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Sunday, 3 April 2011

An Unlikely Guru

The still on the left is taken from The Long Sleep (1971), probably the most notorious episode of Gerry Anderson's cult TV series UFO. The rather unsavoury-looking character depicted is an anonymous van driver (seen in flashback, hence the sepia-tinted monochrome) who tries to rape the female lead, in a key scene which triggers the rest of the storyline. The fairly explicit rape attempt, together with the use of "arty" monochrome sequences and references to drug-taking, all contributed to the episode's notoriety when it was originally shown!

The van-driving sex fiend was played by a bit-part actor named John Garrie (1924-99), who had appeared a few years earlier in another cult show -- Patrick McGoohan's Danger Man. In Koroshi (1968), the penultimate episode of the series, Garrie played the more respectable part of an "Old Japanese Man"... quite a feat for someone who didn't look the least bit Japanese! The role of the mystic sage was right up Garrie's street, however, since he'd been dabbling in the mystic arts ever since the 1940s (he had his first psychic experiences while flying with the RAF during the Second World War).

By the mid-70s, Garrie had abandoned his acting career and become a full-time guru. He adopted the name John Garrie Roshi ("Roshi" being an honorific title in Zen Buddhism), as well as other trappings of Zen such as a black robe and Japanese calligraphy (see picture at left). However, his formal Buddhist training was not in Japanese Zen, but in Burmese Theravada... and his teaching was full of words like Satipatthana, Anatta and Metta, which are Theravada terms that would be meaningless to a traditional practitioner of Zen. This is typical of the tendency in the West to mix-and-match different forms of Buddhism (the Green Lama pulps do the same thing), but really it's like trying to mix and match players from the Green Bay Packers and Manchester United on the basis that they're both football teams!

The "Zen Buddhism" taught by John Garrie Roshi may not have been particularly authentic or traditional, but that doesn't detract from the fact that (judging by the testimonies of his students) he was a first class New Age teacher and guru. But he remained a resolute individualist -- there's a video of him on YouTube where he can be seen preaching Buddhist mindfulness while puffing idly on a cigarette!


zencarpenter said...

Sorry but your football analogy is way out, enlightenment is the same experience whether realised through zen buddhism or theravada buddhism. Different tools for the same job.

Andrew May said...

Thanks, that's a very good point. What I was getting at is that in a traditional Buddhist country like Sri Lanka or Japan, it would be unusual (though not unheard of) to mix different teaching traditions and languages. But you are quite right that for a Westerner trying to learn Buddhism without any cultural ties to one tradition or another, John Garrie Roshi's approach was as valid as any. I've met some of his students, and they certainly gained a lot of understanding from his way of teaching.