Tag Archives: story

How to Train Your Own Campbellian Archetypical Hero

I loved the movie How to Train Your Dragon immensely. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt very complete, very satisfying as an overall story, even if it was originally made for children. It wasn’t until about a week after watching it that it hit me — How to Train Your Dragon is the classic archetypical hero’s journey, more than you would originally think.

Spoiler Alert: There’s a lot of spoilers in this post, so watch the movie if you haven’t already and stop reading.

"And so it happens that if anyone -- in whatever society -- undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him) which is no less marvelous than the wild Siberian world of the pudak and sacred mountains." - Joseph Campbell

"And so it happens that if anyone -- in whatever society -- undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him) which is no less marvelous than the wild Siberian world of the pudak and sacred mountains." --Joseph Campbell

HTYD starts out by introducing the hero of the story — Hiccup, son of the Viking chief. It turns out that Vikings spent a lot of their days building up a seaside pastoral/horticultural/fishing community that fell prey to constant dragon attacks. Like the archetypical hero, his father is famous and strong. He’s a powerful man who leads his people with ferocity and ambition. Yet, the Viking community is in a state of constant siege and, most importantly, decay. Their never ending battles with dragons wears them down. Hiccup’s father continually seeks for a solution, some form of attack that will cease the dragon attacks once and for all, yet finds himself frustratingly impotent in doing so. While the Viking community is not teetering on the edge of total collapse, the edges are beginning to fray. Tensions are mounting, and something must give in order for there to be renewal in the land.

Hiccup is not strong at all; he’s downright puny. Yet he is endowed with a special gift that sets him apart from the other Vikings, and that is critical thinking and technical knowledge. He stumbles upon a dragon (one of the most powerful, in fact) who is injured; Hiccup befriends the dragon and trains him in a very symbiotic way. The dragon (of Night Fury species), whom Hiccup dubs Toothless, has torn his tail which it uses for flying. Hiccup studies the dragon’s abortive flight attempts and builds a replacement wing which Hiccup controls. Only by working together in a state of union can the two achieve their goals.

During his training sessions, Toothless flies him into the very den of dragons itself, an elusive island Hiccup’s father has sought his entire life. There, he enters the maw of Hell and the underworld, a realm of suffering, death, and decay. He learns the dragons themselves are slaves to a Master Dragon, one Dragon to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. It forces the dragons to raid the Vikings so that they may plunder their lands to bring tribute back to the Great Beast. To disobey is certain death. Hiccup discovers in his venture to the Underworld the source of the Problem itself, a corruption that has thrown the entire world out of balance. Dragons, representative of the forces of nature, need not fight against and destroy Vikings, or humanity. Hiccup sees a vision of a world where man and nature unite in harmony; he intends to see it happen.

Still, the Viking community is very suspicious of dragons and Hiccup must keep this relationship a secret. Eventually, others are drawn into the circle of trust, and eventually he must marshall his allies and directly oppose his father, who has now begun to show signs of hubris (and even madness). After betraying his son’s trust and using him to find the dragons’ homeland, he hurtles towards oblivion with the rest of his followers. Hiccup understands this to be certain death; such an invasion will only end in bloodbath and the complete and inevitable annihilation of the Viking race. Hiccup’s father, the chief, has effectively lost his kingship, his right to rule, and Hiccup must take the crown by violence to save the kingdom now toppling into destruction.

In the midst of the war, he opposes his father and strips him of his authority to lead. He takes the reins of kingship and leads his people in battle. He is victorious; yet, the victory comes not without a price. Hiccup is caught in the dying throes of the corrupted Great Serpent, a now corpulent and bloated mockery of dragonship, and plummets to the earth. It is at this point that he dies, Hiccup son of Stoik the Vast. He is literally swallowed up by the dragon Toothless. Representative of nature’s relationship with man, you could say that the earth itself, Mother Gaia, swallows the lifeless body of Hiccup. However, when the crowd gathers about to mourn the loss of their hero, Hiccup emerges from the dragon’s mouth and is reborn, hero of the Vikings and new chief of the Viking tribe. Still, he has not emerged unscathed — he has lost a leg, symbolic of the atoning price the king must pay in order to renew the land and bring new prosperity to its people. Just as how Toothless (nature) lost its limbs, throwing herself (and the world as a whole) off balance, so Hiccup must also undergo the ritual of sacrificing the king in order to bring about renewing power.

