Because I am who I am I have spent some time considering which major superheroes most reflect Buddhism, and who reflects it the least. You should probably stop reading here.
Batman is probably the least Buddhist superhero. Driven by resentment and fear, Batman suffers endlessly and creates more suffering everywhere he goes. His war on crime is a metaphor for the war we wage with reality – he cannot win, it beat and batters him, it’s essentially counterproductive (especially if you go with Nolan’s escalation themes). On top of all that, Batman is the least mindful superhero – by constantly planning for every eventuality he is constantly future-tripping and never living in the moment. He can’t enjoy a nice time with his Superfriends because he always has to be figuring out how to kill them in case they go bad.
Batman talks about striking fear in the hearts of criminals, but it is fear that drives Batman – fear of how little control he has over life, instilled in him that day in Crime Alley. So he spends all of his time trying to gain control over something ultimately uncontrollable.
Spider-Man isn’t particularly Buddhist, but I see Peter Parker as the ultimate avatar of Buddhist understanding of our suffering. Peter has bad luck, but what makes him suffer is not the bad luck but how he reacts to it. Peter is a whiner, a woe-is-me guy. And the big Buddhist lesson from Peter Parker? You can change your circumstances all you want – you can become a super-powered crimefighter overnight – but if you don’t change yourself you will still be just as fundamentally unhappy.
Superman is probably the most Buddhist of the major heroes. He acts entirely out of compassion; unlike Batman there’s no war he’s undertaking. Rather he’s following the bodhisattva path, accepting an impossible burden to save all beings. He does that with his eyes wide open – Superman knows he can’t save everybody, just as the bodhisattva knows he can’t awaken all beings (the vow is insane – “Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all” is just one part of it). Superman isn’t angsty about this – he accepts that he can only do what he can do. He doesn’t sit around the Fortress of Solitude brooding about all the people he can’t save.
Superman struggles, of course, but so did the Buddha after his awakening. Even after attaining nirvana the Buddha was still visited by negative emotions, represented in legends by the troublesome god Mara. Shit never gets easier, but that doesn’t mean you give up. The dharma asks us to make hard choices in the name of ethics and awakening, and Superman is often forced to make similar hard choices, weighing his own values against the lives and safety of others.
The least Buddhist thing about Superman is that he’s a huge liar, pretending to be two different people. Buddha was unbelievably strict about what constitutes Wise Speech and what is lying (according to him you probably shouldn’t even be sarcastic. Looks like I’m not getting enlightened in this lifetime!), but Superman’s dual identities remind me of monks. They take on new names and new lives when they wear the robes, but they’re still the same people they were (and often go back to being those people in their off hours, or when they derobe for good). Sometimes you gotta put on some weird clothes to get shit done, and sometimes you gotta take them off.
Anyway, this is the stuff I think about when taking long walks. I’m 43 and single.