fiction

Transcendental Science Fiction and the magic of contrast

THE PRISON

‘..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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Drops in the ocean: Buddhist reflections on David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”

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cloud atlas book cover

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, is a ripping good read with plenty of action and suspense. It’s also a cautionary tale of karma-vipāka (how our actions set up complex results, short- and long-term) and how failing to choose is itself a choice just as much as a conscious decision is.

Populated by clever and colorful characters from different places, pasts and futures, the six stories making up this diverse sampling of human experience nonetheless weave together, surprisingly, into a poignant and epic tale of suffering and kindness. From the story of a rather naïve young man on a return voyage to San Francisco from the South Pacific, in perhaps the 1800s, to a nearly Lord of the Flies reorganization of tribal life in far-future Hawaii after humans have pretty well trashed the environment, the reader is zoomed from one kind of crisis–ranging from the personal to the global–to the next. Each of the characters have challenges unique to their time, place and situation. Yet these challenges, specific as they may seem, do not eclipse their all-too-human needs and desires, which all of us share.

Title: Cloud Atlas
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-037-55072-5-0
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

When you have a landscape that covers this many diverse stories over such a sweep of time, the main point(s) of the overarching story could get lost. But Mitchell makes us care about the characters, and their grappling with their fates, not just by evoking all the richness of lived experience but by helping us connect our hearts to that of each character. In the end, what I was left with wasn’t just another display of the whole gamut of human cruelty, ignorance and greed. In each story, most of the characters realized something more about themselves and their world, prompting me to examine myself, my values, and the world around me. Putting myself in their shoes, I wondered: how can I better use awareness and kindness to respond to the confusion and unsatisfactoriness in and around me? A book that makes you question, maybe makes you squirm — that’s an excellent use of one’s reading time, no?

I felt richly rewarded with well-evoked characterizations, some who could rightly be called “a piece of work,” who employ all manner of picaresque language such as:

Sometimes the fluffy bunny of incredulity zooms round the bend so rapidly that the greyhound of language is left, agog, in the starting cage.

Agog is one of the basic human states, I think; it was a pleasure to live there while reading this book.

Though Cloud Atlas is not a Buddhist book, I found certain Dharmic themes reflected in the prose. The strongest of these is the Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence (impermanence, non-substantiality and unsatisfactoriness), which seem woven throughout the narratives. Or maybe, like when I first fell in love with old Volvos, I just see them everywhere. In one brief scene, from a time maybe 200 years from now, a humanoid fabricant being, somni-451, is being shuttled from safe-house to safe-house, avoiding the corporate/government authorities. She is being hunted down as the (reluctant) figure-head in an emerging revolution of the have-nots against their ‘beloved masters’. She is taken to what had been, centuries before, a monastic complex with many temples and shrines somewhere in Korea, perhaps. Visible across the river gorge is a carved, serene, seated, cross-legged figure, the worse for wear and tear, in huge bas-relief. Somni-451 comes out just before dawn, and sees the elderly headwoman who is sitting, contemplating this figure. She is the abbess, who, as a young girl, had trained briefly as a nun and is the only survivor from the time of rehabilitation (or death) of those who practiced the old, now-banned, religions. She tells somni-451 about this Siddhartha and how he taught freedom from suffering. But she can’t really tell her the stories, because they have all been lost. Nonetheless, she abides, and helps those who come to this place seeking freedom.

Cloud Atlas, written as a palindromic enigma, reveals itself gradually. Each chapter focuses on the story of a particular character, time and place, starting with the past (roughly the early 1800s). Working forward in time we reach a time in the far future (maybe 500 years?), and then the order reverses where we find the denouement of each character as we proceed, backwards in time. However, words, phrases, shadows of names, and roles of characters reverberate back and forth among the chapters. It’s exciting and also uncomfortable. I find myself once again sucked into the vortex of a dystopian vision, and find myself wondering why I am drawn to this. As the survivor of a personal apocalypse or two (although thriving now, thankfully) perhaps I can’t help being fascinated by fictional apocalypses. Even though I know there is no safe ground in saṃsāra (the world-as-we-know-it: the ocean of suffering and beauty we inhabit), and even though I deeply believe that no one is free until we’re all free and saṃsāra is emptied of the suffering of craving, aversion, and confusion, I can’t quite look away.

