A Clear(er) Head For The Future

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-06-06 08:00:00-04:00 No comments

Stop me if I'm wrong, but from what I can tell, there aren't a whole lot of people writing SF&F who are also practitioners of Zen Buddhism. At least, that's the impression I've received. Most of the other peers I've encountered in this space are either atheist/agnostics, nominally Christian or Jewish, some Muslim. But I think in the entire time I've been doing this I've run across exactly one other person who wrote SF&F and also identified to some degree as Zen Buddhist. And he was one of the guys who actually got me into this stuff in a serious way in the first place!

I can't say I take this personally or anything like that, if only because I've always felt like such a weirdo and an odd-man-out in every aspect of my fiction writing career. This was just par for the course. Most everyone else I met who was a reader, if they knew about Buddhism at all, they knew about it only through the obvious clichés, and they didn't seem interesting in disabusing themselves of those clichés. I've learned the hard way that if people don't show a natural curiosity about something, one of the best ways to get them to never show an interest in the subject is to proselytize. Where people were curious, I did my best to satisfy their curiosity, but I couldn't make them more curious. What would be the point?

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I've mentioned before I was never interested in writing "Zen SF" or "Zen fantasy", or anything like that. The last thing I wanted to do, again, was proselytize. Some years back a guy I knew in one of my social circles wrote a fantasy series explicitly inspired by a particular esoteric spiritual practice that I was familiar with, and it was one of the most dreadful, unreadable things I've ever encountered. And I include in that list the book about a guy obsessed with wrapping Roy Orbison in clingfilm, which at least had the saving grace of being funny.

What I did find though, was how Zen Buddhism did two things for my work. One, it gave me a clearer head generally to produce the work in the first place. Not that it was harder, or outright impossible, for me to write and finish a novel-length project before I started practicing Zen, but once I got into it, my relationship with my work changed drastically. Spending a little time a day, over a long period of time, to give myself permission to work with my mind helped me figure out what kinds of things I really wanted to be working on.

Two, it provided me with a framework through which I could understand the ideas and themes I wanted to treat. Again, that didn't mean I wanted to write "Zen SF&F". More like, all the things Zen talks about gave me a rich set of insights into my subjects. The concept of selflessness, for instance, is a great lens through which to talk about things like the nature of identity in natural or artificial lives. (I've got more on these subjects in another post coming later.)

When I first began my practice, I was in the middle of writing a project I eventually abandoned for a bunch of reasons. The biggest one was that I realized, rather late in the game, I wasn't writing anything except a bad ripoff of Notes From Underground. But the other reason was more complex: the very reason I was writing the book was because I felt despondent about the general state of things, and I didn't want to. I felt like everything that existed, existed only to be smashed down and replaced with something better; that I was powerless to do anything about this; that the only way to empower myself enough to do anything about this would have been self-destructive at best. The only response I could come up with at the time was to write a despondent book.

But once I began my program of introspection, I could see that wasn't really what I wanted. I didn't want to simply inflict despondency on others, or justify my despondency by creating a circle of fellow despondents with a shared aesthetics of despondency. I didn't want my response to a bad world to be one that made the world incrementally more bad. And what's more, I knew it all along; I had just buried it in the hopes that I wouldn't have to live up to the responsibility of creating something that gave hope instead of taking it away. I have no delusions that the world is in a bad way, and that my own affect on it may well amount to what Bogey said in Casablanca, about how the problems of a couple of people don't amount to a hill of beans in this world. I also know that without trying, I gave through my work at least one person I know a little more of a reason to live. (The person in question confirmed this with me.)

If Zen and Buddhism gave me anything that I could put to use in my work, it was how to discover and fully unearth within myself the impulse to make everything I created as sincerely constructive as I could make it. "What do you really want?" is the hardest question to ask yourself, let alone find a good answer for.

Tags: Buddhism Zen fantasy science fiction writers writing