Finding One’s Own Way (or Doctrine and the Individual)
Hermann Hesse and Iron Fist
By Matthew William Brake
A Word Before…
For this blog, I sought the help of friends in determining the perfect existentialist thinker for Danny Rand. Iron Fist’s character and background is rooted in Eastern thought (or at least, Western stereotypes of Orientalism). I wondered, “Is there an Eastern form of existentialism, or something that at least rhymes or is in the ball park?” Thankfully, I have very smart friends, and one of them pointed me in the direction of the “Kyoto School” of Japanese Buddhism and the work of Tanabe Hajime and his Philosophy as Metanoetics.
However, if fans of Iron Fist recall, there was a bit of an outcry regarding the casting of the English actor Finn Jones in the role of a very Eastern themed superhero. By not casting an Asian actor, some considered this to be a missed opportunity to create one of the most diverse superhero teams on film (never mind, however, the casual racism of wanting an Asian man to play “the ninja”).
Naturally, this brings up a debate among comic fans about issues of representation and diversity in comic books. On the one hand, many fans want to see the characters they read in the pages of comic books come to life on the screen, which would mean casting an actor who resembles the hero on the page as much as possible. On the other hand, many fans point out that many of the most popular superheroes are white, and this stems from the eras in which many of them were created.
Fans debate about the appropriate response to concerns about underrepresentation in comic books. Should one change the race of a popular character, a la Johnny Storm in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, or create diverse legacy characters who carry on the mantles of their mostly white mentors? I’m not sure if there is one right answer beyond realizing that everyone who wants a more literal interpretation of the character in the comic book put to film isn’t racist while also acknowledging the importance of diversity and visual representation for traditionally marginalized groups in various media.
That said, rather than going with an Asian existentialist figure, I am going to follow the lead of the Iron Fist series and discuss a white man who appropriates Eastern thought into his own ideas.
The Journey of Siddhartha
In his famous work, Siddhartha, the German author and existentialist Hermann Hesse tells the story of a young Brahmin (Siddhartha) who leaves the comfortable life of a Brahmin’s son to seek true spiritual enlightenment. He sets out with his best friend, Govinda, and together the two men become Samanas or traveling ascetics who live in the woods wandering barefoot and practicing extreme forms of “thinking, waiting, and fasting.”
As Siddhartha grows disillusioned with the life of the Samanas, he and Govinda learn about Gautama, the Buddha, and seek him out, curious to find out if he has indeed discovered enlightenment. While Govinda becomes infatuated with the Buddha and joins his ranks, Siddhartha does not, much to the disappointment of Govinda, who presses him to join the Buddha’s followers.
After Siddhartha and Govinda part ways, Siddhartha happens upon the Buddha in a grove and begins to converse with him. While Siddhartha certainly appreciates the Buddha’s teachings and believes that he has truly found Enlightenment, he tells him, “It came to you as you were engaged in a search of your own, upon a path of your own…Not through doctrine did it come to you” (Hesse, 30). The problem with the doctrine of the Buddha, Siddhartha contends, is that “it does not contain the secret of what the Sublime One himself experienced” (30). For this reason, says Siddhartha, he must “leave behind me all teachings and all teachers and to reach my goal alone…. Only for myself , for myself alone, must I judge, must I choose, must I reject” (30-31). Siddhartha fears that if he becomes an adherent of the Buddha’s doctrine and becomes his follower, he might not find the true redemption of the Self he seeks, but rather he says, “I would have made the doctrine and my adherence to it and my love for you and the fellowship of the monks my Self!” (31). In other words, he would make the group his identity rather than truly finding peace for himself. This reflects Hesse’s own belief that “the true profession of man is to find his way himself” (viii).
Throughout the rest of his life’s journey, Siddhartha tries his hand at business and the pleasure of the world. At first, he doesn’t understand the attachment and the passion with which businessmen engage in their trades, but over time, he himself indulges in his wealth. However, in the end, he chooses to leave those pleasures behind. Abandoning his wealth and attempting to reconnect with his inner spiritual voice, Siddhartha encounters his friend Govinda, who doesn’t recognize him but watches over him during the night to ensure his safety. Govinda is surprised the next day to discover that it is Siddhartha and seems to question his friends life choices but goes his own way.
