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Regarding Sacred Landscapes

Utopia as Heaven from the Twilight Zone to the Buddha Fields

Presented at the 8th Symposium of The Forum for Architecture, Culture and Spirituality, New Harmony, IN, 2016

Here in ACS Utopia, perchance you knocked on Thomas More’s door. Me? I knocked on the door of the Twilight Zone. Think 1960, Season 1, episode 28; its title “A Nice Place to Visit.” Why? It questions if an external Utopia is substantial cause for living an internal Utopian happiness? Or, as held by Buddhists of many flavours, is Utopia the result of a life that benefits others? In other words, if you build it, will they be ready?

Act 1. Utopia’s cheating heart

Midnight. Portrait of a man at work, the only work he's ever done, the only work he knows. His name is Henry Francis Valentine, but he calls himself ‘Rocky’, because that's been his life – rocky and perilous and uphill at a dead run all the way. Once an aspiring architect who couldn’t make it, now a small-time hood on the wrong side of the law. He’s tired now, tired of running or wanting, of waiting for the breaks that come to others but never to him, never to Rocky Valentine.

There, robbing the Southside Loan. A scared, angry little man, he’s had little to show for his efforts: unheated basement flat, a suburban tenement in the middle of nowhere, Pruitt-Igoe, he’d once had a hand in drafting. The police siren, Rocky grabs the bag of loot, hops over the counter and runs out the door. Hitting the lamppost, gems drop to the shadows of the dark. Turns into the alley, climbs the fence. He shoots, the police shoot, he falls, a bullet in the head. He thinks it's all over but he's wrong; for Rocky Valentine, it's just the beginning; like Basho … in the bardo – in the Twilight Zone.

Rocky opens his eyes. Picture Sebastian Cabot as Mr. Pip, his crisply attired guide, standing over him. Pip’s job: to supply Rocky with whatever he wishes, takes Rocky to his new digs. “You like it?”

Rocky’s Utopia: Perfection in design the tool, all the right ingredients: think New Harmony, Indiana – Six Signs of Sacred Landscape, ecologically balanced, pristine geometry, flower ornaments pervading ideal proportions of form and space. Literally, drop dead gorgeous.

“Yeah, it’s some pad all right. Wait a minute; what’s the pitch? What’s going on here? Where am I?” Scared, Rocky aims his gun; at such close range, he couldn’t miss, but Pip isn’t touched. Rocky, stunned, puts two and two together: “If I’m as dead as you say, then all this, the joint, the clothes, the booze, then I must be in Heaven. Yeah that’s it, I’m in Heaven and you must be my guardian angel, right? Then I can have everything I want: a million bucks; and chicks that never quit, you know like…like. Wow! Now I know I’m in Heaven. Hiya, Doll.”

Rocky’s slice of Utopia: Money for nothin’, chicks for free and a pad he’d died for. Everything he couldn’t get in life, he got in death. But, wait a minute; makes him wonder, “How come they let me in here. I thought it was like for school teachers like that? Must’ve been something real good I done sometime; something that made up for everything else. But what?”

Makes me wonder, because the potential part of the basic Buddhist equation speaks about how landscape depends on mind and deeds. It’s through the operative Law of Cause and Effect; in other words, – Thank who you were for how you live now; thank who you are now for how you’ll live next. Chandrakirti’s Guide to the Middle Way says:

An undisciplined state of mind gives rise to delusions, causing negative actions that produce a dismal mundane landscape in which Rocky would be subject to live. Whereas a disciplined and virtuous mind gives rise to insight, enabling Rocky to perform positive actions of body, speech and mind, producing an enticing, productive, beautiful Utopia in which to live.

“When did I do anything good?” asks Rocky. “How do I find out?” Pip takes Rocky to the Hall of Records to read his file: Age of six: slaughtered small dog. “Why not? He bit me.” Age of seven: stole fourteen toys from dime store. Age of eight: organized street gang, the Angels. Age of nine: broke into bicycle store. “What is this? There couldn’t be some mistake, huh?”

Makes me wonder, because there’s also the question of duality and non-duality. Could Rocky and his Utopia landscape be separate entities? As an object of the mind, how could Utopia exist separately from Rocky’s mind? Even non-Buddhists Emerson and Magritte, Brunton and Merleau-Ponty said that landscape, as if outside, is only an expression of what’s experienced inside. James Hillman said he couldn’t find any boundary between psyche of landscape and psyche of Rocky. The Buddha said: – All three realms: heaven, earth and the underworld, are of Rocky’s mind.

Which helps explain why, when the Buddha transformed the Jetavana Monastery into a landscape of garlands of jewelled trees and radiant flowers, rivers of fragrant waters, cloud-palaces of music and song, and flower ornaments pervading all of space, disciples couldn’t see it; they’d not cultivated the virtues to see it. Here, by any discourse, where’s the correspondence between Rocky’s mind and his Utopia?

Then there’s the natural part of the basic Buddhist equation, each Buddhist school in its unique way interpreting the Heart Sutra’s, Form is Void and Voidness if Form; Voidness is not other than Form, Form not other than Voidness – asking if Rocky’s Utopia even exists, and if it does or doesn’t, how and why?

