Sunday, December 03, 2006

Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carrol" -- A Buddhist Tale

I am not sure how many times this comparison has been made, over the last century and a half, but for those of us who have a profound belief in the truth of Karma, there is no greater example than that of Ebeneezer Scrooge.

Of course, being a work of Victorian English fiction, it does come to something of a happy ending, as we all know, at least for Ebeneezer, but not for Jacob Marley. The experiences of Mr. Marley cannot be closer to the classical Buddhist (and perhaps Christian) conception of a life after death for those who are greedy, uncharitable, and uncompassionate.

"The soul is commanded to walk among his fellow men, and if it does not do so in life, it must do so in death, witnessing what it might have shared, but did not."

"Business?? Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business. Charity, mercy, forgiveness, these were all my business. The dealings in our money-changing hole were but a mere drop in the ocean of my business."

Jacob appeared to his friend, Ebeneezer, for the sake of his reclamation, but as he left, he allowed Ebeneezer to see the vision of the countless hungry ghosts walking among mankind, wishing to help, or intercede for their benefit, to no avail.

The Mahayana school of thought in Buddhism teaches us that we must be "selfishly wise". What is meant by that is simply that one must realize what is truly in one's best interest, and, considering that, pursue it above all else. Material gains are not part of what is in one's best interest. Even, alas, our families are not part of what is in one's best interest. The virtues of giving, loving kindness, compassion, patience, understanding, wisdom -- they are what are in our best interest. It is in this way that we must be selfish, and work towards these virtues as if the fires of hell were chasing us, because, in a manner of speaking, they are. It is these virtues that are "our business," as Jacob would say.

Scrooge said to Marley, "Well, you always were a good friend, Jacob." when Marley spoke of Scrooge's reclamation. Indeed, in all of English literature, has there ever been a better friend?

We find that Dickens further draws a parallel to Buddhist thinking, when he creates the three spirits, past, present, and future. It is a parallel to the "three times" we speak of so often. The most Buddhist-like of these, however, I think to be the spirit of "Christmas Present", who reminded Scrooge of his actions in the present, and perhaps illustrated to him the "impermanence" of all phenomenon. This spirit demonstrated to Scrooge the suffering of his fellow man, rather vividly as well. He called him to task on his words: "Perhaps it would be better to consider who the 'surplus population' is. It may be, that in the sight of God, you are less fit to live, than millions like this poor man's child." Finally, he presented to Scrooge the "two children of man", the boy named "ignorance", and the girl "want". "But mostly, beware this boy, for on his brow is written the word "DOOM" for all mankind." -- Wow, how Buddhist is that?

We also find that the spirit of "Christmas yet to come", depicted as a frightening image, further illustrated impermanence, and certainly represented "Mara" and death rather vividly. It occurs to me that the spirit of death normally should not hold much great fear for most, if it is presented in the "yet to come" context. Most of us know we are going to die, and at some point during our lives, we make peace with that fact. Some of us even long for it. But one must consider that Scrooge had been doing a great deal of "self-assessment" during the time he spent with the spirit of "Christmas Present", and by that time was in a somewhat self-admonishing state. He had become sensitive to the idea that should his death come soon, he was doomed, as his friend Jacob was. That is the reason he feared his death so greatly, even at his advanced age.

Finally, we come to Scrooge's "reclamation". Through these rather "expedient means", we find that the entirety of Scrooge's mind was transformed in the course of a single night. "The spirits did it all in one night. Well of course they did, they are spirits, they can do whatever they like." This rather rapid realization of the delusional nature of his own mind he attributed to the spirits. One could say that is similar, in fact, to our Buddhist practices of Deity worship and so forth, but in actuality, they were only the means to allow him to make this change entirely on his own. This is much the same as the way our Deity practices work, I think. The Deities, Bodhisattvas, and other Buddhist entities that we honour, prostrate to, worship, and meditate before are both real, as in the sense of Scrooge's spirits (no more, nor less real) and constructs of our own mind, as mere illusions (just like Scrooge's spirits also). They provide us the "expedient means" to jump to various realizations at times.

Recently, a good friend of mine, who exists with the delusion that compassion must be equated with someone trying to take his money away from him, made a comment very much like:
"I am taxed enough in the name of 'compassion'. 'Compassion' is merely an excuse to forcibly take my money away from me, and give it to those who are less deserving." I responded by telling him that true compassion costs no one a single penny, and that if he understood the concept, he'd realize that. I then, and I shouldn't have I suppose, said this in an attempt at humour: "I find it interesting that your comments are very similar to those of Ebeneezer Scrooge, when he was asked to make a donation to charity." Regrettably, he hasn't spoken to me directly, since that interjection. Perhaps it is best not to compare people to Ebeneezer, even when the comparisons are self-evident.


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