Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Tao of Tarzan

"I have to say he is the finest man that I have ever known - trousers or no trousers." - Rawlins (TARZAN ESCAPES)

When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote TARZAN OF THE APES in 1912 he had held a number of jobs. As a night watchman, he read fiction magazines on breaks and decided that he could write better than what he found in those. 25 books later, not to mention movies, radio, comic books and tv, ERB was able to retire to a ranch in Tarzana CA.

Tarzan had many mythic sources. The hero raised by animals is a common theme from Romulus and Remus nursed by a she-wolf, the Greek heroine Atalanta by bears and the Celtic Oisin by a deer. His story reflects the Arthurian legend of the young man who discovers his true noble heritage. Like any good hero he eventually became immortal.

In his adventures Tarzan overthrew a lot of false religions, idols and god-kings, yet his own spirituality was almost never mentioned. I said last week that Tarzan was a Zen hero. Reading through a few of the books I found some amazing parallels.

"To Tarzan ... contentment is the highest ultimate goal of achievement ... He saw the greed, the selfishness, the cowardice, and the cruelty of man; and, in view of man's vaunted mentality, he knew that these characteristics placed man upon a lower spiritual scale than the beasts, while barring him eternally from the goal of contentment." ~TARZAN AND THE CITY OF GOLD (1933).

Buddhism teaches that the only thing that bars us from happiness is attachment to things and feelings.

"Happiness does not come from having much, but from being attached to little." ~Cheng Yen

Samsara is a term for living in the world, attached to habits and materialism. It is the opposite of Nirvana, freedom and happiness.

"The initial stage is to reduce attachment towards life. The second stage is the elimination of desire and attachment to this samsara. Then in the third stage, self-cherishing is eliminated." ~The 14th Dalai Lama

ERB wrote adventure stories, not philosophy. Tarzan was not a Zen master. Tarzan did kill, but hey, he was raised by apes, not monks! Burroughs said, "Necessity required him to kill for food and in defense of his life, but the example of his savage associates never suggested that pleasure might be found in killing ... His viewpoint toward death was seemingly callous, but it was without cruelty."

Popular culture analyst Doc Hermes wrote, "This dual nature is one of the things I love best about the character. Tarzan is not a mere animal in a human form, he is a unique symbiosis of the human and the animal natures ... the balance between Lord Greystoke strolling through Hyde Park with Jane on a Sunday and Tarzan ripping raw meat from a freshly killed gazelle is an essential part of the appeal. Tarzan is yin and yang in a single body."

Writing about the traits that separated his hero from the apes ERB said "not the least of these were in a measure spiritual, and one that had doubtless been as strong as another in influencing Tarzan`s love of the jungle had been his appreciaton of the beauties of nature." ~ TARZAN THE TERRIBLE, 1921) Tarzan lives, not in a treehouse with an elephant elevator, but on a sprawling ranch in Africa with his wife Jane. But he "loves to roam remote fastnesses still unspoiled by the devasting hand of civilization." He has a "spiritual enjoyment of beauty that only the man-mind may attain."

Zen sayings and poems like Han shan's "A thousand clouds among a myriad streams And in their midst a person at his ease. By day he wanders through the dark green hills, At night goes home to sleep beneath the cliffs" might be talking about Tarzan.

In "The God of Tarzan" (JUNGLE TALES OF TARZAN, 1917), Tarzan reads about God and sets out to find this being who is supposedly more powerful than himself. Investigating what he hears from jungle people, he eliminates false gods like the Moon, idols and tribal shamans. Finally he understands that the still, small voice in his conscience that stops him from killing a helpless enemy is God, and God is stronger than Tarzan. You can read the story here:


That story was probably one of the earliest influences on my own spiritual thought.

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