I love it when any piece of pop culture incorporates some kind of religion that isn’t Christianity, because despite the fact that Christian themes are everywhere in Western media, not everyone is Christian. It’s nice to see media embrace themes from other faiths and show more religious diversity. However, sadly this tends to be a very exotified, watered down, and often inaccurate depiction, especially when it comes to Eastern religions.
Marvel’s latest hit, Doctor Strange, is based on a comic that relies heavily on Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. However, the orientalism displayed in the comics, as well as the culturally appropriative nature of the comics in general, means that the portrayal of Buddhism in the movie tends to be a rather problematic one.
There are already several major issues with the Doctor Strange movie. The comics suffered from some blatant orientalism, which is representation of Asian peoples in a way that is indicative of a colonialist viewpoint, such as the idea that Asia is this mysterious land of magic. There’s also the mighty whitey trope, wherein a white person goes to the East to learn ancient wisdom and martial arts and ends up being better at it than any of the Asian people or other people of color who are there. This could have at least been dealt with to some degree if Strange had been cast as an Asian character, but sadly, that didn’t happen. On top of this, the only one more powerful than Strange in the comics was a Tibetan monk known as the Ancient One, who was turned into a Celtic woman in the movie. Buddhism has always been the strongest influence in the Doctor Strange universe; in fact, in the movie, a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Gelong Thubten assisted Benedict Cumberbatch in his role as Dr. Strange. Having a Tibetan monk on set certainly showed that there was an attempt to have genuinely good representation of Buddhism in the movie, but that attempt fell flat.
One of the biggest issues in the movie is the idea that Buddhism is somehow this gateway to amazing magical powers. To be fair, even with Christian themes in storytelling, there’s more emphasis on magic than faith. It seems to always be about using ancient Christian spells to summon angels and get rid of demons, and that is valid to some extent, but there is rarely any focus on true faith. And while the Doctor Strange movie certainly incorporates actual principles of Buddhist teaching, it also doesn’t explain that these are in fact real Buddhist teachings, so for those who know little to nothing about Buddhism, it can come off just as innocuous pseudo-Eastern spirituality.
Siddhartha Gautama was the founder of Buddhism and today is called Buddha, which means Enlightened One. Siddhartha started as a prince but was eventually led to become an ascetic after he realized that suffering was at the end of all things. Through meditation, he eventually discovered a way to be free from suffering and became enlightened. He then traveled through India, helping others understand this truth. Buddha came up with a simple way to help people discover this through the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. These are the very basics of Buddhism.
The Four Noble Truths are the foundation of Buddhism and they are:
- Suffering exists
- Suffering arises from attachment to desires
- Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
- Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path
The Eightfold Path is:
- Right View or Right Understanding, insight into the true nature of reality.
- Right Intention, the unselfish desire to realize enlightenment.
- Right Speech, using speech compassionately.
- Right Action, ethical conduct; manifesting compassion.
- Right Livelihood, making a living through ethical and non-harmful means.
- Right Effort, cultivating wholesome qualities; releasing unwholesome qualities.
- Right Mindfulness, whole body-and-mind awareness.
- Right Concentration, meditation or some other dedicated, concentrated practice.
The biggest conflict in the movie comes when protagonist Stephen Strange gets into a car accident and irreparably hurts his hands. When modern medicine fails to help cure him and relieve him of his suffering, he seeks out the spiritual guidance of the Ancient One, who helped another man walk again. However, when Strange encounters the Ancient One and she shows him the extent of her powers, he wants to learn more than just how to heal himself. Eventually, through her tutelage, Dr. Strange comes to accept his suffering, let go of his ego, move on with his life, and obtain a greater purpose, but I’ll argue in a second that he doesn’t really follow all of the Eightfold Path. The issue here is that Dr. Strange is clearly trying to follow the Four Noble Truths, and a good portion of the movie shows Dr. Strange learning these things; however, they’re never referred to as the most basic part of Buddhist doctrine, just as “mystical secrets”. We never hear any actual mention of Buddhist teaching, just some vague references.
Dr. Strange doesn’t completely abandon the Eightfold Path but he doesn’t entirely follow it either. He follows Right Understanding, which means he understands the true nature of reality—of course that seems less significant when you realize that the “true” nature of reality as depicted in the movie is the freaking magic he wields. Strange does learn Right Action and is able to show compassion, but this is mostly shown through his love for Christine. This isn’t a very Buddhist concept, as compassion in Buddhism is meant to be shown to all people, rather than just particular people. We also see his compassion in his growing willingness to fight to save people, but this is also a perversion of Buddhist teaching because of the violence he uses to help people—more on that in a bit. Strange does somewhat follow Right Effort as he manages to begin to let go of his arrogance and cultivate good qualities; he also is able to have better body-mind awareness and learns meditation, which fulfill Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.
But of course, there is the issue of attempting to make Doctor Strange a typical action movie. Even the comics, which again are still problematic, tend to not lean heavily toward action, but are more cerebral. Often the stories are more about Strange being intelligent and clever than about him beating people up. Though there is still action, it’s not the main focus of the story. While the end of the Doctor Strange movie certainly gives us that cerebralness, a large portion is still focused on action, and so it deals a lot with the characters fighting each other, which doesn’t really fit with Buddhism and the Eightfold Path.
The biggest part of the Eightfold Path that is violated just as a virtue of this being an action movie is Right Livelihood. Buddhists tend to be pacifists. And yet there is so much violence in this movie. At one point Dr. Strange even kills someone, which he is upset about, but weirdly, the others he’s been training with, including the Ancient One, seem to think it’s not that big of an issue because they are fighting for the greater good of the world. Greater good? I’m sorry, when did fucking Grindelwald take over? How is this Buddhist at all? I think that is why any real connection between Buddhism and the Doctor Strange world is kept ambiguous in the movie, because the writers didn’t want to actually adhere to the teachings of Buddhism.
When the movie was over I was surprised that the writers had even attempted to include a Buddhist influence, but it starts to fall flat when you realize that the writers watered it down by turning it into just this Western understanding of Buddhism, which focuses more on mystic powers and fighting the baddies with martial arts and magic. That’s not Buddhism. Sorry, but it’s just not.