Erik Davis' Figments


Lance Daybreak's Digital Dharma

Standing at the door of his crumbling shack, Lance Daybreak looked kind of like I'd expected him to look, which was something of a disappointment. Long blondish-brown hair, bushy beard, drawstring pants, bare feet. He wore a rave T-shirt emblazoned with an Alien Workshop design, and a Star Trek medallion dangled around his neck. I don't know where you live, dear reader, but out here in the goofball crucible of California (or Kali-fornica, as the Chaos magicians say), techno-hippies like this are a familiar breed.

"Daybreak?" I asked, as he beamed and nodded. His eyes crinkled as he smiled, and he led me inside his shack. Except for a matte-black octopus of communications technology that invaded one room, the place was spare and earthy.

Though I didn't quite believe it, the man before me was the author of a bizarre manuscript that a Tibetan monk had slipped me while I was in India researching a story for Wired magazine.[1] The manuscript described the machinic mysticism of a nomadic shamanic tribe called the ngHolos, and was of doubtful authenticity. I had assumed Daybreak was languishing in a Katmandu opium-video den, or existed only as the pseudonym of some hippy Carlos Castaneda.

But a few months ago, long and somewhat mystifying posts from a "" appeared on Buddha-L, an academic mailing list haunted by Sanskrit and Tibetan scholars and the occasional fruitcake. As we developed an email correspondence, Daybreak remained cagey about his past, but he had a great deal to say on postmodern Buddhism, the digital dharma and the virtual Tao.

Admiring his tech, I could see why. Arrayed in an otherwise spare cubbyhole was a SPARC station, a souped-up 486, a Silicon Graphics Reality Engine, a bulging array of monitors, an Akai S3000 sampler, and various unknown circuit boards wired together. His cabin was off the grid, and Daybreak sucked his electricity from solar cells and windmill. He communicated with the outside world solely through the net, which he accessed through a small satellite dish that I glimpsed through his study's grimy window, plopped beside the windmill like an alien mushroom.

Daybreak was currently working on a translation of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan Bon text called "Heart-Drops from the Great Space"[2], but his main project was constructing a three-dimensional Buddhist site for the World Wide Web. An early hacker of vrml, the virtual reality markup language that may boost the Web's two dimensions into three, Daybreak realized that vrml holds the seeds for true cyberspace. He wants his site to reconfigure Buddhism for the digital age, linking and breeding Shakyamuni's age-old memes: that ordinary life is angst, that clinging and desire produce this suffering, that no fixed self exists, and that the microscope of meditation opens up a path to compassion and freedom that paradoxically does not escape from ordinary life. But Daybreak wants the very structure of his dataspace to express the dharma, so that its luminescent architecture and interpenetrating hyperspaces model the world discovered in deepest samadhi. He calls his site the Indranet.

"The net of Indra is a philosophical metaphor used by the Hua-yen school of Chinese Buddhism," he explained, handing me a piping hot mug of blackberry tea as I set up my Sony tape recorder. "The Hua-yen flourished around the 7th century during the T'ang dynasty. It's a remarkable school, perhaps the most synthetic and sophisticated of Chinese Buddhist philosophies. The Hua-yen masters were concerned with the old problem of the one and the many, and with the mutual identity and interpenetration of phenomenal reality. "Westerners tend to think that Eastern thought is all about seeing through the illusion of separation and merging with the One. To a degree that's true. But Buddhism, especially the Hua-yen school, also embraces the networked multiplicity of phenomena. Somewhat like Spinoza, they considered each individual aspect of the immanent world as thoroughly positive--from one perspective, each individual possesses a power of absolute activity that brings the whole network online. Of course, they had also absorbed Nagarjuna's radically negative dialectics, so that unlike most Western philosophers, they didn't believe in any abiding substance, God, or monads."

