18 March 2006

No More Heros?

In a comment on my article about ego Will of thinkbuddha.org opined that celebrity Buddhist, Tina Turner, had it right when she sang "we don't need another hero". I've been thinking about this.

What is meant by this statement: we don't need another hero? Perhaps we could start by asking what is a hero? A hero, according to the OED is someone admired for their great deeds and noble qualities. Is Tina Turner saying that we no longer need to have people who we admire for their great deeds or noble qualities? Or is she saying that even if people do great deeds or have noble qualities, that we should not admire them?

And what, from a Buddhist point of view, are great deeds, and what are noble qualities? The basic noble qualities are generosity, love and wisdom. Any deed which is a manifestation of these qualities if termed skilful. We could say that any deed which exemplifies these qualities to a high degree is greatly skilful, and might therefore be considered a great deed, especially if it inspired others to emulation. What would it mean to not admire a skilful deed, either great or small; or to not admire the person who possessed these qualities? To not admire what is plainly admirable would be something of a paradox wouldn't it? Why would we not admire great acts of kindness for instance?

The OED adds that hero-worship is an excessive devotion to an admired person. This gives us a clue as to what might be Ms Turner might actually be saying. The key phrase is excessive devotion. If we admire someone for their skilful qualities, then what might constitute excessive devotion to them? Well, a hero might have faults as well as virtues. If we only see virtues, and don't see faults then we might become excessively devoted to our hero. Sometimes we can become so carried away by meeting someone who is apparently incredibly virtuous that we don't even look for their faults.

The opposite of this is to only see someone's faults, and is perhaps even a worse state of affairs. To begin to manifest virtues we need to develop an appreciation, almost an aesthetic appreciation for virtue - we need to see the beauty of virtue. If we are not attuned to virtue, to the positive qualities in ourselves and others, then we must surely fail to develop virtue ourselves.

To come at the statement from another angle, it's clear that people who are virtuous, who act from generosity, love and wisdom, who embody those basic virtues, are admirable: but do we need them? I've said that we need to acknowledge virtue when we see it, but do we need heroes? What about admiring the virtues of ordinary people? Why would we need someone who exemplifies a virtue when we can look around our circle of friends and see their ordinary virtue? It's not an either or proposition. We do need to acknowledge virtue whenever we see it - rejoicing in the merits of other is described by Shantideva as a "blameless source of pleasure, not prohibited by the virtuous, attractive to others in the highest degree" [Crosby and Skilton. The Bodhicaryavatara. p.57]. But we also need to see that the possibilities for developing virtue are endless, that we can go on cultivating generosity, love and wisdom infinitely. To get an idea of that potential we need an exemplar. We need someone who embodies virtue to a very high degree. A hero in other words.

In the modern west we have tended to be over-awed by spiritual teachers. It points to the state of arrested development I mentioned in my essay on ego. Many of us long for someone to come along and make everything better, to tell us what we should be doing, and to take responsibility for us. In other words we are like children who miss our parents. So we've tended not to look at the whole person, not even to look for weaknesses, and to be shocked and disappointed when they make an appearance. If you want to know the depths of this phenomena amongst Westerners then I'd recommend a book called Karma Cola, but Gita Mehta. At times funny, at others appalling, it recounts stories of Westerners travelling to India in search of wisdom but offering themselves up to the first man wearing a turban and a smile, and doing whatever he says, usually with disastrous results. The cola part of the title hints that at this time the Indians themselves, according to the author, were more interested Elvis and that famous cola flavoured fizzy drink.

The ancient Greeks had a pretty good handle on this. They admired virtue, but always gave their gods and heroes an 'Achilles' heel'. Nemesis was always waiting in the wings. The mythology of Buddhism can obscure the weaknesses of our gods and heroes. It's all too easy to get caught up in the ideal of perfection, and to expect that from our human heroes. Or we might become puffed up with self-preoccupied pride because our teacher is a Bodhisattva, as though that somehow says something about us; and then we are plunged into despair when they turn out to less than perfectly virtuous. Or we cynically refuse to acknowledge the virtue of someone who really is a Bodhisattva and thereby cut ourselves off from any benefit there may be from such an association.

So it seems to me that in contradistinction to 'Queen of Rock', that actually we do need another hero. We always will need another hero. But if we continue to act like children in respect of admirable people, then we'll most likely keep falling at clay feet. So if I was to write a song it might go: "we all just need to grow up".
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