Shambhala Sun | May 2014
Into the Light with Dale Cooper
quirky-cool special agent famously upended the idea of the TV G-man. Now he’s
back in a deluxe new Blu-ray set. ROD MEADE SPERRY looks at one of pop
culture’s most endearing, enduring dharma friends.
Twin Peaks: The
9 Blu-ray discs; Paramount
A man is dying on
the floor of a jail cell between two mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Not
even two weeks ago, despite his middle age, he’d had a head of youthfully dark
hair. Now it is completely, shockingly white.
system of the sheriff’s department that holds him has been set off, creating
the effect of a tumultuous indoor storm that rains upon the white-haired man
and his captors.
One of his
captors—the very one who has most doggedly pursued him—is kneeling. The
white-haired man has committed the kind of unthinkable crimes that would
disgust and shake most of us to the core, but FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper
remains fully with the moment. He holds the white-haired man, stroking his
hair, comforting him even as the horrors of his crimes are finally admitted
between last gasps. Then, Cooper speaks. The words come out of him naturally.
“Leland,” he says,
“the time has come for you to seek the path. Your soul has set you face-to-face
with the clear light, and you are now about to experience it in all its
reality, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked,
spotless intellect is like a transparent vacuum, without circumference or
center. Leland, in this moment, know yourself, and abide in that state… Look to
the light, Leland. Find the light.”
Though spoken as
much from the heart as from the head, Coop’s words are not truly his own.
Compare them with this passage from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, meant
to be recited to the dying as they pass on:
[so-and-so by name], the time hath now come for thee to seek the Path [in
reality]. Thy breathing is about to cease. Thy guru hath set thee face to face
before with the Clear Light; and now thou art about to experience in its
Reality in the Bardo state, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless
sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum
without circumference or centre. At this moment, know thou thyself, and abide
in that state.
Leland, though in
his final moment, is surprised, almost smiling, in response to Coop’s
urging that he “find the light.” “I see it!” he says.
“Into the light,
Leland… Don’t be afraid.”
And with that,
Leland Palmer is dead.
moving; hardly your typical SVU jailhouse scene. But this is no ordinary
TV jailhouse, and it’s certainly not ordinary TV.
This is Twin
Peaks, where nothing—not family, not FBI men, not even an owl in a tree—is
as it seems.
twenty-four years, and you’ll find that Leland Palmer has, in fact, been
necessarily the kind of karmic (or “dharmic”) rebirth that Special Agent Cooper
was shooting for, but Leland and the entire Twin Peaks cast are again
finding new life—and new fans—by way of a just-released Blu-ray set.
The show was, of
course, a true pop-culture phenomenon in the early nineties (despite a short
run of clunker second-season episodes). The brainchild of writer-directors Mark
Frost and David Lynch, it posed a now-famous question that seemed meant to
remain unanswered—Who killed Laura Palmer?—and then, bafflingly, went
ahead and filled in the blank. A full viewing of the series makes clear a sad
truth with which even its creators agree: without that question, the show,
despite guidance from directors like Diane Keaton, Uli Edel, and Lynch himself,
became more or less direction-less. (Luckily, when Coop’s nemesis,
Windom Earle, finally appeared in the last few episodes, he brought with him a
renewed sense of the old Twin Peaks spirit. By then, though, most
viewers had lost the thread and weren’t interested in looking for it anymore.)
But throughout Twin
Peaks’ run, there’s one constant: Dale Cooper. Played with quirky
confidence by previous Lynch co-conspirator Kyle MacLachlan (Dune, Blue
Velvet), Coop was young, handsome, and—by all network-TV standards of the
time—seriously weird. Though a bit of a goody-two-shoes, Cooper was somehow,
enviably, cool—a thumbs-up, yet decidedly non-Fonzarelli, kind of
cool. His contagious can-do-it demeanor was only enhanced by his stated work
style, made from a mix of “Bureau guidelines, deductive technique, Tibetan
method, instinct, and luck.”
All this, of
course, makes Coop eminently watchable. But he’s more than that. He’s more,
even, than the “top-notch lawman” that Twin Peaks’ sheriff describes him as.
Coop may even be a bodhisattva.
