Sunday, January 25, 2015

Down in the Bardo, Part II: Champion of the Dead

Fresh off of the unexpected delight of a trip to theBardo in Marvel’s Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, I decided to try Steve Perry’s take on the Buddhist Hell.  Some days Steve Perry is one of my favorite authors, but his writing is hit or miss for me.  He’s a best selling author for his time writing under some of Tom Clancy’s house brands, and I’m guessing he makes most of this money these days writing military sci-fi novels like the Cutter series.  And while these stories are okay, where Perry really excels is when he writes about martial arts and eastern mysticism.

Champion of the Dead has a modern setting, following the life of dmag-lag-rtsal practitioner Sam Kane.  Dmag-lag-rtsal is an obscure (but apparently real) Tibetan martial art that also happens to prepare you to enter the Bardo, a Buddhist version of Hell, and help guide souls to their next incarnation on the Great Wheel.  The novel opens with Kane taking on an assignment from a mysterious billionaire to help his daughter pass peacefully to her next life.  From there conspiracies and combat touching both the living and the dead ensue.

Perry is a long time martial artist, which shows in his writing- the action is detailed and brilliant.  Like all good martial arts tales there is also a crotchety martial arts master, or in this case a pair of them, helping Kane along the way between wisecracks.  I don’t know if Perry did this intentionally, but I could feel the influence of Remo and Chuin from the Destroyer series in some of the dialogs. 

The concepts artists for Mortal Kombat are reading the same manual on designing Hell.

That looks complicated
As much of the novel takes place in the Bardo as it does in our world, and Perry’s depictions of Hell are intense.  The steaming piles of excrement that meat eaters are forced to climb will surely help keep me on the vegetarian track; well, at least close to it.  The Bardo is an insane place, which oddly resembled the Netherrealm and Outworld backgrounds in Mortal Kombat that I also happen to be playing lately.  A lot of Champion of the Dead feels like a novelization of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, so you wonder in the Mortal Kombat artists read from the same manual.  There are also gods both Hindu and Buddhist wandering about, leading to discussions such as “…consider the logistics of a god who has eight arms and three penises coupling with a goddess who has four arms and nine vaginas.”

Kane’s fights with demons are as much a matter of will as of skill.  “Kane stood ready, his sword forged of love, hope and prayer, in hand,” may be one of my all time favorite lines from an adventure story, which is probably influenced by my time in yoga.  Speaking of which…

Kane has several dmag-lag-rtsal students, and he hopes to find one to pass along his skills to and who can take his place in the future.  They all bring different backgrounds in mind-body techniques or combat, each adapting in different ways.  While the student with an aikido background looks promising, the one with a yoga background is less so.  She moves as well as, if not better than, the other students, but her background in yoga provides her with challenges.  Her yoga training “had taken her down a different path.  She was reluctant to hit people, even when she could.  This was not necessarily a bad thing in a warrior, to know when to hit and when to wait, but it could be a problem, taken too far.”  In time Kane and his student agree that the two paths are, ultimately, the same.  Both yoga and dmag mean “union”, but the time where the inherent violence of dmag-lag-rtsal and the pacifism of yoga reveal the same unity may be decades of practice away.

There’s not a lot of action/adventure novels out there with authors who understand yoga or concepts like ahimsa or pranayama, and most of them have Steve Perry’s name on the cover (Matt Stover, Steve Barnes, and at least one of the house authors of the Destroyer series round out the mix that I’ve seen so far).  Champion of the Dead is a great story if you are looking to merge your inner peace with some smack-fu.

(And a special thanks to Steve Perry for introducing me to Kurukulla, the Tibetan goddess of passion, with her bow made of flowers and bees, stark naked and trampling the ego.  That is perfection.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Down in the Bardo, Part I: Iron Fist #8, Buddhist Dante's Inferno

For nearly 20 years I bought $10 to $15 of comic books every week. Once that got me a fistful of comics, but no matter how well off I am I can't rationalize that the same amount of money now gets me perhaps two or three 22-page comics. Still I stop by a comics shop every few weeks and pick up something off of the new rack. This week it was Iron Fist: The Living Weapon #8, which turned out to be a Buddhist version of Dante's Inferno. Some of the smartest, most intellectually curious, and well read people I've ever met work in comics. Glad to see that trend continues, even if the business model is a wreck.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Pacifist Gaming in Grand Theft Auto

I've done very little blogging of any type for the last year or so, but when I stumbled across an article from Vice on pacifist gaming, of all things, Grand Theft Auto, I had to place a link here.  I haven't played Grand Theft Auto since I tried to get GTA 3 to play on a computer that was not nearly up to processing demands of the game, but it's hard to imagine this working well.  My own pacifist gaming has taken a pause after I finished Alpha Protocol, and took what turned out to be a very long pause in Deus Ex.  Stupid job, always getting in the way of good gaming!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Mortal Kombat and Surviving the 30 Day Plank Challenge

Recently I stumbled across a Facebook post recommending a “30 Day Plank Challenge”, taking you from 20 seconds in plank to a full five minutes in one month’s time.  Seemed like a great idea to me, although I realized that there is probably no scientific validity behind this method or rate of improvement, and my fellow yoga teachers pointed out the terrible form of the woman on the post.  Regardless, I was up for a challenge and raring to go.

