Orange Peels and Apple-Eaters: Buddhism in J.D. Salinger's Teddy

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Orange Peels and Apple-Eaters: Buddhism in J.D. Salinger's Teddy
Author Tony Magagna

In J.D. Salinger's short story, Teddy, the title-character, staring out of a porthole in the ship cabin he is sharing with his parents, muses aloud:

Someone just dumped a whole garbage can of orange peels out the window....They float very nicely....That's interesting....I don't mean its interesting that they float....It's interesting that I know about them being there. If I hadn't seen them, then I wouldn't know they were there, and if I didn't know they were there, I wouldn't be able to say that they even exist....Some of them are starting to sink now. In a few minutes, the only place they'll still be floating will be inside my mind. That's quite interesting, because if you look at it a certain way, that’s where they started floating in the first place. (171-72)

These observations, seemingly out of proportion to a simple can of kitchen refuse being tossed into the sea, reflect a strong Buddhist influence on Teddy's thought (and on Salinger's). The way in which Teddy describes the orange peels as appearing in front of him, and then, moments later, beginning to sink out of view - out of existence - points to the Buddhist idea of impermanence; nothing lasts forever - those things that we perceive, and even our own lives, are only temporary occurrences which will, with time, vanish. This passage also reflects the directly related Buddhist belief of non-existence, which teaches that physical existence - whether of self, or time, or even orange peels - is an illusion. Buddhists hold that the materiality of the world only exists within earthly, and therefore false, perceptions; in other words, we fool ourselves into thinking that we, and everything around us, exist in any physical sense. Thus, when Teddy remarks here that the orange peels only exist in his mind, as well as later when, upon leaving the cabin, he states, "After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances....I may be an orange peel" (174), he is, in a Buddhist sense, quite right.

This scene is fairly brief in the context of the story, but in its reflection of Buddhist influences, it is indicative of the story as a whole. Throughout Teddy, Salinger relates several Buddhist principles and philosophies through the characters', and especially Teddy's, statements and actions. The strong influence of Buddhism is apparent even in some of Salinger's basic decisions in constructing and framing the story.

One such decision is Salinger's choice (a tendency in many of his stories) to create and relate the story of his characters without any sense of history. In Teddy, the story opens with all of the key characters aboard an oceanliner, but there is little, if any, information as to how they got there. There are references throughout the story to bits and pieces of biographical information (i.e. Teddy's father is a radio-actor, Teddy makes tapes), but in fact very little. The reader has no sense, really, of where these characters came from, or where they are going. It is as if, like Teddy's orange peels, the characters only came into existence at the point in time when the story begins, and that they will cease to exist the moment it ends. Again, like the scene with the orange peels, this strict focus on the story's present, with no sense of past or future, clearly reflects the Buddhist beliefs of impermanence and non-existence.

Another, and perhaps less abstract, Buddhist influence on Teddy (and Salinger) lies in the structure of the title-character himself. Throughout the story, Salinger portrays Teddy as a genius, a seer, a religious figure, and even a teacher of teachers; the catch is that he's only ten years old! This portrayal, coupled with the references in the story to reincarnation (188), is reflective of the Buddhist (Mahayana particularly) belief in reincarnated rinpochets, or religious figures, and is a product, perhaps, of world-events occurring around the time that Salinger wrote Teddy. During the early 1950's, much of the world's attention was focused on the newly Communist China and their struggle for control of Buddhist Tibet. The spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet at the time was the Fourteenth Dalai Lama - a teenage boy who had been recognized as the reincarnation of the great religious leader since before the age of six. Salinger would certainly have been aware of the Dalai Lama, and the Buddhist belief in child rinpochets, and likely, along with the rest of the Buddhist aspects with which he imbued this story, applied this principle to the figure of the ten-year-old Teddy. Thus, from this Buddhist perspective, it is not entirely strange that such high, especially religious, esteem is given to a young boy.

