Following the death of Leonard Nimoy I started re-watching some of the old Star Trek episodes and movies. In fact, I’d actually been re-watching the first season of the original Star Trek for a couple of months before he died.
I’ve been a Star Trek fan for as long as I can remember. My dad and I used to watch the old reruns together on Saturday evenings when they played on Cleveland’s channel 43. After a while it seemed like we should have seen every one, but we kept seeing episodes we hadn’t seen before. My dad had a running joke about how they must secretly still be making new ones.
What I liked about Star Trek is that it wasn’t just a fantasy set in outer space. That was Star Wars. Star Trek was almost always about something real. Some of the allegories were really heavy handed. Like the episode in which there’s a race of people who are white on the left side and black on the right side fighting a race who are black on the left side and white on the right side. Oh, and they came from the “Southern part of the galaxy!” It was great to see a show that tried to make a point, even when they got clumsy about it.
Gene Roddenberry, who created the show, often made his alien characters surrogates for people in our own world. Thus the Klingons were pretty obviously patterned on the Soviets, the Romulans were the Chinese communists. I’ve never heard anyone else say this, but I always thought the Borg from the 80s era Star Trek: The Next Generation represented the fears Americans had about the Japanese in those days. Y’know, they all looked and thought the same and they wanted to take over the galaxy with technology.
Roddenberry appears to have been interested in Zen Buddhism. He even got married to Majel “Nurse Chappel” Barrett in Japan in what most biographers refer to as a “Shinto-Buddhist wedding.” I’m not sure exactly what that really was. Shinto weddings are more common in Japan than Buddhist weddings, although every wedding I ever attended over there was a vaguely Christian-ish western style wedding.
Anyhow, Roddenberry’s apparent interest in Zen manifest itself most clearly in the character of Mr. Spock. At first Spock was just an emotionless alien. But as it became necessary to examine the character more closely a more elaborate backstory was created. The people of Spock’s planet Vulcan had once been a savage warlike race who had nearly destroyed themselves. Then a Buddha-like Vulcan called Surak came up with a mystical program of training intended to purge his people of all emotion and focus on pure logic and rationality.
It’s important to note that one major change made to Spock’s character and to the Vulcans in general was that instead of being born without emotions, as is suggested in early episodes of the show, it was later explained that the Vulcans do have emotions. They just go through this process of learning how to transcend them. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, we see Spock going through the final stages of this training, called Kolinahr, in which one finally transcends all emotions.
Zen training is not quite the same as Kolinahr. But it does involve learning to deal with our emotions in such a way that our ability to be rational – even logical – is not compromised by our emotional states. Or, at least it’s not compromised quite as often as it was before we started our Zen training.
Gudo Nishijima, my teacher, and his student Mike Cross translated a section of Shobogenzo called ç„¡æƒ…èª¬æ³• (mujo seppo) as “The Non-Emotional Preaches the Dharma.” You can find it on-line for free in Volume 3 of his Shobogenzo translation (chapter 53, page 155). Most translators render this title in English as something like “The Insentient Preach the Dharma” (Stanford Shobogenzo Translation Project) or “Insentient Beings Speak the Dharma” (Kazuaki Tanahashi) or “The Sermon of Insentient Beings” (Yuuho Yokoi).
The phrase èª¬æ³• (seppo) means something like “preaches (or expounds or explains) the dharma,” but the meaning of ç„¡æƒ… (mujo) is a bit trickier. ç„¡ (mu) means “not” or in this case “non” since it modifies what comes after. But æƒ… (jo) does not mean sentient. It actually means feelings, emotions, affection or love. When you put these two together in the compound ç„¡æƒ… (mujo), it’s usually translated as heartlessness, cruelty or ruthlessness.
Of course Dogen didn’t mean “The Cruel and Ruthless Preach the Dharma,” although I imagine he could have written an essay with that theme too. If you read the actual text (this link is to Carl Bielefeldt’s translation) he’s talking about how all things express the dharma, express the essential truth. It’s sensible, then, to translate ç„¡æƒ… (mujo) as insentient. But what it really means is what Gudo Nsihijima and Mike Cross translated it as; “non-emotional.”
In order to express the truth one needs to be able to transcend emotions. This doesn’t mean we need to become unfeeling or robotic. We feel what we feel. But what usually happens next is that we mix our raw feelings with our sense of self and thus transform feeling into emotion. Emotion is what happens when it’s not just a feeling anymore, it’s my feeling, it’s the feeling that I possess, it’s the feeling that I use to define me. That’s where the problems begin.
As far as I know, neither Gene Roddenberry who created Mr. Spock nor Leonard Nimoy who portrayed him for over half a century ever practiced zazen or seriously studied Zen beyond maybe reading a book by DT Suzuki or Alan Watts. Yet as the character continued to grow and be refined over five decades, everyone involved became more aware that in order for Mr. Spock to be believable, his traits had to be based in reality. So after a while, Spock became less robotic and more Zen-like. I’m not sure Zachary Quinto quite gets it yet, but if he keeps playing the character he will.
Mr. Spock has feelings. He loves Captain Kirk and, outward appearances to the contrary, he clearly loves Doctor McCoy too. He struggles with his feelings because he knows that in order to be a true Vulcan, or a true human since he is half-human, he needs to keep his emotions in check and not let them overwhelm him.
But Mr. Spock is a work of fiction put together by writers and actors who didn’t really understand in practice the character they created. Thus a lot of what we see in Mr. Spock is not very realistic. We accept it because he’s supposed to be from another planet and we don’t really know what his species is like. It is, after all, a species that only exists in our imaginations.
Still, I think it’s interesting to see how this fictional character gets some of its creators’ guesswork about what Zen might be kinda, sorta, almost, just a little bit right.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Nimoy and Mr. Roddenberry.
April 3, 2015 Pomona, CA Open Door 2 Yoga
April 24-26, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY ZEN & YOGA RETREAT
May 16-17, 2015 Nashville, TN 2-DAY RETREAT AT NASHVILLE ZEN CENTER
July 8-12, 2015 Vancouver, BC Canada 5-DAY RETREAT at HOLLYHOCK RETREAT CENTER
August 14-16, 2015 Munich, Germany 3 DAY ZEN RETREAT
August 19, 2015 Munich, Germany LECTURE
August 24-29, 2015 Felsentor, Switzerland 5-DAY RETREAT AT STIFTUNG FELSENTOR
August 30-September 4, 2015 Holzkirchen, Germany 5-DAY RETREAT AT BENEDIKTUSHOF MONASTERY
September 10-13, 2015 Finland 4-DAY RETREAT
Every Monday at 8pm I lead zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. All are welcome!
Every Saturday at 9:30 am I lead zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. All are welcome!
Registration is now open for our 3-day Zen & Yoga Retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center April 24-26, 2015. CLICK HERE for more info!
* * *
It is highly illogical not to donate to the continuation of this blog since you are reading it. You can donate as little as one dollar! It all helps.