And that he does. Hiccup has brought about rebirth to the land. Dragons and Vikings now live together in harmony, a symbiotic relationship built upon mutual trust and cooperation rather than competition and death. Hiccup has literally restored the paradisaical Garden of Eden, the perfect marriage of man back into his place within the vibrant web of life. Though his father still lives, Hiccup is the de facto new king of the Vikings, revered by his followers and subjects, with a new queen by his side.

What makes HTYD so Campbellian, however, is not the simple Hero Outcast -> Adventures -> Gaining/Realization of New Powers -> Plunge into the Underworld -> Battle -> Death -> Rebirth narrative. Almost every Disney movie has this narrative. Heck, even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (which is another great movie) has this basic narrative. What makes HTYOD Campbellian is its attention to kingship, decay, and renewal. Here, we are shown a society literally falling apart. The king is helpless, weak despite his physical strength, even slightly mad. The Viking civilization is in a death spiral because the very land itself (the dragons) is rebelling against them. Here sets the stage for a hero to emerge, one of kingly blood himself who will bring renewal to his people but through sacrifice in order to re-establish balance in a world that has gone off-kilter.

Even more Campbellian is Hiccup’s “death.” Many children’s movies have an implied “death(?)” scene where the fate of the hero is in question. Not only does it build climactic tension right before the denouement, but it is essential in order to establish that the hero is no longer the same person; he has been reborn into a new creature. Hiccup’s “death” is even more dramatic and symbolic. Toothless, the symbol of nature, literally swallows up Hiccup, just as the earth swallows the hero’s body as a grave. This grave, ironically, is what saves Hiccup and brings about the means for his resurrection as the hero. And when he emerges, though he has mastered nature and dragons and claimed the rightful throne from his ailing father to lead his people (and thus uniting them as one and overcoming dualistic thinking), he has sacrificed himself to bring about this restoration.

And this is why HTYD is so ultimately more satisfying of an ending, more rich of a conclusion, than a movie like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Flint emerges from his implied “death(?)” scene basically the same as before — he’s the same lovable, goofy inventor, except validated by his peers and (most importantly) by his father. But other than that, nothing internally has essentially changed. The ending is self-gratifying, almost to the point of a Mary Sue — the “moral” of the story is simple; all of us are geniuses waiting to bloom and be validated by those around us, and we are to project this narcissism onto Flint himself.

Hiccup’s death, in contrast, is entirely opposite. Hiccup emerges changed, not only physically, but internally as well. He has suffered and made the blood sacrifice necessary to bring restoration to his people. He emerges the master of two worlds — both the social world he emerged from and eventually tamed as chief, but the dragon/nature world as well, which he also has tamed. His is not a self-indulgent victory in which he narrowly averts crisis brought about by his own hubris (like Flint), but one where he stops the madness of the king from plunging his people into destruction and pays the atoning burden for his people.

In short, this is the difference between HTYD and other hero’s journey stories like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Another great comparison example (last one, I promise!) is Harry Potter and Twilight. Both are archetypical hero journeys (Yes, Twilight! Though, in reality, it’s more of like an anti-hero’s journey. But that’s for another day). But in one story, the hero suffers loss and undergoes a fundamental change within himself to find mastery over the world he lives in and overcome death. In the other story, the heroine is a narcissistic egomaniac who also finds mastery over the world and overcomes death, but only through sniveling passivity and dithering, vapid cowardice. In the former, the mastery over death is preceded by volunteering to become a sacrifice, and this sacrifice enables the hero to overcome the Problem or the Corruption in order to bring balance, peace, and renewal to his people. In the latter, the mastery over death is preceded by satiating selfish desires, abandonment of previous obligations, and this mastery over death enables the heroine to continue living this selfish lifestyle. Thankfully, HTYD falls into the former category, though unfortunately, many hero journey stories nowadays fall into the latter, a self-indulgent attempt to justify counterfeit heroism — that is, heroism without obligation and sacrifice, yet replete with all of the unearned accolades and laurels of victory.

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Great Audiences

While visiting the famous Powell Bookstore in Portland, Oregon the other weekend, I saw a giant quote painted on one of their walls that stopped me dead in my tracks:

“To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.”
– Walt Whitman

I have since then learned this is a fairly popular quote, but it was the first time I had ever seen it, and it flipped my thinking upside down and then spun it around a couple of times for good measure.

