Monday, 17 December 2012

Transcendental Science Fiction and the Magic of Contrast


First Edition, December 2012
Copyright 2012 by P L M Baigent

All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced in any form, in whole or in part, without written permission from the author.

‘..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.’  A Buddhist Manifesto, Subhuti, Triratna Buddhist Order.


Transcendental Fiction

Twenty years ago I began a quest for a secret world I intuited to exist in the realms of Speculative Fiction (SF). In this place I recognised what could almost have been a new spiritual movement. At its roots I saw a spiritual urge; the desire for transcendence. I like to call it Transcendental Science Fiction, or just Transcendental Fiction.
Many have cited films like ‘2001; a space odyssey’, or ‘Star Wars’, for awakening their spiritual lives back in the ‘70’s. To put it simply; we could see SF as the ethnic ‘religion’ out of which may spark a medium for the transcendental, although religion isn’t really the word for it; few would have considered their work to be at all religious.
I place the origins of Science Fiction in the Nineteenth Century with the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. So does Brian Aldiss In his book Billion Year Spree according to Wikipedia’s useful page on the history of science fiction. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it 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. I think this urge finds its ultimate fruition in Transcendental Fiction.
I came to Buddhism through the catalyst of SF. This is how I’ve come to explore the connection between the two. SF seems very often to be about finding something more to life, about exploring the beyond, or exploring the unknown, and so in essence is Buddhism (and perhaps any religion). In both can be seen a drive towards liberation from unsatisfactoriness. Though I’m certainly not equating the two, I think I can show that they sometimes share this element and this at least can be a starting point for something more. I also discovered that both Buddhism and SF employ the use contrast to communicate something higher.
Early in my quest I found that contrast always seemed to be at the heart of SF. I then discovered a type of Buddhist sutra called the Perfection of Wisdom and found that this was about contrast too; in it there was a paradox which arose from the reconciling of the mundane and the transcendental. This felt similar to contrasting of the real and the unreal I had experienced in SF. I found that Buddhist sutra and SF both make use of layered contrast and paradox; this encourages our mind to ascend into higher levels of perception and insight. Here are two brief examples from Buddhist sutra and SF.
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?’  This is one of the kinds of contrast I’m talking about.
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 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.
In fact all our mundane perception is only made possible through contrasts – for example, you can’t have a ‘large’ without having a ‘small’. These contrasts are also used in creating art and literature. All reconciliation of these dichotomies may lead us to insight into the truths of Buddhism; a house of mirrors with no inherent nature.
Why the term transcendental? I use transcendental to indicate two things; firstly in a mundane sense of anything transcending its previous state or level, for example when someone transcends their current problem through ingeniously rising above it; and secondly, but more importantly, I use the term transcendental in the sense of direct Buddhist insight into how things really are, a vision of reality which completely transcends our normal mundane view of the universe. This is the liberating insight gained by an enlightened person or Buddha. These two are both transcendences but on different levels – a mundane level and an ultimate level respectively, and are sometimes described as insight (with a small i) and Insight (with a big I). Also this term distinguishes it from Mundane Science Fiction.

A New Kind of sutra?

I’m never sure quite what to call this mysterious thing I’m exploring, I like the term Transcendental Science Fiction and have used that in my title even though Speculative Fiction (SF) is a better umbrella term than Science Fiction; as it includes things like fantasy as well.
Certainly no certificate can be given for Transcendental Fiction and it’s definitely not the property of Buddhists or Christians. Transcendental Fiction is always just an attempt anyway; it depends so much on the interpretation and receptivity of the audience. It’s the same with any attempt at communication.  The transcendental doesn’t even exist in terms of the mundane world; it’s nothing you can grasp, that’s the whole idea.
My teacher; Urgyen Sangarakshita, was I believe the first to coin the term Transcendental Science Fiction and it is to him I have dedicated my first attempt at writing and publishing it; the prison, available for Amazon Kindle. Many years ago in Bombay he was handed a book by a friend of his who said ‘I think you will like this, it reads just like a Mahayana sutra’, this book was star maker, and it did. 
I see SF as expressing an urge for transcendence. I would even go as far as to suggest that in SF we could discover an unacknowledged ‘spiritual’ renaissance. I have explored how Buddhist sutras and SF equally make use of contrast, layered contrast and paradox in a way which stimulates higher levels of perception. I conclude by exploring the potential of Transcendental Fiction as part of a new spiritual renaissance. But first I’ll talk a bit about what you can’t talk about and what I mean by Buddhist Insight.

