How American Science Fiction of the 1950's and 60's Transformed the Popular Understanding of Buddhism
Matt: I wrote this paper for a conference. I thought I would post it in case anyone’s interested
Showing great faith in the harmony of science and Buddhism, the Dalai Lama famously said "if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims" (Gyatso 3). Since 1991, the Mind and Life Institute has combined science, Buddhism, and contemplative practice into a field of study that encapsulates a popular way of understanding Buddhism. Buddhism as allied or complementary to science, is a popular trope in the 21st century but the cultural foundation of this relationship was laid while the 14th Dalai Lama was still a child, in the science fiction of the 50's and 60's. In novels and short stories, science fiction (SF) authors grappled with the relationship between religion and a radically accelerating technoculture. Three archetypal relationships emerged that are still felt in modern discourse: science as Buddhsit tool, Buddhism as "inner science", and scientific Buddhism as social practice. Buddhism in particular represented the perfect muse for SF authors, an empty vessel that could fulfill the dream of a conciliation between religion and science. In 1953, Arthur C. Clark wrote about Buddhist monks using computers to bring about the end of the world. Although filled with misrepresentations of Buddhism, it set the stage for a mysterious yet technologically inclined Buddhism. Clarke's novel Childhood's End continues to describe science as a mystical tool, but not the terminal value of humanity. In the growing counterculture of the 60's, there was a desire for a new relationship to religion, one based on personal experience and freedom rather than tradition and dogma. Timothy Leary aligned religion, psychedelia, and inner experience when he presented The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a guide for the psychedelic explorer, a way to explore consciousness using a science of the mind. In Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967) Buddhism and science were portrayed as potential revolutionary tools that could transform society. These literary expressions forecasted some contemporary views of Buddhism: Buddhism as terminal goal of science, Buddhism as mystical technology, and Buddhism as allied with a rebellious science. SF authors were uniquely situated to forge popular ideas about the relationship between Buddhism, science, and technology – ideas that have greatly impacted and transformed conceptions of Buddhism to the present day.
The dialogue between science fiction and religion begins in the 19th century with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, arguably the first SF novel. Both Mary Shelley and her protagonist Victor Frankenstein were inspired by the works of occult authors. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein renounces both the occult and science – in Frankenstein, the pursuit of knowledge ends in disaster. A characteristic of mid-20th century SF is the double affirmation of religion and science. This double affirmation often involves the reinterpretation of both science and religion as harmonious, or even identical, methods of investigating phenomena.
Popular media serves as bidirectional link between domains of knowledge and human culture. Academic science and cross-cultural religious study was not available to a popular audience – SF authors served as conduits to understand these new forms of knowledge. Adorno and Horkheimer's pejorative theory of "mass culture" is correct in that popular media relies on common tropes and vocabulary to be understood. On some level, SF must be minimally accessible in order to be widely disseminated. SF authors also have a dual commitment to the "fantastic" and the "rational" - making them especially attuned to religion's place in a technological society. Samuel Delaney "described realistic fiction as concerning events that could have happened; fantasy as concerning events that could not have happened; and science fiction as concerning events that have not happened, that have not happened yet, or that might happen" (Wolfe 4). Science fiction is an unusual and potentially revolutionary form of literature – Delaney describes the possibilities of SF:
What science fiction can do, however, is portray a different, an imagined, a nonexistent institution that works much better than, or often much worse than, or in the most interesting cases just very differently from, an existing one. The object priority in thereading conventions—which must begin with a consideration of some real institutions simply to understand how the science-fictional one works at all—generates the criticism directly in the understanding (cognition) process itself (142)
In this essay, I will be making the case that SF literature in the 50's and 60's served as a vehicle for interrogating religious forms – an interrogation that helped make the idea of a scientific Buddhism possible. SF literature was perfectly situated in a historical context where traditional religions were being questioned, and opportunities for new forms of religiosity were becoming available. Of course, many elements contributed to the idea of scientific Buddhism – popular culture, and SF in particular, are just neglected pieces of this construction.
