Is "Ghost Rider" a Wrathful Bodhisattva?

by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, March 5, 2007

Dharma-Inspired Movie Review:

Singapore -- If you are to reflect more deeply on recent comic book print-to-screen adaptations, it is seldom a matter of "just another superhero" making it big. Every classic character stands for certain archetypal qualities, which is what made it popular and endure in public consciousness, that enabled it to sell all these years - to the extent of deserving a movie to be made out of it. Now, what is it exactly, that makes Ghost Rider fascinating?

Ghost Rider refers to a powerful supernatural being, who was supposedly the Devil's (played by Peter Fonda) bounty hunter, who does the Devil's bidding by bringing escaped souls back to hell. Whenever in the presence of evil elements, he takes possession of Johnny Blaze (played by Nicolas Cage), a motorcycle stuntman, who then becomes somewhat invulnerable, which makes the evil very vulnerable. He's a "Hell's Angel" of sorts, though in the form of an unearthly demon with a fiery skull, riding on a blazing "Hell Cycle" as his vehicle.

Incidentally, in Buddhist cosmology, hell-beings cannot simply escape into the human world, though they can be reborn human after "doing time". And the demonic denizens that torment one in the hells are mere manifestations of one's guilty conscience. In the sutras, Guanyin Bodhisattva is also described to be able to skilfully manifest as a fearsome Ghost-king to guide otherworldly beings with the Dharma.

To clarify, the usual concept of the Devil does not exists in Buddhism, though there is scriptural mention of a great evil god called Mara, who tempts unenlightened beings into entertaining the defilements of greed, hatred and delusion. However, he does not dwell in the hells. He reigns in any place that is spiritually defiled, especially our minds! When we face and conquer our inner demons, we vanquish him in the moment. Thus is there need to cultivate mindfulness to guard against our Maras.

Johnny Blaze had unmindfully sold his soul to the Devil, signing up for a deal to save his father. Though his father was saved from a fatal illness, he was not spared from a freak accident that occurred shortly after - as planned by the devious Devil. Of course, in real life, matters of life and death are karma-related. No almighty being lords over our destinies other than us, as masters of our self-created karma. There is also no concept of unchanging "souls" in Buddhism. What we have instead is consciousness, that morphs with the forces of conditioned habit and conscious free will. In Buddhism, you make a deal with Mara the moment you entertain your defilements. You become devilish!

However, Johnny is different from others who sold their souls to the Devil as he did it altruistically, out of love. Magnifying this love for the innocent, he later refuses to serve the Devil with his new-found powers, rebelling against him in the fight against evil and ultimately against the Devil himself. His noble aspiration somewhat renders him a wrathful Bodhisattva in the making. As initially instructed by the Devil, we see Ghost Rider battle against Blackheart (played by Wes Bentley), the wayward son of the Devil, who mocks his father by reminding him to "raise only as many devils as you can lay down." When we do not lay down our spiritual defilements, we too become sons and daughters of Mara!

Ghost Rider personifies the snarling glee of exacting punishment on the guilty, while he enjoys himself on the ride-machine of every biker's wildest fantasy. I suspect many of us probably dream of being a no holds barred Ghost Rider to some extent. Interestingly, his super power of exacting punishment is indeed an "exact" one - the "penance stare", which reflects the sum of suffering the guilty has given others back to oneself in one go. In this sense, his eyes serve as an impartial mirror of karma. The payback is like instant karma bearing overwhelmingly bitter fruit. However, real karmic payback is usually not so instantaneous, and is often payback with compounded "interest" for the continually unrepentant. However, negative karma cannot "demand" eternal damnation in the dimension of hell - as long as the wrongs done are not infinite. Hellfire does not rage forever for limited wrongs done. This is surely fair justice!

Perhaps Ghost Rider's methods are a tad too swiftly vengeful in nature, giving little chance for the guilty to express repentance? Ferociously wielding his fiery bike chain in the name of battling evil like an otherworldly knight on wheels, it's a little unnerving to see how he seems on the verge of being evil himself. As Nietzsche warned in his work "Beyond Good and Evil" - "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." In being instruments of justice, may all do so mindfully. To be self-righteous is to be at fault. It is crucial not to create negative karma in the self-rationalised guise of creating positive karma. We make choices between good and evil from moment to moment. As uttered existentially in the film, "If you don't make a choice, the choice makes you". Choose well!