It is stunning to witness the almost blatant ignorance often exhibited by folks who should know better. And that is all of us, including yours truly. No, I am not off on another rant here, but pointing out a phenomenon that is a key barrier to awakening to the buddha-mind. And it refers to something more than simple ignorance, or not-knowing — rather, a willful evasion of the obvious, in our futile search for the miraculous outside ourselves.

That statement could apply broadly to many syndromes and symptoms of our society, but let us focus on one of the more recent trendy infatuations, that with 3D movies. Like many trends, it began with incremental advances in technology. And, like any trend, after enough entrepreneurs had jumped on the bandwagon and saturated the media channels, it lost a lot of its initial luster. Now the marketing mavens have relegated it to the usual last-gasp venue, vehicles for entertaining children. Fortunately or not, even children can become jaded with too much of a pretty good thing.

What captures my attention about the 3D craze, if it even qualifies as a craze, reminds me of comments one often hears in reaction to the Buddhist idea of rebirth. Or afterlife — in the form of a second or third or nth existence. Most people say something like, Well, I don’t have any experience of rebirth. I tend to respond, Well, what do you think this is? By conceiving, or pre-conceiving, of rebirth and the next life as by definition necessarily being of the future, we tend to miss the more salient (Buddhist) point that this present life is rebirth; and its character is partially formed by causes and conditions from prior lives.    

More on that later, in another piece, or perhaps another lifetime. The relevance here is the wide-eyed acceptance and gleeful pursuit of the most recent golly-gee-whiz-bang new thing to come down the pike — e.g. 3D projection of movies and even (gasp) TV. It is inevitably based on the ingore-ing of another, even more miraculous event: Reality is already in 3D! Or even 4D, for the purist. Or perhaps 5D, as in the musical aggregation. I think the latest theoretical fad is maybe 10D, in the inner circles of physics. Strings, yet.  

The point is that technological advances in 3D image projection (no more silly red and green cardboard glasses, for those old enough to remember) simply become yet another distraction from waking up to the miraculous event that is unfolding before our very eyes. Already in full, living color, multi-dimensional, and well worth the price of admission. As Buddha is said to have said, “it is like a marvelous projection.” In those days, shadow-puppet shows on a white scrim were state-of-the-art. Doesn’t detract from his point.

As a student of design praxis in the 1960s, I began training in Bauhaus-based principles and philosophy at the Institute of Design, IIT. Like any serious student of that time, I was an early enthusiast for the creative development and intensive application of media, particularly new media. One of the classes I later taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was titled “How to get ideas and what to do with them.” Media were exciting, and had not yet become “the media” used as a pejorative in today’s public discourse.

The main media guru of that time was Canadian educator, philosopher and scholar, the now iconic Marshall Mcluhan. He seemed to suddenly appear out of left field, just when TV was beginning to manifest its preliminary, possibly pernicious, and ubiquitous effects on the society and commerce of the Americas. At this time, his studies of media and its effects were becoming mainstream, and very influential in the design community.

I won’t bore you here with the many interesting insights he shared, or the concepts he developed, but they can be easily found on the Internet. Such titles as The Gutenberg Galaxy, Understanding Media, and The Medium is the Message were salient enough for anyone engaged in the manipulation of media for the sake of art, design, entertainment, education or simply improved communication. But in his later publications, such as War and Peace in the Global Village he also became something of a prophet, and presciently laid the groundwork for further social analysis when the Internet surged into place, dominating the new media revolution of personal computers and digital design.

Which brings us back to 3D. The crunching power of ever-expanding bandwidth is of course requisite for the extension of special effects into every nook and cranny of visual and acoustical media. But is anyone else dismayed by the fact that the producers of entertainment never seem to meet a special effect they do not love? And proceed to milk to its last drop, in every conceivable situation and potential, inappropriate application?

Is it any longer even possible to produce a work of cinema, for example, that is not subject to the temptation of special effects enhancement? What next, 3D-reissued-everything? Remember when someone came up with a way to colorize the old black-and-white classics? Were they rendered any better, in any meaningful way, than the original?

Don’t get me wrong. As a designer, and inveterate fan of science-fiction, I am all for special effects, used judiciously. But I suspect that, like anything else, SFX-fatigue sets in after the second or third strike. And then it is relatively all, or mostly all, for naught. It is difficult to imagine how special effects would enhance a film like Rashomon, for example, The Seven Samurai, or in other ethnic genres, Wild Strawberries, or Weekend.

With each new and useful innovation gained, it seems we lose something that may have been just as, or even more, important. The Gutenberg revolution, for example, in which movable type made the printed page widely available, had unintended consequences. For one, propaganda became much cheaper to disseminate. Long before that, the development and widespread implementation of written language, the hand-printed word, changed the very way in which information was communicated, stored and retrieved.

When we recite sutras and other teachings in the strictly oral tradition, where one person leads and all others follow as best they can, and without recourse to a written document, we begin to get a glimpse of what communication and learning must have been like, long before the printing press, before even the written word, which came to dominate public discourse. We definitely, as a culture, have lost something into the bargain each time.