1950 to 1970 was a radically transformative epoch in American cultural history – in many ways we are still living in the shadow of the counterculture. The "counterculture" was a term first coined by Theodore Roszak to describe a shift of values that he saw in the 1960's. Roszak in his 1969 book, The Making of a Counter Culture, describes the shift away from ascetic and monastic religions towards a newly sexualized religion "If there was anything Kerouac and his colleagues [the Beat poets] found especially appealing in the Zen they adopted, it was the wealth of hyperbolic eroticism" (136). Roszak claims that one of the most important values of the counterculture was a distaste of technocratic society – a society that "abused" scientific progress. In this way, the counterculture contained a romantic strain that was fearful of science "unweaving the rainbow". One of the ways of combating the technocratic hegemony was through religion – but not the religion of one's parents. In its history, SF has often reimagined science and fitted it to human visions, bridging the division between science's facts and humanities values. SF not only popularized Asian religions entering American culture, it also presented science as a potential utopian tool. Science is depicted as a tool rather than an end-in-itself, while the liberatory and utopian visions of new religions serve as the motivation and reward of the alliance.
In 1953, the beat generation was still being turned on to Buddhism: Kerouac had yet to publish On The Road or The Dharma Bums and Ginsberg's Howl had yet to be written. The Dalai Lama was 18 and Chogyam Trungpa was 17 years from America's shores. DT Suzuki and Alan Watts were disseminating a certain kind of Zen Buddhism, and the imaginitive syncretism of American Buddhism was just taking shape. In 1953, the SF novelist Arthur C. Clarke released two pieces of fiction that captured his complex beliefs: Childhood's End and The Nine Billion Names of God. The Nine Billion Names of God (NBNG)is about a "lamasery" (a Tibetan monastery) that has acquired a computer that prints out all the permutations of a nine letter alphabet. This writing project was expected to take 15,000 years with monk labor, but now it will only take 100 days with a computer. A lama from the monastery contacts a skeptical engineer who produces the computer. At the monastery (which runs motorized prayers wheels), the engineer learns that once the project is complete "God's purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won't be any point in carrying on". An engineer asks if that would mean the end of the world, and the Lama replies "it's nothing as trivial as that". Thinking that the monks will be upset once the computer finishes and the world doesn't come to an end, the engineers sneak out of the monastery. On the way down the mountain they look up into the night sky where "without any fuss, the stars were going out". Clarke portrayed Buddhism as a religion that is after mysterious, yet logically accessible ends – we might not know what exactly "the end of the universe" entails, but (despite deep skepticism) such an end can be achieved. Clarke said that "Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use" ("Obituary"). It's difficult to know Clarke's knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism; the idea of a "god" in Tibetan Buddhism is clearly inaccurate. However, the Bhadrakalpikasūtra found in the Kangyur (the Tibetan collection of the Buddha's words) does contain a list of 1002 Buddha names. In NBNG Clarke made technology a tool of Buddhism, while simultaneously mocking the attitudes of the arrogant engineers. To Clarke, science is an expedient method of progress but not the goal of such progress. Science ultimately leads to an end beyond itself. This short story was extremely well-received, in 1970 it was cited as one of the best SF short stories published before the Nebula awards. And in 2004, it won a retrospective Hugo award.
Clarke's Nine Billion Names of God sees science as a tool but not the goal of religion – it portrays religious eschatology as not contrary to science but beyond it. As Buddhism started it's dialogue with science in the second half of the 20th century, it fell into Clarke's framework: science offered descriptive analysis, while Buddhism offered prescriptive practices. Science as terminal goal was again criticized by Clarke in Childhood's End. Childhood's End is considered one of Clarke's best novels by readers and critics, and it was also one of Clarke's favorites. Just like The Nine Billion Names of God, it calls into question whether Clarke was truly a scientific rationalist – Gary Wolfe said Childhood's End was the "benchmark of Clarke's paradoxical dual identity as rationalist and mystic" ("Grand Tour").In Childhood's End the human race is ushered towards their true evolutionary potential by technologically advanced aliens. However, although technology ensures peace and stability, the evolutionary progress of humans is non-scientific. In fact, the hyper-advanced aliens are incapable of reaching such evolutionary heights: "despite all their powers and their brilliance, the Overlords were trapped in some evolutionary cul-de-sac". The Overlords are tools of the cosmic Overmind, chosen to be guardians of other races due to their great scientific power. But they themselves are described as "barren" and incapable of understanding the "things beyond logic".