This is a book of disturbing conceptions, but of such conceptions that we ought, ethically, to be disturbed by. In the paired sections named “An Orison of Somni-451,” a dystopian future is presented wherein the population of “purebloods” exists by the caring grace of the “corpocracy” and cannot survive without their “franchises and gallerias.” Meanwhile, fabricants from corporate wombtanks live in complete servitude, unable to survive without a special nourishing but soporific substance , and poisoned by regular food. They labor, die, and then become — Soylent Green-style — the food that supports the whole enterprise.

This book has riled my inner revolutionary. I want the victims rescued, injustices revenged, and the evil punished. But also it takes genuine talent for a writer to make a reader care that all the villains, no matter how contemptuous and evil, are really just so sadly deluded. This makes for some painful reading in certain moments. The truest revolution is the wish for all villains to see with new hearts and be transformed.

There is a sad eloquence generated by beings not considered by others as sentient. Somni-451 is not alone. It doesn’t matter if that being is different by way of gender, age, color of skin, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, or genomic construction. All of that is portrayed here and often it is wryly funny. As one character, the only slightly decrepit yet elegant Veronica explains, “Oh, once you’ve been initiated into the Elderly, the world doesn’t want you back… We–by whom I mean anyone over sixty–commit two offenses just by existing. One is Lack of Velocity. We drive too slowly, walk too slowly, talk too slowly. The world will do business with dictators, perverts, and drug barons of all stripes, but being slowed down it cannot abide. Our second offense is being Everyman’s memento mori. The world can only get comfy in shiny-eyed denial if we are out of sight.” Ow. And I say this partly, yes, but not completely because I, too, am over sixty.

Another treat this book offers is a sort of comparison of technologies past, present, future. From our current vantage point, we can never see very far how our choices play out in the future, but maybe we should keep trying to see. Science and technology have brought wondrous things to pass. Many have been the entrepreneurs who by connecting dots have opened the way for people to make a better living for themselves and their families. Leaders and organizations can help whole communities flourish and creatively respond to challenges to the common good. And it can and has and will all go horribly wrong unless we’re smart about it and practice good ethics.

But what to do, as a practicing Buddhist, since I cannot look away–from this book, from ongoing life? I am riled, I am moved–but to what? How exactly, does the bodhisattva save living beings? I wanna know; I’m also afraid that the answer might be that it is beyond me. Truly, it does seem beyond the abilities of “me,” this un-Enlightened, ordinary, human woman.

Adam Ewing (our young guy from the 1800’s), who had both observed and suffered much cruelty from his fellows aboard ship makes it home to San Francisco determined to use his newly-awakened passion for justice for the abolition of slavery. He intends to spend his life

shaping a world I want Jackson [his son] to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit…[yet] I hear my father-in-law’s response: ‘Oho, fine, Whiggish sentiments, Adam, but don’t tell me about justice. Ride to Tennessee on an ass & convince the rednecks that they are merely white-washed negroes & their negroes are black-washed Whites!…You’ll be spat on, shot at, lynched, pacified with medals, spurned by backwoodsmen! Crucified!…He who would do battle with the many-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!’

Well, okay then; whatever! But the last line in the book, the son’s silent answer to his father-in-law is strangely comforting, and perhaps our next-step-clue: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

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“Sitting Practice,” by Caroline Adderson

Sitting PracticeA Canadian author’s sophomore novel deals with the serious subjects of disability and unrequited incestuous love, but brims over with life and laughter as it provokes the reader to reflect.

This is Caroline Adderson’s second novel — and one filled with humor, likable characters and great writing that make for an easy weekend read.

Ross and Iliana are three weeks into their marriage when a car accident and a moving tennis ball change the dynamics of their lives and lead them both into a journey of self-reflection and faith.

