Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Dr. Manhattan and the Five Eyes of Buddhism

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
The Five Eyes by Dr. Chia Theng Shen

Alan Moore’s Watchmen seems a little dated. Arguably, the world is in no less danger of nuclear annihilation now than it was in the late ‘80s—perhaps even more—but the fear of nuclear war seems to have receded from public consciousness with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War shadows that fall so heavily across Watchmen now resonate less than, say, the political repression and mind-control themes of V for Vendetta.

Nevertheless, Watchmen remains a powerful and influential work, immense, intricate and dazzling. But this isn’t a review of Watchmen, it’s an attempt to do something much smaller: namely, to examine the development of one of Watchmen’s main characters, Dr. Manhattan. I’m especially struck by the parallels between the stages he goes through and the Five Eyes of Buddhism.

Disclaimer: Dr. Chia Theng Shen, cited above, is my grandfather. Most of what I know about Buddhism, I learned from his writings: if there is any truth to be found here, credit him. Errors are mine.

Briefly, the five eyes referred to are not actual eyes; rather, they represent levels of understanding, different modes of perceiving reality.

The “physical eye” represents normal perception, which all physical beings share to some extent.
The “heaven eye” is still a purely physical perception, but can see further and deeper; C.T. Shen compares the heaven eye to the use of microscopes and various remote-sensing technologies.
The “wisdom eye” perceives the illusory nature of reality and penetrates to emptiness.
The “Dharma eye” acknowledges the truth perceived by the wisdom eye. However, the Dharma eye also sees that the suffering experienced by beings embedded in the illusion of reality is real to them; the Dharma eye is compassionate. It’s from this compassionate perception that the oath of the Boddhisatva arises: “Though sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all.”
Finally there is the “Buddha eye”. This perception is not describable or comprehensible in ordinary human terms; it can only be experienced.

Now, back to Watchmen—Clearly, Jon Osterman, before his transformation into Dr. Manhattan, had his share of normal human perceptions; he was at the level of the physical eye. After the accident, we see him directly manipulating quarks and other elementary particles, firmly in posession of the heaven eye. Now, heaven-eye powers are not uncommon among superheroes; consider Superman’s X-ray vision and the Atom’s ability to get down and stroll among the molecules making up, for instance, a locked door. (The Atom was one of the inspirations for the Manhattan character.) Part of Alan Moore’s genius is that, unlike most of his superhero precursors, Dr. Manhattan exhibits not only special abilities, but a special understanding. The moment that seems to sum this up is at the beginning of his official crime-fighting career, when he rejects the hokey “atomic” logo designed for him by government publicists, in favor of the standard representation of the Bohr hydrogen atom.

But Dr. Manhattan also grows increasingly emotionally detached from normal human concerns. His girlfriend hopefully gets him a gold ring for Christmas; he glances at it casually and remarks that the regularity of the molecular structure is quite soothing. Eventually his inability to comprehend human emotions will destroy his relationship with his second girlfriend (Laurie Juspeczyk, the younger Silk Spectre) and trigger his retreat to Mars.

On Mars, Manhattan reveals that he has fairly complete foreknowledge. Manhattan sees moments in time not as we see them, one following another, but as simultaneous events. This immediately brings up issues of predestination and free-will—Manhattan mentions that he had known President Kennedy would be assassinated, but was powerless to prevent it because, according to his perception, it had already happened. Similarly he sees himself as being unable to prevent the collapse of his relationship with Laurie.

Dead Mars, beautifully rendered by Dave Gibbons, is the perfect backdrop for Dr. Manhattan’s resignation and his now complete detachment from human concerns. He’s reached the stage of the wisdom eye, according to which the nature of the universe is such that effort is useless and attachment leads only to suffering.

The Buddha urged his disciples not to stop at the wisdom eye, which is as attached to emptiness as the physical and heaven eyes are to the illusion of reality. The wisdom eye is also basically a selfish state. Later in the story, Manhattan brings Laurie to Mars and they engage in a long argument. She pleads with him to return to Earth and help avert the fast-approaching nuclear war between the superpowers. He responds that he no longer has any stake in human affairs (she now has a new boyfriend), and argues against any intrinsic value of life or intelligence.

At the end of the argument, Laurie collapses in tears, overwhelmed by a revelation about her past. Dr. Manhattan agrees to return to Earth with her and set things right. It’s fairly important to notice that he’s not motivated by any possibility of personal gain—it’s been made clear that his relationship with Laurie is not revivable, and he certainly would rather stay on Mars. He acts out of disinterested compassion. In other words, he’s moved on to the Dharma eye: he takes up, at least temporarily, the burden of the Boddhisatva, saving the world.

Near the very end of the comic, Dr. Manhattan gets put through a recreation of the same accident that originally transformed him into what he is. At this stage, it’s no more than a temporary inconvenience, sufficient to put him out of action for a couple of pages. But it may also be seen as the trigger for his advancement to the Buddha eye. The last few frames featuring him clearly point to some sort of apotheosis.

C. T. Shen lists the key qualities of the Buddha eye as follows:

· no subject and no object; that is, no duality
· infinite infinity; that is, no space
· instantaneity and spontaneity; that is no time
· all-inclusiveness and totality; that is, no nothingness.

Dr. Manhattan’s perception of time (described above) certainly corresponds to the quality of no-time. It’s likely that his ability to teleport (which seems unaffected by distance) arises from a perception of no-space. We must imagine that he’ll acquire the other two qualities of perception as he journeys on, out of the pages of Watchmen.


Pastor St. John said...

Dear Tiel Aisha Ansari,

My name is Marshall St. John. My wife Grace Hsieh (Kai Sheng) is a 2nd cousin of Dr. C.T. Shen. We visited with him a few times in his house in New Jersey in the 1970's, and we visited him and his wife Nancy in 1987 in the Monastery. Anyway, we have learned that he passed away, and we would like to be able to send a card to someone to express our sympathy. He was a great and good man, and we liked him very much. Can you give us the appropriate name and address for such a card? Please email us at drcello@vei.net. Thank you very much.

Dan said...

Very good and interesting article. Adding a little quantum physics and Einsteinian theorization to this great storyline: if DrM coukd travel to and fro throughout the universe instantly. Einstein's theory of relativity would imply that the event actually would appear to occur to DrM in the past and future headed o his native position in space.

Consider being neat an event when it happens, the teleporting 1x10^700 m away. You would have seen it happen, then had to go to a remote.location, and wait for the light to arrive and resee what you have already seen. Pretty trippy.

- Dan Hoeg