‘..that quest for new and relevant cultural expressions of the Dharma is of the foremost importance if Buddhism is to have a major impact on the world.’
Subhuti, A Buddhist Manifesto.
I came to Buddhism through the catalyst of Speculative Fiction (SF), which includes, amongst others, the science fiction and fantasy genres.
At the root of Speculative Fiction I saw a spiritual urge; the desire for transcendence. In it I recognised what could almost be seen as a new spiritual movement.
I place the origins of Science Fiction in the nineteenth century with the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as does Brian Aldiss in his book Billion Year Spree. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Science Fiction arrived around the time Christianity was weakening in the face of Scientism. I think SF might be a new channel for our ‘spiritual’ urge; expressed and explored in new ways. And so I like to refer to Transcendental Science Fiction, or just Transcendental Fiction.
Many have cited films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars for awakening their spiritual lives. I wondered if SF could be a new ethnic religion out of which could spark the transcendental, though few science fiction authors would consider their writing to be at all religious.
SF seems often to be about finding something more to life, about exploring the beyond, or exploring the unknown. Buddhism also has those concerns. Though I’m certainly not equating Buddhism and SF, I think I can show that they sometimes share a drive towards liberation from unsatisfactoriness and this at least can be a starting point for something.
I also discovered that both Buddhism and SF employ the use of contrast to communicate something higher. Early in my quest I found that contrast — particularly of the real and the unreal — always seemed to be at the heart of SF. I then discovered the Perfection of Wisdom literature and found that this was about contrast too; in it was a paradox which arose from the reconciling of the mundane and the transcendental. This felt similar to the use of contrast I had seen in SF.
I also found that Buddhist sutra and SF both make use of layered contrast as well as paradox; this encourages our mind to ascend into higher levels of perception and insight. One theme in Buddhist sutras is the ideal of the Bodhisattva: a being who strives for enlightenment in order to benefit all beings. But in the Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines Subhuti says ‘I see no Bodhisattva, and no Perfect Wisdom; whom is there to teach with what Perfect Wisdom?’ We are left with a paradox.
In the Science Fiction story Star Maker Olaf Stapleton shows us the evolution of communal mind as individuals, then whole worlds, join telepathically. The ‘minds’ of whole galaxies eventually join to form one cosmic mind; the perfected awakened cosmos itself, which is finally able to reach out to and find the elusive star maker, the creator of all things, and yet is rejected by him. This uses layered contrast, providing us with successive levels which are built upon each other, in order to reach an otherwise impossible standpoint.
Paradox in SF is like a koan, and usually comes in the form of a co-existence of the real with the unreal. For example in the Planet of the Apes when the whole film builds up to a final climax as this world of talking apes, which we had perceived to be unreal, is shown to be our own world. This challenges the boundaries of our perception of reality; which is already faulty, because we are still unenlightened beings, and so this can be a liberating experience.
In fact all our mundane perception is only made possible through contrast – for example, you can’t have a ‘large’ without having a ‘small’. These contrasts, used in creating art and literature, are also the foundation of our unenlightened perception. It is because of this that all reconciliation of dichotomies may lead us to insight into the truths of Buddhism; we live in a house of mirrors with no inherent nature. It is because of this that contrast and paradox in any literature might lead us to insight into the illusory nature of our world.
I tend to use the term “transcendental” in two senses; more generally as transcending any false limiting of self; for example, being liberated from thinking we are the centre of the universe, or from the view that we could never achieve anything important. But more specifically I use it as the complete seeing through of the illusory view of our world; seeing through the separation into selves and bifurcation of subject and object. These two levels of transcendence are sometimes described as insight with a small i and Insight with a big I. And this term also distinguishes it from Mundane Science Fiction, which limits itself to that which is encompassed purely by the rational (or scientific).
My teacher, Urgyen Sangarakshita, was I believe the first to coin the term “Transcendental Science Fiction,” and it’s he to whom I dedicate my first attempt. I have recently published this through Inklestudios. It’s called The Prison, (click here for a UK version), and it’s now available on Amazon Kindle. You could try it and see if you think I’ve been successful.
The full article on Transcendental Science Fiction is available as a Kindle download here in the US, or here for a UK Kindle version, and free on my blog here. I also have a Facebook group dedicated to Transcendental Fiction.
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Great article Vimokshadaka. I got a bit fascinated with these kinds of questions while I was doing my English degree, and I wrote a dissertation on Tolkein in fact! I think we can see in early ‘fantasy’ writing too a sense of trying to access a world beyond, and in the case of Tolkein and CS Lewis, this was very firmly rooted in medieval Christianity, and neo-Platonism – the idea that this world itself was an illusion and that ‘inspiration’ consisted in seeing past the shadows on the wall.
In fact to these authors, perhaps our reality is a veil obscuring the truth of God. (You see this in traditional depictions of St Matthew – he is writing his gospel, while an angel lifts a corner of a veil nearby, symbolising divine inspiration.)
This is a very different idea of creative ‘authorship’ than our modern one – when we tend to imagine a God-like, mysterious, puppetmaster genius-author who’s in control of everything. (Which is, uncoincidentally, a handy marketing concept.) In fact, I think many practising artists recognise that they are not in complete control, but are accessing something higher / deeper when in ‘flow’ – Puccini said of “Madame Butterfly” that it was written by God, not by him.
I agree with all of what you say but just thought I’d add that I think well-written ‘fantasy’ can also play the same role. Reading up on this a bit has increased my respect for Christianity, and particularly Catholicism, which as I understand it takes as a starting-point the idea that our understanding of the world is flawed and imperfect (even if this is because of the Fall and there is an inbuilt idea of sin which I don’t agree with).
SF also has a proud history of challenging our received wisdom about our society – again, it’s no coincidence that it was the only genre to explore Communist principles repeatedly during the Cold War, and in many ways, Star Trek can be seen as a group of anthropological explorers, investigating other cultures with a ‘prime directive’ not to interfere (even if this never worked!). Then there are the many authors who explore Eastern philosophy pretty explicitly in their work – Dick in “The Man in the High Castle”, Le Guinn in “The Lathe of Heaven”.
Onwards and upwards! :)
Hi umbrarchist, I’m also very happy to have been born in 1977!
Hi Francesca, thanks, we should compare notes sometime. I was tempted to call it Transcendental Speculative Fiction for the reason you give, but Transcendental Science Fiction was already in use and seemed to have more punch. But perhaps I was wrong. Then there’s the option of calling it just Transcendental Fiction, which seems a bit too wide.
It would also be interesting to compare the development of Christian and Buddhist transcendental fiction. For the last twenty odd years I’ve searched for TF everywhere, not easy since you have to read the book to get a feeling for it (I still haven’t much explored the great HG Wells’ work). Films take less time! On the whole I feel that effective attempts at transcendental fiction have been very rare, and that we could see an explosion of it now during of the modern world’s new Dharmic renaissance, as I think we are already seeing in works like ‘the matrix’. Any thoughts?
Nice to come across a kindred spirit. I am currently seeking to publish the first in a series of science fiction novels based on the Tibetan Buddhist classic text the Lam Rim, or Gradual Path. Will definitely buy your book and give it a read.
If you are interested in reading my book “Ten Directions” I will send you a kindle copy.
I just saw your messages. That sounds great! Yes please do send me a copy of ‘Ten Directions’! Thanks! (vimokshadaka at gmail dot com) I’m very glad to hear of others who are doing this. I have a new facebook group for this also which is here, so you could chat on there also if you like – https://www.facebook.com/groups/transcendentalfiction/