As Mormons, and especially as Mormon creators, there’s a lot of angst about whether or not there will ever be good art. If the next Great Mormon Artist writes the Great American Mormon Novel, and nobody reads it, did it ever make an impact? In fact, that’s the common complaint among Mormon artists — there already is good stuff out there, but nobody ever reads it/listens to it/looks at it.

The question I’ve struggled with now for the past few weeks is less whether or not I will create Great American Mormon Art — I figure I’ll do my best and if I succeed then that’s great and if I don’t, welp, at least I can be a good father and husband. The question I have struggled with now is, How do we tap into a community that has been accused of being insular, resistant to controversy or paradigm shifts in thinking, or even light constructive criticism, or even questioning of the happy bubble we’ve created around ourselves?

On the one hand, I believe, like others, that we are on the cusp of a great perfect storm of Mormon Art. I constantly tell my wife that I am excited, and I can think of no better time to live as a member of the Church.

On the other hand (and perhaps because of this other hand the one hand can exist), we stand at the precipice of a rapidly changing world, and we will have to redefine ourselves or swiftly become irrelevant. We face a great many challenges in the future, as a people, as a culture, and as a religious church. Mike S. on the blog Wheat and Tares writes about what could be seen as a chilling trend in our Church — that our growth is not only slowing down, it may actually be reversing. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about our youth and especially our young single adults; it’s no surprise to many that we are hemorrhaging them, and that the programs we have in place are at best a temporary stop gap measure (and are debatable if they even work). We are baptizing like crazy in lesser developed countries, especially in Africa and South America — but we’re still lagging behind other Christian denominations, and our retention rate is abysmal, to say the least. The I’m A Mormon ad campaign is a (not so) quiet acknowledgment that we have a severe problem; not just an image problem, but a cultural problem.

In short, we’re having a pretty significant mini-existential crisis here. We are not sure how to define ourselves and reach out and relate to the young single adult generation. We cannot retain our newly baptized members easily. We try to promote an image of diversity through our ad campaigns, but our wards and branches rarely reflect such diversity. We become increasingly incapable of communicating with the world we live in, and many long-time members used to the Golden Age of Hinckley when everybody (we thought) absolutely adored us don’t want to deal with a shifting reality that we’re one of the most unpopular religious groups in America.

Enter artists, stage right.

The top-down approach is not working; the Church’s recent emphasis in ward councils during the Church Handbook of Instructions update shows that we now realize this. My brother sometimes gets frustrated that the prophet doesn’t use General Conference as a “bully pulpit” to whip Mormons in the right direction, but even if President Monson got up and said, “We need to accept all forms of diversity and stop judging,” which they already do on a regular basis, would this change the deeply rooted Church culture — especially in America — overnight, or even gradually? No, it wouldn’t.

Art, however, has an incredible ability to change society, to influence culture, and sway public (or Church) opinion. When President Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he remarked, “So, this is the woman who started the War.” Sinclair’s novel The Jungle sparked the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is widely acclaimed of bringing to light the horrible plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression during a time when the rest of the nation preferred to ignore it. And as a Mormon example, it is a little known fact that most of our modern Mormon theology derives from the works of James E. Talmage, notably Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith, which though not traditional works of art, shows the tremendous power of the medium of print.

Like the children of Israel wandering in the Sinai, we are resistant to instruction, rebellious against chastisement — but we love a good yarn. The propensity and ability of Mormonism to assimilate mainstream American folklore and put a Mormon spin on it says as much. I believe that we already have a good deal of Great Audiences — but they aren’t what we think. They are the Mormon housewives living lives of quiet desperation, perhaps wondering, as the 1950s housewives did of yore, if there was more to life than this but afraid to question out loud. They are the Mormon young single adults, alienated and unable to connect with a religious institution that caters almost exclusively to the nuclear family, but still so very much in love with the restored gospel and the inspiring Mormon narratives. They are those who don’t fit in, who struggle to remain true to the religion they fell in love with and the God they worship and also the personalities deeply embedded in them and the quiet conscience that whispers in their heart that the “standard” Mormon cultural path is not for them.

And then there is the murky underbelly of Mormon history that has for so long been whitewashed by our unwillingness to face our own demons. The explosion of information over the Internet has now rendered our suppression ineffective and impotent. We, as artists, must steel our hearts and souls and put on the armor of God and face those demons head on, rushing in with our pens and brushes and musical instruments, and we must show others around us that it really is possible to question, to reason, and to learn from our dark patches of history, rather than run from them or simply ignore them.

