July 30, 2013

The Dharma of Iron Man.

Buddhist Messages in Film: Iron Man

The Pure Land Buddhists teach that if you recite a certain mantra you will be reborn in a place called “the Pure Land,” where everything around you will teach you the Dharma, where attainment of Enlightenment will be very easy.

My natural inclination for skepticism prevents me from believing in this doctrine.

Hui-neng, one of the Zen Patriarchs, when talking about the Pure Land Buddhists, said that we are in the Pure Land already. The Pure Land is within us, so we can see the Dharma in everything already. With that in mind, I am going to start a series analyzing Buddhist messages in film. So, let’s get right down to it.


Iron Man: Why Tony Stark is a Bodhisattva

Here’s the synopsis of the film, from IMDB:

“When wealthy industrialist Tony Stark is forced to build an armored suit after a life-threatening incident, he ultimately decides to use its technology to fight against evil.”

Tony Stark’s life story has some similarities to the life of the historical Buddha. First, his mother isn’t really around; he was essentially raised by his father, who is a powerful man.

The Buddha’s mother, Queen Mahamaya, died during childbirth.

Second, Tony inherits his father’s wealth and power and follows in his father’s footsteps, just like the Buddha. Tony’s father is a legendary war profiteer; it is stated in the film that the weapons he sold to the United States were instrumental in contributing to the effort to win World War II.

The Buddha’s father was a warrior-king; he was part of the Kshatriya caste, a group similar to knights and nobility.

Tony and the Buddha both lived lives of excessive luxury. They had the wealth and the free time to enjoy all the best food, all the best parties, and all the best women. And they both took full advantage of these opportunities.

At one point the Buddha realizes that his life isn’t fulfilling and he leaves his life of luxury behind to go out and seek spiritual truths.

Tony, on the other hand, is forced to leave his life of luxury behind when he’s captured and thrown into a prison in Afghanistan. But, in prison, Tony does learns the truth about reality, just like the Buddha. He has his own enlightenment experience.

Tony’s story is primarily a story about Right Livelihood, one of the steps on the Eightfold path. By some this is considered one of the hardest steps. We all have to make a living. The Buddha tells us that being a war profiteer is probably something we shouldn’t do. He also said we should not do things like produce poison or sell slaves (which sounds really progressive for the time).

At the beginning of the story, Tony engages in what we call Wrong Livelihood. He is an arms dealer and war profiteer. His life is full of wealth and power, but he is secretly unhappy. He constantly indulges in life’s pleasures, but the way he’s living his life is backwards and deep down he knows it. This has led him to a deep sense of unhappiness that he can’t understand or explain.

The woman he loves, Pepper, is around him all the time, but he can’t really tell her how he feels because his mind is being affected by wrong livelihood. The delusion caused by his wrong livelihood is so strong that he spends his time sleeping around with random women instead of being with the woman he loves.

When Tony is captured, he sees that the weapons that he has been selling are being used for evil purposes—this is why being an arms dealer is dangerous, of course. Rarely in life is the real negative impact of wrong livelihood so obviously clear. He sees that the weapons he made are being used by terrorists. We often don’t see the causes and effects of our actions in life.

Now, when he’s in that prison, he knows he has to get out. He has to find out why these bad guys have his weapons and stop them. His motivations for escaping aren’t entirely selfish. The problem is that he is injured and will probably die. He builds a device to keep himself alive and he builds the iron man armor so he can escape.

This is Right Effort; it would be so easy to give up. But he perseveres instead. Right Effort usually means the effort put behind cultivating good qualities. He’s not only trying to escape to save himself, but also to undo the damage that he has done to the world.

So he escapes and resolves to destroy all of his weapons that have fallen into the wrong hands. This is Right Action. He has to go after them—he could just go back to his old life if indulgence if he wanted. Or, he could go back to his old life and stop selling weapons. No one would fault him for that—he survived a terrible ordeal.

Tony has had a profound realization in prison. He has realized that he was not living his life in the right way; his wrong livelihood and constant indulgence in worldly pleasures were harmful to himself and others. So, he resolves to change things; he quits the business of arms dealing and focuses his efforts on alternative energy. And he becomes a superhero.

Right Livelihood and Right Action.

We could all learn something from the story of Tony Stark.



Like elephant meditation on Facebook.

 Ed: Bryonie Wise

{Photo: via Pinterest}

Leave a Thoughtful Comment

Read 0 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Daniel Scharpenburg  |  Contribution: 12,585