How Much Can You Say?

I once wrote to Terry Pratchett about my ‘new kind of sutra’ idea and his reply was that he wouldn’t trust a book that was trying to be more than just a book. I knew what he meant. This raises the question of how much can you (or should you) include spiritual answers in a story. For example, in the film 2001; a space odyssey we are left guessing what the answers are and towards the end the dialogue cuts out completely leaving just the use of symbolic image to tell us what’s happening. I think Kubrick did this for a reason. Giving all the answers can only happen in Mundane Science Fiction because the transcendental is about going in the end beyond the powers of reason. Of course the transcendental also transcends reason (and answers), which means entering the non-rational rather than the irrational. This is why we can only say so much in Transcendental Science Fiction.
This has parallels in the Buddhist Perfection of Wisdom sutras because they are also about transcendental communication. We can learn from them when trying to understand and create Transcendental Science Fiction. In some Buddhist sutras we are told what the Goal of enlightenment is directly. For example, it is described as the end of all suffering (relating to our emotional experience); as non-dual (relating to our spatial experience of separate selves); as permanent when the mundane is impermanent (relating to our temporal experience); as truly beautiful when the mundane is in comparison ugly (relating to our aesthetic sense).
However, these all use a rational approach which is still mundane; in the words of Manjusri it talks about the non-dual but it’s still dualistic. The Perfection of Wisdom takes us beyond this by using the powers of contrast and paradox to show rather than say, by turning the medium into the message. Vimalakirti’s famous silence in reply to Manjusri shows that he also knows this. I think Morpheus puts it quite well himself in the matrix when he says ‘unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.’ Perhaps Terry Pratchett would agree with me if I said that the best SF was about questions rather than answers. One thing paradox does is raise questions. I’ll talk a bit more about the Perfection of Wisdom and paradox a bit later on.

What is Buddhist Insight?

I first wrote this article for the Triratna Buddhist Order’s journal, and didn’t originally include an explanation on this, even though not all Buddhists know what Buddhist Insight is. I won’t say much here since you can easily get information elsewhere.
I said that there’s no certificate for Transcendental Fiction; it’s also true that there’s no certificate for having Buddhist Insight, whatever they might claim on certain websites! Even so, we can talk about it and get a pretty good idea in which direction it lies. It lies ultimately beyond rational thought, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrational.  The only way you can get there is by taking rational thought to the point where it no longer holds – like in the koan. Transcendental Fiction can be seen as a sort of modern koan.
For a start ‘Buddhist’ is a modern word not used in traditional Buddhism (nor is ‘Buddhism’). We instead talk of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Buddha; a human who re-discovered enlightenment, the path or teaching he taught others to experience it themselves, and those who have in some way experienced it themselves – respectively. A Buddhist is someone who ‘goes for refuge’ to all three; this means committing to Buddhist training and the helpful conditions which lead us towards enlightenment ourselves.
‘The Dharma is the way things truly are, beyond all ordinary understanding, and it is by realising the Dharma directly for himself that Gautama became the Buddha Shakyamuni. Having achieved Liberation, the Buddha passed the remainder of his life communicating to others his fundamental insight into the nature of reality and teaching the Path that would lead them to share it. The Dharma is therefore also the body of teachings, practices, and institutions that constitute that Path to Enlightenment, based originally on the Buddha’s own words.’ Manifesto
‘Beyond all ordinary understanding’ is a way of talking about ‘the transcendental’. Liberation refers primarily to something experienced; it is liberation from ‘Dukkha’ (the Buddha used this word which described the sound an out of true wheel makes every time it revolves), it can be best translated as ‘unsatisfactoriness’, or that there is always something not quite satisfying in the mundane world – that niggles. We will notice if we reflect on it that we never find final satisfaction in the mundane world; we are always left wanting something a bit more.