But it is not just enough for us to write and paint and draw and script and photograph and sing and play about Mormonism. We must evangelize Mormon art. We must organize and distribute and reach out and encourage. We must take our copies of The Lonely Polygamist and start Mormon literature book groups. We must find talented Mormon musicians and blog about them. We must share good Mormon short stories on Facebook. We must find every medium and art form, from fine art to video games, to tell our stories. We must show the rest of the Church that, yes, we are faithful, and, yes, we are quirky and different, but more importantly, so are you. And that’s okay!

In time, I firmly believe our demand for challenging, faithful, thoughtful, good Mormon art will grow. As we share what is already there and build upon the foundation stone upon stone, more and more members will ask for it, because these stories we have to tell feed the soul; we often forget that the scriptures we love so dearly are not just simply a collection of sermons or a treatise on human behavior; they are stories that resonate deep within our imperfectly devout bones. They are stories of broken families, of desperate parents seeking to keep their children in the faith, of children learning to build off of their parents’ sacrifice and learn from their parents’ mistakes, of the hubris of pride and greed, of the power of love and service. They are deeply contradictory, sometimes controversial stories that puzzle and confuse us.

The Book of Mormon’s stories are our stories; the Bible’s stories are today’s stories, and we must seek out these Great Audiences and tell them, “Look at this good that I have found. These stories are Mormon stories. We are past the days of perfectly perky housewives with stacks of canned wheat and six children running around freely and happily while father works at his nine to five upper-middle class white collar job. These are stories of broken families, of the hubris of pride and greed, and the power of love and service. These are stories of trial and heartache, of the universal pains we experience which bind us together as Mormons and as humans and as children of  God. These are our stories.”

I now firmly believe that if anything is going to save this Church which has been promised to never be taken away from the Earth until the Second Coming, it will be art. It will be art that shows us a new, nuanced way of viewing our mythology and theology; it will be art which questions and prods, but also gently guides our Church from an age of polygamy and isolation, to an age of rapid expansion, and finally to our age today of globalization. It will be art that lovingly tells and re-tells the stories, that teaches the lessons, that takes eternal principles and wraps them in meaningful packaging, and that beckons to those who may feel alone and cut off from the Church to return once more and sup at the table of Christ. Like Nephi, we will echo the Savior’s cry to the world to “Come unto me all ye ends of the earth, buy milk and honey, without money and without price.”

In our Church, we have the unique tradition of encouraging everyone to re-appropriate the Joseph Smith story for our own. Like the 14 year old farm boy, we must all go into our own Sacred Groves and pray to the Father for answers. We must all gain divine communication and open up a celestial channel. We must brand the story as our own personal story. We must all become Joseph Smiths. As artists, we must tell our own stories, and we must tell others’ stories as well. We seek all that is good within our tradition, and when we find that which is good in other traditions, we bring it under the umbrella of Mormonism, even if it means rearranging what we already have to make room for the newly discovered.

In a religious tradition that encourages and mandates such deeply intense and intimate personal relationships with the Divine, how could we possibly keep those stories to ourselves? And how can our starving souls not yearn for them?

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Sometimes a Curse Is a Blessing

In Radiant Lights, Haunted Nights, a collection of Jewish folktales edited by Joachim Neugroschel, a folktale chronicled by Y.L. Kahan titled “Sometimes a Curse Is a Blessing” tickled my fancy. I hope you all enjoy it as well!

There was once a couple who lived in a village, and they had no children. One day a rabbi came and he wanted to spend the Sabbath there. The master of the house and the lady of the house showed him a great deal of respect, and they served him good food and drink. Then, on a Sunday morning, the host gave the rabbi a generous donation. The rabbi blessed them, wishing them disturbed nights and disturbed meals. And then he set out again.

When he was gone, the hostess dashed after him. “Rabbi, were you dissatisfied with the alms? Is that why you cursed us?”

The rabbi laughed: “I gave you a blessing so that God would give you children. In a house with children, there are disturbed nights and disturbed meals. Sometimes a child cries at night, and his parents are disturbed. And sometimes a child throws down a glass, and so a meal is disturbed. And these are purely blessings when you have children.”

I hope I can remember this sage advice when the baby arrives. And for you existing parents out there, count your blessings!

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A Luxurious Life

Continuing in yesterday’s vein, another Buddhist-Yiddish folktale by Tashrak in the collection “Five Stories about Buddha, the Indian Prophet.” This one is titled “A Luxurious Life.”