Now it should be
said that David Lynch is not a Buddhist, and there’s no word on
co-creator Mark Frost’s spiritual leanings. But no matter. Neither Lynch nor
Frost needed to be Buddhist to create Dale Cooper any more than Bob Kane needed
nocturnal crime-fighting experience to create Batman. Or, to put it another
way, as Lynch wrote in his book Catching the Big Fish, “The filmmaker
doesn’t have to be suffering to show suffering.”
But it should also
be said that, while Lynch is no Buddhist, he is a meditator. For some
thirty-four years, he’s been a practitioner of TM, or Transcendental
Meditation, which was taught by the famous/infamous Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and
thrust into the public’s collective consciousness by John Lennon, George
Harrison, and Paul McCartney. (Ringo Starr tolerated his bandmates’ dabblings
at the time but would have preferred that they’d stayed focused on music.) So
it’s not a stretch to see, as one astute friend of mine has suggested, that
Coop is Lynch. It’s all a matter of, as Bill Clinton put it, what your
definition of “is” is.
Like Lynch, Coop
delights, wholeheartedly, in the odd. Like Lynch, he believes in the power of
dreams and intuition. He marvels at the mysteries of the natural world, and
he’s fascinated, lovingly, with human beings and what makes them tick. As such,
Twin Peaks can be argued to be a meditation on life, death, good, evil,
and identity as seen through Lynch and Cooper’s shared vision.
Also like Lynch,
Coop meditates, as is confirmed in episode No. 28. (He reports to his never-seen assistant, Diane, that he’s been
meditating in lieu of sleep, which has not been coming easily what with all the
goings-on in Twin Peaks.) So he shares with Lynch an active interest in how he
can better perceive reality by first looking closely at his own mind. More
important, though, Agent Cooper seems to be a fine dharma friend to his
colleagues at the sheriff’s department, whether any of them know it, or care,
Being unashamed of
his intellectual and spiritual sides, it isn’t long before Cooper’s got the
entire department not only tolerating his ways but also playing happily along.
In an early episode, he gathers them in the woods for an experiment. Employing
a blackboard that he dragged into the great outdoors, he gives the TPSD crew a
summary of his admiration for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as a quick
Tibetan history lesson. Then, he asks them to indulge his beliefs about
“deductive technique, Tibetan method, instinct, and luck” with a session of
unorthodox, dream-informed mind-storming meant to sort the wheat from the chaff
in the mystery of Laura Palmer’s murder.
skeptical, his colleagues warm to Coop’s unusual ways; they suspend all they
know—or think they know—and instead trust and affirm their new partner
in crime fighting. In a following scene, we even see Lucy Moran, the supposedly
ditzy department receptionist, reading a massive hardcover book titled, simply,
Now, Dale Cooper
never declares himself to be “a Buddhist,” but that too is of no matter. What
matters is the way he connects with and inspires the people around him; the way
he lives every moment as truly and deeply as he knows how. He lives in exactly
this way even when his methods have clearly failed him.
At one point in the
series (I’m doing my best to exclude spoilers here!), Coop is, at least
temporarily, stripped of his FBI badge and gun in response to what the Bureau
sees as a cavalier and dangerous attitude. But the former special agent is
nonplussed. While he feels that his dressing-down is the result of Washington’s
being shortsighted and closed-minded, he goes with the flow even as
bureaucratic justice goes unserved. He’s come to love Twin Peaks—the people,
the landmarks, the unanswered questions that seem to reproduce like
dandelions—and so he takes his ex-agent status as an opportunity, forgoing the
G-man outfit that he wears so nattily for more region-appropriate duds. Cooper,
it seems, is just as comfortable in a classic flannel shirt as he is in his old
standard-issue black-jacket, white-shirt, black-necktie outfit. He even starts
investigating local real estate offerings, thinking that he might just have
found his home. Right where he is.
And what is it that
could fill the gap in his life now that his career, to which he has been so
dedicated, might be going the way of Twin Peaks’s endangered pine weasel? Coop,
unashamed and calmly excited as ever, states his new priority himself: “Seeing beyond fear, and looking at the world with love.”
Rod Meade Sperry is the associate editor of the Shambhala Sun and the editor of the new
anthology A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and
Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers.
Painting by Caroline Font.