Japanese Soto Zen’s Dōgen Zenji:– I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great earth.

The Mind-Only School’s: – There’s no ‘external objects’ out there; no Utopia to be found existing separately from Rocky’s mind.

The Middle-Way School’s: – Although Utopia may appear to exist of its own accord, it doesn’t. Like an illusion, or a dream, Utopia merely arises in dependence upon causes and conditions imputed by the mind.

Makes me wonder, have we a seething disconnect between the state of Rocky Valentine’s mind and his Utopia? Is Rocky’s Utopia an anomaly, my thesis half-baked? Either way, you can’t even tell your kid to go outside to play anymore.

Act 2. Utopia Unplugged

What in his capacity might enable Rocky to have his Utopia and be eaten by it too? For Rocky’s internal Utopia to sustain an external Utopia, and visa versa? For this, we go back 2500 years ago to hear the Vimalakirti Sutra, where Rocky’s previous incarnation as a dung beetle witnesses five hundred of the Licchavi tribe of northern India travel to visit Buddha Shakyamuni. In front of 8,000 bhikshus, 32,000 Bodhisattvas, and hundreds of thousands of living beings, the Licchavis plant their parasols of precious jewels into the ground, gifts for the Buddha.

Everyone seated, the Buddha causes the precious parasols to levitate, transforming their undersides into a pristine canopy of stellar bodies like Rocky’s Twilight Zone Utopia. Then, as quickly as he apparates Utopia, the Buddha lays the parasols to rest.

Mesmerized, the tribe’s leader asks: Wow! How did you do that? Can anyone inhabit such beauty? Can anyone create such beauty? Buddha replies: – The magnificent landscape you witnessed was none other than the Buddha’s mind appearing as landscape; landscape appearing as Buddha’s mind, the cultivation of pure action, compassion and wisdom.

In other words, rather than landscape interdependently produced by ‘I want’, ‘I don’t want’, ‘I don’t care’, Rocky’s mode of operating – nay, our standard mode of operating – this is landscape composed of thoughts and acts of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Landscape as Six Perfections: landscape as field of generosity; landscape as field of virtuous application; as field of patience; of meritorious effort; of concentration; of wisdom realizing the Nature of Reality and the Reality of Nature. Landscape as an active verb, rather than as noun.

As an active verb, can this landscape as Six Perfections even be designed as form and space? What would it look like? Garlands of jewelled trees and radiant flowers, rivers of fragrant waters, cloud-palaces of music and song, and flower ornaments pervading all of space? Landscape of raw, sublime, unimaginable beauty?

Contrary to wistful imagery and belief, this Landscape as Six Perfections won’t necessarily look like this, nor abide anywhere else, in any other ethereal realm or time. No Twilight Zone, this Utopia Landscape of Six Perfections. Just as it is, this Landscape of Six Perfections is present right here, this place, this realm, this time. Think landscape as Rocky’s own city, farmland, and community inhabited by us all; fields ripe for undivided love and compassionate work. Think promise between Rocky and landscape to take care of each another. Think, from the Bodhisattva’s perspective, whatever it takes to fulfill the need.

Once again the perplexing question: is Rocky’s Utopia an anomaly, my thesis half-baked? Can Rocky Valentine’s external Twilight Zone Utopia cultivate his internal Utopia of eternal bliss? Well, just because his Utopia is pretty, doesn’t mean Rocky Valentine is at play in the fields of the Lord. Rocky’s problem is that it’s still all about Rocky. His slice of Heaven, his Shangri-La, his Utopia, his at the expense of everyone else.

What this means? Looks like Heaven; begins to taste like Hell. Buddha’s First Noble Truth of Suffering, operating in death as it does in life: never enough or it’s way too much; too much and still not enough; pain, and the pervasive unfolding of consciousness.

One month, that’s all it takes: one month of endless dineros and dollars, coke, sex and rock n’ roll handed just to him, and Rocky Valentine begins tasting his old ways. “Look, just between you and me, Fats, I don’t think I belong here. I don’t think I fit in.” “Oh, nonsense, replies Pip. “Of course, you do.” “No really. Really, someone must have goofed. Look, I’m bored! If I gotta stay here another day, I'm gonna go nuts! Look Fats, I don't belong in Heaven, see? I wanna go to the other place.”

Pip scrutinizes Rocky’s anguish, his trembling hands as he tries unlocking the door of his drop dead gorgeous – prison. “Heaven?” sneers Pip. “Whatever gave you the idea you were in Heaven, Mr. Valentine? Why this is the other place! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! Dennis got it right!

A scared, angry little man who never got a break. Now he has everything he's ever wanted – and he’s going to have to live with it for eternity, or choose to take this time to turn things around. It’s up to him – in The Twilight Zone, in Heaven as it is on Earth.

Reprised from The Twilight Zone, season 1 episode 28, “A Nice Place to Visit” by Charles Beaumont, April 15, 1960, featuring Larry Blyden and Sebastian Cabot.