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Zen and Utopia

March 26, 2012

Popular opinions on these two topics abound in similar misconceptions about a mystical sense of perfection or otherworldly transcendence. But both Zen and Utopia belong in everyday life, in similar ways. In their developed forms, they’re not about wily masters of preternatural calm, floating above the mere mortals on the footpath below, or an overtly fictional land where everybody is happy, without the pressures of everyday life or appetite, where nobody need covet anything because there is no lack.

Zen, for a start, is uninterested in transcendence as it is commonly understood – as disassociated or escapist overcoming. It is a practice, one which understands that it is hard work not to work hard at quieting the mind, which does not exist in the individuated form we have become comfortable with and call our personality, yet one that is at exactly the same time composed with the realisation that what we are is as natural as the birds and trees and stars, that walking down the street is exactly what we are, no more and no less. Practising Zen means practising being free of worldly attachments without avoiding being in the world, equally exactly this mind and body without identification with them or their end or beginning or the various assorted affiliations we so often like to choose (gender, race, nationality, football teams and other brands)… and knowing that permanent abiding in this non-state that is full and complete insight when it is full and complete requires (or is indivisible from) endless practice and this does not end up looking much like the robed master floating above the street as if he just experienced the best hot bath of the century all that much in the end. (Except when that is exactly how it feels. And that’s OK too.)

As for Utopia, it has rarely been imagined as a perfect state where everybody is happy, and when it has this is the worst example of the concept. That rare version is a bit like the most basic form of Heaven, where all the good folk have been accepted as angelic and the harps and the oh my goodness I’m bored already. So few people take such imagery seriously that to critique it is to set fire to the eponymous straw man. The real Utopias include space for self-criticism, for dissent and conflict, but these imperfections are embraced by the very fabric of the whole, so that each individuated being fully inhabits their self and enjoys complex relations with others just as free and so on. An ‘ecotopia’ – or an ecologically thoughtful, self-critical and therefore perpetually open and reflexive Utopia – recognises this and then goes beyond human concerns to include all beings; other animals, plants and landscapes. From my perspective, this should include the entire cosmos too. Why stop here on earth, once we have liberated all its beings (at least imaginatively and impersonally, for now)? Life is so far beyond, both before and after humanity, that the only worthy response seems to accept complete identification with all possibility as well as fully inhabiting this life, body and moment all at once. (I know – it sounds a bit … Zen.)

This idea is strictly speaking an aporia, in terms of reason, because we can’t rationally hold all these conflicting possibilities in mind at once; so it goes beyond conceptual thinking in its embrace of cognitive dissonance. Thus it quickly comes to seem ineffable, which is always the price for the mystical component of any more-than-human vision. It stretches off the edges of the horizon of seeming possibility – but who doesn’t want to look across? Off to the other place we haven’t visited yet, the next moment or adventure in consciousness, or the next all-inclusive social experiment for the politically inclined egalitarian.

Walking down the street, completely here yet not attached to unnecessarily limiting affiliations, working with either Zen or Utopia means combining inner visions with outer realities. Being open to the flow, as well as the blocks. Being stopped, and moving on, and analysing the contents, and caring about where things come from and go to. Because knowingly remaining ignorant is not acceptable to any intelligent life form. If a corporate monopoly is ruining the earth, resist it. Move away. Shift habits. Change for the better.

Unfortunately, aligning practice with this process means including other people in our picture of a better world. I know, they hardly seem worth it, annoying as they can be in traffic and pushing in line and believing differently and snaffling up the best portions with no concern for the overall impact of their greed; other people are like, so whatever. But we only come into human consciousness in company; we cannot ensure an equitable future for all beings without having enough for them all to eat and drink and this means gardens once again become commons because all ownership leads to war, because when plenty becomes scarcity the gangs will raid that nice plot of permaculture we thought would suffice … and hence we have to care about others. I’m not with Sartre in believing that hell is other people – there are far worse places in the universe than human company, I’d have thought – but they do annoy the living shit out of me on a daily basis (the World News is certainly no panacea for this affliction). So I dream. And act on it. And then the two states melt into one. And then, when hungry, I eat. That is the miracle and Utopia of Zen. And then, when tired, I sleep. That is the Zen of Utopia. Right here, right now. Just remember to check the label…

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