Within the events of the story itself, and through the actions of the characters, Salinger also relates a great deal of Buddhist philosophy. One such philosophy is the Buddhist tendency to refrain from any form of materialism, whether of the self or of objects. This practice relates, of course, to the beliefs, as mentioned before, of impermanence and non-existence; if objects, including the self, are not real and will only be around for a limited time, then they can have no true value that can be accumulated and flaunted. In Teddy, however, many of the characters, through their actions and affectations, are portrayed in quite the opposite fashion; they are materialistic, narcissistic, and egocentric. Brand names, evidence of material culture, pervade the story; a suitcase is not simply a suitcase, but rather a Gladstone, and Mr. McArdle's (Teddy's father) camera is not simply his camera, but his goddam Leica (172). Clothing also seems to be described in lavish detail as evidence, along with such affectations as the way characters walk and speak, of narcissism. Even the way in which Nicholson smiles is shown by Salinger as indicative of his egocentrism: His smile was not unpersonable, but it was social, or conversational, and related back, however indirectly, to his own ego (184).

Teddy, the epitome in the story of Buddhist ideals, on the other hand, is characterized in an entirely opposite fashion; he has no such materialistic or narcissistic accoutrements. He apparently, much to the chagrin of his father, has no sense of the value of material objects; he uses his father's Gladstone suitcase as a stool, and allows his younger sister to tote the camera around the ship as a plaything. His clothing also sets him in stark contrast to the other characters in their Ivy-league apparel (Nicholson) and their gaudy uniforms (the ship's crew): He was wearing extremely dirty, white ankle-sneakers, no socks, [oversized] seersucker shorts...[and] an overly laundered T shirt that had a hole the size of a dime in the right shoulder (167). Even Teddy's affectations - the way in which he acts - are of a Buddhist nature. Unlike the other characters, whose methods of walking, talking, and smiling highlight their narcissism, Teddy behaves with such concentration on whatever he is doing, that the materialism of the world around him seems to fall away. An instance of this is when the boy is reading over his journal, as if only he and the notebook existed - no sunshine, no fellow passengers, no ship (179). In such a way, with a seeming take-off of the Buddhist Heart Sutra, Salinger successfully sets Teddy apart from the rest of his fellow passengers as one who, having been greatly influenced by Buddhist philosophies, can see through the materialism and egocentrism of his environment.

Another Buddhist principle that is brought to bear in the story through Teddy, in contrast to the other characters, deals with attachment. In the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, it is taught that life is suffering, and that suffering is caused by the desire to reach out for, and grasp onto, people, objects, experiences, emotions, etc., which, as has been illustrated, are impermanent; thus, when whatever illusion someone has become attached to ceases, that person experiences a great deal of suffering. In Teddy, the title-character observes how his parents, and seemingly everyone else around him, are so caught up in emotional attachment, but he cannot understand why: "I wish I knew why people think it's so important to be emotional....My mother and father don't think a person's human unless he thinks a lot of things are very sad or very annoying or very - very unjust' (186). Such emotional attachment, which for Teddy is incomprehensible, even leads him, in his journal, to proclaim how quite sick he is of poetry (180), because, as we learn later, "[Poets]'re always sticking their emotions in things that have no emotions" (185). In contrast to this apparently Western-world poetry, and further demonstrating Salinger's Buddhist influence, Teddy quotes two Japanese haikus as examples of non-emotional poetry; both haikus are by Basho, a famous Zen poet.

Teddy also applies this idea of emotional attachment to people's fear of death in the story. As with the entire concept of emotion, Teddy cannot understand why the people around him, including his parents and even professors of Religion and Philosophy (193), are so afraid of death and dying. After relating his own hypothetical death-scenario (which, depending on one's interpretation of the story, may be a prophecy), Teddy asks, "What would be so tragic about it, though? What's there to be afraid of, I mean? I'd just be doing what I was supposed to do (193). Teddy goes on to recognize that, of course, his parents would be quite upset if he were to die, but that's only because they have names and emotions for everything (194). This statement clearly relates back to the Buddhist belief that suffering is caused by desire and attachment - Teddy's parents would suffer if he died because they are attached to him and do not accept the Buddhist principle of impermanence.