This happens when we hold the fixed view of a ‘self’, or a universe filled with separate ‘selves’ of which we are one. This view is so fundamental to us that we don’t even see it. When we fully transcend this false view of the universe as having inherently existing ‘selves’ (it being, like time, just our mental construct) we are enlightened, and at the same time liberated from Dukkha. We then realise that, paradoxically, there was never a ‘self’ to get enlightened in the first place! This is why it is said that Buddhist Insight may also cause us to laugh.

When I say this I’m not talking about some conglomeration of the Universe, like some kind of nanotech ‘grey-goo’ disaster or a Borg ‘Assimilation’; that would still be talking on the level of the mundane. We are talking about that which transcends the mundane altogether, even the distinction between mundane and transcendental. This is where paradox, symbolism, and the reconciliation of dichotomies, comes in.

The Magic of Contrast

I remember as a boy struggling to grasp something with my conceptual mind and knowing that it was too subtle. It was the imaginal faculty and I was approaching something hard to grasp. I loved the power and mystery of this process. My primary approach to the Buddhism was through the imaginal. As we can see in films like 2001; a space odyssey SF utilises this power and communicates through symbol, image and use of contrast.
As a teenager reading lots of SF I wanted to know what it was essentially in SF I found so attractive, what I came up with in answer to this was something I called ‘magic realism’. I was trying to make sense of the power of SF to reveal something more to life and answer my desire for the beyond. From an early age I had an awareness of some truth that was profound and beautiful yet conceptually illusive. Then in 1996 I discovered the Perfection of Wisdom literature; called the Prajnaparamita, it was a form of Buddhist sutra first written down around the first and second Century CE as part of Mahayana Buddhism.
I found my ideas reflected in there; my ideas about ‘magic realism’ suddenly weren’t just fantasy. Magic realism seemed to me a medium which communicated something powerful and beyond conception. I aimed at perfecting this new technique, if that’s what it was, and in the Prajnaparamita I thought I’d found its perfected form, which took one beyond, yet did not` discard, the powers of conceptual thought.
I began to see SF as if it were the blind and fumbling beginnings almost of a new religion. I think we have a deep longing for perfection and liberation. SF at its best is about humanity responding to unsatisfactoriness and exploring the unknown in a quest for answers. I think it’s time SF found its Buddha; the superhero of all superheroes.
What I called magic realism (which I considered to be the effective heart of SF) had at its heart the paradox involving contrast between the real and the unreal, it is like the Perfection of Wisdom which sees through the contrast between the transcendental and the mundane to the truth of Sunyata (emptiness of inherent self anywhere) where dichotomies are reconciled.

