Screenshot from the anime “Erased”, in which the main character’s mind travels back to his childhood to change the past. Well, that’s one way of living long without growing old: Living the same time over and over… Of course, I thought of that years before the anime.
Thanks to the current ongoing Shellfish Festival here in Mandal, I get some free live music whether I want to or not. Today I caught a very catchy tune that has been around for a while here in Norway, “Vi vil level lenge” by Halvdan Sivertsen. There’s a YouTube clip for those who may want to listen to it, but it is in Norwegian. It is actually a song mocking cosmetic surgery mostly, but the recurring lyrics are some I can certainly identify with: We want to live long, but we never want to grow old.
Curiously this is the theme of my current main dicewriting project. Not the cosmetic surgery, but living long without growing old. It is a story about psychic time travel, in which the mind rather than the body travels back in time. You may remember one extreme instance of this as the movie Groundhog Day. I thought also reviewed the book The first fifteen lives of Harry August by Claire North, but it seems this is one of the innumerable entries I have written and not uploaded? There are a number of related stories that largely fall in between these, featuring people whose minds are sent back in time (usually without their control) giving them the chance to “do over” some part of their life. It is something that I am sure a lot of us have thought about. It is a natural human trait to do this in our minds, although for me as a hyperlexic it is difficult to do so without something to write on.
So anyway in my Imaginary Random Psychic series, the main character has the ability to travel at will into the past (although not before puberty) and stay there until he decides to leave, or until he catches up with the time he left. At that point, he returns to Real Time. The catch is, the timeline he was in disappear shortly after, like a dream. Even though it feels completely real while he is there, nothing of it remains when he returns. Nobody else remembers anything of it, and even his own memories soon become vague and dreamlike. Skills he has cultivated in the other timeline are reset, as is his health. Only a vague narrative remains. He is able to maintain a connection to a timeline for a couple minutes, allowing him to write brief diary entries during long stays in the past, but if he stays longer the timeline is lost in the swirl of All-Possibility.
The “imaginary psychic” part refers to a secondary effect of traveling through the fourth dimension of time: Gradually he starts to drift sideways in the fifth dimension and vertically in the sixth dimension, gaining supernatural powers. The powers of the fifth dimension augment his natural abilities, making him stronger, faster, more intelligent, resistant to damage and to ageing. The powers of the sixth dimension are indistinguishable from magic: Telepathy, telekinesis, healing, various forms of energy manipulation. But these abilities increase very slowly, rarely noticeable from year to year and hardly from decade to decade. It is only over centuries of living his life over and over that he gradually becomes aware of his supernatural powers and gets used to them. And like everything else, these abilities too fade when the returns to Real Time.
It seems like a slow and steady wish fulfillment fantasy, and I intend it as such too, but there is a subtle undercurrent that undermines that aspect of it: No matter what he achieves, it is un-achieved by time. If he finds love and a family, he is sure to lose them. If he makes friends, they are sure to forget him. Even when he gains some power to change the world for the better, the world forgets him and reverts to what it was. Even inside the story, all his triumphs are hollow from the start.
Of course, the same could be said for real life. “Futility! Futility! says the Preacher. Utter futility! All is in vain. What does a person gain from his labor that he strives with under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1, the Bible.) Or, to translate the Buddha’s partings words: “All things that have form are subject to decay.” We who have meditated for a while may actually have caught some glimpses of the fifth or sixth dimensions, but the truth is that even eternal time is not enough. Anything that can be accomplished within time is trapped within time. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, as the Americans say. Only the spirit can transcend the six dimensions of space and time.
We want to live long, but even then we will just as much be forgotten. Transhumanists want to reverse ageing or upload the mind to computer networks that can last for millions of years. Certainly that would be great, but even the stars fade and galaxies shatter. There is no escape hatch that can be opened from the inside of creation.
I have to admit, your quote of Buddha’s parting words (though this post in general) reminds me of an element of Taoist philosophy from China. Part of this was that, essentially, nothing existed. The reasoning was “if it is not there in the next (X) amount of time (usually a thousand years) then it is unreal.” While I, admittedly, cannot go so far as to say that myself I did always think it was interesting. I remember a nice book on this that, with mathematics, explained the difference in philosophy between the East and West.
