Sunday, November 25, 2012

I think therefore I am...confused

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been revamped for TV with an attitude. My kids watch it, and I must admit that the show is pretty cool. In this latest episode, Donatello, the most cerebral of the turtles, tries to think his way through combat and even life itself.

The way he sees it, if only he can anticipate every variable, then he will be prepared for whatever life throws at him. This should sound familiar. This is the way most people approach life.

If only I can anticipate everything, then I'll be safe. 

Now that might work in chess--I wouldn't know; I'm a terrible chess player--but not in life. The Buddha cautions against this approach to living in the Four Noble Truths. Our "if only's" can go on forever; that's the nature of being human. Our potential for dissatisfaction is limitless. The moment one thing in our lives goes the way we want it, we immediately think of ten ways that it could be better. 

That's dukkha, the human tendency to be dissatisfied with life, regardless of its content. Thinking is a tool, a capacity; it's not who we are. 

Donatello learns this hard way. In a very convenient TV-fashion, as the episode develops we learn that the villain can read minds and thus anticipate whatever move the turtles make before they attack. 

Daunted by this, Donatello, seeks the advice of his master, Splinter. Splinter says, "In a fight you cannot be up here,"and taps his head. This is the same for life. If we try to think our way through life, all we will do is get tangled up in hypothetical scenarios, none of which have any reality. They are, after all, only thoughts.

Instead, we need to come back to the present moment and just see, just hear, just smell. Drop the thinking.

Or as Splinter puts it so well, "You must find the space between your thoughts and live there."

Wow, talk about a great Zen teaching!

This is Zen Master Seung Sanh's Don't-know mind or Suzuki Roshi's Beginner's mind. It's our original nature before we clutter it up with strategizing and manipulating. That's our original mind, our Buddha nature.

And Donatello needs to return to it in order to defeat the villain. 

Not bad for a kids' show, huh?


  1. Indeed that episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has a great teaching. Here in Australia back in the 1980's when I was a child we had this Buddhist TV show called Monkey Magic that was a cult hit and it too had Buddhist themes in it as well. I believe you can still find some footage of it floating around on Youtube. It was originally a Japanese production that was dubbed into English using dodgy dubbing and it was that that made it cult classic. You can find it more info about it online by Googling "Monkey Magic".

  2. Matty,

    Thanks for the suggestion. I've never heard of Monkey Magic, but will definitely check it out. Sounds really interesting. Thanks for reading and commenting.