Use of Contrast in Buddhist sutra

Contrast can be used to communicate a higher perspective and even the higher truths of Buddhism. I will now attempt to explain how this works and then I will investigate its potential in mediums other than the traditional sutra; how a new kind of sutra could be evolving.
In chapter nine of the vimalakirti nirdesa Manjusri says of Vimalakirti that ‘he is skilled in full expressions and in the reconciliation of dichotomies.’ What makes contrast in imaginative literature so powerful is its capacity to reconcile dichotomies. Here it is being used to communicate the Perfection of Wisdom:
‘If this Continent of Jambudvipa were filled with monks similar in worth to Sariputra and Maudgalyayana - like a thicket of reeds, bamboos, or cane sugar, of tall grass, or rice, or Sesamum plants - their wisdom does not approach the wisdom of a Bodhisattva who courses in perfect wisdom by one hundredth part, nor by one thousandth part, nor by a 100,000th part; it does not bear number, nor fraction, nor counting, nor similarity, nor comparison, nor resemblance. To such an extent does the wisdom of a Bodhisattva, who, coursing in perfect wisdom, develops it for one day only, surpass the wisdom of all the Disciples and Pratyekabuddhas.’
Sangharakshita; founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order and Movement, suggests that we could try reading this as if it were Science Fiction. If by reading a Science Fiction novel we are introduced to a glimpse of insight into the truths of Buddhism, would it like a sutra? Looking at the paragraph above we may see two things in particular. Firstly we see what I would call transcendental contrast; the contrast is so great that it could be nothing but a description of the infinity of the non-dual. From here the Perfection of Wisdom takes us a step further in the heart sutra, ‘Attainment too is emptiness’, the dichotomy is reconciled, and 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?’
He is seeing it from the ultimate perspective. The Perfection of Wisdom is using contrast and layers of contrast in an attempt to introduce us to the higher level of perception, all the time saying that emptiness and form, or emptiness and attainment are not really two, in a sense it is bringing together the contrast between real and unreal.
Something amazing happens when the two opposites being contrasted are not just brought together but are shown to not ever have been separate; the contrast itself has been transcended. All possible contrasts can be seen through in this way and the bringing together of any contrast should reveal to us the true nature of reality, becoming a ‘dharma door’ to the non-dual. The medium can become the message and perhaps it’s in this way that SF has the potential to become Transcendental Science Fiction.
In fact all of reality can only be perceived and measured, in the way we usually do, because of contrasting opposites, i.e. up and down, good and bad, fast and slow, as well as the pairs of the eight worldly winds, even Nirvana and Samsara. The inherent nature of all dimensions is just types of contrast, like a house of mirrors; it has no truly inherent nature behind it. Thus on attainment of Insight we find there never was any real contrast and attain the 'patience of the non production'; a phrase used in the Perfection of Wisdom.
Here is another example from a German translation of the Pali Canon: ‘At a certain place there was a road blocked by a huge boulder which proved too heavy for the local villagers to move, even the strongest together could not move it. The Buddha was passing and seeing the Buddha the villagers requested his help in moving it. The Buddha then flicked the boulder with his toe high into the heavens, he then caught it with an upraised hand, broke it into pieces, put it back together again and placed it to one side of the road.  ‘Did you find that impressive?’ asked the Buddha to the local people. ‘Yes!’ they replied. Then the Buddha said ‘this is a very great power but there is one power in the universe far greater still than this; the power of impermanence!’
Here the Buddha gives us a teaching on impermanence, to do this he makes accessible (i.e. from our unenlightened state) a higher reality (i.e. the power of impermanence) by contrasting it with what is already a very impressive power (he asks the people if they are impressed) - i.e. his supernormal ability. It is as if he has helped us to make the leap by providing a platform from which to view that higher reality. There is a step up from the contrast between our normal world and the Buddha’s superpowers, to the contrast between the Buddha’s superpowers and the higher reality of impermanence. These are the two layers of contrast from the level of the ordinary world to the reality of impermanence provided by the Buddha’s teaching. This is what I call layered contrast.
In chapter nine of the Buddhist sutra vimalakirti nirdesa - many Bodhisattvas describe how they enter the dharma door to non-duality, ‘‘The Bodhisattva Tisya declared, ‘’good’ and ‘evil’ are two. Seeking neither good nor evil, the understanding of the non-duality of the significant and the meaningless is the entrance into non-duality.’’ When Manjusri is asked he replies that all the other explanations were dualistic ‘To know no one teaching, to express nothing, to say nothing, to explain nothing, to announce nothing, to indicate nothing, and to designate nothing - that is the entrance into non-duality.’ Then Manjusri asks Vimalakirti for his elucidation on the teaching on the entrance into non-duality and thereupon the Lichavi Vimalakirti ‘kept his silence, saying nothing at all’!
So firstly here we are introduced to contrasting dichotomies (good and evil) and it is said that by transcending this dualism we enter non-duality. This is then in fact contrasted by Manjusri’s teaching that this is a dualistic teaching and that nothing should be said, and even this is contrasted by Vimalakirti who goes one step higher; Vimalakirti keeps his silence. So here is a use of layered contrast which works by giving us a platform (i.e. the earlier teaching) which we can contrast with the higher teaching (silence) without which it would be difficult to make sense of that higher teaching (would you understand the meaning of silence by itself?). So there are two types of contrast here, layered contrast used as a method to help us ascend in perception and the message itself which is a paradox; contrasts (for example, good and evil) brought together and shown to be ultimately not contrasts. Add to this the Perfection of Wisdom where the medium is so great a contrast as to be itself transcendental, and we have three ways the dharma doors might be opened in any literature.
An important point to mention is that for a sutra to have an effect on us we have to engage with it rather than hold it at bay with our modern cynicism, people didn’t always seem to have this problem of ours. Nowadays we are more ready to enter the world of a Sci/fi at the cinema than a spiritual text.
As Sangharakshita has suggested it might be helpful if we were to engage with the sutras as if we were reading Science Fiction. This left me wondering what Science Fiction and other media had to attract us that spiritual texts did not. And what can we take from this attraction and put into sutras. Or what can we take from sutras to put into Science Fiction. Can we create a new kind of sutra?