People who participate in this exercise always find it compelling, and startlingly different from listening to a lecture, or a reading from a book that they have as a handy reference. They often remark that in order to keep up with the recitation, the ordinary thought process has to be suspended. There is no time to think, or be distracted about what is being said, as a concept. There was no referring to a written version later, because it didn’t exist (okay, nowadays it does, but you get the point). One really has to listen.

How many of us really know how to listen, these days? We have all heard the expression, “Waiting to talk.” Most parties to conversations are not really listening, they are waiting for their turn to talk. This is often presented as a psychological problem, more grist to the mill of self-improvement, and easily dismissed as another New Age, PC, self-loathing wedge issue for selling self-improvement books (e.g. Learning to be a Better Listener).

But in Zen, I think we should regard the fact that we do not really listen, in fact cannot really listen deeply, as another example of the six senses as “thieves.” This is a traditional view of the senses from Buddhist teachings. That they rob us of our birthright, seducing us with distractions, and evasive maneuvers. Underlying this syndrome is avoidance of the hard work, and tedium, of coming to confront reality on its own terms.

The joke is on us, however. In our slavish pursuit of the miraculous, in the form of the latest and greatest new gewgaw that the marketing masters and their creative slaves have come up with to distract us from our boredom, they succeed. We enable them.

We are distracted from the realization that our present reality is what all media are referring back to, as are the teachings of Buddhism. It is truly marvelous that someone has found a way to record images, and create fictional stories to entertain and educate. And further, that can now be perceived in three dimensions. But the glaringly obvious, hidden cost, is that the very obsession with that kind of expression takes our attention away from the real movie that is before our face. It is also “like a dream, like a fantasy.”

A word about that: In a prior writing I referred to the fact that at one point in my childhood, it occurred to me that Life is like a movie! This was a big revelation, to someone who was exposed to the early Walt Disney animations such as Snow White and such superfluous horrors as Frankenstein and Dracula. At a later turning-point (when I had perhaps attempted to live my life as a movie a bit too literally) it occurred to me that Life is not at all like a movie. This may have coincided with my brain’s finishing its initial wiring package in my early- to mid-twenties. You know, that biological turning-point where one begins to have intimations of mortality creeping in and spoiling the fun.

Back to McLuhan, and the point that media replicate reality to greater degree. Art imitates life. And then, sometimes, life imitates art. It is a bit like the notion that ontology recapitulates phylogeny (a biological hypothesis not yet proven). I remember an early impression of seeing my dad, sort of bouncing jauntily down stairs, both hands dangling loosely at the wrists in front of him, swinging nimbly from side to side. It did not look entirely natural. Later, I saw a movie in which James Cagney busted the same move. Recognizing the speech patterns and slang of our grandparents’ and parents’ generations, and our own, we can see parallels with — not to say imitation of — films of the times.

Writers sometimes make their bones by writing fiction in a way that more closely captures the cadence and rhythms of the way people really talk. Self-referential use of the language in process, epitomized perhaps by J. D. Salinger in the Catcher in the Rye, and Franny and Zoey, is a special case of reflecting fresh reality.Latter-day playwrights, such as David Mamet, have made it a study, a near-science, to replicate speech patterns of real people in their dramatic works, as exemplified by Glengarry Glen Ross.

When we look at the arc of media development through the centuries, we see that much of the earliest work captured the image of humanity, such as prehistoric fertility figures; and the beasts of the forests and fields, such as the cave paintings at Lascaux. With the invention of recorded language and math, in the form of clay tablets, wood and stone carving, and later papyrus and paper with various pigments, much media became devoted to the necessary recording of trade transactions, stocks and inventories, political and other legal documentation of the interactions of the tribes and communities of the day.

It was a shock to discover, early in my training in art history, that the beautiful marble statuary of Greece and Rome was originally, in perhaps all cases, gaudily painted over, to “colorize” what was otherwise basically a black-and-white medium. The revisionist aesthetic of today prefers the look of the raw marble, for its texture and subtle shadings.

As we witness the historical development of realistic portraiture, at first it mainly records the powerful leaders of the tribe, their families and friends (patrons who could afford the luxury). It seems that what would later become art for its own sake, or to express other social meanings, was at first co-opted to function much like a legal document, reinforcing the power and privilege of its subjects.

Aside from all of the societal implications, however, if we survey the evolution of media in the abstract, we can see, for instance, that with the invention of the camera, the rendition of the human image took on a stark dimension of the reality of visages rendered by light itself, largely without human intervention. I am old enough to recall the colorization of black and white photo prints — sometimes done for family portraits, to give them a warmer air of reality through flesh-tones — again, not much of an improvement over the original.

But we can grasp the thrust of this evolution. It is impelled toward a higher rendition of reality — as it appears to our senses — and is not hesitant to bend the medium to reflect a one-for-one correlation more completely and realistically, competing for our attention.

