The unreality of reality: looking for a metaphysical basis for fantastical SF in the Buddhist canon.

Updated: Mar 11

Artwork produced for Sublime Cognition by Sing Yun Lee and Morris Wild

The following is a paper I gave at the Sublime Cognition: Science Fiction and Metaphysics conference at Birkbeck, University of London, in September 2018. Sublime Cognition was the 2018 theme for a conference that is hosted yearly by the London Science Fiction Research Community. You can find out more about future conferences and the monthly reading group at their FB page.

Throughout this paper I’ll be drawing especially on three primary texts: namely, a first century Mahayana Buddhist text titled the Avatamsaka Sutra; a short story by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges titled Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius; and the Viriconium sequence of novels and stories written by the English author M. John Harrison.

The central thesis of my paper is that contained within the Buddhist tradition there is a profound and radical cosmology that challenges our firmly held notions about the universe, and that furthermore, by drawing on this body of knowledge, SF could liberate itself from a prevailing materialist viewpoint. At the very least, I argue that a conversation between these two traditions could open up new and exciting avenues of exploration.

Buddhism traditionally teaches that there are two philosophical extremes that we tend to fall into, sometimes translated as materialism and nihilism. These are conceptual fabrications or overlays that obscure a direct apprehension of reality. Materialism in this case refers specifically to the belief that things exist, and nihilism to the belief that things do not exist. In the King of Samadhi Sutra the Buddha said “The wise should not dwell in the middle (between these two views) either”.

Our own cultural milieu is dominated by the view of materialism - the imputation that things and the universe exist inherently. Although this is actually not in accord with many scientific points of view, found for example in theoretical physics or quantum mechanics, it has become a common social assumption that underlying reality there is something solid, immutable and real.

Ursula K Le Guin invites us in the introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness to see science fiction as a thought experiment. She says: “Let's say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let's say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let's say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…”

Like many thought experiments, those that we find in science fiction are based on certain presuppositions about the way our universe is structured. Most science fiction thought experiments, and, as a result, the majority of science fiction sub-genres, rest heavily on the prevailing view that things contain a fundamental materiality. From a Buddhist perspective this presupposition is inaccurate. And, by holding such views unquestioningly, science fiction propagates a mistruth about the way things are, that is potentially harmful.

Please be careful here that I am not advocating that SF should instead be built upon a nihilistic ontology, where nothing exists. This is a crucial point. A materialist outlook can flip with remarkable ease into a nihilistic view. This happens as soon as a glimpse of the lack of solidity of things hardens over into a conceptual position and is known in Buddhism as the poison of shunyata. In general, there are fewer examples of SF that take as a presupposition the nihilistic belief that ultimately things do not exist.

Therefore a question that intrigues me is if it’s possible to make science fiction thought experiments or stories that do not take either materialism or nihilism as a foundation, but explore instead a groundless ground that is free from conceptual extremes? Is it possible to create SF with a core metaphysics that differs significantly from our own culturally held assumptions about the way things are?

Buddhism has an exceptional array of nuanced terms to describe and indicate reality. One term that is critical to an understanding of the Avatamsaka Sutra, and indeed to the wider canon of Mahayana literature in general, is Dharmadhatu. The English Buddhist scholar and yogin Rigdzin Shikpo says:

“The Mahayana sutras do not always refer to the Dharmadhatu or Primordial Ground directly. Yet they always take its two fundamental aspects as given. That is they always present its two fundamental aspects of emptiness and of the display. The display aspect is the vastness, vividness, awe, wonder, splendour, complexity and so on that fill the sutras and leave you wondering what they are all about. The emptiness aspect is the ungraspableness of all this.”

The Avatamsaka Sutra is a text that has been described as "the most grandiose, the most comprehensive, and the most beautifully arrayed of the Buddhist scriptures" (Cleary). Divided into 39 books, the English translation by Thomas Cleary is over 1600 pages long. Here I want to briefly catalogue some of the key themes that we find contained therein.