Use of Contrast in Speculative Fiction

I concluded quite early on that it was contrast which generated the core interest in SF and that the greatest of all contrasts was to be found between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’. Then, after discovering the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, I wondered if the greatest contrast lay between the ‘mundane’ and the ‘transcendental’. Was greater contrast more magical? Was this transcendental contrast a higher goal for creators of SF? That lead me to wonder why Science Fiction writers seemed to fall short and how to do something about it.
We can see four types of contrast used in sutra and in SF;
            1. Contrast within a personality (of potentiality)
            2. Reconciliation of dichotomies/paradox
            3. Layered contrast.
            4. Transcendental contrast
Contrast used within a personality can be found in many SF stories. One of the most widely known examples exists in the character of Superman/Clark Kent. Here in type 1 can be included; a) the contrast happening simultaneously within one character, for example the Kung Fu master who holds back from using his skills to remain anonymous; like Yoda. Another example is the god who comes to Earth in the form of an old crone; b) Contrast shown as a potential and manifesting over time for example in Harry Potter or Neo in the matrix, but perhaps the best example is in the life story of the Buddha, in whom we may see our own ultimate potential, a human who becomes enlightened.
Reconciliation of dichotomies and paradox is similar to the previous type but can involve anything that can be contrasted together; good and evil, healthy and ill, true and false, god and human, our world and faerie world, a novel’s fantasy world and its realistic world. These are all pairs of contrasts (not always opposites) in our dualistic world. This kind of contrast is found everywhere in literature and culture. If all things were the same it would not just be boring but impossible to perceive our dualistic world! This existence of contrast has its basis in our fundamentally mistaken view of an inherent self separate from other inherent selves. This is the key to why it’s important to Buddhist sutra and to Transcendental Science Fiction.
Seeing through this idea of subject and object is also the seeing through of contrasting dualities and directly to ‘how things really are’. What happens then when we bring together contrasting dualities - when the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’ are brought together? Then we find a paradox, there is no answer to this paradox on the mundane level, we have been forced to consider; is it my perception itself which is at fault? What is real? Or even - what is Reality? Perhaps this is where a fantasy like the matrix starts to put its toe into the Buddhist sutra category.
One example of this is the twist in the matrix when we find that Neo can use his powers outside of the matrix, becoming a kind of savior; he suddenly breaks the internal rules of the ‘real’ future world of the film. We see an incursion of the ‘unreal’ matrix into the film’s ‘real’ world. The film is about how we Humans can evolve under pressure, revealing our higher potential. The contrast between matrix and non-matrix, real and unreal, is gradually reconciled in an attempt to ‘free our minds’, leading to a climax which attempts to express the power of the human mind when freed from any limitations. I consider the scene when Neo succeeds in beating an agent an example of this contrast at its best in cinema. It makes use of the first three types of contrast but does it touch on transcendental contrast? Perhaps there’s a spark of it in there, the message in the medium?