Ross Alexander is a funny, charismatic and passionate chef who runs his own business, Reel Food, catering to the film industry. He meets Iliana, a nurse, after he has surgery on his nose because of a history of snoring. She is tall, beautiful, reserved and athletic, and when Ross first sees her he can tell just by watching her walk across the room that she is his opposite.

Title: Sitting Practice
Author: Caroline Adderson
Publisher: Shambhala Publications
ISBN: 978-1-59030-558-4
Available from: Amazon.com and Shambhala.

Iliana comes from a family with rigid religious values. “You were damned if you did not accept Jesus Christ as your savior, yet faith was a gift from God, not something you could go out and acquire on your own.” As an adult she struggled with faith. “Who in their right mind, she wondered now, could endorse so frustrating and cruel a paradox?” Her parents chose not to attend Iliana and Ross’s wedding. They did not trust or believe in the secular world, especially people — even their daughter — who did not share their beliefs.

Their love story also includes Ross’s twin sister, Bonnie, who lives her life searching for “Mr. Right” but finding only betrayal and loss because she constantly compares them unfavorably to Ross, with whom she is in love. Bonnie has a son, Bryce, who is a delight in Ross’s otherwise heavy and darkly comic relationship with his sister.

Throughout much of the story Ross deals with his the guilt he assumes for the accident, which causes Iliana’s once toned and tall body to become wheel chair bound. It was fascinating to read how the more Ross suffered the more Iliana “let go” to what was and accepted her limitations by training her physical body within its new limitations. She seemed more alive and aware of herself after the accident. Perhaps when we lose an ability that we take for granted, our other faculties heighten to fill the loss?

She reveals her suffering in her loss of intimacy with Ross. “Never would she be suspected of an affair because no one suspected her desire. The chair had neutered her.” These two sentences are powerful. It made me think of the countless times I perceived people in wheelchairs to be somehow detached, asexual, or fragile.

Adderson illuminated many thoughts for me that I might never have had the opportunity to think about… What if? … What if this were me? Iliana may have lost the use of her physical body from the waist down but this did not diminish her need or desire to be touched. Ross, like myself, failed to recognize that just because her external vessel had changed, internally she was still a woman, longing and desiring warmth and love.

Although I really liked this book there were many times I lost interest in the story due to the many flashbacks. Caroline Adderson writes wonderful dialogues but at times she seems to try too hard. When I first embarked on this tale I thought the title was going to reveal Ross’s Buddhist beliefs. In the end, however, I realized that true wisdom came by way of the reader, processing, interpreting and evaluating: how would a trauma like this change my life with or without a spiritual practice? The ending was a tad disappointing, because Iliana and Ross never reached a point of closure, but life’s drama is often like that.

While Iliana trained her physical body, Ross was training his mind with his Buddhist practice. Both seem to come to realizations to move forward in their own time and means, but I can’t help but wonder who is the one doing the “Sitting Practice”?

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“Jake Fades” by David Guy

"Jake Fades" by David Guy

As Buddhist ideas become more commonly known in the west, they increasingly pervade art and literature. Reviewer Hazel Colditz, herself a Buddhist and artist, was impressed by David Guy’s new novel of impermanence, Jake Fades. Author David Guy is a teacher and writing instructor residing in North Carolina. A graduate of Duke and author of several books, he reviews books for newspapers and is a contributing editor to Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

Jake Fades is a novel of impermanence. It is a simple yet enriching read based on the day-to-day lives of two main characters: Jake, an aging teacher of life, and Hank, his sidekick and student. Jake’s mission in life is to teach that everything will die, including himself.

Title: Jake Fades: A Novel of Impermanence.
Author: David Guy.
Publisher: Shambhala.
ISBN: 978-1-59030-566-9
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

Jake starts out as a young man passionate about art and intent on making his mark. Most of Jake’s training in Zen is described to Hank in flashbacks throughout the novel. He travels to the east, meets a humble landscape painter in Japan, and soon becomes his student and servant. He is taught to focus on observing life: “Learning to observe and appreciate the landscape before you [do] something so presumptuous as painting it.” With Jake’s youthful passion and energy it is hard for him to be told to sit and observe. He resists for months but eventually gives in and grows to love it, and twelve years later he is ordained as a Zen priest.