When Buddha went into the world, teaching people to be decent and just, he eventually reached a town where the citizens came out to welcome him and bow to him.

However, there wasa rich man who did not bow, and he said to the prophet: “The prophet must forgive me. I’m too fat and I can barely move on my feet.”

“Would you like to know why that is?” Buddha asked.

“Yes,” said the rich man. “And perhaps the prophet can teach me how to find a cure.”

“There are five things that lead to a condition like yours,” the prophet explained. “Too much food, too much sleep, too much pleasure-seeking, too little work, and too little thought. Control your appetite for food and everything else, and you’ll become a normal human being.”

A few years later, Buddha arrived in the same town, and the rich man came out to welcome him like everyone else, bowed like everyone else, and said:

“Great prophet! You healed my body. Now advise me how to heal my mind, so that I can think and grasp everything like all wise and learned men.”

And the prophet replied:

“So long as you keep your body healthy, your mind will also remain healthy. For a healthy mind can exist only in a body that is properly cared for and never flouts the laws of nature.”

So, what do you think? Sound advice, or just more evidence that fat people just can’t catch a break anywhere?

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The Burning Palace

Tashrak, a pseudonym for Yisroel-Yoysef Zevin (1872-1926), adapted Buddhist tales into a Yiddish tradition. In one of the collections, “Five Stories about Buddha, the Indian Prophet”, he tells a story called “The Burning Palace.”

A rich man lived in a palace. The palace was very large but also very old. The walls and the columns were rotted and the roof was very dry. One day, while sitting there, the rich man smelled smoke. He dashed outdoors and saw that the entire building was ablaze. The man then remembered that his children were playing inside the palace, and he shuddered.

The terrified father stood there, not knowing what to do. He heard the children running about indoors and jumping and shouting merrily and cheerfully. He knew that if he told them the palace was on fire, they wouldn’t believe him. They’d think he wanted them to play outdoors. And if he dashed into the building and grabbed just one child at a time, he’d be unable to save the others, who’d scoot away from him and be lost in the flames.

Suddenly the father had a wonderful idea. “My children love toys,” he mused. “If I promise them some beautiful playthings, they’ll obey me.”

He now yelled: “C’mon children! Look at the lovely presents your father has brought you! Why, you’ve never seen such wonderful toys in all your lives! Come out as fast as you can!

And lo and behold! Children came running from all parts of the burning palace. They were mesmerized by the word “toys,” and their good father had brought them some marvelous playthings. But the children then ignored their presents, they gaped at the fire and they realized what great danger they had been in. They thanked their intelligent and loving father, who had saved them from certain death.

The prophet is well acquainted with human children, and he tells them that if they are good, they will receive good things, and that is how he saves them from evil.

And there are times when the children see the great danger that the prophet has saved them from, and they praise his name.

I am not a parent yet, and so I wanted to ask parents out there — is this good advice at all? On the one hand, I can see how this form of — well, for lack of better word — bribery could help, but in the end, it could also backfire, right? What do you parents think out there?

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Buddhism and women

Again, excerpts from Teachings of the Buddha edited by Jack Kornfield, this time about women. I found these excerpts to be especially intriguing, and wonder how they match-up to our female and feminist readers, who I assume are of mostly Western cultural descent.

Soma and Mara

Once the nun Soma, having returned from her alms round and after her meal, entered the woods for a noonday rest. Plunging into the depths of the woods, she sat down under a tree.

Then the tempter Mara, desirous of arousing fear, wavering, and dread in Soma, and wishing to cause her to interrupt her concentrated meditation, went up to her and said, “The goal is hard to reach, hard even for sages; it cannot be won by a woman with whatever wisdom she may have.”

Then Soma thought, “Who is this, a human or a non-human, who is saying this? Surely it is the evil Mara who wants to interrupt my concentrated meditation.” Knowing that it was Mara, she said to him, “What does one’s gender matter to one whose mind is well-composed, in whom insight is functioning, and who comprehends the Dharma?”

Then the evil Mara thought, “The nun Soma knows me.” Being sad and sorrowful, he vanished there and then.

adapted from the Samyutta Nikaya, translated by C. A. F. Rhys-Davids

And this one, which is more esoteric, but just as interesting (and a beautiful poem):

Songs of the Nuns

Free woman,
be free
as the moon is freed
from the eclipse of the sun.

With a free mind,
in no debt,
enjoy what has been given to you.