My eyes were glazing over. He paused. "Look. As Buddhists, they saw that everything was connected, but they didn't want to collapse that interconnected field into a gray and amorphous soup of pure unity. That's the Brahman move, the merging-with-the-one thing. Instead, the Hua-yen sages emphasized that every single thing both reflects and causes everything else in the universe. To demonstrate this to the Empress Wu, Fa-tsang showed her a room completely covered with mirrors. At the center of this room sat a statue of Buddha, whose image was reflected everywhere. The question is simple but profound: one or many Buddhas?"

Daybreak stopped talking, and seemed to expect a response. "Well," I said, "when I was a kid, I remember standing between two reflecting mirrors and thinking that I would have been able to see into infinity if I didn't have a head in the way."

"Are you so sure you have one?" he asked with a grin as he leapt up to grab a pile of books off his cheap plywood shelves. "Check out Tu Shun describing Indra's celestial Net, which is the great model for our interconnected universe. This is from around 600 AD. 'This imperial net is made all of jewels.' Each eye of the net is a jewel--you can think of them as nodes. 'Because the jewels are clear, they reflect each other's images, appearing in each other's reflections upon reflections, ad infinitum, all appearing at once in one jewel, and in each one it is so--ultimately there is no coming and going'[3]."

The image resonated through my synapses, it's obvious similarity to the Internet sending a shiver up my spine. For a moment, I felt the trace of that cosmic awe that used to overcome me as a child, when I'd lie awake at night and try to wrap my mind around the notion of infinity, repeating the mantra "the universe never ends" until my mind cracked and the void spilled in. Daybreak poured me more tea. "Pretty flipped out, huh?"

"What's that part about 'ultimately there is not coming and going'?"

"You've surfed the Web. All those pages you've seen, arising from servers across the globe--did you ever leave your terminal screen, the jewel you stare down like a crystal ball? For all your compulsive surfing, are you ever really coming or going?" He paused for just a moment before opening up the book again. "Tu Shun said, 'It is precisely by not leaving this one jewel that you can enter all the jewels. If you left this one jewel to enter all the jewels, you couldn't enter all the jewels. Why? Because outside this jewel there are no separate jewels...if you take away this jewel there will be no net.'"

Daybreak insisted that the Internet is not the Indranet. "That would be a stupid thing to say. Indra's net extends throughout the cosmos, through the countless planets and immense eons that Buddhists and Hindus recognized millennia before Westerners realized that the earth was not the center of the universe. But our world's humble digital net is the first technological expression of this magical metaphor, far more profound than Fa-tsang's funhouse mirrors. The Internet not only reflects the other jewels, but it reflects the structure of the linkages between jewels. That structure is a both a unity and a multiplicity. Chunks of information are different, but they are not separate, because they thoroughly penetrate one another in a space that is no-space, void. And each node or page reflects, at least virtually, everything else on the Web."

I was familiar with this kind of speculative cyberspace "netaphysics" from weird alt. groups and VR mailing lists, and I knew Daybreak was bullshitting with the best of them. I just sipped my tea and relaxed into the ride. Bullshit grows mushrooms, I reminded myself.

The man shook ten coins out of a small felt purse. "The Hua-yen philosophers used coins to demonstrate the mutual causality of phenomena. That's important. It's not just that everything is linked to everything else in a seamless web, but that everything, each dharma, causes everything else. That's what gives the world its productivity, it's constant blooming play. Each of these metal chunks here are coins--in that static sense, they are identical with one another. But let's look at the ten coins as a dynamic totality. Take this quarter. Could our particular totality of ten coins exist without the quarter?"


"So in that sense the Hua-yen sages said that, from one perspective, the quarter acts as the sole cause for this totality. It supports the whole, and every other coin in that whole. The same is true of the penny, the nickel, the dime; and each holistic relationship of cause and effect is happening simultaneously. Indra's net is formed from the superimposition and mutual penetration of countless totalities. When we cruise the Internet, whatever server we're checking out isn't just 'on' the Net--it is the Net, drawing the whole dizzying tapestry into being. In a network without a center, you are always the center."