Layered contrast in SF can be explored in star maker By Olaf Stapledon. Stapledon uses layering of contrast in showing the evolution of communal mind. His first example is the narrator’s shared experience of mind with the ‘other philosopher’, together they join other wandering ‘minds’ and through their experiences we get to see the evolution of the Cosmos as the ‘minds’ of whole worlds join telepathically, then these world minds join other world minds.  Finally the ‘minds’ of whole galaxies join to form one cosmic mind; the perfected awakened Cosmos itself, which, using all of its powers finally is able to reach out to and find the elusive star maker, creator of all things - and yet is rejected by Him. It then sees the countless Universes throughout time and feels again as if it were merely a human gazing in wonder again beneath the starry sky!
Like the cosmic mind, only after progressing many contrasting steps up are we ready to face the mystery of reality; or the star maker. It is only because we are primed through the build-up of contrasts can we share the experience of surprising and final limitedness of even this highest form of conditioned being and therein an intuition of the true nature of things. This building up of ‘minds’ in progressively profound stages which ends in paradox does seem rather similar to the way the Perfection of Wisdom describes the ‘incomparable’. It is a good attempt at transcendental contrast in SF.
However I was left disappointed that this story is so infused by the idea of a creator God. The mind of the Cosmos never seems to realize that that which is infinite must not remain ultimately separate from it. Perhaps the book lacks this essential Buddhist insight. Insight into the lack of any truly existing self didn’t seem to shine through; an insight quite accessible to us humans, each with only a single body and mind!
Transcendental contrast is less easily explainable, but essentially it is the paradox when dichotomies are reconciled which forms the basis for Transcendental Fiction. Sometimes this can occur in literature when the unreal appears in the context of the real (or vise versa) and these two are perceived as ultimate dichotomies; for example, the doorway in the back of the old wardrobe which leads to a fantasy world. This will be an experience involving the emotions; it’s not limited to the rational but it’s also not irrational – it touches on the non-rational (or that which ultimately goes beyond the rational and can be express only through images – the imaginal).
It’s emotional. Just like the spiritual life all SF starts with an awareness of dissatisfaction which finally makes possible the attempt at some kind of liberation. Ikiru by Kurosawa is a good film example of this. I see many books and films as attempts at Transcendental Fiction or Transcendental Speculative Fiction; many works have not been explored in this light. Absent from any discussion of Huxley’s brave new world is the vital distinction between the two questions ‘how much suffering do we (human beings) need?’ and ‘how much awareness of suffering do we (human beings) need?’
Jack Ross (2009) says of the Chinese classic the story of the stoneeven the tamperings of over-zealous relatives, terrified by the story's subversive tone, cannot dull its effect.. the strange blend of supernatural and quotidian events (prefiguring Latin-American Magic Realism)’ ( I was left wondering how the ending did go missing). He also says “Whether or not you'd classify yourself as particularly spiritual, Monkey (aka 'Great Sage Equal of Heaven') and his eccentric companions on the Journey to the West will do their best to set you on the road to Enlightenment.” And again “Tripitaka's journey to India to find the missing Buddhist scriptures could not be made to seem too easy. One of the points of the book (besides its light-hearted satire on religious shibboleths), I came to realise, was to put the reader through a similar ordeal. Only then could even the possibility of enlightenment be entertained.”
Minford (1999) includes an interesting discussion about the stone; Yu says ‘The profound paradox emerging from Cao Xueqin’s story seems to be that the illusion of life, itself a painful avowal of the nonreality and untruth of reality (a view that bears strong overtones of Buddhism), can only be grasped through the illusion of art, which is an affirmation of the truth of insubstantiality (that is, jia zhong you zhen). . . . What is, for the Chinese, the all too familiar lesson, old as Zhuangzi’s butterfly and the Lankavatara sutra’.

