Reflections in the Parabolic Mirror

When I was researching religions for skyfisher, one of the most intriguing concepts I came across was in the Zen Buddhist koans, where they occasionally described how certain persons received enlightenment in one crystalline flash of ultimate realization, known as satori.

Admittedly, many of these masters first devoted decades of meditation and study in their pursuit, but the final moment of illumination was reportedly often triggered by some single cryptic, if not outright absurd, incident.

Here’s one example:

One day Banzan was walking through a market. He overheard a customer say to the butcher, “Give me the best piece of meat you have.”

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You can not find any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words, Banzan was enlightened.

It’s actually the writer in me, not the supplicant, who found these stories so appealing. (If I’ve come to believe anything in my own spiritual wanderings it’s that enlightenment comes iteratively and slowly, not in some great, dramatic flash of light.) But, as literature, the koans are great. Banzan’s has beautiful irony (not the least of which is that he was almost certainly a vegetarian) and a dramatic dénouement with a profound message at its core, wrapped in a simple but elegant metaphorical layer.

This sort of rhetorical power is why all religious traditions rely on parables to get their point across. In Jewish Hasidic tradition they have the mashal. The famous parable of The Six Blind Men and the Elephant is of Hindu origin. Christ was, of course, a master of the parable. The Sacred Text of the Phasmatians, which is just a mash-up of other religious traditions, also relies heavily on parables.

In the Qur’an, it says:

Allah sets forth parables for mankind in order that they may remember.

The good word is like a good tree, with firm roots and branches reaching to the sky, and constantly giving fruit.

And the parable of an evil word is like an evil tree, uprooted from the surface of earth, having no stability.

It’s the latter, by the way, sprung from the lips of hateful fanatics, that gives Islam a bad name these days. Judging all Muslims by the actions of these warped extremists is like judging all Christianity on the basis of pedophile priests – or Rev. Jim Jones.

Here’s another parable I’m quite fond of:

An old man was teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt, and ego. The other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

He pointed at his grandson. “This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

“The one you feed,” the old man replied.

That parable hails from the Cherokees (who, speaking of irony, were looked at as savages and heathens and nearly exterminated). It pretty much sums up the entire spiritual experience for every one of us. If you were ever going to have an “aha” satori moment, that parable is a great candidate for inducing it.

Here in North America, especially in the cities, atheism seems to be the prevalent religion these days … and that’s perfectly fine. Each unto their own, I say, especially since I have no more supporting proof of a greater force at play in the universe than the atheists do to bolster their own spiritual nihilism.

Still, it got me wondering. If so many people don’t believe in any divine retribution and assume that death is the absolute end of their existence, what keeps them from running off the reservation, so to speak, and breaking all the rules. Sure, we have cops and courts, but it’s not just the fear of going to jail that stops people from behaving like mad sociopaths.

Part of the answers lies in how we’ve all been socially programmed, partially by the telling of parables by parents, teachers, and contemporary media. For example, the nth annual re-showing of It’s A Wonderful Life, Scrooge, and A Miracle on 34th Street will soon have people sobbing into their hankies again this Yuletide season … and learning some morality in the process.

Of course, as the saying goes, the Devil is fond of quoting scripture. Words can be twisted, and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – which may be one of Newton’s Laws of Motion, but makes for a great parable in its own right.

One Zen koan I’ve heard regurgitated in several movies, most notably Reservoir Dogs, is of the scorpion that stung the rabbit that was graciously ferrying it across a river.

“Why did you do that?” the rabbit asks in dismay. “Now we will both drown.”

“I can’t help it,” the scorpion replies, “it’s in my nature.”

That parable is one sometimes cited as an excuse by people wanting to justify their destructive behaviour. In fact, if you read further in the koan collection, you will find its equal and opposite reaction.

A Zen master was sitting by a campfire. A scorpion, disoriented by the light, kept trying to walk into the flames. The master reached down each time and rescued the scorpion, even though the arachnid would inevitably sting him.

As he repeated this behavior, getting stung anew each time, one of the master’s students asked him, “Sensei, why do you keep doing that? You know you’re just going to get stung.”

“I can’t help it,” the Zen master replied, “it’s in my nature.”

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The Novel Will Never Die

The Novel Will Never DieI don’t know whether the “experts” foretelling the demise of the book sincerely believe what they’re saying, or merely enjoy the notoriety that comes from making bold and gloomy forecasts. What gets me is that they’re not just talking about the supplanting of the 400-year-old printed codex with eBooks on Kindles, iPads, Nooks, etc. (which the pundits say is merely the sort of bastardized first step that comes with any new watershed medium, as Saint Marshall of McLuhan preached). No, these seers are predicting that the traditional book – and even its acme, the novel – will disappear altogether, and be replaced by some sort of shared interactive multimedia game-like experience.

This debate has proven to be a good Rorschach Test for me personally, and after much self-analysis, I’ve come to believe the novel will, in fact, survive. This bias is not, by the way, because I’m some sort of digital Luddite. Quite the contrary. In addition to being a writer, I am a producer of interactive digital content. Over the past two decades I have shrugged off the transformation of other media, and have happily embraced and exploited the convenience and flexibility that their digital incarnations offered. But when it comes to novels I have a very different reaction. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I also write novels, and so am clearly biased. But long before I became a writer of stories I was a reader of stories, and it is from there that my fierce loyalty originates. There is simply nothing like a good book.