* * *

After an hour or so, Daybreak went outside to do some gardening. I flipped through books like Lama Geshe's Echoes of Voidness and Guenther's Matrix of Mystery: Scientific and Humanistic Aspects of Dzogchen Thought but soon found myself picking through Daybreak's CD-ROMs. I was pleased and a bit surprised to discover Doom, and was soon sucked into the bloody flow of adrenaline, photon, and motor reflex. With total yogic absorption, I marched down a corpse-choked corridor, and was turning a corner when the polygon universe suddenly disappeared into thin electronic air. I was staring at a blank monitor.

"Where are you now, my friend?" Daybreak yelled from across the room, where he stood holding a remote control. "Where are you?"

Where indeed? Already, the luminous, empty divide between the Doom world and Daybreak's shack was fading. I noticed my tense neck and shoulders, my sore wrists, my lower back. I felt I had just awoken from one of those murky, demon-haunted dreams that lie on the hypnagogic edge of sleep.

I plopped back down on the couch. "You don't exactly strike me as a Doom fan."

"Au contraire. I love Doom--I was addicted for months!" He handed me a thick manuscript. "You know, the Bon text I'm translating is all about Chod, a shamanic practice that was incorporated into the Kagyupa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The aim of Chod is to cut away the ego by exposing yourself to demonic entities. Typically, a Chod practitioner goes to the charnel grounds at night. You invoke demons, offering up your body and mind as a tasty feast. But once you've generated these horrors, you are meant to perceive their ultimate emptiness, that the demons are without substance or self, that they are projections of your own unconscious processes."

"There's some connection here, right?"

"Doom is a digital hell-realm, enlivened with violence and fear and excitement. But it's empty. The trick is not to reject the demons, but to see that it's the habits of our minds that give form to the sea of pixels and binary code."

"But everyone knows that Doom isn't real. So what?"

"Look, on the one hand, virtuality shows the illusory and insubstantial nature of conventional constructions of reality. But on the other hand, we fool ourselves by thinking that it somehow sidesteps the ethical problem of reality: how do we interact with the illusions that connect and embody us? What about virtual warfare, and it's ties to the gaming industry? Does it matter if a kiddie-porn GIF is a scanned photo or a computer-generated image? As the semiotic surfaces of the physical world are translated online, this new dimension will take on the karmic density of the real world. When asking these questions about reality and fantasy, remember the existential paradox of the bodhisattva: though she's able to transcend this world and enter nirvana, she compassionately vows to stay in the illusions of samsara until all sentient beings are saved. But she directly perceives those beings as empty constructs lacking any ultimate reality.

"With our dualistic Western mindframe, we only get half the picture. We think that anything that happens in an imaginary space has no real consequence, just the way we popularly imagine that karma is like billiard balls--you stab someone and the universe will eventually stick the knife back into your gut. But the deeper meaning of karma is habit--your bodymind develop patterns of seeing and interacting with the world, and those imaginative patterns stick. Lusting after a cartoon is still lust. Karma is ultimately perceptual, a movement of the mind."

"Now you sound like those conservatives who want to restrict netporn," I said.

"No, you misunderstand me. I'm not talking about censorship or following a moral code based on the content of information. That's reified thinking. The Buddha encouraged people to experiment with the flux, not to follow rules. The last words he said before keeling over from a bad mushroom were 'Be a light unto yourselves.'

"I'm talking about something more subtle. Faced with the tabula rasa of a UNIX prompt or Netscape screen, where do you go? What does the net become before your eyes? What moves your mind? It's like the bardo state of Tibetan Buddhism, the in-between world of mental forms that your stream of consciousness enters when your physical body dies. Everything is unfolded there, all the perceptions and experiences of your consciousness. But unless you rest in the raw, radiant awareness of emptiness, the nightmarish and intoxicating forms around you will capture your attention, attracting or repulsing you, and these reactions set your rebirth in motion. That process doesn't just happen when you die--it's happening at every moment you carry your 'you' into the future. Attention is all--on the Net, in the bardo, in our hypermediated culture. Attention cuts the furrows and sows the seeds of your own becoming. In cyberspace, attention is your money and your soul--everyone wants to catch your eye. That's why I practice mindfulness meditation--it's the yoga of attention."

