“The idea of zen it so catch life as it flows.” D.T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism
PRIMARILY IN THE FIRST SEASON of Twin Peaks, the show, through FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), introduces its viewers to Buddhism via Cooper’s obsession with Tibet. I can’t speak to Cooper’s actions with regards to the more traditional aspects of Buddhism (Dale Cooper and Buddhism is interesting if you are interested in that). However, I happened to recently re-watch the series while I was simultaneously reading D.T. Suzuki’s An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and the similarities between Suzuki’s words and Cooper’s actions were striking.
The main idea of Zen Buddhism is that all truth can be found in the moment. The past doesn’t exist, nor does the future. Only by focusing on what one is doing right now can enlightenment be found. There is no enlightenment in the external. It is found within.
Cooper often embodies this idea of being all in on the moment. The primary example would be Coop’s sincere adoration for a good cup of coffee. It isn’t a need for the caffeinated energy rush. It isn’t about satisfying a thirsty palate. It is about that moment when that hot, earthy liquid makes first contact with the lips, warming the tongue and throat before comfortably resting in the belly. When Coop takes the first sip, it isn’t unusual for him to, say, lift his hand to stop all action and commentary around him, so that he can focus on that one, lone, simple action, because at that moment that is where he both wants to be and should be. There is no fear, no hate, no violence, no cases, no pressure, no clock, just a damn fine cup of coffee and a clear mind.
Joshu once asked a new monk: “Have you ever been here before?” The monk answered, “Yes, sir, I have.” Thereupon the master said, “Have a cup of tea.” Later on another monk came and asked him the same question, “Have you ever been here? “This time the answer was quite opposite. “I have never been here, sir.” The old master, however, answered just as before, “Have a cup of tea.” Afterwards the Inju (the managing monk of the monastery) asked the master, “How is it that you make the same offering of a cupe of tea no matter what a monks’ reply is?” The old master called out, “O Inju!” who at once replied, “Yes master.” Whereupon Joshu said, “Have a cup of tea.” – An Introduction to Zen Buddhism
WHILE THAT’S THE MAIN EXAMPLE of the zen of Dale Cooper – in part because it is repeated frequently, particularly in season one – it’s not the only one. There’s a moment where Cooper and Twin Peaks sheriff Harry Truman are sitting in the police station, talking shop, when Coop reaches up and tweaks Truman jovially on the nose. It’s the kind of act that could seem demeaning or rude. But really, it’s an affectionate act between two men who have great respect for each other. For Coop, it’s also an affirmation of his living in that moment. While some reactions work in many situations – as the story of Joshu above shows – there are plenty of times when an act such as Cooper’s nose touch would be ludicrous or insulting, such as at the funeral of Laura Palmer or during the questioning of Mike and Bobby. And Coop, being a man of each moment, would have never considered tweaking Truman’s nose in those situations. But for that one second in that one place at that one time, it expressed his joy at being in a place he loved, doing the job he loved, and conversing with a friend and compatriot.
These may seem like minor actions, and maybe they are. But they are also indicators that Coop is a man who yearns to catch the flow of life. It is an interesting mindfulness that you don’t often see in characters from popular culture, one that helps make Coop – and Twin Peaks – unique.