One of the important factors here is the underlying artistic nature of a medium. For example, progressing from LPs to MP3s hasn’t changed the crux of the listening experience for music. If I close my eyes and wallow in Beethoven or Hendrix, I’m still absorbing exactly what the artist wanted me to. Admittedly, the entire value chain and distribution mechanism between me and the composer has changed irrevocably, but it’s not the bits or wireless network that matter, but rather the music that feeds the sensory experience.

Computer games are admittedly a new and wildly popular art form, but just as live theatre (or novels, for that matter) didn’t disappear because of movies and television, so I don’t accept that the novel will be supplanted by some sort of interactive gaming experience or social collaboration. First of all, there’s more to a novel than the plot. It’s not just what is written, it’s how it’s written. The limitless flexibility of the language, and the author’s ability to manipulate the mind and the emotions of the reader, are unparalleled. The very fact that everything is not spoon fed to readers, and they must use their own imaginations, is the strength, not the weakness, of the novel.

Nor do I believe future readers will want to forgo all private experience in order to share every word with their Facebook friends, or that they will only want to partake of stories that they create or control themselves. We all have limits to our experience and inventiveness, and certainly, in my own case, I enjoy being turned over into the hands of a master storyteller to experience new eye-opening possibilities that I would never have conceived of.

There’s also the simple economy of writing a novel, which can be done by one individual (the editors, publishers, printers, and publicists required to then bring it to market notwithstanding).The idea that the novel’s successor will also require a phalanx of programmers, animators, designers, and actors to bring it to fruition seems, by definition, to be an intrinsic limitation. Still, unlike many of the aforementioned pundits, I’m willing to admit I have no special wisdom or a psychic ability to prognosticate. Fortunately, I have already amassed more books than I will be able to read in my lifetime and, for the foreseeable future anyway, more are on their way, so even if I’m wrong, I’ll at least be content.

The Horror! The Horror!

Last night little monsters were howling up and down my street, dressed in their Hallowe’en costumes (except for those kids who figured just having a swag bag was dress-up enough). Behind them were the walking dead — parents with haunted looks who’d bled time and money to indulge their offspring, and were now dutifully shadowing them. Elsewhere in the city, costumed adults were raising hell in bars and house parties (unless, out of expediency, they’d done it the Saturday night before). Across the cableverse scary movies and other gruesome content abounded. Oh, the horror, the horror. I’m not sure what the Hallowe’en equivalent is of a humbug, but I guess I’m it. Even though I’ve never been one to begrudge people having fun, and certainly have myself had loads of enjoyment dressing up for the occasion, nevertheless I do find myself shaking my head at what this unholiday has morphed into. I guess I just fundamentally don’t like rampant hype and commercialization, and there’s now plenty of both on Shalloween.

One of my influences as a writer is Joseph Campbell, the eminent scholar of myth and religion (he saw no difference between the two). Over the years I have enjoyed learning about the roots of mythology, and how our seminal beliefs have evolved into contemporary culture. The older I get, and the longer I spend working with technology, the more I feel the pull of those ancient archetypal human forces and rhythms. (It was Campbell, by the way, who came up with one of my favorite computer quotes: “Computers are like Old Testament gods; lots of rules and no mercy.”) Like every cocky adolescent, I too once thought that human civilization began and ended with me and my cutting-edge generation. Now, of course, I know better. Each new generation may lay down a fresh coat of paint, but the basic shape of human existence hasn’t changed in a million years. We’re born, we learn and grow, we come of age, we seek a mate and reproduce, we strive for status and power, we peak and decline, our body betrays us, and we die. End of story.

The roots of Hallowe’en (I stubbornly cling to the interstitial apostrophe to show the contraction of the original Auld English’s All Hallow Even, even though my spell checker nags me for it) come from the fact that ancient civilizations divided up the year into two seasons — the time of light and the time of dark. November 1st traditionally marked the beginning of the dark days. (May 1st, a.k.a. May Day, which has largely fallen out of favor here in North America, marks the beginning of the light days.) To the ancient Celts, the start of November was known as Samhain (“Summer’s End”) and was basically the start of the new year. They believed that the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain, allowing spirits (both harmless and harmful) to pass through. The family’s ancestors were honored and invited home, while harmful spirits were warded off. Evidently it was the need to ward off harmful spirits that led to the wearing of costumes and masks. As it did with so many pagan holidays, Christianity plagiarized the festival, naming it it All-Saint’s Day (and the day after as All Soul’s Day), and the night before evolved into Hallowe’en. (Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico derive from the same roots.) Candles lit to commemorate the souls of the dead and originally placed in turnips, not pumpkins, have become today’s jack o’ lantern, now an art form in its own right. Each century has added a layer of tradition to this very ancient one. Somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century in (where else?) the U.S. full-blown costumes were popularized and commercialized, eventually evolving from purely supernatural figures to include those of popular culture.

In my own case, as an homage to the bigger picture Campbell showed me, and in tribute to to my far-distant ancestors, I celebrate November 1st as a personal holiday commemorating the start of the dark half of the year. As a Canadian I am naturally attuned to this colder, bleaker time of year, but my own celebration is not a funeral rite, or some supernatural plea to the waning sun. It may be about light and dark, but like everything in life, it’s not black and white. Winter in these climes is a harsh fact of life, it’s true, but it brings with it many good things too. For example, I enjoy fireplaces and hockey. Plus, as a writer and a reader, I relish the enhanced opportunity to pursue those indoor activities that the dark days seem to provide.

So, tonight I’m toasting to Parentalia, the Roman festival of the dead … and to the Celtic Samhain … and to the Calan Gaeaf of the old Britons — all once celebrated on this day. Here’s also to all the saints, known and unknown, and to all the dear departed souls. And, what the hell, a belated Happy Hallowe’en to you all too.