In this previous example, Salinger, by moving from the everyday issues of materialism and emotion into the much more weighty realm of death and people's relationship towards dying, takes his Buddhist lessons in Teddy to a much higher, philosophical and religious level. These more ponderous issues, including the above speculations on death, come to bear in the story in a lengthy conversation between Teddy and Nicholson, a professor and fellow passenger on the oceanliner. In this discussion, Teddy (and thus Salinger) presents Buddhist principles in a very unique way - by packaging Buddhist belief in Judeo-Christian imagery. This perhaps reflects Salinger's own views on Buddhism; though he is clearly, and strongly influenced by Buddhist philosophy, Salinger himself is not Buddhist, but rather brings the teachings of Buddhism to bear in his Judeo-Christian heritage and environment. Another reason for this meshing of Eastern and Western philosophy could easily be that Salinger felt, when writing Teddy, that his audience would not be terribly receptive to a simple recitation of Buddhist tenets. America in the 1950's, though becoming far more familiar with Buddhism and Eastern thought, still looked rather warily at new modes of spirituality: as Teddy says to Nicholson, "it's very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America. People think you're a freak if you try to (188).

No matter the reason for this syncretism of Buddhist and Judeo-Christian principles, it is quite clear that Salinger embraces such a mix in the language and imagery of Nicholson and Teddy's conversation. Nicholson continuously uses biblical language while talking to Teddy, even when referring to seemingly non-Judeo-Christian experiences. For example, Nicholson, when referring to Teddy's belief that he was an Indian seeking enlightenment in a past life, calls the fact that Teddy (as the Indian meditator) didn't reach final Illumination because he met a lady and became disinterested in meditation, a fall from Grace (188). Teddy himself speaks from within this syncretism, telling of his moment of enlightenment in terms of God, instead of Buddha-nature: "I was six when I saw that everything was God....My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God" (189). This experience in itself - realizing that all things are connected and the same - is very Buddhist, but by referring to the interconnectedness as God, Teddy is drawing together Buddhism and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Outside of the simple Judeo-Christian language used to relate Buddhist beliefs in this conversation, by far the most significant example of a syncretism of Eastern and Western philosophy in Teddy, occurs when the title-character is explaining to Nicholson the need to get out of the finite dimensions (189) of life. This idea refers to the Buddhist principle of nonduality, which relates to the aforementioned philosophy of non-existence. Nonduality is a very complicated (at least to Westerners) way of thinking, which denies any attempt to place dimensions, both relative and specific, on objects. This mode of thought is essential to the Buddhist belief that nothing truly exists, for if we can say that an object is big and white, as opposed to small and black, then we give that object an identity which, from a Buddhist perspective, it does not have. In order to deal with how complicated it is for most Westerners to think in this fashion, and to explain why logic, the main barrier to thinking nondualistically, is the first thing you have to get rid of (190) in order to see the real world, Teddy (and Salinger) relates this very Buddhist principle through the Judeo-Christian tradition of Genesis and Original Sin. He asks Nicholson:

"You know that apple Adam ate in the Garden of Eden, referred to in the Bible?....You know what was in that apple? Logic. Logic and intellectual stuff. That was all that was in it. So - this is my point - what you have to do is vomit it up if you want to see things as they really are....The trouble is...most people don't want to see things the way they are. They don't even want to stop getting born and dying all the time....I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters." (191)

In such a way - by drawing together the Buddhist ideals of nonduality and escaping finite dimensions in order to see true reality, with this fundamental Judeo-Christian image - Salinger, through Teddy, is able to create in the minds of his readers a distinct relationship between the two seemingly disparate religions. He is able to show that, in the same way that Buddhists believe that there is a barrier - logic - in the path to ultimate enlightenment to the true nature of reality, those of the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that when mankind's original ancestors sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, we all lost the purity of Paradise. By having Teddy relate that logic - the Buddhist barrier - came from that forbidden fruit, Salinger draws the people of both sides together in the common goal of ridding themselves of the apple's curse.

Perhaps this, then, is Salinger's true goal with Teddy. By relating Buddhist philosophies and principles in the story, and thereby awakening his readers to the dangers of materialism, egocentrism, and emotional attachment, Salinger is trying to help us escape the finite dimensions of life, and to think outside of the box. We do not have to be Buddhist, or Jewish, or Christian in order to open our minds to a new perspective. As Teddy says to Nicholson, who asks him what he would do to change the education system: I'd try to show [children] how to find out who they are, not just what their names are and things like that...I'd get them to empty out everything their parents and everybody ever told them....I'd want then to begin with all the real ways of looking at things, not just the way all the other apple-eaters look at things (195-96). Maybe, then, we are Teddy's hypothetical pupils - Salinger's real ones - meant to cough up our own piece of the apple, in order to see the orange peels.

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