Are you a fan of Harry Dean Stanton? Old and new devotees alike should know the Actor, Icon, Musician, Repo Man, and Seeker left for the world of the Spirit on September 15th, 2017. Prior to his passing, however, Harry Dean made some great movies, his final on-screen role as Lucky released last year, the opening scene pictured above. Lucky, according to the film's write-up, tells the story of a “90-year-old atheist and his struggle against encroaching old age. The film depicts his coming to terms with his own mortality, as he searches for enlightenment."
I fortuitously caught Lucky in Holland this winter at the Knickerbocker Theater, a cool little western Michigan community cultural center. I’d had a thing for Harry Dean as some people do, especially after reading an article upon his death focused on his life as a seeker. “Enlightenment is the only thing that matters” was his quote, pictured sitting on a zafu meditation cushion, kneeling on a zabuton, smoking a cigarette with a long, dangling ash. When Harry Dean Stanton as Lucky appeared up on the Knickerbocker’s old-school marquee, I was IN. I don't quite get the film's aforementioned descriptor, as I can’t recall much that'd have me labeling Lucky an atheist, although he clearly wasn’t a religious man, What I did note to be a spirituality-focused exchange occurred between Lucky and the fellow war veteran Fred, played by Tom Skerritt, their interesting but muddy dialogue over apple pie slices in a scene in a small town Texas diner being the inspiration for this article.
Connecting over shared, horrific combat experiences, Lucky listens intently to Fred, Stanton's focus fueled by a real-life WWII stint at Okinawa. “I still think about those people on the islands hiding in caves afraid of us, the Japs telling them we there to rape and kill them all," croaks Fred. "I remember this little girl. She couldn’t have been more than seven, in rags. She saw us comin’ I guess, outta no where, outta the hole, and.. she had this beautiful… smile on her face. It wasn’t a façade, it was coming from somewhere inside of her… from the center of herself." Fred continues: “Good Lord. In that shit hoie. It stopped us in our tracks. Here we were, covered with shit, with pieces of people, I swear I couldn’t see one tree left standing, and she’s grinning from ear to ear. So I said to my Corporal, I said “Look here, we have someone who’s happy to see us.” And his response was: 'She’s not happy to see us. She’s a Buddhist and she thinks she’s going to be killed. And she’s smiling at her fate.' When I think about that little girls face and that beautiful smile, in the midst of all that horror and how she summoned the joy. They don’t make any kind of medal for that kind of bravery.”
I don’t think this exchange made some profound, original spiritual truth. In fact, I found it a bit muddled, maybe in a similar way to this post about my love for Harry Dean Stanton. My point was to clarify the (somewhat) discussed notion here that one of the goals of spiritual practice like Buddhist meditation is to develop such a dynamic inner connection that eventually the most horrific external events – warfare, loss, the death of others as well as ourselves – effect us less and less. As I'm fond of reminding people - if purification practice can strengthen us in the face of the real biggies - like our shared destiny to one day not even exist - imagine how it might assist us in the struggles of daily life. My teacher John Ashbrook says it this way: “When you’re at peace within, you’re at peace without.” And on that note, RIP HDS.