Clarke was firmly opposed to traditional religion, but the mysterious was always alluring to him. Clarke's fascination with the mysterious softened the boundaries of religion, making religious questions part of the great quest to understand, and when understanding failed, to stand in awe. Interviewers found Clarks both hostile and conciliatory towards religion – however, in both NBNG and Childhood's End Clarke does not consider himself to be discussing religion (and did not consider Buddhism to be a religion either). Arthur C Clarke stands as an archetype of that era, a lover of science and the mysteries of religion; scientific Buddhism stands as a realization of this ideal.
If Clarke posited the relationship of science to the mysterious as that between a vehicle and a destination, then the 1960's dressed up Buddhism as a likely candidate to instantiate this vision. It wasn't the only candidate though, pop-icons like Timothy Leary promoted psychedelics as another vehicle to achieve mystical ends. Leary though of psychedelics as a new form of science. In 1964, Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass) wrote The Psychedelic Experience which was loosely based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The book was an attempted trip-guide, a way to channel the psychedelic experience along a spiritual pathway. The appeal of the book lay in its appropriation of two new spiritual-technologies, Buddhism and psychedelics, with the blessing of modern science. In the introduction to the book, they say that psychedelics are merely a "chemical key – it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures" (3). The authors say that any psychology must be able to incorporate modern science into a new picture of the human – according to the authors "eastern philosophic theories dating back four thousand years adapt readily to the most recent discoveries of nuclear physics, biochemistry, genetics, and astronomy" (10). Leary's Buddhism can be read as a form of science – it utilizes modern scientific devices (psychedelics) in order to generate a revelation that is mediated through culture but is not simply a cultural artifact. Describing wrathful visions, the authors wrote, "Instead of many-headed fierce mythological demons, [Westerners] are more likely to be engulfed and ground by impersonal machinery, manipulated by scientific, torturing control-devices and other space-fiction horrors" (54). The Psychedelic Experience stands as an applied SF story, where a person lives out tropes of "space-fiction" while in the pursuit of spiritual insight, collapsing the distinction between science and religion. The Psychedelic Experience serves as an index of the associated connotations of Buddhism: scientific, spiritual, philosophical, mystical, and free from dogma. Psychedelics and Buddhism are still discussed in the same breath, often parsed as "sciences of the mind" or ways of exploring the inner world. Pop-culture was placing the idea of individual spirituality firmly within the depth of human experience. As Charles Taylor writes:
the depths which were previously located in the cosmos, the enchanted world, are now more readily placed within. Where earlier people spoke of possession by evil spirits, we think of mental illness… we all find this move very natural and convincing, whatever we think of [Freud's] detailed theories. (Taylor, 540)
Buddhism, psychedelics, and religious narrative are seen as "psychotechnologies" that allow for the exploration of inner space. Buddhism and psychedelics are now subjects of modern scientific inquiry – researchers are interested in how they work and potential applications. For others, they have become methods of self-exploration – two technologies for accessing inner space.
1967 saw the summer of love and the publication of the Hugo winning novel Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. Resistance to the Vietnam War and dissatisfaction with the status quo was reflected in the pop-culture of the time. Buddhism was gaining more exposure, and thanks to people like Leary and Alpert, Asian religions featured heavily in the countercultural zeitgeist. Zelazney's novel is a reimagining of Indian mythology, involving both Hindu deities and a Buddha-like figure named Mahasamatman (or Sam). A group of humans using advanced technology made themselves gods from the Hindu pantheon. They keep the technological origins of their power hidden so they are believed to be supernatural. Reincarnation, karma, heaven, and godly power are enabled by this technology and are used to enforce obeisance to the "gods".The leader of the resistance, Sam, has the knowledge that the gods are just men with superior technology and not supernatural entities. Sam is not merely a religious figure, although he becomes one when it suits him. He is a tactician, military general, or whatever character is required in order to achieve the "fall of heaven". This pragmatism and revolutionary attitude is supposed to parallel the Buddha's. In the novel, the orthodox religion of Hinduism with it's castes and systemic inequalities is challenged by Sam's unorthodox Buddhist-like movement. Dogmatic religiosity is eventually overcome with the aid of scientific technology coupled with the Buddhist-like religion.