The move from black-and-white, silent pictures, to film with sound (“talkies” — not applauded by all critics of the time, nor by connoisseurs even now); the move to color; then to Cinemascope’s wide screen with its ever-more-thorough immersion in the media. And so on and on, with increasing sophistication at all levels of writing, directing, acting, set design, videography, and editing; all the time accompanied by accelerating advances in technology. This all points to a dynamic convergence, of media with perceived reality.

Technological leaps included, at first, primitive animation techniques, then ever-slicker rendition of “hand-drawn” images as more and more “real,” bringing creatures and personalities to life that never actually existed outside the imagination of their creators. Up to and including the mind-blowing 3D modeling and surface rendering of today’s action-oriented video games via CAD. Difficult to tell from images of real living beings.

Then there is the foray into holographic imaging, a kind of embedded 3D image in a crystal latticework, later projected as an image floating in mid-air. This may turn out to be not so much a detour, but a temporary respite on the journey, awaiting only the next step in technology to make it the new norm. As the great science fiction writer and philosopher Arthur C. Clarke observed in one of his three laws: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” One that springs to mind is the remote control. Its operation would have seemed miraculous as short a time ago as my childhood, in which I, as some wag commented, was dad’s remote control for our TV.

So it is easy to detect a parallel track in media’s evolution, a collective and accumulating intention to, in effect, create a parallel reality to the one we live in. It runs along the same fault line as that between experience and expression in Zen’s history. Many may have the experience that Buddhism points to, but may not be able to express it. The vehicle and exercise of expression is in the realm of skillful means. The analog to skillful means in media includes the technology, along with the storyline, and other human-scale skill sets.

As I have often said, the main thing that seems to be missing technologically is the density knob. If we could tune the virtual reality images and objects to the proper density, then we could touch and feel them. Without the intermediary of pressure-sensitive gloves, which is one technology under development, but imposes a separation from the interface.

Similar to the so-called Turing test, the proof of virtual reality would be if a human being could not tell the difference. This is not a novel idea, but has been thoroughly vetted in science fiction stories. And is, lo, unfolding before our eyes. Again, primarily in the entertainment media, now permeating everywhere in the form of miniature smart phones.

But also in more sinister manifestations, such as the game-like consoles that allow our national defenders to attack our identified enemies with drones, bombs, and other weapons of targeted and mass destruction, at ever-greater distances and degrees of safety for our side. Those doing the attacking have little or no experience of the actual impact of their actions, other than simulations on feedback monitors. The term simulator was first widely used for media-environments used in training pilots of aircraft, in military as well as civilian applications. Abbreviated as sims in game design. Or, better, simulacrum.

Media, to be successful in the current competitive climate, must perforce simulate reality to a greater and greater degree, even, or especially, if the storyline is sheer fantasy. In a recent case of the opposite approach, we helped to host an indie film about Norbu Rinpoche and his son, My Reincarnation. No special effects, just straight documentary recording of events that took place over nearly 20 years of filming, winnowed down to a crisp 80 minutes of film. That’s 4 minutes per year. Somewhere there must be a great deal of film on the cutting-room floor. But very powerful, very personal, and engaging. Cut to the chase on all the complexities of introducing Dzogchen practice, Tibetan Buddhism’s nearest thing to Zen, to a disinctly Western mindset (in Italy and Russia). Plus the complex interplay of daily and family living, sickness and recovery, succession to the lineage, et cetera. The special effects were those visited upon the audience. Art can go beyond imitation of life, and can sometimes illuminate it.

So how does this return to Zen practice, and particularly, to Zen meditation? Directly. Leaving aside the social and interactive implications, we turn our attention to our own sensory interface, as a medium. It is a medium of personal, solo experience as well as interaction, of receiving stimuli and information, engaging in social interaction. And, of course, also a medium of expression. The question is, what is worth expressing to others?

The brief Perfection of Wisdom Sutra that we chant daily includes a quick reference to the fundamental emptiness of the skandhas, or aggregates of clinging. Form, feeling, thought, impulse, and consciousness — basically everything that makes up our perceived world. It then goes on to remind us that, with emptiness as a premise, a given, the senses would then also be rendered empty. Which is a bit unnerving, to think that the very interface, with which we know and interact with the world, is somehow out of tune with reality. It certainly doesn’t look, sound, or feel empty. And we cannot regard our thoughts as empty of meaning, or consequence, without feeling like we are on thin ice. As we are.

If, however, we can take a step back, as Master Dogen suggests, and shine the light back on the self, or on itself, we might be able to see through this marvelous projection. If we can begin to differentiate the snow from the silver bowl, the heron from the surrounding moon, we may perhaps find the projector, the source, itself. If we can penetrate through the shadow to what is casting the shadow, perhaps we can be at home with the idea that this reality is actually very much like a movie, like a bubble, a dream, like a fantasy. And perhaps we will, for the first time, be able to live our movie fully, and to playfully perform our central role in the drama. May it be so. Now for some popcorn.