It presents a cosmos that is unbelievably large. The Avatamsaka unfolds the most extensive and vast description of cosmology, definitely that we can find in the Buddhist canon, and probably in any literature, scientific or otherwise. The sutra describes in detail endless oceans of universes, and each of these oceans of universes, contains within it endless oceans of universes. In each atom in each universe are contained further endless oceans of universes. What’s more - and this is essential to an understanding of the Avatamsaka - this infinite array of worlds or universes interpenetrate: it is possible to contain all universes in one atom, without shrinking the worlds or expanding the atom. Every atom in all worlds, like this, also contains all worlds.

It presents a cosmos that is inextricably linked to mind. The entirety of the oceans of worlds are said to rest on the alaya. The alaya is the energetic, fundamental ground which develops into the alaya-vijnana, a kind of repository consciousness in which all experiential impressions are stored. From these impressions the images of the worlds develop. Furthermore, the Avatamsaka tells us, the various physical qualities of the universe itself, such as mountains and so forth, are themselves symbolic representations of various qualities of mind.

It presents a cosmos that is infinitely varied. Describing universes of every possible size and shape, the Avatamsaka explains that this infinite variety is the result of the infinite variety of beings’ aspirations and actions. This endless array of worlds are created by mind and have developed into every conceivable possibility.

It presents a cosmos where everything is part of the process of enlightenment. In the Avatamsaka, Buddha is reality. In Cleary’s words: “Buddhahood is described as both physically and metaphysically coextensive with the cosmos itself.” Nevertheless, beings experience Buddha differently depending on their perceptive capabilities, and because of this, an infinite variety of, sometimes seemingly contradictory, teachings are presented to beings according to their specific needs. Despite the infinite variety of beings and of worlds, the basic process of waking up - of beings becoming Buddhas - is happening continually in all worlds. This always follows a particular pattern with similar structures and parallel events in every world. And finally, all of this is possible because beings are already Buddhas.

It presents a cosmos that is beyond time. Cleary explains that: Attainment of buddhahood in the present means equality with all Buddhas of past, present, and future: consequently there is no past, present, or future - no time.” And he notes, “In this it differs from the Prajnaparamita Scriptures, in which formation and disintegration take place at separate times and thus cause and effect are successive.”

It presents a cosmos that is empty of even a shred of materiality. All of the above points relate especially to the display aspect of the Dharmadhatu. In the Avatamsaka, it is the tenth book that deals most explicitly with the emptiness aspect. The seeming existence of things is shown to be a conceptual imputation. The whole vast, vivid, awe-inspiring, unimaginably complex display, is completely empty of any inherent materiality.

Two narratives from the wider SF canon that I do think deal especially well with this sense of an empty but apparent reality are Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius and Viroconium. Both of these present worlds that are explored on their own terms from within, and also through the lens of our world.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the short story by Borges, chronicles the discovery of an elusive encyclopedia entry about a non-existent country Uqbar, and the later discovery of a secret cabal, that has crossed centuries, in order to co-invent a whole world - Tlon - in meticulous detail.

After carefully constructing these successive revelations, Borges’ narrator, with typical modesty, then continues: “But I might be so bold as to beg a few moments to outline its conception of the universe.” The detailed metaphysical descriptions that follow reveal Tlon to be closely aligned to the idealism of the philosopher Bishop George Berkeley: objects are dependent on mind. “The nations of that planet,” he says, “are, congenitally, idealistic. Their language, and those things derived from their language - religion, literature, metaphysics - presuppose idealism. For the people of Tlon, the world is not an amalgam of objects in space: it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts - the world is successive, temporal, but not spatial.”” And later: "“It is no exaggeration to say that the classical culture of Tlon is composed of a single discipline - psychology - to which all others are subordinate. I have said that the people of that planet conceive of the universe as a series of mental processes that occur not in space but rather successively, in time.”

This seems to be a point of divergence between Tlonian reality and the exposition of the Dharmadhatu in the Avatamsaka. It’s possible - depending on how generously you are willing to read each text - that they are in concordance regarding their explication of space, but they definitely differ in their conception of time. Borges’ narrator does however admit the possibility of something more temporally insubstantial saying: “One of the schools of philosophy on Tlon goes so far as to deny the existence of time”.

A page or so later, the narrator then makes this surprising statement: “Century upon century of idealism could hardly have failed to influence reality.” And later, expanding on this: “Things duplicate themselves on Tlon; they also tend to grow vague or 'sketchy,' and to lose detail when they begin to be forgotten. The classic example is the doorway that continued to exist so long as a certain beggar frequented it, but which was lost to sight when he died. Sometimes, a few birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheatre.”

