Doctor Whodism: How the Doctor Influenced the Dharma

In a famous scene from the Vimalakirti Sutra, a party of hundreds of disciples is able to sit comfortably in a small hut, about one hundred feet by one hundred feet. Buddhist philosophers have understood this to be a metaphor for the concept of non-substantiality. Savvy fans of British television will know better: Vimalakirti’s hut was larger on the inside than on the outside.

This is but one of many ways in which the Doctor has influenced Buddhism. 

Perhaps you think I’ve got that backward. Shouldn’t I be saying Buddhism influenced Doctor Who? Don’t be silly. He’s a time traveler. What, you think he spent all of his time in London? Don’t be so Eurocentric.

The Doctor was well known in Magadha and Koshala 2500 years ago. It is entirely possible that the Mara—the demons who attack the Buddha just before his enlightenment—may have followed the Doctor (during his fifth incarnation) after his encounter with them on the planet Deva Loka.

Also, consider this. The 10th chapter of the Lotus Sutra pertains to the practice of Buddhism in distant future, many centuries after the Buddha’s passing. To whom but a time traveler would he address such a statement? Indeed, that portion of the sutra is spoken to a man known as Bhaishajyaraja, or Medicine King.  Medicine King. Doctor. Coincidence? Of course not.

Though obvious, it also bears mentioning that the Doctor regenerates. Buddhism, of course, teaches that all phenomena arise and decline. The cycle of birth and death is ongoing. Due to varied causes and conditions, each so-called incarnation has aspects unique to it, while remaining part of the larger karmic continuum. In other words, you might be a leather-clad Northerner in one life and a skinny bloke with a Satsuma wishing you had ginger hair in the next.

The Doctor’s influence on the Dharma doesn’t end with the early days of the Buddhist Order.

The Chan schools (better known in the west as Zen) clearly borrowed a story from the Doctor that he relayed in “Planet of the Spiders” upon which they based the tale of the Buddha handing a flower to Mahakashyapa.

The Doctor was known to pal around with the early Mahayana scholar Nagarjuna (hmm…Mahayana…greater vehicle. The TARDIS?).

Nagarjuna developed the concept of the Middle Way, which explores the non-dual relationship of phenomena and the essential Dharma. Causality (and therefore time) can be viewed as linear in the realm of phenomena or simultaneous and non-linear in the essential aspect. Nagarjuna writes, “A non-stationary ‘time’ cannot be ‘grasped’ and a stationary ‘time’ which can be grasped does not exist. How, then can one perceive time if it is not grasped?”

Or, in the Doctor’s words, “People think of time as a sort of straight line, but when you look at it from a non-linear, non-subjective point of view, it’s more of a great big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”


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