Two quotes are relevant here: Arthur C. Clarke's law that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and William Gibson's quote "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed". These two quotes form the premise of social stratification in Lord of Light: the most technologically advanced become "magical" gods, while the technologically destitute become their subjects. The "gods" maintain the unequal distribution of technology by hampering scientific innovation and discovery among the population. A seizing of the technological means of production while questioning the dogma of the established religion produces a revolution. That which cooperates with technological progress is seen to be on the side of freedom and truth. In the novel, Zelazny paints Sam's Buddhist-like religion as eminently practical and therefore a challenge to established orthodoxy and dogma – this religion also promotes the spread of technology and science among the "unenlightened" masses.
What Zelazney is doing is pairing a rebellious Buddhism with a rebellious science – a union of revolutionary knowledge. Buddhism destroys the dominant ideology, while science distributes power to those who were previously impoverished. The historical idea that Buddhism was subversive to the Hindu establishment has been brought to the future. In some ways, we're currently living in that time – authors like David Loy have been publishing essays about the social theory of Buddhism since the 90's.
All this to say, SF might just be correlated with cultural trends, reflecting the milieu in which it is embedded. It is difficult to discern the extent to which SF causally produced or contributed to cultural trends. Of course, it is difficult to disentangle causation from correlation, but looking back at the time period, SF literature serves up a prescient vision that has become a substantial research agenda and popular way of understanding Buddhism in the modern world. In the 50's and 60's, one of the best places to find a dialogue between Buddhism and science was in the pages of an SF story. Not all SF writing was interested in consilience, but it's remarkable that some of the most enduring works from that time present a very hopeful and constructive outlook. The Mind and Life Institute is one example of modern consilience, or the popularity of books such as Waking Up: Spirituality Without Religion by the atheist Sam Harris. Three relationships were reviewed in this essay: science as tool of Buddhist mysticism, Buddhism as science of the mind, and Buddhism as allied with a rebellious science. It is fascinating to see how these views reflected and modified popular ideas in the milieu of the 50's and 60's. It is also fascinating to chart the accurate predictions that SF authors of the past have made, such as the internet (William Gibson) and satellite broadcasting (Arthur C. Clarke). Currently, we can see authors like Ted Chiang and Hannu Rajaniemi doing similar things with religion – making predictions about how religion relates to a radically accelerating technoculture. The circumference of our knowledge becomes the edge of our mystery, so let's hope that this dual-aspect of culture and scientific production continues unabated.
Clarke, Arthur. Childhood's End. Gollancz, 2001. eBook.
Clarke, Arthur C. The Nine Billion Names of God. Ballantine Books, 1953. Online. https://urbigenous.net/library/nine_billion_names_of_god.html. Accessed 19 Sep 2018.
Delaney, Samuel. Starboard Wine. Wesleyan University Press, 2012.
Gyato, Tenzin. The Universe in a Single Atom. Random House, 2005.
Leary, Timothy. The Psychedelic Experience. Citadel Press, 1992.
"Sir Arthur C. Clarke: The Time's Obituary." The Times, 19 March 2008. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/sir-arthur-c-clarke-the-times-obituary-38csw6qlkks. Accessed 19 Sep 2018.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Harvard University Press, 2007.
Wolfe, Gary K. How Great Science Fiction Works: Course Guidebook. The Great Courses, 2016.
Wolfe, Gary K. "The Grand Tours of Arthur C. Clarke". The New York Times, 9 March 1997. https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/03/09/reviews/clarke-tours.html. Accessed 19 Sep 2018.
Zelazny, Roger. Lord of Light. Gollancz, 1999. eBook.