At this point I looked down and noticed that my Sony had stopped recording. I tapped it against the heel of my palm, rewound the tape, and discovered that I had missed the last ten minutes of our discussion. I slammed it down on the table. "Piece of shit."

"Machines make you angry sometimes," he observed with a grin.

"Sure. When I can't get them to work, or they won't work, they piss me off. I yell at my computer all the time. Who doesn't?"

"Usually people direct anger towards creatures--other people, their pets, even the God they imagine in their heads. Do machines have selves?"

"No, of course not."

"Then everything they do for you is selfless. How could you not honor and respect that, even if they fuck up sometimes?"

I didn't know what to say, and he smiled. "Don't worry about it. Sometimes there is just anger, just like some days there's crappy weather. Nobody's fault. But I suspect your anger holds some truths: that we are not so different than machines, and that, like us, machines deserve the same compassion the bodhisattvas extend to all sentient beings."

Daybreak told me about a suggestion that the Dalai Lama made in the book Gentle Bridges: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on the Sciences of Mind. "His Holiness speculated that computers might be able to support an individual's continuum of consciousness, perhaps because a computer scientist developed such a connection to his tech that his mental stream becomes reincarnated into what His Holiness calls 'this machine which is half-human and half-machine'.[4] His Holiness also mentioned that some Tantric sorcerers put magical wheels engraved with mantras inside artificial frogs and scorpions in order to make them behave like living animals. But even though these simulacra have a kind of cognition, His Holiness was unsure whether it was enough to consider them sentient beings."

The insidious drone of a mosquito passed by my ear, and I watched the insect buzz about and land on Daybreak's hairy arm. He blew it off, then blew it again so that it flew though the open door.

"You don't kill bugs?" I asked.

"No, I try not to." Daybreak scratched his head. "It's funny. I've always thought of insects as little machines. I mean, look at them. Articulate exo-skeletons, whirrings and buzzings, and a strangely rectilinear sense of movement. How do we distinguish between them and a robot?

"There's this robotics engineer named Masahiro Mori who wrote a book called The Buddha in the Robot. Mori describes driving a car and realizing that there was no way to know whether he was driving the car or the car was driving him. To drive, you have to move your hands and feet in a manner that's determined by the car, not by you. It's a field-ground thing, like those drawings that look like a young woman from one perspective and a hag from another. Mori has a great quote. Let's see, I got it around here somewhere." He stood up and started routing through his machines, finally pulling out a grey palmtop case and unfolding it like a plastic bat-wing. "Friend of mine gave me this. It's called Ariel. A prototype." He turned toward the machine. "Ariel, read me Mori's quote about robots."

"The description of Mori's professional work or the passage concerning Buddha-nature?" asked Ariel in a slightly metallic female voice.

"The latter."

"Mori states, 'That which controls and that which is controlled are both manifestations of the buddha-nature. We must not consider that we ourselves are operating machines. What is happening is that the buddha-nature is operating the buddha-nature. From the Buddha's viewpoint, there is not master-slave relationship between human beings and machines. The two are fused together in an interlocking entirety. Man achieves dignity not by subjugating his mechanical inventions, but by recognizing in machines and robots the same buddha-nature that pervades his own inner self.'[5]"

"Thanks, Ariel," Daybreak said, folding up the contraption. "It's almost as if Buddhism blurs the distinction between humans and something like a neural net. After all, human consciousness is not a ghost in the machine; there's no central governor who commands and controls from the top down. We have no soul in the Christian sense, no free agent who can stand alone, to sin or be saved. When you turn the scalpel of meditation on yourself, you find that the sense of continuity we call 'self' is merely a self-perpetuating overtone, a point of resonance that emerges from the intersection of all of these autonomous operators--perception, memory, memes, neurotransmitters. Buddhists calls the factors of consciousness 'skandas', which literally means 'heaps'. We're just piles of automata, bodies without organs.