The book was “Zero: Biography of a Dangerous Idea” written by Charles Seife who used the concept of zero as a number (representing nothing/the void) to argue the reasoning as a divergence in Eastern and Western philosophy, with the former giving no concern to non-existence and the latter basing entire political structures on the idea of eternal existence. Seife dated this to ancient Babylon using zero as a placeholder number on their number lines.
There is a lot more to read in the book than what I just wrote, and it gets fascinating even if it does appear awkward at times, especially when Seife claims the concept of zero transformed Western Art from the Medieval style to the Renaissance style which is a leap too far (as it ignores various Byzantine scholars and artists fleeing the conquest of Constantinople). In any case, a great post from you, especially after such a long wait.
I have no strong opinions about the origin of the differences between oriental and occidental philosophy. The hypothesis you refer to sounds interesting, but I am sure there are other worthy contenders. After all, these civilizations were largely isolated from each other for thousands of years.
But when it comes to the view of the sensory world as not quite real, I feel that Eastern and Western religion are not all that different. Both deny the visible world ultimate reality, but both also accord it some degree of “virtual reality”: Otherwise it would not matter what we do in the world, but all religions have fairly detailed tenets about how to conduct our life here. The idea of this world as “virtual reality” is one I’d love to explore in more detail, although I am sure others have done so better.
Yeah, I agree that there are lots of theories as to why there is a divergence in Western/Eastern philosophy. The best ones are combinations of the theories presented, I would think. Or one could simply give up and say aliens did it, though that’s not exactly what I could willingly subscribe to! I think, perhaps, we may have to remember that we had two major cultural groups between the Greeks/Romans (I’m identifying these two as the biggest cultural factors in Europe, I hope I’m
not stepping on too many toes) and the Chinese. From the silk road, we had the (many minor states of the) Indians and the Persians. One may wonder if these two guys played a role in filtering some ideas for the other side … oh well, history has a lot to say but its biggest weakness is that studying history is still studying humans who, save for yourself and a few others are not writing about their life everyday, especially with the expectation of “future scholars of a completely different civilization in the far-flung future reading this.” (Though of course, we had people like Tacitus, Plutarch, Herodotus, Procopius, and Liu Xiang).
I do see your point here. You may be interested in another development. I am assuming that you understand in Buddhism (I think this is the original Indian Buddhism) that if you meditate long enough you can achieve a split second of Nirvana? In the Byzantine Empire in the 14th-15th centuries, a new movement alongside humanism was emerging: Hesychasm, that one could demonstrate God through a complex and focused meditation. You could almost change “God” and “Nirvana” and still understand them without much difficulty. Almost, I mean as there are differences between a monotheistic deity of Abraham and Buddhist afterlife.
Where things get really weird though is in China. There is still some discussion as to whether Confucianism and Taoism are a religion, or, a philosophy? What makes things more difficult is one could feasibly be a Confucianist-Taoist-Buddhist because they actually complement each other quite well, apparently. Anyways, both Confucianism and Taoism have some albeit interesting things about the afterlife if they have one at all. I do think Chinese Buddhism kept the afterlife idea, however.
I have known about the Hesychasts for some years, probably first through my conservative friends on the One Cosmos blog or more likely some of the associated literature. I suppose it could be seen as evidence for the transcendental unity of religion (as advocated by Frithjof Schuon, who I have mentioned repeatedly in these pages). Or it could be that humans have only few ways to actively approach spiritual phenomena in an experience-based way. While I do not dismiss these practices, I would be very wary indeed of any notion that one can “summon” the Light in any commanding sense. Only supplication is acceptable, given the relative position of the human souls versus the Divine. But as some Buddhists say: “Enlightenment is like getting struck by lighting. Meditation is like sitting outdoors.”
As for the Chinese “religions”; I feel that Confucianism, in its original form at least, is definitely more of a philosophy, albeit informed by spirituality. I perceive Taoism as being more mystical in nature, despite making numerous statements about government (much of this centered on minimizing government). I also get the impression that lay Taoism is definitely religious (and somewhat superstitious), in much the same way as popular Buddhism is quite similar to theistic religions despite the agnostic nature of “pure” Theravada Buddhism as we usually learn it in the West. I am not sure how much this applies to Confucianism, which I mostly see mentioned in a political and cultural aspect.