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Space Unicorns: What Enlightenment, and Zen, Is Not.

Last month I promised a lighter topic and space unicorns.

Taoism has an Epic Fail Moment

The surviving texts of Taoism are mainly profound and achingly beautiful poetry, so what’s not to like about that? If I do have a gripe it’s that (in my humble opinion and all its tongue-twisting finery) it’s inaccessible and exclusionary to most people exactly in the way it claims the path of knowing (called “the Way”), and its own message, is not.


Today you get people charging a fortune for everyday folk to discover real-deal enlightenment. Clearly having an enlightenment industry of any kind is an oxymoron. But, in my view sometimes at least, Taoist writing does the same thing. What I mean is – literary tricking and toying and tongue-poking is great for parlour games and rich kids. How cultured. How refined. For me it’s a bit of a religious fail because it constantly toys and eludes. Where’s the plain talking?

Then there’s Buddhism.

In an early sutta*, Buddha allegedly says the ten benefits of mindfulness include sitting cross-legged and flying through the air like a bird.

Yep. On top of that, in some countries, it looks like Buddha statues get worshipped as though he’s God. If that’s what all those people are up to in the online videos (that’s a big “if” because how do I know) then, in my not-so-humble Western view, I think it’s the complete reverse of his teaching. Or can be. One of his key points was that anyone can be enlightened just like him – so all that prayer and prostrating at a statue is (to a Zennite like me) at least a dangerous distraction if not another epic religious fail. (Don’t give me the excuses. To me – it is!)

Then there’s “Spirituality”

I suspect that’s partly why in the West (along with the epic religious fails we’re more familiar with in our own culture) we have an anti-religious and so-called new-age generic “spirituality”. But that can sometimes be even worse. For example, how about the “bubble”?

The bubble’s the one where, if I surround myself with positive people and keep meditating, my enlightenment can shield me from harm like a personal spaceship forcefield the next time I’m on Cornmarket Street and a homeless man wanting food looks threatening to me.

That’s yet more fail.

Enlightenment, even in Buddha’s view, is more like walking down Cornmarket Street in the rain with a chav hollering abuse, a drug addict pulling at your ankle, and a Brextremist politician giving you a smile, and still seeing Buddha nature in everyone thus holding back that punch. What it really isn’t is middle-class feng shui editing of my mental friend list so that I retain my priceless happiness and calm.

But – to make this fair – what about me?

A persistent error of my own is to think my life must lead to something. If it does I’m on Wikipedia’s wall of fame like a modern Gandhi, or perhaps even elevated as some sort of spiritual version of Marvel comics’ “Starlord”. Hooray for Ego [sic.].

What About the Space Unicorns?

They’re horny horses prancing their light-hoofed way from star to star, rainbows emanating from their back ends, as they flick their manes – whinnying through the spacetime vortex – seeing only their own sparkling brilliance.

They don’t exist, but (with our need for validation so exercised these days) we’d love to give them a ride if they actually did.

Unicorns are supposed to be pure hearted. They’re also garishly coloured – and won’t go away if you ask. Since they’re also not real, they sum up for me what happens when human awakening goes wrong.

Zen tries to dodge these bullets claiming sometimes to be not a religion and instead distill the best bits of the Tao and the Buddha while leaving those space unicorns up to others.

But that’s what all religions claim in their different ways – and I’m sure I’m not the only one in this room who’s seen how this claim, in the Zen dojo, can also be proven to be a sparkling space horse: a self-interested and stubborn crazy fiction.

But That’s Why Zen Is Just Zen

If Zen has a saving grace, for me it’s that Master Dōgen was at pains to point out that Zen is just Zazen, and Zazen is just simply sitting (albeit with a few specifics). So when troublesome unicorns arise – regardless of ownership – simply sitting I just watch them
and smile
and wake up.

*Anapanasati Sutta: Ten Benefits (mainly #5)

Also see Dhammapada 19 for a different example.

Then note: Dhammapada 14 – spiritual materialism is just as useless as materialism.

First delivered for Tumblesouth Zen Group, November 2018.