by Nietzsche, "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster." Choosing to be a monster of sorts who fends off "monsters" whenever he puts on the mask, he constantly risks stepping over the edge. Mindfulness was his only guard. In Buddhism, anger is likened to a fire that can raze away a "forest of merits" in a single outburst. Beware its wrath!
Despite his burning rage that would not easily rest, Bruce never lost mindfulness of how terrible his anger could become in devouring himself and others. In a scene where he was instructed to execute a criminal, to which he refused, Ducard warns, "Your compassion (the opposite of anger) is a weakness your enemies won?t share.? Bruce counters, ?That?s why it?s so important... It is what separates us from them (criminals)." This marked the point of departure in ideology between mentor and disciple, as Ducard was one of the leading henchmen of the self-righteous Ra's Al Ghul (played by Ken Watanabe), who believed in making the world a "better" place by "restarting" it via mass-killing of both the evil and innocent.
Initially blinded by his anger, Bruce's love interest, Rachel (played by Katie Holmes) was crucial in defining "right" and "wrong" to him. ?Justice is about harmony,? she cautions. ?Vengeance is about making yourself feel better.? True justice has the qualities of the Four Sublime States of mind - it is at heart both compassionate and equanimous. Batman's wrath is thus essentially against evil, not any evil-doer. The greed, hate and ignorance is always the root of the problem; not the greedy, hateful or ignorant. In the film, as differentiated from some depictions of Batman in the comics, he does not fight so much to avenge his parents, but simply to bring about justice, to restore harmony lost.
Rachel also reminds Bruce of his late family's legacy, of his duty to carry on his family?s philanthropic works. Alternating between the two masks of a vigilante and a billionaire playboy to convince the world they are unlikely to be the same person, Bruce becomes a skilful "householder Bodhisattva" who uses his fame and fortune as Bruce Wayne, and his intelligence and grit as Batman - with equal great effect for benefitting society. Working as Bruce Wayne by day and crusading as Batman by night, he becomes a true 24/7 Bodhisattva.
Urging Bruce to do the right thing, Rachel tells him, "It's not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you." Yes, our actions define us more than who we merely think we are. Yet, as long as we are unenlightened, what we ultimately are underneath is our true definition. We are all hidden Bodhisattvas, sleeping Buddhas. When that which we do becomes more and more in line with our innate Buddha-nature, we become more and more obviously defined and actualised as who we truly are at heart - perfect Bodhisattvas. Does Batman have Buddha-nature? Of course! And his Bodhisattva path had just begun in "Batman Begins". During an interview, Christian Bale remarked that Batman fascinates him because with enough determination, anyone can become him in real life. With or without a cape and cowl, will you not become a Bodhisattva too?