Jake always holds to the early teachings he imbibed in the monastery: “Buddha nature, true self,” he says at one point. “This practice isn’t about sitting. It’s about compassion which can’t be taught … where you naturally feel for the person, reach out to help.” Jake teaches and embodies these aphorisms.

In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence…

Hank first encounters Jake while in Maine on a vacation with his son, Josh. Josh is a typical teenager, and he and Hank are having one of those father/son vacations-from-hell experiences. While in Maine they rent bikes from Jake, who repairs bikes for a living. When Josh returns his bike he throws it on the ground in front of Jake, frustrated not just with a difficult ride, but with his parents’ divorce and the problems this brings. Jake is unperturbed by Josh’s anger or the damage he causes to the bike, and Hank is struck with Jake’s compassion towards his son. This marks the beginning of their relationship.

The following year they return and thus begins Hank’s introduction into a life as a student of Zen. Jake has a way to make people feel safer and saner by just being around him and Hank wants more. Hank, who struggles with issues of sexual craving, love, and fear of commitment, tells Jake he wants to just stop all his constant craving. Jake tells him “This is your conditioning. This is your karma. You have to see this, the nature of desire.”

I particularly enjoyed David Guy’s storytelling and how he presents Jake as a rounded human being, a profound and humble teacher, but also imperfect. Jake is not a vegetarian, he likes to kick back with a few beers, and he has a passion for desserts.

Just beginning in Buddhism myself I have always had great difficulty in trying too hard, almost forcing my perception or understanding of what a “perfect” practice might be. Am I doing the prostrations correctly? Why won’t my mind just stop wandering during seated meditation? Why can’t I be like everyone else in the room, damn it! There’s reassurance in seeing the imperfections that can exist alongside an inspiring practice.

I recognized myself in the character of Jess, a young woman working in the town bar and who struggles to find herself, and in Madeleine, who can sit in perfect posture with grace and physical ease, but who after years of training cannot sit through an entire retreat because of overwhelming fear. She is the one whom Jake feels deep compassion for, a woman whose wealth made it easier for her to escape herself. She loves Jake, although Jake always knows it was not truly him that the woman fell in love with, but the Dharma, the teachings of Buddha.

David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog…

David Guy writes about impermanence in and through his characters’ lives and their dialog, not just through the obvious fact of Jake’s death through Alzheimer’s disease. “In Zen we say the answer to death is to die now. That’s our answer to the problem of impermanence,” Jake says, introducing a talk that Hank is to give. Hank’s response to Jake’s words on impermanence comes out in a teaching: “Our past is what we think of as our life, that whole life of thought and memory that we carry around all the time, but nothing actually repeats itself. Every moment is new, and you can’t live this moment until you die to the past one.” This is the magic of David Guy’s writing; he infuses his knowledge or understanding of Buddhism in his dialog between the characters.

Jake teaches Hank that living in the moment is about being fully present. Jake is fully present even if his mind, because of his Alzheimer’s, isn’t. Even in his “moments of forgetting” Jake is in touch with what Hank calls “the unconscious rhythm of the universe.”

Jake connects his Alzheimer’s with his Zen practice. “Sesshin [intensive meditation] is like death,” he says. “When you can’t talk, can’t write, can’t read, give up everything that makes you you, who are you?” In an analogy Jake describes how once in his youth he is in a car accident and incurs amnesia: “The strangest sensation. I came to on a hospital table and was clearly awake, looking around, but I had no idea who I was.” Where does the memory go, when it isn’t there? Jake was scared living with his illness but was not unhappy because he had found acceptance.

“I wanted to discover wisdom that manifested as compassion.” These are Hank’s words as he describes why he became Jake’s student. He fell into the lap of Buddha so to speak. Isn’t that what we are all looking for? A life fulfilled, as portrayed in Jake Fades.

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