The Dharma of Western Literature

In this series on The Dharma of Western Literature, we consider six classic works through the lens of the six paramitas, or sublime virtues: generosityethical conduct, patience, diligence, meditation, and wisdom. Next up is diligence, or virya


The detective, like the spiritual aspirant, is a seeker of truth. Something has gone wrong—a crime has been committed, suffering has poisoned the world—and it’s up to the detective or the aspirant to track down the culprit, to identify the source of suffering. On the way, there are thrills and spills: promising leads that may or may not turn out to be dead ends, official guides (gurus, cops) that may or may not prove helpful, enticing temptations (flashy meditative experiences, flashy dames) that may prove distracting or even dangerous. To find the cause of corruption requires plunging into the corrupt world without being corrupted by it. That requires diligence, perseverance, energetic commitment: virya-paramita, the fourth of the six sublime virtues that support awakening.

Raymond Chandler, the most thoughtful and sophisticated master of the “hard-boiled” detective fiction that emerged in the 1920s and 30s, once spelled it out: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. … He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. … The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth.”

Chandler’s exemplar of that paradigm—the hero of half a dozen novels, beginning in 1939 with The Big Sleep—is Philip Marlowe, private investigator. He is named for the playwright Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s great contemporary and rival. That Marlowe, who was also a drunken brawler, a dangerously outspoken atheist, and a double agent for Queen Elizabeth’s shady spy service, knew the mean streets well; he successfully navigated the treacherous waters of religious-political intrigue until he was killed at age 29 in a tavern scuffle with three hired thugs. 

Philip, from the Greek for “lover of horses,” suggests a mounted chevalier: a knight. Indeed, the first time we see our hero, he’s contemplating a stained-glass window that depicts a knight in dark armor, untying a naked maiden from a tree. On the chessboard, the knight has the form of a horse and bounds horselike over obstacles. With its L-shaped path, it proceeds by indirection—like Marlowe and like us, on our often uncertain path. In fact, Marlowe sharpens his strategic faculties by playing chess. He is educated, enjoys classical music, wears good suits, and is tall and strikingly handsome.      

Chandler’s first choice to play Marlowe in the 1946 Warner Bros. version of The Big Sleep, now considered a film noir classic, was the elegant Cary Grant. Instead, Warner gave us the iconic Humphrey Bogart incarnation: the gun-toting tough guy in fedora and trench coat, snarling terse wisecracks out of the side of his mouth. Unlike Bogey, Chandler’s Marlowe rarely carries a gun and wears a trench coat only when it rains. And he narrates, favoring over-the-top similes like “as limp as a fresh-killed rabbit,” “as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets,” “a face as hard and white as cold mutton fat,” and, wonderfully, “The purring voice was now as false as an usherette’s eyelashes and as slippery as a watermelon seed.” But Marlowe’s essence, whether on the page or the screen, is that he’s clever, wary, skeptical, and, above all, dogged—persevering. He gets lied to, knocked out, tied up, and threatened with death, but he stays on the case. 

In this case, Marlowe’s client is a robber baron, one General Sternwood, the owner of the mansion with that stained-glass window. Uncomfortably close by are the fetid oil fields, the source of the general’s ill-gotten wealth, and the La Brea Tar Pits, where thousands of animals, dating back to the woolly mammoth era, died, mired in a swamp of oozing asphalt, like the moral swamp that constantly threatens to swallow Marlowe and everyone else in his world. The general, now elderly, debilitated, wheelchair-bound, and perpetually cold, first meets with the private eye in a sweltering greenhouse that establishes the book’s queasy atmosphere: 

The air was thick, wet, steamy and larded with the cloying smell of tropical orchids in bloom. The glass walls and roof were heavily misted and big drops of moisture splashed down on the plants. The light had an unreal greenish color, like light filtered through an aquarium tank. The plants filled the place, a forest of them, with nasty meaty leaves and stalks like the newly washed fingers of dead men. 