In the postscript that accompanies Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, allegedly written seven years after the stories’ main events, we learn in a final twist that there have been two instances in which Tlonian objects have appeared in our world. In the second of these, one night a man collapses outside the narrator’s room: “In his delirium several coins had slipped from his wide gaucho belt, as had a gleaming metal cone about a die’s width in diameter. A little boy tried to pick the cone shaped object up, but in vain; a full grown man could hardly do it…”

I turn now to Viriconium, where it is a tree, among other things, and not a 'gleaming metal cone’ that oddly overlaps from one world into another. To try to give a summation of the Viroconium series is almost as impossible a task as surmising the Avatamsaka. What continues to impress me so deeply in M. John Harrison’s work is the ruthless interrogation of form from one book to the next, making it a series completely unlike anything else I know of. Harrison has said that the books can be read in any order but that the short story A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium should always come at the end.

This story, similar to Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, and in contrast to the whole rest of the Viriconium cycle, takes place in our world. It revolves around the friendship between the narrator and their elderly neighbour Mr Ambrayses, who it transpires has probably been to Viriconium, and returned, through a mirror in the lavatory of a restaurant in Huddersfield. Similar to Borges’ elliptical prose, there is a juxtaposition of everyday minutiae with tiny glimpses of the fantastical. The narrator tells us:

“On a steep bank near my house was a domestic apple tree which had long ago peacefully reverted amid the oaks and eldar. When I first drew his attention to it Mr. Ambrayses said, “That tree has no name in botany. It has not flowered in ten years.” The next autumn, when the warm light slanted down through the drifting willow-herb silk, hundreds of small hard reddish fruits fell from it into the bracken; in spring it bore so much blossom my neighbours called it “the white tree.”

“It bears no flowers in Viriconium,” said Mr. Ambrayses. “There, it stands in a courtyard off the Plaza of Realised Time, like the perfect replica of a tree. If you look back through the archway you see clean wide pavements, little shops, white painted tubs of geraniums in the sunlight.”

In the second book of the Viriconium sequence, titled A Storm of Wings. Harrison tells us that: “The material universe it would appear has little absolute substance. It hardly exists. It is a rag of matter, a wisp of gas, a memory of some former state. Each sentient species perceives the thin evidence of this state in a different way, generating out of this perception its physical and metaphysical Umwelt: it’s little bubble or envelope of ‘reality.’”

The title A Storm of Wings, refers to the swarm of insect-like creatures who, travelling through space, have unwittingly met with the world of Viriconium, bringing with them their own Umwelt replete with metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. Throughout the course of the book, the reality of the insects collides with that of Viriconium. Harrison recounts:

“In the grip of this perceptual stalemate the very substance of the planet had begun to fade, stretch, and tear, like an old net curtain at a window in the Boulevard Aussman. If it continued, the conflict between Man and Insect would become nothing more than a jumble of shadowy events pivoting round a decaying point in space and Time.” (Incidentally, at least in my copy of the text, space isn't capitalised here, but time is). Harrison continues, “In areas of major confrontation, matter, in its attempt to accommodate both ‘realities,’ was already distorting, drifting into new forms and miscegenations. New ranges of mountains had appeared in the North; coastlines had taken on new forms...”

The metaphysical buckling that happens when these two realities collide I hope provides us with an apt metaphor for the crashing together of Buddhist cosmology and ontology with the canon of SF. Perhaps Viriconium, and Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius offer us the first hazy broadcasts back from a world to which such a meeting might lead.

The Avatamsaka Sutra is a text that could be, and indeed is by some, studied for decades. Although I have done it a great disservice here to represent it in such a hasty way, I hope this brief description of Buddhist cosmology could provide inspiration for further study. I would like to see more SF that draws on this great heritage; crucially SF that is not merely a rehash of the colourful outer trappings of Buddhism but a deep and authentic engagement with the more profound truths that are contained therein. It is my proposal that freeing ourselves from both a materialist framework and a nihilist framework could allow SF writers more freedom of imagination and beget possibilities as yet undreamt.