Eventually, Siddhartha becomes a simple ferryman who indeed finds Enlightenment, and again, Govinda stumbles upon his friend and he too, after a life among the monks, receives a taste of Enlightenment.
Danny and Davos
One cannot help but notice some of the similarities between Danny Rand and Siddhartha: the devotion to an ascetic order, leaving that order to join the world of business, and attempting to find their purpose. More interesting than these analogies between their journeys is the relationships each has with his best friend: Siddhartha with Govinda and Danny with Davos. Both relationships are examples of two men from the same caste, who become part of an order of monks, but whose views of those orders differ. In Iron Fist, viewers discover that Danny’s friend Davos has sought him out in order to bring him back to K’un-Lun, which Danny in his role as Iron Fist is supposed to guard. Instead, Danny argues with Davos that he should remain in New York and fight the Hand there, where they are planning, scheming, and conniving.
Davos: But you wanted to be the Iron Fist, Danny.
Danny: I am the Iron Fist.
Davos: You knew what your duties would be and you don’t get to decide what that means. (Episode 11)
We see a growing rift between Danny and Davos that reflects the difference between Siddhartha and Govinda. Danny, in the end, questions the doctrines of the Order of the Crane Mother and ultimately chooses, much to Davos’s consternation, his own way in the world, while Davos is slavishly devoted to the doctrines of others. As Davos presses him for the reasons why he left K’un-Lun, Danny tells him, “Ever since I got to K’un-Lun, ever since the crash, I’ve always felt empty. I thought maybe the Iron Fist would fix me. But it didn’t. At first, I thought maybe it was a mistake. That I wasn’t supposed to be the Iron Fist. I was looking for a sign. Then I saw this hawk. And I watched it fly further and further down the mountain, and that’s when I knew. The way to K’un-Lun was open. I could leave. I was looking for a sign, and instead, it showed me a path.” Davos disagrees, asking Danny, “Did you ever think that this turmoil that you’re in is because you question Lei Kung’s teachings? If you’d just followed the path he laid out for you, none of this would be happening.” (Episode 11).
Hesse’s novel is overflowing with this conflict between the individual’s attempt to find their own way, and the temptation to submit one’s individual search to the teaching of others. While Danny, like Siddhartha, embraces the path of the individual’s search for meaning, which only he can find, Davos, like Govinda, “live[s] all his life according to the rules,” while feeling contempt for his friend and brother who sought his own way (Hesse,116, 125). But it is Siddhartha (and Danny) who finds that his own life experiences reveals flaws in the attempt to find enlightenment through the teaching of others. Even as Siddhartha criticizes the Buddha for laying out a teaching that creates a binary between the cycle of rebirth and Nirvana, so Danny criticizes the binary between K’un-Lun and the Hand that Davos lives by, particularly as it involves Colleen Wing. While Davos desires to kill Colleen, Danny defends her, pointing out that the binary between good and evil, K’un-Lun and the Hand, is not that simple. Colleen isn’t evil simply because she’s a member of the Hand. No one is completely sinful or completely pure.
Unfortunately, unlike the conflict between Siddhartha and Govinda, which ends with the former leading the latter to enlightenment, the conflict between Danny and Davos ends in a fight. However right or wrong Davos is about the need for someone to guard the way to K’un-Lun, he’s unable to appreciate Danny’s criticism that the teachings of others are questionable, and in the end, one must find one’s destiny on one’s own. As Danny yells at Davos at the end of their fight: “I kicked your ass back in K’un-Lun and I kicked your ass here! I hurt you. I get it. It was selfish and wrong of me to leave without telling you. But coming here has taught me that the Iron Fist isn’t just for K’un-Lun. Others before me may have felt it was their destiny, but I am Danny Rand. And I’m the Iron Fist” (Episide 12).
This is a revelation Danny could only come to on his own. Likewise, only we can determine our own destinies.
Matthew William Brake is the creator and founder of Pop Culture and Theology and the series editor for the book series Theology and Pop Culture from Lexington Books. He holds degrees in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy from George Mason University and a Master of Divinity from Regent University. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources. He has chapters in Deadpool and Philosophy, Wonder Woman and Philosophy, and Mr. Robot and Philosophy.
Herman Hesse, Siddhartha, translated by Susan Bernofsky. New York: The Modern Library. 2006.