The other day I went to a Meetup.com group for writers in Philadelphia. While introducing myself I mentioned that I used to write science fiction novels (note that the best of these is now available from Amazon!) but now write about Zen. One of the other writers said, “You could write a science fiction novel about a Zen monk in outer space!” I was kind of like, wow, I never thought of that!
I’m still not sure if it’s a good idea or not. A long time ago I read James Blish’s book A Case of Conscience, about a Jesuit monk living on another planet and another novel called The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, also about a Jesuit monk who travels to another world. They were both really good and had something important to say, which probably couldn’t have been conveyed in non-fiction as well as it could in fiction. I wondered if maybe I could do that sort of thing too.
So I started poking around the Intewebs to see if it had been done before. When I searched “Zen monk in space” one of the first things that came up was this very interesting article. It’s about astronauts who have experiences that sound a bit like so-called kensho or satori moments (aka “enlightenment experiences”) while looking back upon the Earth from far, far away.
It wasn’t that bit which really stood out for me, although it is interesting. What struck me most was an observation by Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut who experienced one of those epiphanies. It wasn’t an observation about the epiphany itself, but about something else. Here’s what he said:
“Four hundred years ago. the philosopher Rene Descartes came to the conclusion that physicality and spirituality, or mind and body belonged to different realms of reality that didn’t interact. Now, that served the purpose to get the Inquisition off the backs of the intellectuals so they could disagree on material things with the church without the fear of being burned at the stake. So that ended that, but it did cause, for four hundred years, science to consider consciousness and mind a subject for philosophy and religion and not a subject for science.”
Amazing. I had never thought about that.
Ever since I first encountered the famous line in the Heart Sutra “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” I had thought that Descartes and his followers — basically all of us in the West — had made a huge mistake. We’d separated body and mind! What fools we were!
I never made the connection as to how Descartes’ dualism functioned socially. As Mitchell said, it got the Inquisition off the backs of the intellectuals and scientists. It allowed a way for science to exist and progress without threatening the Church.
Of course not every church felt unthreatened, as the Bill Nye Vs. Ken Ham debate on evolution and the continuing problems with teaching evolution in American schools points out. But these are relatively minor problems by comparison. Nobody’s getting broken on the wheel for teaching evolution in these post-Cartesean times, even way down in Mississippi.
Following the wide acceptance of Descartes’ dualistic ideas, scientists were able to work without fear of being horribly killed. This may have been what allowed the Western societies who accepted dualism to progress scientifically far beyond societies who did not. The Muslims, and even the Hindus and Buddhists never had their own Descartes.
It’s true the Hindus and Buddhists feared science less than the Christians and Muslims. But perhaps the fact that Europeans were able to advance far beyond them in the areas of material scientific research owes something to the Western notions of dualism which were rejected by Buddhists and many Hindus. I am not proposing this is the sole factor. But I think it’s an important one.
I’m not a big reader of philosophy. So perhaps what I’m saying here is nothing new. But I can say for certain that it’s not an idea that’s widely discussed in the popular literature about religion that I do sometimes read. Maybe it should be, because it explains a lot!
And so I offer that up to you fine folks for consideration today.
Maybe I’ll write that science fiction book.
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Registration is now open for our Zen & Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center May 9-11, 2014
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You can see the documentary about me, Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, at the following locations:
• April 17, 2014 Los Angeles, CA
• April 20, 2014 San Francisco, CA
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