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Mindfulness and enjoyment are spiritual prerogatives

“Modern Japan simply was cyberpunk. The Japanese themselves knew it and delighted in it. I remember my first glimpse of Shibuya, when one of the young Tokyo journalists who had taken me there, his face drenched with the light of a thousand media-suns – all that towering, animated crawl of commercial information – said, ‘You see? You see? It is Blade Runner town.’ And it was. It so evidently was.”

– William Gibson, The Future Perfect: How Did Japan Become the Favored Default Setting for So Many Cyberpunk Writers?, Time International, 30 April 2001, 48.

Shanghai is an aesthetic paradise for cyberpunk writers. Soon, other Asian megacities like Hong Kong and Singapore will join it on a growing list of urban hubs that inspire science fiction authors. Here are cities of glimmering, commercial spires that consciously appear as a faceless world of borderless technology. But rather than cyberpunk proper, Hong Kong may be what literary commentators call “post-cyberpunk” – science fiction set in a world of omnipresent computers and artificial intelligence, but without assumed social collapse or decay.

Unlike the post-industrial dystopias of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and other proponents of cyberpunk like William Gibson or Bruce Sterling, people in Shanghai and Hong Kong (for all their social and economic problems) are optimistic about the future and love their cities. Hong Kongers love nothing more than to complain about loneliness, anxiety, and alienation, yet we ravenously devour the technology that serves precisely to facilitate these negative emotions and subject us to 24/7 surveillance: social media, our IPhones, 4G networks, hyperconnectivity. It is also difficult to call Hong Kong a “lawless” city – one defining trait of cyberpunk fiction. It has therefore progressed far beyond the “high-tech, low-life” dichotomy that once framed the literature. We are addicted to and relish the post-cyberpunk lifestyle.

This is not to say that everything happening in Hong Kong is a good thing. And the dystopists had a point about technological advancement causing social breakdown or even war. Even without such a scenario, we may well be headed toward technological augmentation on the outside, accompanied by an inner decay of the human. But since no artificial intelligence has passed the Turing Test* yet, perhaps the true dystopia is still within the heart of homo sapiens. Perhaps we should still find ways to enjoy the post-cyberpunk world without becoming slaves to it.

Living in the present moment and living life to the full are basic components of the Buddhist way of life. What conventional wisdom holds to be a secular monopoly of Epicurean thought is a perfectly legitimate virtue for Buddhist laypeople and monastics (laypeople just get to enjoy a wider range of pleasures). If enjoying the present moment is a prerogative of Buddhist living, then this mindful enjoyment should be followed by civic engagement, out of love for one’s community and society. Few notice, but this is actually one of Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s central themes in his many books. His teachings on eating a simple apple are a case in point. Human attention can really be undivided, allowing us to actively contemplate the apple through our five senses. Even the process of chewing – an obligatory and mechanical process – can be infused with Buddhist mindfulness and enjoyment (Thich Nhat Hanh and Lillian Cheung, Savor, 39 – 41). Unlike any other being, we are able to meditate on an apple and on any other object we wish.

Buddhism is about detachment and impartiality. It plays the cyberpunk hero who challenges the Machine and holds the faceless, cold Corporation to account. But because of our calling to mindfulness, we are also called to enjoy moments of warmth, light, and inspiration. As Masamune Shirow’s acclaimed Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex has proved, a post-cyberpunk world is not devoid of human meaning and warmth. At the climax of the series’ second season, half-cyborg Major Kusanagi shares an apple with another cyborg, Hideo Kuze, a moment of human taste no supercomputer can process.

In many ways, we are already living lives that define “post-cyberpunk”. Buddhists still need to challenge the “superstition, cruelty, and abuses of power” while remaining grounded in “humanism, responsibility, compassion, and loving kindness” (Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have, 5). But perhaps Buddhists also would benefit from savoring that very human taste of an apple. Because to enjoy that simple apple – to meditate on it – is a mark of our humanity.

* Devised by Alan Turing, the test posits whether or not you can have a conversation with an artificial machine in such a way that you wouldn’t know it was an artificial machine – such as “what was your happiest memory?” 

Shanghai skyline. From
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. From My Soul on Ice.
The futuristic Hong Kong skyline. From
Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on mindfulness and genuine, spiritual enjoyment, Savor.

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