The Dharma of Celebrity Death

I've been out of the country on a couple of meditation retreats and so missed much of this summer's celebrity necromania. The same thing happened to me in 1977 when Elvis died; I was in the middle of a six-month retreat in an off-season ski hotel in Switzerland and read the news in the International Herald-Tribune. This time, I was in a mountain lodge in Quebec, just a few miles from the U.S. border but feeling blissfully worlds away. Then, one day in the dining hall (dominated by a massive moose head named Rudy and a wacky clock that rang each hour with a different bird call), one of the retreatants made the mistake of checking the New York Times on her iPhone and blurted out, "Oh my God, Michael Jackson died! And Farrah Fawcett. And ... Ed McMahon?"

So much has been written on the topic by now that I hesitate to add my little say, but perhaps there's something to be gained from looking at this cultural phenomenon through the blinking eyes of a hermit emerging from the dark of his cave into the glare of the popping flashbulbs and 24-hour news coverage and saying, "What?" Everybody dies. Why, from a spiritual point of view, are celebrity deaths such an extra big deal? They obviously do touch people on a deep level. Could that have something to do with the deep levels of our own being, the depths that are discovered through meditative and spiritual practice? What is the dharma of celebrity death?


Celebrities, like people close to us, are so much a part of us that it's hard to imagine life without them. When a loved one dies, we find ourselves asking, "Where did they go?," gazing again and again into the space they used to occupy, which is now open space. It's actually an opening into the spaciousness of being itself, a precious peek into shunyata, the sublimely empty infinite. We might be too caught up in our stories of loss and sorrow to notice, or it might even make us feel guilty to notice, but in this way the death of a loved one can connect us with an incredible, even blissful freedom, if we can just relax and let it happen. Similarly, all the hoopla around celebrity deaths is not only mourning but also celebration -- and not just in the conventional sense of "celebrating his life" that we hear at funerals, but actually celebrating death. There's nothing morbid about this. As Walt Whitman wrote:

Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to assure him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.

Clearly, the fascination with celebrity deaths must somehow touch on our sense of ourselves, as we contemplate not only our own deaths but our lives. There's a story about a monk named Anuradha who goes to the Buddha to ask where he, the Enlightened One, will be after he dies. Will he still somehow exist? Will he not exist? Both? Neither? The Buddha doesn't answer directly. Instead, he cross-examines Anuradha about the various components of the individual person, such as form, feeling, perception, etc. Then he asks, "Where am I -- the Buddha -- right now? In my form? In my feelings? In my perceptions?" Eventually it becomes clear that it's impossible to pin down the Buddha's location even as he sits right before Anuradha. His post mortem location, then, must be completely indefinable. As we say here in New Jersey, fuhgeddabouddit.

So, where is an Elvis or a Michael Jackson after he dies? That must also be indefinable, but, because of their powerful presence, we keep trying to define it. Taking our cue from the Buddha, we might start by backing up and asking where they were located in life. In which component of Elvis resided the quintessential Elvisness that made us care about him more than some other Memphis truck driver? Was it the trademark curl of his upper lip? His famously swiveling hips? The way his dark hair fell over his forehead? As a matter of fact, Elvis's real hair was sandy brown before it went prematurely white. That jet-black color came out of a Clairol bottle, starting around the same time his nose was straightened and his teeth were capped. (Compare his pre-1957 photos.) If Elvis is his black hair, you can buy Elvis at your local CVS.

But of course that's just his form. Isn't the real Elvis in his music, in his revolutionary performance style? If that's the case, then, even as his form molders in nonexistence, we have to say that his most worshipful fans are right: Elvis lives, in your iTunes library, in your Netflix list (Viva Las Vegas, y'all), and for that matter in the endlessly echoing gestures of a thousand Elvis impersonators.

That's a cliché too -- how many times this summer have you heard that Michael Jackson or Walter Cronkite lives on his legacy? But it points to a deeper truth, which was probably best expressed by Carole Lombard, the wonderful film comedian who was married to Clark Gable, then the screen's most lusted-after leading man. When an interviewer asked her what he was like as a husband, she laughed and said, "Well, he's no Gable."

The implication is that the divine Gable on the screen is a product of acting technique, makeup, lighting, studio hype, and audience adulation, all clustered around an organism also called Gable. The organism's "real-life" existence, including such events as marriage and death, have little to do with the divinity. In yet another cliché, we keep hearing MJ and Cronkite and Farrah Fawcett called "icons." An icon is literally an image, originally a temple picture or statue of a god or goddess, and indeed the Farrah-ness that inspired the lust of millions in the 70's lives on in that red-swim-suited poster icon as vividly as Aphrodite.

The first of this summer's celebrity deaths was that of David Carradine. By now it's been almost eclipsed by those that followed, and his impact has been undervalued, due in part to the tabloid focus on the sad, sordid details of his demise. (Full disclosure: I have some bias here. For a few years during my Los Angeles childhood, my brothers and I were friends with the Carradine brothers. They used to swim in our pool, and Keith and I, under the influence of our then-favorite TV show, used to tear around the Carradine house, a historic building called the Calabasas Adobe, pretending we were Zorro and slashing Z's into the walls.)

As hokey as Kung Fu sometimes was, it had a huge effect on our culture, now largely forgotten precisely because of its success. With its premise of Kwai Chang Caine, the lonely man of peace, the exiled half-Chinese Shaolin priest wandering through the Old West, reluctantly forced to use his martial skills to fight injustice, it was the first and, shockingly, still the only major network series to present Eastern wisdom to a mass Western audience, even if in a Hollywoodized form. There has been some dissing of Carradine as the beneficiary of racist casting, based on murky allegations that Bruce Lee was passed up for the role of Caine because it was believed that a TV show could not succeed with a non-Caucasian in the leading role. That would be in keeping with the legacy of Charlie Chan, the popular movie detective who was portrayed by a succession of white actors. (Ironically, Keye Luke, Chan's comic-relief "Number One Son," went on to play Caine's wise Master Po.)

But, in fact, making Caine half American, even if done for the wrong reasons, was exactly right. It made him a bridge between East and West, the exotic and the familiar. It made it easier for a mostly white American audience to identify with him, to keep one foot set firmly in their achievement-oriented, conquest-oriented Western culture while hesitantly planting another foot in the contemplative Eastern notions of nonviolent, peaceful acceptance of a larger harmony. Now, almost 40 years later, when there are yoga studios in Omaha and the Beastie Boys and MC Yogi rap about bodhichitta and satyagraha, David Carradine deserves some credit as a pioneer. No, he didn't create or write the show, he never claimed to be a perfect exemplar of enlightenment, and he didn't even practice martial arts before he was cast, but (much better than the overheated, extraverted Bruce Lee could have done) he coolly, often wordlessly embodied its message of inner peace.

Carradine himself once said that hardly a day went by that he wasn't stopped on the street by half a dozen people telling him that Kung Fu had changed their lives. Once, in the 70s, I met a woman -- a middle-aged secretary, as I recall, and not at all someone you'd take to be the meditative "type" -- who told me a story about how she had gotten trapped, alone, in an elevator stuck between floors. At first she started to panic. "But then," she said, "I thought, 'What would Caine do?' So I sat down on the floor, crossed my legs, and just let be."

I wonder how many stories like that are out there. Thank you, David. Thank you, everyone. Enjoy life, enjoy death, let be.