I recently read a novel I really liked and I thought I’d share it with you. It’s not a Zen book. It’s science fiction, which is way more fun to read than books about Zen.
The book is called Seveneves and it was written by Neal Stephenson. It came out in May, 2015. That’s almost a year ago. So by now there are lots and lots of spoilers all over the Interwebs, but I will try not to spoil any of the bigger surprises in this review anyhow.
In the first sentence of the novel the moon blows up. That hooked me in right there. A character obviously patterned on famed TV science guy Neil DeGrasse Tyson does some calculations and realizes that the seven large chunks the moon initially breaks up into will continue slamming into each other until there are millions of moon chunks in orbit. His calculations indicate that in about two years these chunks will start raining down on Earth in a continuous hail of debris that will last at least 5000 years. The heat caused by these rocks as they hurtle through the atmosphere alone will be enough to destroy all life on Earth, not to mention there’ll be boulders the size of Boulder crashing down on everything.
The novel is set in the very near future. So there’s no super space technology or warp speed engines or any of that to save us. The only hope for mankind seems to be an orbiting space station only a couple years more advanced than the current International Space Station (the main difference is there’s a captured asteroid attached, a real idea that’s already being considered). A plan evolves to convert this into a kind of ark in space which, with lots and lots of jury-rigging, might be able to support a couple thousand people. Though the whole thing also might break down comletely. It’s a very long shot but it’s all humanity has.
I’ve always liked end-of-the-world science fiction. One of my all time favorite films is The Quiet Earth, about a guy who awakens one morning to find that he may be the last person alive. I really enjoyed Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Even Godzilla was an end-of-the-world story.
One day our planet really will lose its ability to support life. It may happen quickly because someone does something stupid with our current arsenal of nukes. Or it may happen in the far distant future when either some future technology wipes everything out or just when nature decides it’s time.
I’m not sure exactly why, but reading Seveneves really affected me. It’s actually altered how I look at life. Which is odd because I don’t think that, for most people, Seveneves would be a life-altering book. I think the average reader would find it to be a very well-constructed sci-fi adventure novel, but I doubt it would be as a big of a deal as it was for me.
This book got me thinking about what happens if there really is no tomorrow. This is something I’ve thought about for as long as I can remember. It’s been the basis of a lot of what I’ve done in life. Somehow, though, the book has altered the way I think of that stuff.
I don’t believe in Heaven. I don’t believe in life after death. The notion that you should do things to prepare for an afterlife seems ridiculous to me. Even if reincarnation is real, you clearly don’t remember your past lives which would make the whole notion of continuity in the form we usually conceive of it absurd. So whether this is our only life or not, it makes the most sense to live as if it is.
But what does that mean? Does it mean you should be a total nihilist like Donald Trump and just gobble up everything you can, everyone else be damned?
On the one hand, that sounds like a reasonable response. If this is all I get, if I just die and disappear at the end, then why not have a total blast? Why worry about anyone else? Why worry about being good? What good does being good do?
Yet somehow I ended up getting drawn in another direction. First it was the highly ethically based version of the punk scene that attracted me. Those guys also didn’t believe in Heaven or an afterlife either. Yet they were still committed to being decent people. But they were also committed to doing that in their own way and having as good a time as possible while staying true to their ethical commitment.
This seemed like the best course of action to me then, and it still does now. When I started to feel like the punk scene was losing that sense of direction, I left and I found Zen. But I have to tell you, I’m probably still more committed to punk than to Zen. And if that hasn’t changed by now, I doubt it ever will.
I don’t mean punk as a musical and fashion style. I mean the idea that you can behave ethically while having a good time, and that this is the best way to live. In many ways I feel that Zen could be improved by adopting that outlook. Although I think lots of people in the world of Zen would disagree.
Anyhow, maybe I should get back to the book Seveneves and how it affected me.
We all know that we’re going to die some day. But even with that in mind, we know that we can leave some kind of legacy. It’s reasonable for me to believe that my books will still be read at least by a few people after I die. If you have children, they will be your living legacy. All of us will have some sort of effect upon the world even after we’re gone.
But what if that weren’t the case? It’s interesting to think about because it could really go that way. The moon probably won’t blow up. But there are thousands of completely plausible scenarios in which there really would be no tomorrow for any of us and no way for what we’ve done to ever be transmitted to the future. Someday, no matter what happens, every recognizable trace of every single thing humanity has accomplished will be gone. At least in any form we could currently understand.
What would it mean if this was really it? If this was really all there was or would ever be? Because maybe that’s actually how it is.
I don’t have any answers to these questions. But I’ve been dwelling on them a lot lately.
There are standard Buddhist doctrinal answers. There’s the belief in rebirth, which says life is an endless cycle and that everything you do is preserved eternally. My teacher said, “Our actions are carved into the universe.” I tend to believe that.
And yet, reading this book got me thinking, what if they’re not? And even if they are, what if it’s not in a way that I can really understand? What if Nishijima was right but the ways in which my actions are carved into the universe are vastly different from anything I can conceive of?
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Registration is now OPEN for our Spring Zen & Yoga Retreat March 18-20, 2016 at Mt. Baldy Zen Center, Mt. Baldy, California
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February 28, 2016 Houston, Texas Houston Zen Center
March 5-6, 2016 Austin, Texas Austin Zen Center
March 9, 2016 El Paso, Texas Eloise Coffeeshop/Bar 7:00pm
March 18-20, 2016 Mt. Baldy, California SPRING ZEN & YOGA RETREAT
March 25, 2016 Venice, California Mystic Journey Bookstore 7:00pm
April 7, 2016 San Francisco, California Against The Stream
April 8, 2016 San Francisco, California San Francisco Zen Center
April 22, 2016 New York, New York Interdependence Project
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
June 2, 2016 Los Angeles, CA The Last Bookstore 7:00pm
September 9-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat
September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat
September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A
September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat
October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab
October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture
October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
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