Timing your plank is tough, and at first this was the hardest part.  If you have a timer in front of you, you end up staring at the seconds go by, and then boy do they go by slowly.  As a yogi I wanted to spend the time exploring my breath, alignment, and searching for my bandhas, not staring at the clock.  I got into a habit at first of playing podcasts on tantra philosophy on my ipod, because it fit the mood and gave me an accurate time.  Eventually I hit on an ideal way to proceed- setting my Kindle up under my face and watching Mortal Kombat videos on YouTube, turning off the sound, and setting them up so the video ended at exactly my goal time.

Mortal Kombat and yoga?  I started to focus on my yoga practice at the same time that I started reading the Matt Fraction / Ed Brubaker / David Aja martial arts comic Immortal Iron Fist. I loved the idea of a superhero who solved problems with esoteric notions like meditation, chi, and alignment.  When the comic took a turn into a pan-dimensional martial arts tournament, it visually took on a look from the Mortal Kombat video game franchise.  Thus there are times when I picture a room full of yogis and it looks like a bunch of my friends in tadasana, and sometimes it looks a lot more like Kitana, Raiden, and Mileena.

There are some fascinating Mortal Kombat videos on YouTube, conveniently at or around the durations for the various stages in the 30 Day Plank Challenge.  When I was at 45 seconds it seemed unlikely that I was ever going to make a minute.  Today was my last day at 2:30.  Time to start picking longer videos.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Meaning of Mudras

I’ve been holding my hands in the same mudra since I started meditating three years ago, and never knew why. Here's a great chart to help you understand the meaning of the mudras.

Turns out Magneto and I both meditate with the shuni mudra (but only he gets to levitate)

Saturday, November 30, 2013

7 Reasons I Still Go To Bikram

I’ve sampled a lot of yoga in my day.  I’ve practiced in gyms & cabins, done Flow & Yin, tried classical & tantra, and seen the best and worst of Ashtanga & Iyengar.  After a decade or more of searching I’ve found a yoga style that I enjoy practicing and teaching in Embodyoga.  But I have a secret- sometimes I sneak out to a Bikram class.

If there is a spectrum of yoga practices, the tantra “yoga from the inside out” nature of Embodyoga is about as far as you can get from the “classical yoga-meets-MTV” style of Bikram.  In my regular practice every movement starts with the breath and pranayama is just a regular part of life; in Bikram, you get breath in the first two minutes, the last two minutes, and for the 86 minutes in between you are on your own.  When I practice each posture is a learning opportunity and chance to explore; in Bikram you pretty much just follow the rote commands of the scantily clad person on the podium at the front of the room.  Embodyoga always asks you to soften your knees; Birkam commands you to lock your knees, lock your knees, lock your knees.

None the less, I still find myself in a Bikram class from time to time.  Here’s why:

Mental Disengagement: When I explained my yoga background to my first bikram teacher, she said “you can forget all that, this is basically ‘Simon Says’ for 90 minutes.”  Frankly it’s too hot to think about much.  Spending that much time not worrying about the past or the future, just being in the moment?  Score.

Calories: At my size I burn around 1000 calories in one class.  That can make up for a lot of dietary sins.

Meditation: I get to class early so I claim a favorite spot in the back.  That 15 minute wait in a hot room with subdued lighting and gentle murmuring of students is my most reliable meditation time.

Orgy Atmosphere: Spending 90 minutes in a room full of half-naked, writhing, sweaty people is nice break from the mundane.  It’s a close as I’m likely to get to a Roman orgy.

Hydration: I drink about a liter of water before class, a liter during class, a liter right after class, and a liter within an hour of leaving class.  So long, toxins!  It also helps with…

Keeping it Regular: Right in the middle of the practice when it’s getting hard to focus I always hear the instructor say “this posture massages your colon”.  They are right.  You are guaranteed to have a skip in your step the next day, after a few bathroom breaks, of course.

Warmth: I live in New England; in the winter it gets dark at 4:00 and it is cold all the time.  My Bikram class card goes untouched between April and October, but when the cold sets in I’m ready to head back to my 105 degree class.

Now if someone can just explain a Japanese Ham Sandwich I'll be set.