And Ferrara (2005) advances the claim that the central allegory of Honglou meng (‘the stone’) is a quest for salvation, rather than social vision of totality as Plaks suggests. He infers that the utopian world of Duguanyuan is integral to the ultimately soteriological allegory of the novel, for it provides a space in which Bao-yu can realize the illusory and fleeting nature of both the garden of delight and the world of obligation outside its crumbling walls.

Science Fiction as Hidden Spiritual Renaissance and the Arising of Transcendental Fiction

As I said earlier on the most essential point concerning the meeting of SF and Buddhism is that both are essentially about finding something more to life, exploring the beyond and the unknown. They are about escaping the mundane and escaping unsatisfactoriness. This urge may be a driver for the creation of SF since at least the 19th century, creating a new literary genre in order to find expression. But Bodhipaksa usefully points out ‘the beauty of SF is that it can step outside of and create a contrast with our normal way of seeing and doing things. In doing so it almost inevitably becomes a critique of our normal way of seeing and doing things and helps us to see them afresh. For example, 1984, in grossly exaggerating 1948's propaganda and revisionism, made us more aware of those as cultural phenomena.’
True Transcendental Ficton is like this; it is about breaking free. We have to be careful not to just ‘religify’ Science Fiction or to limit it with religious words. We need to tread carefully if we are not to just ‘Buddhify’ Science Fiction but to truly create Transcendental Fiction. As the Buddha himself may have said ‘my teaching is like a raft to cross the river, to be put down once one has reached the further shore’. The Goal isn’t Buddhism but the something transcendental, and even that is just a word. So to me Buddhism is just the best platform from which to work off.
Unsatisfactoriness (how I like to translate the Buddhist term ‘Dukkha’), and the search for something beyond, directly concerns the first two stages of the positive twelve-fold nidhana path which takes us to enlightenment. That is why for many SF has been a platform from which they have jetted off to explore Buddhism. The essential definition of SF and Buddhism are not really that different; simply the exploration of the unknown and the search beyond unsatisfactoriness. It is only this thing which can engage our imaginative faculty without which there can be no Buddhist faith. A look at Geoffrey Bennington’s On Transcendental Fiction and his thoughts on Kant (‘Muse’, Winter 2007, USA) could possibly add something to this area of reflection.
Often in SF we start off in the real world but an unreal element appears or a novel might start us in an unreal world but the real suddenly appears and we have these two contrasting things brought together and reconciled. There are many famous examples. This kind of contrast is where SF can get its power to move us and it moves us because it touches the contrasts we find in ourselves. Perhaps it also touches some deep questions we have about the Universe; questions about the reality of our very existence.
Potentiality, which involves contrast, is also hugely important to SF and perhaps this is why SF is hugely important to us; J K Rowling came third from the top of Time magazine’s world’s most influential person for 2007 - just bellow Putin and Al Gore! The potential of Harry Potter as he starts his transformation from abused child to legendary wizard may remind us of our own potential (ultimately for enlightenment perhaps). So we are looking for the beyond again, does this explain the amazing success of the Harry Potter novels? Millions of us now live a life without a conception of anything beyond this mundane existence, and struggle to find a sense of meaning. SF literature was very rare a hundred or so years ago; when we had Christianity as our living myth perhaps it wasn’t needed, and it seems to have arisen after we started to reject the myths of Christianity.
This interest for something beyond the mundane we call in Buddhism - Dharmachanda, the desire for enlightenment, or spiritual progress, that we all have but which isn’t always very conscious and may need uncovering. Perhaps this really is our greatest desire, largely unknown to us. The explosion of the genre of SF could be seen in this light as the beginnings of an unacknowledged spiritual renaissance for us in our modern world! Thus it could be a very suitable medium for communicating the transcendental or Buddhist insight. SF at its best would then be something I’d call Transcendental Fiction, whether that’s a new genre or something inherent to SF. I’d like to now see people creating this more consciously. But to create this, my teacher Sangharakshita said to me years ago, one would need both transcendental Insight and great literary skill; not easy!
At a recent Arthur C. Clarke award ceremony I asked the three authors ‘what excites you most in SF?’ and Gwyneth Jones replied ‘You can create the unreal, and that this is unlimited.’ What got me hooked into Buddhism while I was reading SF literature and first exploring theories about contrast many years ago was that I thought I’d found it reflected in the Perfection of Wisdom literature, I’d found confirmation of these tenuous but sublime ideas. But before this time, aged 16 or 17, the words ‘self transcendence’ and ‘transcendental’ started to revolve in my mind as I read my SF. I was enchanted by these words without knowing what they meant. To me they were associated with images like Stephen Donaldson’s wild magic exploding outwards in a sphere of white light. I wanted it to be real, not just a fantasy. Inside somewhere I intuited that there was something more to life; a beyond. I was starting to explore the mystery of reality.

Wherever we glimpse the profound mystery of reality, in sutras or in SF, it is a place where contrasts no longer hold. It must be a place of paradox and wonder; and what more likely place to encounter it than with our hero, on a quest into a forgotten world.

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