Even the general calls the orchids “nasty things,” adding, “Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”

Marlowe’s client is no paragon of virtue. (How many of the bosses or industries we work for are?) But the client is the client, and serving him diligently is its own virtue. The knight’s armor is dark, not shining. Here Marlowe’s assignment amounts to cleaning up behind the misadventures of Vivian and Carmen, the general’s two wild daughters. Things get complicated: there’s a disappeared husband, a drowned chauffeur, gambling debts owed to gangsters, and nude photos taken by a blackmailing pornographer. The plot is notoriously discombobulating, in part because of the way Chandler constructed it, “cannibalizing” (in his own word) a handful of unrelated short stories he had written for the pulp detective magazine Black Mask, cobbling the pieces together, then adding new material. But this tangled, confusing quality, despite being accidental, is central to the book’s power. Samsara, the world of nonenlightenment through which we slog in search of enlightening truth, is a world of tangled confusion. Nothing is neat and clear until samsara is resolved by nirvana.

But even by the end of The Big Sleep, things are not really neat and clear. In fact, when the film version was being shot, Bogey complained to director Howard Hawks that he couldn’t figure out who had bumped off the chauffeur. Neither could Hawks, who sent a query to Chandler—who couldn’t figure it out either. But this is precisely where Chandler transcends his predecessors. The earlier literary detectives, like Sherlock Holmes and, before that, Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, were essentially solvers of intellectual puzzles. Poe called his Dupin adventures “tales of ratiocination”—stories of rational thought. They’re carefully crafted to lead to the final Aha!, when all the mystery’s pieces click into place and the reader gets the picture, suddenly understanding the clues that have been in plain sight all along. That Aha! provides a nice little quasi-samadhi, good enough to keep many readers hooked on one mystery novel after another.

The truth we’re after is found not at the end of a thinking process, but in the middle of a living process.

But there’s something kind of, well, juvenile about that approach and cheap about that samadhi. The real, grown-up problem of life, when it’s experienced as a problem, is not like an algebra problem that’s resolved the moment we deduce that x equals 47. The problem is that life, like the tar pits, stinks, and we feel ourselves sinking into its stinking ooze. “The ideal mystery,” Chandler once wrote, “was one you would read if the end was missing.” Mature dharma dogs know that the truth we’re after is found not at the end of a thinking process, but in the middle of a living process. Novices seek the meaning of life as if they’re finally going to open the right fortune cookie and find a nice, tidy, one-sentence message that suddenly makes sense of all of life’s messiness. 

But what if the real nirvana is to be found in the mess—not by getting it all cleaned up but by being cleanly present in its face? Chandler confers that sense of presence through Marlowe’s steady, acutely sensitive observation of the untidy reality of each moment—his mindfulness: “The fire stairs hadn’t been swept in a month. Bums had slept on them, left crusts and fragments of greasy newspaper, matches, a gutted imitation-leather pocketbook. In a shadowy angle against the scribbled wall a pouched ring of pale rubber had fallen and had not been disturbed.” Even when Marlowe is beaten into unconsciousness by a thug clutching a roll of nickels, he’s present to it, alert until the last possible moment, investigating and reporting back to the reader, his real client:

The fist with the weighted tube inside it went through my spread hands like a stone through a cloud of dust. I had the stunned moment of shock when the lights danced and the visible world went out of focus but was still there. He hit me again. There was no sensation in my head. The bright glare got brighter. There was nothing but hard aching white light. Then there was darkness in which something red wriggled like a germ under a microscope. Then there was nothing bright or wriggling, just darkness and emptiness and a rushing wind and a falling as of great trees.

Virya-paramita, as far as I can see, means knowing what to do and doing it honorably and conscientiously, whether you’re raising a houseful of kids, writing symphonies, or scrubbing pots. You do a good job of making your corner of the world better than you found it. But for us seekers, us detectives of life, there’s also the deeper job of awakening. No matter how hard we scrub it, this world, that which we are aware of, will never be immaculate. But awareness itself, presence itself, is immaculate. To practice virya means to keep being present, to keep showing up for our own actual experience, not taking refuge in hypothetical pasts or futures, or in the mind’s interpretations, whether starry-eyed or cynical. Keep being awake to the moment as it is—don’t succumb to the big sleep. 

On the last night of his life, before Jesus goes off to pray in an olive grove, he gives the three apostles who accompany him a single instruction: “Stay awake.” He comes back to find them snoring away. As the expression goes, “You had just one job … !” Let’s see if we can do it.

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