Get rid of tendency
to judge yourself
above, below, or
equal to others.
A nun who has self-possession
and integrity
will find the peace that nourishes
and never causes surfeit.

Be filled with all good things
like the moon on the fifteenth day.
Completely, perfectly full
of wisdom
tear open
the massive dark.

I, a nun, trained and self-composed,
established mindfulness
and entered peace like an arrow.
The elements of body and mind grew still,
happiness came.

Everywhere clinging to pleasure is destroyed,
the great dark is torn apart,
and Death, you too are destroyed.

from the Therigatha, translated by Susan Murcott

Lastly, there is this story, which involves gender identity, but one that puzzles me as well (comments about this one would be much appreciated!):

Sariputra and the Goddess

Thereupon, a certain goddess who lived in that house, having heard this teaching of the Dharma of the great heroic bhodisattvas, and being delighted, pleased, and overjoyed, manifested herself in a material body and showered the great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas, and the great disciples with heavenly flowers. When the flowers fell on the bodies of the bodhisattvas, they fell off on the floor, but when they fell on the bodies of the great disciples, they stuck to them and did not fall. The great disciples shook the flowers and even tried to use their magical powers, but still the flowers would not shake off. Then the goddess said to the venerable Sariputra, “Reverend Sariputra, why do you shake these flowers?”

Sariputra replied, “Goddess, these flowers are not proper for religious persons and so we are trying to shake them off.”

The goddess said, “Do not say that, reverend Sariputra. Why? These flowers are proper indeed! Why? Such flowers have neither constructual thought nor discrimination. But the elder Sariputra has both constructual thought and discrimination.

“Reverend Sariputra, impropriety for one who has renounced the world for the discipline of the rightly taught Dharma consists of constructual thought and discrimination, yet the elders are full of such thoughts. One who is without such thoughts is always proper.

“Reverend Sariputra, see how these flowers do not stick to the bodies of these great spiritual heroes, the bodhisattvas! This is because they have eliminated constructual thoughts and discriminations.

“For example, evil spirits have power over fearful men but cannot disturb the fearless. Likewise, those intimidated by fear of the world are in the power of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, which do not disturb those who are free from fear of the passions inherent in the constructive world. Thus, these flowers stick to the bodies of those who have not eliminated their instincts for the passions and do not stick to the bodies of those who have eliminated their instincts. Therefore, the flowers do not stick to the bodies of the bodhisattvas, who have abandoned all instincts.”

Sariputra asked: Goddess, what prevents you from transforming out of your female state?

The goddess replied: Although I have sought my “female state” for these twelve years, I have not found it. Reverend Sariputra, if a magician were to incarnate a woman by magic, would you ask her, “What prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?”

Sariputra: No! Such a woman would not really exist, so what would there be to transform?

Goddess: Just so, reverend Sariputra, all things do not really exist. Now, would you think, “What prevents one whose nature is that of a magical incarnation from transforming herself out of her female state?” Thereupon the goddess employed her magical power to cause the elder Sariputra to appear in her form and to cause herself to appear in his form. Then the goddess, transformed into Sariputra, said to Sariputra, transformed into a goddess, “Reverend Sariputra, what prevents you from transforming ourself out of your female state?”

And Sariputra, transformed into the goddess, replied, “I no longer appear in the form of a male! My body has changed into the body of a woman! I do not know what to transform!”

The goddess continued, “If the elder could again change out of the female state, then all women could also change out of their female states. All women appear in the form of women in just the same way as the elder appears in the form of a woman. While they are not women in reality, they appear in the form of women. With this in mind, the Buddha said, ‘In all things, there is neither male of female.’ ”

Then, the goddess released her magical power and each returned to his ordinary form. She then asid to him, “Reverend Sariputra, what have you done with your female form?”

Sariputra: I neither made it nor did I change it.

Goddess: Just so, all things are neither made nor changed, and that they are not made and not changed, that is the teaching of the Buddha.

from The Vimalakirti Sutra, translated by Robert A. F. Thurman

To me, it appears the basic idea is that gender itself is a mental construct that is ultimately false. This will be problematic within a Mormon context, but does this ideal of extreme “gender colorblindness” have merit, or is it itself a dead-end road to travel?

Actually, the Buddha would chide me for framing the question in that way, but what can I do? I, myself, am a product of Western constructual thinking.

