Modern Koans

At our house, there are always more tasks in the task-cloud than we can possibly complete each day. We try to find the most efficacious, least stressful order of things—known as the critical path in project-management language. Inevitably, priorities change, course corrections are required, and emotions can run high.

We’ve learned that chunking large tasks helps. This way, we can at least go to sleep knowing we accomplished one or more steps of what was touted as a “simple task,” but which turned out to have seven or eight preliminary phase gates that were devilishly complicated to get through.

We try not to let perfection be the enemy of the good. I admit that I am very happy to receive adulation for the 80 per cent of a day’s tasks that were completed, but bristle when reminded of the 20 per cent that I forgot or, in my own mind, decided were lower priority, only to be brought up short by my partner on that score. Then there are those days when everything goes sideways and any plans are shelved.

When friends and family ask, “How are ya these days?” I am likely to tell them my metaphor of the graphite planes. You may be familiar with the molecular composition of pencil graphite? Carbon rings are composed of six atoms tightly bound in two dimensions, floating beside other rings above and below. the low coefficient of friction between the planes allows us to leave our mark. Similarly, our consciousness floats from one plane to another as we experience different aspects of our being: mystic, officiant, parent, worker, computer operator, body, and so on. Sometimes, a traumatic event can leave us trapped in one of those dimensions, unable to access the others. Sometimes that trauma can be so extreme that the bonds are completely broken and we become schizophrenic. But mostly we muddle through. This is a koan of our era but, alas, no amount of circumambulation or prostrations can extricate us.

Naturally, some form of meditative equipoise and reflection reveals the inner workings of where and how we become pinned.

Life these days in our middle-class Canadian society is incredibly complicated. Want to access your medical records? There’s a portal for that, and it’s a perfect example of how a simple request leads down a rabbit hole that many digital immigrants of my generation are unable to follow cognitively, without a lot of wobble and stress. But you get the idea; you can apply the same script to seeking a refund for something you bought online or to monitoring your credit score or. . . .

It takes a lot of infrastructure to make all this work. Kick out even one of the innumerable supports and any one of us could fall through the hole in the social safety net when our stool tips over. One need look no further than the nightly news to see what that looks like.

It is true that I have a bad feeling about humanity’s future and there are so many voices all around me reinforcing that message without offering any alternative lenses.

On a deeper level, my critical path through that cloud of possible future scenarios is not just meditative equipoise and reflection, but a creative, positive imagining of the “best of all possible worlds”—the Pure Land. I am familiar with the way Voltaire used that phrase in his satire, Candide. Unintended consequences come, part and parcel, with aspirations. Nevertheless, a still flame does not flicker.

* * * *

I recently had the experience of walking through Toronto’s flagship shopping mall looking for a small clock to give as a gift. There were at least 10 stores selling high-end watches—the kind of stores with fearsome security guards at their doors. The double irony is that almost everyone has a mobile phone and a smart watch so nobody really needs a watch like those stores sell, and, conversely, most of us could never afford to make such a purchase. So really those stores are telling us that we are unworthy but that we should aspire to be able to buy such useless items simply as status symbols. The underlying message seems to be that we are not allowed to be happy.

By the way, the only place I found a clock was in a bookstore that had abandoned selling books in large measure and turned their retail space over to items with higher markups. The two home-furnishing stores didn’t carry clocks. After all, who needs a clock with all our digital devices close at hand? Most of the other stores in this mall were international designer labels or fast-food kiosks selling carbs and sugar to keep you pumped while ogling your betters.

It was exhausting. If I never walk through a mall like that again in my lifetime, that’s fine with me. It showed me how far from society’s expectations of me I have traveled as a Buddhist practitioner. The life on offer at the mall is unappealing, unsustainable, and toxic.

As I pushed a wheelchair down polished floors past throngs of stylish shoppers posing for selfies or winding through endless cosmetics departments, I couldn’t help but wonder how to reconcile this life with the suffering being experienced in other countries right now. I can’t. The carbon ring plane in which I exist is so radically different from their lived experience that I can’t imagine anything beyond a generalized sense of misery, just as I can’t imagine the dimension that appeals to the denizens of the mall who aspire to the deva realm.

They will all be drawn by different lights in the bardo. I prefer to dance in the mandala.

* * *

A university professor friend tells me he is being inundated by his students with ChatGPT essays. Already! He says, “I am drowning in ChatGPT-related work here; I have three meetings with students just this morning to discuss their AI-generated papers, and more scheduled for later in the week.” He estimates an additional 40 hours to assess and evaluate the 3,500+ assignments that his employers expect him to mark. What human could mark 3,500 assignments in the first place? He thinks the craft of writing will go the way of cursive writing. Time for a re-think.

When I started this Bodhisattva 4.0 column more than two years ago, it was based on the premise that we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution, this one involving AI. Well, here is a perfect example. The future is entirely unlike the past and teaching young people to reach the status quo rather than navigate the society of tomorrow is fundamentally flawed. We need to be teaching with and about Strategic Foresight.

* * *

Many institutions are struggling to fulfil their newly discovered need to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in their mission statements. Their efforts are laudatory. But if they get stuck in that dimension without addressing other dimensions, they will lurch forward into the future creating further unintended consequences in positive feedback loops. Like everything else in our modern world of drop-down menus and ticky boxes, organizational change lies among the dark matter of the universe. We need an entirely different lens to see it, and to do that we need to lift our eyes from computer screens and the jewelry store windows.

Like every other koan, these are unanswerable questions that demand to be answered. Bring me the rhinoceros fan.

You can’t have positive societal change without positive values change. And that’s where the bodhisattvas come in.

Related features from BDG

Supply and Demand: How Are We to Do More with Less?
Nurturing the Roots of the Thai Forest Lineage in Britain: A Short Conversation with Ajahn Sucitto
Meditation Over a Kitten: Transcendence from Where We Are
Enlightening the Web: Buddhism in Cyberspace
A Buddhist View on Capitalism and Consumerism

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