A few weeks ago I had a crazy and far out idea one morning as I was getting dressed, putting on what friends kid me is my “utility belt,” an iPod PDA in a cell phone holster, my Swiss army knife, my Leatherman tool, then my belt pouch which has a hundred little useful items in it. I thought my idea was hilariously funny but very esoteric – my warped sense of humor – and figured I knew only one other person in the world who could grasp how amusing it was, Jeffrey Kripal, a professor of comparative religion at Rice University who has written a lot on how various god and demon archetypes keep coming back in today’s popular culture, even though we consciously dismiss all that stuff as ancient superstition. They come back in films and especially through the medium of comic books. As I’ve heard him put it, the gods wear capes and spandex nowadays….. 😉
Those of us who grew up in the 40s were immersed in comic books, which were so far out from the sensible world of our parents that there was eventually a congressional hearing and calls to ban them, as they were warping the minds of the young. I didn’t know my young mind was being warped, I was just enjoying reading my comic books – maybe that explains me? Fifty years later I can have occasional flashes of mild resentment: why did my mother throw out all my old comic books? They would be worth a lot to collectors today! And maybe fun to read……
Anyway I thought I’d share my weird humor with Jeffrey, so wrote him:
Up here in the country at our cabin, as I was buckling on my “utility belt” of handy stuff – you have noticed my Batman complex? – I flashed on this idea for a collage which I think is hilarious and profound, but which I figured nobody else in the world would get – until I thought of you, our Archetypal Comic Book Guru.
Superman – cute, but he’s not like us, he’s an alien, not a human. Not a useful role model.
Batman, Gautama Buddha (and me). Ordinary people who, through diligent effort and training, became superheroes (except for me). So I was envisioning a collage of the three of us standing together, arms about each others shoulders (it’s Miller time?), with a caption below indicating that we all have not only Buddha Nature, but we have Bat Nature….. 😉
It’s OK if you think “Huh?” But you’ll get it eventually, you do have Bat Nature!
To my surprise, he wrote back:
Yes, I think of Batman whenever I see that utility belt of yours!
And believe it or not, there are a number of pages on Batman and Buddhism in my MUTANTS AND MYSTICS. I kid you not.
So I had to get the book, and lo and behold, to quote a paragraph,
There really is such a practice as Thögal. It is a supersecret practice of the Dzogchen tradition, which is itself part of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, which gave us texts like the Bardo Thodal, otherwise known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead (an instruction manual on how to negotiate the terrors and visions of the death process that is read to the disembodied soul as it hovers around its corpse). The successful practice of Thögal is said to be able to take the practitioner very quickly to the ultimate goal of complete enlightenment, which is accompanied by the attainment of something called the Rainbow Body -a consummate transformation, and dissolution, of the physical form into a Body of Light, often represented in Tibetan art as a huge rainbowlike energy field emanating from a Buddha (a theme we last encountered in Ezekiel’s chariot vision of the fiery humanoid being on the divine throne, surrounded by a rainbow light). The mytheme of Radiation par excellence.
I was amazed. Thögal is a very secret practice, hardly ever talked about. It’s for very advanced practitioners, and they spend a lot of time alone in the dark. But here, from Kripal’s book, is a page from a comic (the date is a little ambiguous to me, but either 1997 or 2008), showing Batman entering Thögal retreat:
Quoting again from Kripal’s book (p 249-250)
“The Thögal practice itself is described on the first page of Batman #673: ” The Thögal Ritual is one of the most highly advanced and dangerous forms of meditation. During a seven-week retreat known as Yangti, the practitioner undergoes an experience designed to simulate death and after-death. And rebirth, too.” Alfred, now in the first pages of Batman R.I.P., explains further: “Thögal is the peak meditative experience in the Dzogchen Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism…. Nothing less, as I understand it, than a complete rehearsal, while living, of the experience of death.” Later in the story, Batman explains how through this practice he ultimately came to “a place that’s not a place.” His Tibetan interlocutor explains that this too “is customary. In Thögal the initiate learns what the dead know. The self is peeled back to its black radiant core. Like an onion.”
What were all those childhood comic books getting my mind ready for? Warping? Opening? Or? 😉
Well at least one other person in the world appreciated my funny thought, although I don’t think I’ll ever get Batman and Gautama Buddha to show up for that picture taking…. 😉
If you were one of those young minds warped by comic books, or just enjoy them, I recommend Kripal’s book, Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superheros and the Paranormal (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2011).