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Same name, new flavor

So, I’ve been reading Teachings of the Buddha, which is a collection of Buddhist stories and teachings edited by Jack Kornfield, the director of the Spirit Rock Centre in Woodacre, California. I came across two teachings with titles that should sound very familiar to Christians, but with completely different (and interesting) messages.

Parable of the Mustard Seed

Gotami was her family name, but because she was tired easily, she was called Kisa Gotami, or Frail Gotami. She was reborn at Savatthi in a poverty-stricken house. When she grew up, she married, going to the house of her husband’s family to live. There, because she was the daughter of a poverty-stricken house, they treated her with contempt. After a time she gave birth to a son. Then they accorded her respect.

But when that boy of hers was old enough to play and run hither and about, he died. Sorrow sprang up within her. Thought she: Since the birth of my son, I, who was once denied honor and respect in this very house, have received respect. These folk may even seek to cast my son away. Taking her son on her hip, she went about from one house door to another, saying: “Give me medicine for my son!”

Whenever people encountered her, they said: “Where did you ever meet with medicine for the dead?” So saying, they clapped their hands and laughed in derision. She had not the slightest idea what they meant.

Now a certain wise man saw her and thought: This woman must have been driven out of her mind by sorrow for her son. But medicine for her, no one else is likely to know — the Sage of the Ten Forces alone is likely to know. Said he: “Woman, as for medicine for your son — there is no one else who knows — the Sage of the Ten Forces, the foremost individual in the world of men and the worlds of the gods, resides at a neighboring monastery. Go to him and ask.”

The man speaks the truth, thought she. Taking her son on her hip, she took her stand in the outer circle of the congregation around the seated Buddha and asked: “O Exalted One, give me medicine for my son!”

The Teacher, seeing that she was ripe for understanding, said: “You did well, Gotami, in coming hither for medicine. Go enter the city, make the rounds of the entire city, beginning at the beginning, and in whatever house no one has ever died, from that house fetch tiny grains of mustard seed.”

“Very well, reverend sir,” said she. Delighted in her heart, she entered within the city, and at the very first house said: “”The Sage of the Ten Forces bid me fetch tiny grains of mustard seed for medicine for my son. Give me tiny grains of mustard seed.”

“Alas! Gotami,” said they, and brought and gave to her.

“This particular seed I cannot take. In this house someone has died!”

“What say you, Gotami! Here it is impossible to count the dead!”

“Well then, enough! I’ll not take it. The Sage of the Ten Forces did not tell me to take mustard seed from a house where anyone has ever died.”

In this same way she went to the second house, and to the third and forth. Finally, she understood. In the entire city this must be the way! The Buddha, full of compassion for the welfare of mankind, must have seen! Overcome with emotion, she went outside of the city, carried her son to the burning-ground, and holding him in her arms, said: “Dear little son, I thought that you alone had been overtaken by this thing which men call death. But you are not the only one death has overtaken. This is a law common to all mankind.” So saying, she cast her son away in the burning-ground. Then she uttered the following stanza:

No village law, no law of market town,
No law of a single house is this —
Of all the world and all the world of gods
This only is the Law, that all things are impermanent.

This next one also has a very familiar-sounding title to Christians, and even has a familiar beginning premise; however, the moral is not so familar:

The Woman at the Well

Ananda, the attendant to the Buddha, having been sent by the Lord on a mission, passed by a well near a village, and seeing Pakati, a young outcast woman, asked her for water to drink.

Pakati said, “O monk, I am too humbly born to give you water to drink. Do not ask any service of me lest your holiness be contaminated, for I am of low caste.”

And Ananda replied, “I ask not for caste but for water,” and the woman’s heart leaped joyfully and she gave Ananda water to drink.

Ananda thanked her and went away; but she followed him at a distance.

Having heard that Ananda was a disciple of the Buddha, the woman went to the Blessed One and said, “O Lord, help me and let me live in the place where your disciple Ananda dwells, so that I may see him and minister unto him, for I love Ananda.”

And the Blessed one understood the emotions of her heart and he said, “Pakati, your heart is full of love, but you do not understand your own sentiments. It is not Ananda that you love, but his kindness. Accept, then, the kindness you have seen him practice toward you and practice it toward others.

“Pakati, though you are born low caste, you will be a model for noblemen and noblewomen. Swerve not from the path of justice and righteousness and you will outshine the royal glory of queens and kings.”

That last one is dense with multiple nuggets of wisdom embedded in it.

So, what do you guys think?

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