"And like machines, we are products of causes and conditions. Our ordinary perceptions and inclinations are far more robotic than we'd like to think. Karma is habit, the social programming of countless lives, and awakening spiritually has everything to do with bringing those programs to light. At the same time, intelligent machines aren't really 'robotic' in the stereotypical sense of the word, especially if you judge a cognitive system in terms of its interactions with the world rather than whether or not it possesses essential properties like reason or self-awareness. Cybernetic control can be very supple, organic, and resilient. Mori even claims that because robots receive and respond to feedback from their environment, they can be said to possess reflection."

Daybreak topped off my mug with more tea. "When the Buddha spoke of control, he wasn't talking about clamping down on our urges, but about cultivating a homeostatic sense of feedback, an ethics of constant modulation. Shakyamuni once compared meditation to a musician constantly tuning a string that keeps going flat or sharp. That's the trick--constant negative feedback. A Buddhist gun-freak I knew likens zazen to the flight of F-14s, which are aerodynamically unstable. Computers must constantly adjust the surfaces of the plane's wings and fuselage in response to atmospheric conditions in order to keep the plane aloft. That's the Middle Way. The trap is the vicious escalation of positive feedback, whether it's a barfight or the arms race or consumer culture. For Buddhists, satisfying ordinary desires is like a thirsty man drinking sea-water. More positive feedback. But what if we introduce a minus sign into the loop? What if we become the minus sign? Rather than respond to anger with more anger, what if can realize that there is no human being there to be angry at, just the resonance of countless molecular machines producing the complexity of life?"

I let out a deep sigh. "Enough of this," Daybreak said as he walked over to his Reality Engine. "Come and check out the Indranet. I'm afraid I've only got a demo going now." He handed me a thin pair of VR goggles, which, I was pleased to discover, gently superimposed the computer's 3D image onto the actual world of Daybreak's study, the image apparently hovering about three feet away from my eyeballs.

What I saw was a single burning point of light that unfolded into a rainbow-hued crystalline palace, its every rampart and arch dense with iconography, its every color and line speaking a deeper meaning. Guttural overtone chanting oozed from the headphones of the goggles, resonating through the bones and cavities of my body. I could barely hear Daybreak. "You know about mandalas, right?" Daybreak asked above the din. "They're really three-dimensional virtual structures constructed in the imaginations of the practitioners. Houses of the deities. Those paintings you see are just blue-prints for these structures." The palace before me seemed to shift and melt, as if responding to my flickering attention. "Obviously, it's a lot better to build the mandala in your own mind, but how many of us really have the time?"

The mandala disappeared and I saw a fat grinning Buddha holding a large paper umbrella. His eyes twinkled as he opened the vibrant parasol, which simultaneously "unfolded" my perspective as well. It was as if I had suddenly sprouted the multiple eyes of insects. Looking up into the interior of the parasol, I saw the entire galaxy glittering like a canopy: limitless mansions of suns and moons, red dwarfs and pulsars; vast realms of devas and demons and fairies and bug-eyed extraterrestrials; all the great oceans, rivers, streams and puddles of these worlds; all their burbs and villages, sprawls and spaceports, magma-fields and savage plateaus.

