You’re out hunting in the Texas wilderness when you come across a scene from a nightmare: shot-up bodies and the signs of a drug deal gone wrong, where everyone ended up dead. So where’s the money? You follow tracks and find a final body, still grasping a bag that contains more cash than you’ve ever seen. You have a choice: take the money with the chance to make a new life, while knowing that someone will come after you; or leave it and return to your old struggles. Everything you’ve ever done has led you to this point. You take the chance and start running.
That’s the crucial scene in No Country for Old Men, the novel by Cormac McCarthy, who has just died at age 89, and the Oscar-winning Coen brothers’ 2007 film. Llewelyn Moss, who discovers the money, is hunted by an inexorable pursuer, Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem in the movie, who kills anyone who crosses his path without anger or mercy. From the moment he took the suitcase, Moss’s fate was sealed.
McCarthy’s novels are typically blood-soaked explorations, written in shimmering prose, of the illusions that sustain ordinary life. They seek wisdom, telling us, as Virginia Woolf said of Joseph Conrad, “something very old and perfectly true, which had lain hidden but is now revealed.” For all their bleakness, the books resonate with me as a Buddhist. In the case of No Country, the Buddhist connection is overt, as the novel is essentially a reworking of The Pardoner’s Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer—one of the greatest of all short stories—while the ultimate source of The Pardoner’s Tale is a Buddhist Jataka tale. To trace these influences and see what they tell us about McCarthy, it’s simplest to start at the beginning.
A Jataka describes a previous life of the being who will eventually become the Buddha. In our sources he is called the bodhisatta, the Pali version of the better-known Sanskrit term bodhisattva. In each life the bodhisatta learns a lesson or develops a moral virtue that will eventually prepare him for enlightenment, and The Jatakamala contains 547 such stories. Many are well-known within Asian Buddhist culture, but they’re much less popular in Western cultures, where we may be put off by the centrality of rebirth or the simplicity of their morality.
In the Vedabbha Jataka, the bodhisatta is apprenticed to a brahmin who knows the powerful Vedabbha Mantra, a spell that can make jewels rain down when recited at a particular conjunction of the moon. Robbers take the two men hostage and send the bodhisatta to fetch a ransom for his teacher. Sensing danger, the bodhisatta warns the brahmin, “Whatever you do, don’t use the mantra.” But while he’s away, the brahmin notices that the conjunction has occurred and thinks to himself, “I could conjure up the jewels and pay the ransom that way.”
The robbers get their money, and everyone is happy until the whole band is captured by another group, who demands that the brahmin repeat his feat. When the brahmin tells them he can produce jewels only when the planets align, the robbers chop him in two and a huge fight breaks out between the gangs. Eventually, all but two are dead, and these survivors hide the treasure in a jungle lair. One goes to town to buy some rice, and as he walks into town decides to poison the rice so he can keep all the wealth for himself. The second, who is guarding the treasure, has the same thought, kills the first robber when he returns, eats the rice and dies.
The bodhisatta returns to find the body of his teacher, the dead robbers, and the treasure, and he understands the whole story. He reflects that the disaster occurred because the brahmin did not heed his advice, and he concludes: “One who desires profit by wrong means comes to harm.” In her 2006 translation of the story, Sarah Shaw suggests that the bodhisatta’s role as a clearheaded interpreter capable of reconstructing the sequence of events makes this “one of the earliest counterparts of the detective story.”
We don’t know how the story of the Vedabbha Jataka found its way to Europe, but we can imagine it being retold around campfires along the trade route between India and the Middle East, where a version appears in The 1001 Nights. Perhaps pilgrims or crusaders heard it on their travels to the Holy Land and retold it when they returned to a 14th-century England, where memories of the Black Death were fresh. Somehow it reached Geoffrey Chaucer as he gathered materials for The Canterbury Tales. One of Chaucer’s stories is told by a pardoner (an individual licensed by the Church to pardon people for their sins), and scholars long ago noticed that The Pardoner’s Tale shared features with the Vedabbha Jataka.
Chaucer’s story starts with three young men drinking and gambling in a tavern. They hear that a friend has been killed by a character named “Death,” who has also killed many others, and they set out to punish him by killing Death. They ask an old man where they can find Death, and he tells them they will find him beneath a nearby tree. When they arrive, they discover a hoard of treasure and forget their original mission. One is dispatched to buy food and wine, and, as in the Jataka, he decides to poison the wine so he can have all the money. For the same reason, the other two decide to kill the first. The moral drawn by the Pardoner is radix malorum est cupiditas, which we could roughly render as “Craving is the origin of evil.”
Chaucer’s invention of the old man is a brilliant touch, as is placing the fable in the mouth of the Pardoner, who tries to use its power to extract money from his listeners. But the biggest difference between Chaucer’s version and the Jataka is the youths’ desire to seek out death and the irony that they do indeed find him, only not in the form they imagined. The story’s meaning expands from the effects of greed to our relation to death, and that’s also a link to No Country for Old Men.
The Pardoner’s Tale helps us understand the significance of Chigurh. As a psychopathic killer, he is scarcely believable, but the comparison with Chaucer lets us see him as Death personified. “How dangerous is he?” someone asks a person he’s hired to stop Chigurh. “Compared to what,” he replies, “the bubonic plague?”
It’s no good asking why Chigurh kills, as people do throughout the story. That’s what Death does. We try to bargain with death, but the most Chigurh will do is toss a coin to decide whether he’ll kill you.
Chigurh says that the source of his power is that people want to prevail over death while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge its existence.
You could see No Country as an unsparing version of the Buddhist teaching of karma. Chigurh tells one victim, “Every moment in your life is a turning and everyone a choosing. Somewhere you made a choice. All followed to this. The accounting is scrupulous.” Moss is condemned by the same moral logic that catches the victims in the two precursor stories, and the novel’s corpse-strewn opening recalls the Jataka. Like the bodhisatta, Moss—the Josh Brolin character who finds the bodies—understands exactly what has happened, but unlike him, Moss doesn’t learn the lesson the scene so vividly teaches.
In fact, McCarthy’s message is subtler. Having taken the money, Moss returns to the crime scene to give water to a wounded man, and it’s the combination of the two actions that dooms him. We suffer because we’re entangled in the world, wanting both to be good and to get what we want. We imagine that life is on our side when, as Buddhism says, it is characterized by suffering, impermanence, and insubstantiality. Chigurh says that the source of his power is that people want to prevail over death while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge its existence.
That’s a grim reckoning, and Buddhism adds that the fruit of seeing through our delusion is wisdom, compassion, and liberation. There’s little of that on the surface of No Country for Old Men or McCarthy’s other writing, but it’s there if we dig deep enough. The counterpart to the bodhisatta of the Vedabbha Jataka is Bell, the police officer, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who tracks Chigurh and figures out the whole story. What he learns sobers him deeply, and he understands better the importance of living well and letting go of illusions.
At the very end of both the film and the book, Bell describes a dream. He’s following his father on horseback through the mountains and sees that his father is carrying fire in a horn and traveling ahead to create a refuge of light in a dark landscape. For me, that’s an image of how hope survives. It’s also an image for the wisdom of ancient tales that’s passed down through the generations, crossing continents and leaping genres.
That wisdom burns afresh in McCarthy’s clear-eyed, prophetic novels, even as we bid him farewell. They’re sources of light in a dark time.
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