The central theme of this commentary, and indeed many other editorials and news reports from the past week, is “heroes.” These heroes are the 12 boys who practiced meditation to stay calm while waiting for rescuers, their coach, who taught them these meditation techniques and divided his food among his team as they waited for help, the international team of divers and Thai Navy SEALs who carried out the rescue operation, the Australian doctor Richard Harris, who pressed on despite suffering a personal loss (he was notified of his father’s death during the final stage of the operation), and of course, Saman Gunan, the Navy SEAL who brought oxygen tanks to the trapped boys only to run out of air on the way out, making the ultimate sacrifice.
The most obvious figure of heroism in Buddhist lore is, of course, the Buddha. The main hall of any Chinese temple is called the da xiong bao dian (大雄寶殿), which translates as “treasury hall of the great hero.” This epithet is reserved for Shakyamuni Buddha alone, the Buddha of this world-system (lokhadhatu). Doctrinally, the Buddhas of each cosmos and each eon are all great heroes, as they all follow the same heroic path predestined for enlightened beings, from seeing the Four Sights to attaining Nirvana and preaching the Dharma. Beyond doctrinal definitions, however, the Buddha is a great hero simply for being able to “suppress calamity and suppress evil.” (Howard et. al. 2006, 380) This is exactly what the international team of specialists and Thai Navy SEALs managed to do. Their heroism deserved all the media coverage that it received.
In early Buddhism, the bodhisattva (referring strictly to Siddhartha Gautama) provided the earliest prototype for heroic action in the Jatakas—tales of the Buddha’s past lives. He is unrelenting in his sense of duty and self-sacrifice, to the point of self-destructiveness. In his life as a rabbit, he throws himself on a fireplace to provide food for a yogi, and in his previous life as a royal prince, he relinquishes his own body to feed a starving tigress and her cubs. Such superhuman heroism is illustrative and idealistic, but provides a template for “heroic bodhisattvahood” in later traditions. The Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions expand on this idea and state that everyone has the potential of a bodhisattva and a great hero, if they are willing to radically transform their behavior and way of thinking.
Heroism is also a state of mind that exhibits a steadfast focus in the face of danger. Heroes face challenges and “enemies” with equanimity. It is a fundamentally empathetic quality because heroes are mindful of potential trouble, identify problems others are suffering from, and more importantly, understand others’ needs as more urgent than their personal priorities. When this kind of empathy compels people to take selfless action, they turn from compassionate people into true heroes.
As we can see in the Jatakas, the Buddhist hero does not simply identify an enemy and beat him into submission. One might argue that in contemporary popular culture, we are saturated with archetypal images and narratives that appear to be based more on the supermen of Greek mythology, such as Achilles or Heracles. Think of the square-jawed John Wayne characters, the cool and seductive James Bond, or the godlike Superman. It is easy to see problems with some old-school heroes in pop culture—not only do they seem somewhat androcentric, with little space for female heroes, but also embody a kind of unrealistic invulnerability and imperviousness that simply does not reflect the realities of even the most stoic and competent among us.
However, one of the most celebrated Superman comics, Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman (which ran from 2005–08), takes on this critique and discusses it in its storyline. What happens when even the most powerful superhero is dying from an extraordinary case of cancer? What does it mean to an effectively immortal man to confront mortality, something inconceivable and utterly foreign? What should we do when we are sharply aware of our limited time on this planet? The Man of Steel demonstrates that it is his great heart and generous conscience, not his incredible strength and invincible superpowers, that make him an enduring icon and hero.
Heroes do not need to have big muscles or a penchant for daredevil sports. Instead, they need to be at peace with the ultimate “villain” of all: death. The key trait of the knight errant, seen in the Arthurian legends and samurai culture in Japan, is the hero’s fearlessness of death and willingness to sacrifice their own life for a greater cause. While we hope this is not demanded of too many people, we can learn from and look up to those few people whose vocations or jobs involve these risks regularly.
Just by pausing and appreciating others, we will notice that heroes are all around us. They are in our family and our friends. They are reflected in the eyes of strangers and people we will never meet in person. They are the potential peering from our bright hearts. They are fragments of Buddha-nature itself.
Each and every day, we have the chance to be heroes in our own way.
Angela Falco Howard, Li Song, Wu Hung, Yang Hong. 2006. Chinese Sculpture. New York: Yale University and Foreign Languages Press.