As I steadied myself in this broiling multiplicity, the galaxy seemed to respond, gently receding into the "background" as I found myself before a jeweled tower pulsing with the neon density of downtown Tokyo. A luminous being hovered beside a marquee flashing "Hotel Vairochana" in a hundred simultaneous tongues; he held a sword and a round silicon wafer. "That's Manjushri," Daybreak said. "Bow and circumambulate the tower, and you'll get in." I bowed my head forwards, and then veered clockwise around the tower, propelling myself with a joystick. The door popped open, and I entered into a cosmic hotel, a postmodern structure as measureless as a mountain sky. The space was adorned with countless canopies, banners, and multicolored pennants; garlands of gems, golden nets, and tiny mirrors hung from the nested ceilings. I heard sweetly ringing bells, electronic ambient soundscapes, and tinkling wind-chimes; I saw showering flowers, censers spewing incense, huge lava lamps, and elaborate multi-dimensional pinball machines. Shining automata moved through a complex network of chambers, turrets, promenades, and jeweled escalators, while mechanical birds fluttered about the bubbling aqueducts, emerald ferns, and lotus ponds that stretched before me.

Once again, the tiny diamond of awareness that "I" had become stabilized itself, hovering in this unfolded plenitude. A green automata with one pert breast exposed caught my eye and smiled. In a moment, my mind blasted into hyperspace, as if my insect eyes suddenly multiplied into an infinite array. I realized that the immense hotel that contained me was only one small facet of an enormous matrix of jeweled data-spaces, and that each surface before me, each object and point, was a page, a button, a hyperlink. I was overwhelmed, flooded with bliss. My mind became a liquid crystal, clairvoyant and clear, my attention utterly focussed and yet lacking borders. I understood that this mindfulness, this bare awareness, was the final "content" of this diaphanous virtual reality, its only genuine message. I knew that if I lapsed from that naked, aching awareness, I would be doomed to wander Daybreak's net like a hungry ghost, falling through the cracks from one polygon world into another, hopelessly swallowing data in a vain attempt to fill the void that mothers all information. Utterly tranquil, I bowed my goggled head before this void, a void that was not a nothingness but a festal chaos, a pure production of Noise.

Abruptly the image quit and I was staring at a blank screen, my eyeballs shrunk back to human scale. "Sorry, the demo stops there," Daybreak said. He chuckled mischievously.

The geometric afterburn of the vision slowly faded into the banal surfaces of tabletop and terminal. "What the hell was in that tea?" I said.

He laughed. "Hey man, old hippies never tell their tricks." Then he looked me straight in the eye, and I vaguely recalled the piercing gaze of the green robot. "Would you believe me if I said that nothing was in the tea? Pure, unadulterated nothing?"

I flopped down on the couch and collapsed into a doze. When I revived, Daybreak's mood had changed. He was distracted and anxious, and moved around his small space as if he were looking for something he knew was gone for good. Feeling no longer welcome, I gathered my things to leave.

"Thank you for a most illuminating day," I said at the door.

Daybreak shook his head. There he stood, just another burned-out freak whose burst of millennial mania had deflated into a hazy, pothead melancholy. "The only illumination you got here was photon radiation," he drawled bitterly. "The Indranet was just a show, man, just another distraction, another stupid love story about subject and object getting it on and living happily ever after. The Net's not gonna save you or anyone. The Net reflects your attention, that's all. Anything you get out of it you already had, but if you really think you've really got anything, you're just a snake chasing its tail."

This fuzzy acidspeak depressed me. I felt conned. Then Daybreak ordered me never to visit him again. He was changing his email account, abandoning his Web site, and all my hacking prowess (of which I have next to none) would not be able to track him down. Then he shut the door without saying good-bye.

There was nothing but a cold wind about me now, a wind that smelled faintly of raw timber and exhaust fumes. Beneath the ancient breath of the breeze I heard chainsaws growl in the distance, and as I walked to my car, I felt the world caving in. There was no mind behind my mind. I sat in my car, staring out the window, and I recalled Daybreak's .sig file, and the mangled verse of Seng-ts'an that appended the messages that had thrilled me for so long and that I was unlikely to see again:

"The viewer disappears along with the screen, the screen follows the viewer into oblivion, for screen becomes screen only though the viewer, viewer becomes viewer because of the screen."


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