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One City

Everyday Superheros and Wrathful Buddhas

The superhero lives! Maybe even down your block.
The costumed superhero is a peculiarly American fantasy. But it’s not a fantasy anymore. As CNN reports, everyday citizens who want to help their communities are putting on tights and masks to do good — more than 200 of them, in Walla Walla, WA; San Diego, CA, and New York City. Sound like the plot of Alan Moore’s genre-bending superhero deconstruction, Watchmen? Yes, it does.  Sound like vigilantism? Yes, it does.


To this buddhist, it sounded a bit like these folks were trying to be wrathful buddhas, perhaps, using unconventional means that might seem angry or violent to perform compassionate acts.

Take that evildoers! I’ll smack some compassion inta ya!

But I’m not a fan of modeling everyday actions on wrathful buddhas, mainly since I don’t have nearly enough insight, clarity, and wisdom to do that. I’m pretty wary of misapplication of the concept.

But turns out this is not really about that kind of wrathful compassion at all. It’s about everyday kindness, generosity, and showing up. It’s more like the boddhisattva ideal. 


The CNN story reveals that many of these folks are doing heroic things
like . . . buying underwear for the homeless. Giving vitamins and toothbrushes
to street people. Collecting toys for underprivileged kids. Sticking
around after a mugging and talking to the police about what they saw.

A few of these costumed superhero folks do try to stop
crimes as they are happening; a few try to make citizen’s arrests (deemed deeply unavisable by the ACLU, among others). But quite a few dress up, mask up, and . . . . hand out anti-crime flyers. They are like Neighborhood Watch, in costume. One of them, “Ravenblade,” told the CNN interviewer, “I realized after doing what I did, that people don’t
really look after people.”


Just looking after other people. Is that superheroic? It’s interdependent, that’s for sure. It’s just concern for another human being, just realizing that we are all in this together; that everybody hurts, and if your neighbor needs help, you can give it to them. We help create our environment by our collective actions. If we take care of each other, the world improves. And we improve. We might not get superpowers, but the neighborhood might be nicer.

Back to Watchmen: the only superhero character with real superhero powers, Dr. Manhattan, is a translucent blue being with total clarity of vision, plus complete power over matter and subatomic space. And no realization of compassion. In Tibetan buddhism, blue is the color of the vajra family, which manifests as anger in a confused state or as clear seeing in an awakened state. It’s like Dr. Manhattan is a big blue vajra, with abosolutely no compassion.


And these superheros have no superpowers, but definitely some compassion, even if I think dressing up in costumes and wearing masks is somehow. . . confused.

In the end, I think these folks are more like boddhisattvas than wrathful buddhas. And boddhisattvas don’t need costumes, and they aren’t superpeople. But I bet a neighborhood full of them would be pretty nice.

Comments read comments(6)
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Lodro Rinzler

posted June 5, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Thanks for this Ellen. I read this CNN article yesterday and was sort of blown away by this whole phenomena. Not unlike yourself I’m all for people looking out for their local community but there is something almost disingenuous about hiding behind a mask to do that. Why the costume and moniker? Is it ego? Because compassion + a heavy ego = trouble in my experience.
I posted something focusing on the NYC superheroes on my blog in case anyone is interested:

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posted June 5, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Definitely better than dressing up as a villain and starting fires.

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posted June 5, 2009 at 4:05 pm

Um. . wow.

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Julia May

posted June 5, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Gosh. It seems less to me like hiding and more like a reenforcement of the Peter Pan culture we seem to continue to perpetuate.

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posted June 5, 2009 at 5:45 pm

Having read other articles about the phenomenon, I think I see three reasons for the costumes. Two, in fact, are the same ones their comic-book role models have. First, if criminals know your everyday identity, they can target you or your loved ones for retribution; safer to hide behind a mask. Second, it’s war paint; you can make yourself look a lot more intimidating in a costume than in track pants. The third reason is kind of self-referential: people who see you in a superhero costume know that that’s what you’re supposed to be. If they see you take on a mugger in that costume, they understand what you’re trying to do. If you’re just another shmo in street clothes, you’re at best a brave-but-foolish bystander, at worst a fellow criminal. Like any uniform, it tells people what your role is.

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posted June 6, 2009 at 10:23 am

Another possible reason for this costumery: shyness (peer pressure).
I’ve noticed how folks in groups, when a “situation” develops, tend to look at each other before doing anything, and this usually seems to lead to the whole group all doing nothing. Out of embarrassment at being different it seems we will suffwer the shame of watching someone be hurt. I’ve seen it and heard about it many times, been part of it, fought it and felt how really hard that is. Peer pressure is a survival tool that is extreeeeemely hard to even notice, let alone push away.
In a mask, you’re not part of that embarrassed, shy group that we all seem to be when danger strikes.

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