Victor Salva, Director
Lionsgate Films, 2006

Armand Mastroianni, Director
Celestine Films, 2006

In the Lotus Sutra, the story is told of a child coaxed out of a burning house through the false offer of a wonderful toy. Is such deception wrong, the writers have the Buddha ask, since the child would otherwise have died—and since what awaits the child is really much better than all that was promised?

New Age spirituality is rife with factual error, fuzzy thinking, and romantic distortions of both scientific and contemplative insights to an even greater degree, if that is possible, than traditional religions. Doctrines like transubstantiation, reincarnation, action at a distance by prayer or chanting, miracles, schemes of human moral evolution, and other objectively unfounded or absurd beliefs are common to all the Great Religions, East and West. Perhaps these latter bizarreries stand out less because they are our bizarreries, frozen below the sea level of our conscious minds, awaiting their Titanics, collisions with real-world intentions and facts; whereas the New Age nostrums are remarkable, derisible, because they are new, because they are not (yet) a part of any orthodoxy.

As has been observed, the actual difference between a cult and a religion is the numbers of faithful.

The toys—siddhis, sainthood, life eternal, permanent happiness, total freedom from error or confusion, and the rest—is it wrong to offer them, since, in fact, the fire is so hot and so dangerous, and the fruits of a deep reorientation (of whatever kind, so long as there’s a shaking-up) are really so much better than all that was promised?

What makes them “toys” is that despite their elevated descriptions, they all depend on YOU in the middle, someone with a name and a his- tory—a fiction, in short—and on things to lose or gain: material things in the end (as Chögyam Trungpa argued so eloquently in his classic Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism), despite the spiritual credentials. Like everything else, they come and go, and you clutch and grieve; they may as well be money.

Two toy catalog movies have been released recently, The Celestine Prophecy and Peaceful Warrior, each based on a book of the same name. The question is: will they, by the appeal of those toys, call us from the burning house or send us deeper into the flames?

Peaceful Warrior dreams of a perfect spiritual friend, the Cosmic Zen Master, wonderfully paradoxical, whimsical, brutal, wise, compassionate, and as manly and good-looking as, well, Nick Nolte, who happens to play him. He performs small but miraculous feats: for example, leaping from the ground straight up onto a rooftop. He appears in the dreams of the protagonist, a young gymnast bent on making the Olympic team. (The gymnast is modeled after the author of The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman, and, as in the book, the relationship between “Dan Millman” the character and Dan Millman the actual person is not altogether clear.)

This gas station guru speaks in riddles and epithets borrowed from literatures of Zen and the martial arts. We see him at a table, oryoki-style. “I will teach you to be a warrior.” At one point he throws young Dan off a bridge into a creek to help burst his ego and show him the Now. Dan is made to see his shallow ego-centered competitiveness. Hum- bled, he begins to allow himself to be reformed and to learn true discipline— but, after all the trials, reversals, insights, what is the fruit of these labors?

Olympic excellence—which is to say, a material result. A toy. It’s a bait-and-switch job: spiritual qualities get more lip flappage, but the champion turn is the point.

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