The Owls Are Not What They Seem: The Dharma of Twin Peaks’ Dale Cooper

With the news that Twin Peaks -- David Lynch and Mark Frost's unlikely ABC smash hit -- is celebrating its 20th anniversary, now seems like a fine time to re-present this appreciation from the Horse's archives. Enjoy.

A MAN LAYS 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, all-white. The sprinkler system of the sheriff's department that holds him has been set off, creating the effect of a tumultuous indoor downpour that rains down upon the white-haired man and his captors. One of his captors -- the very one who has most doggedly pursued him -- is kneeling down. The white-haired man has committed the kind of unthinkable crimes that would disgust and shake most of us to the core, but Special Agent Dale Cooper instead remains very much 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 to 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 famous passage from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, meant to be recited to the dying as they pass on:
"O, nobly-born [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." [W.Y. Evans-Wentz (translator and editor), The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Oxford, Third edition, 1957)]
Leland, though in his final moment, is surprised, almost smiling, in response to Coop's urging that he find the light: "I see it!" "Into the light, Leland," Coop says, " Don't be afraid." And with that, Leland Palmer is dead. It's unusually moving; hardly your typical primetime TV jailhouse scene. But this is no ordinary jailhouse, and it's certainly not ordinary TV. This is Twin Peaks, where nothing -- not family, not FBI-men, not even the owls in the trees -- is as it seems. FAST-FORWARD SEVENTEEN YEARS OR SO and you'll find that Leland Palmer has, in fact, been reborn. It's not the kind of karmic (or, "dharmic") rebirth that Special Agent Cooper was shooting for, but Leland and the entire Twin Peaks cast have found new life in a definitive Gold Box set that collects each of the show's 29 episodes, remastered, along with some fascinating behind-the-scenes extras. The show was, of course, a true pop-culture phenomenon in the early 90s. The brainchild of writer-directors Mark Frost and David Lynch, it posed a now-famous question, one that was never meant to be answered -- 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 long ago 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. And his contagious, can-do-it demeanor was upstaged only by his stated work-style, made from a mix of "Bureau guidelines, deductive technique, Tibetan method, instinct, and luck." All this, of course, makes him eminently watchable. But he's more than that. He's more, even, than the top-notch lawman that Twin Peaks' Sheriff Harry Truman (yes, that's the character's name) defends Coop as. He 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 crimefighting experience to create Batman. Or, to put it another way, as Lynch recently wrote in his fantastic 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 -- and, fairly or not (probably not), the show is primarily identified with Lynch -- he is in fact a meditator. For some thirty-four years, he's been a practitioner of TM, or Transcendental Meditation, as 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 their dabblings but would have preferred that the other three Beatles focus instead on music.) So it's not a stretch to see, as one astute and excellent friend 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 is a meditator, as is confirmed in episode #28. (He reports to his assistant Diane that he's been meditating in lieu of sleep, which has not been coming easily what with the goings-on in Twin Peaks; what's not said is whether or not he has an ongoing meditation practice.) So, he shares with his (co-)creator 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, or not. Unashamed of his intellectual and spiritual sides, it's not long before Cooper's got the entire Department not just tolerating his ways, but playing happily along. In an early episode, he gathers them in the woods for an experiment: Employing a blackboard that he's 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 absolutely unorthodox, dream-informed mind-storming meant to sort all the wheat from the chaff in the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder. Though initially 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-crimefighting. In a following scene, we even see Lucy Moran, the supposedly ditzy Department receptionist, reading a massive hardcover book marked, simply, Tibet. 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 any 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 short-sighted- and closed-mindedness, he goes with the flow even as bureaucratic justice goes unserved. He's come to love Twin Peaks -- the people, the town, 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 lumberjack's flannel as he is in his old standard-issue black-jacket, white-shirt, black-necktie outfit. He evens 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' 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." [See also:  David Lynch's INLAND EMPIRE: More of a Dharma connection.]

4 Comments »

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    [...] Dharma of Twin Peaks‘ Dale Cooper” over at our main man Rod Meade Sperry’s The Worst Horse today.  Check it [...]

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  3. avatar
    Franco Bennicci Says:
    April 21st, 2010 at 9:48 am
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    Good article, I think Lynch may not be as Cooper as he’d like to be, but he’s definitely identified and instilled in Coop the gems of personhood.

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    One of my favorite things about Twin Peaks is Lynch’s story behind key elements — according to him, memorable ideas like the Red Room and Bob weren’t part of the original plan, but popped up intuitively as the show progressed (the actor who played Bob was actually a stagehand who Lynch noticed on set, and wanted to put into something). I really admire Lynch’s openness to intuition, which feels very in-tune with my impressions of Buddhist practice so far.

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