Zen of Steampunk

Yesterday upon the stair

I saw a man that wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there again today.

Oh, how I wish he’d go away.xxeez

To some, ‘steampunk’ is a catchall term, a concept in search of a visual identity. To me, it’s essentially the intersection of technology and romance.” Jake von Slatt put this in a way that fit some of my descriptions quite concisely. It is important to me in my evaluation of Steampunk to show what I find and what is there, not to codify and define it; I seek to analyze and evaluate not limit the reality. As Alan Watts Said “The whole point of Zen is to suspend the rules we have superimposed on things and to see the world as it is.” “There be those who say that things and places have souls, and there be those who say they have not; I dare not say, myself, but I will tell of The Street.” – H. P. Lovecraft. I agree with this sentiment and this is more my goal than a definition – to describe and show what I find and see. “The true purpose (of Zen) is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki

Individualism is not the first thing you think of when you think of Zen, but much of the teaching revolves around knowing yourself, seeing yourself as you really are, hearing your inner voice, and living in now. Previous essays have discussed the prevalence of an individual spirit and focus in both Steampunk and the age it arises from. For this particular discussion the whys of that direction are not needed, but we will look at them later. Louis XIV said “There is little that can withstand a man who can conquer himself.” This is an important distinction when you are looking at Zen related to Steampunk; Zen is not about giving into to self but knowing self and being in control of self. Act on needs not wants, as one quote says: Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind.

In both cases you see an active choice to seek the answer inside rather than from the voice of any governing group such as religion, government, society, or science. G.I. Gurdjieff said “Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.” Religion, science, government, and society made drastic changes, leaps, and changed focus based on this and similar concepts, it did not always stick, but the creative leaps possible during that time are impressive themselves. As one Zen quote says “If you do not get it from yourself, where will you go for it?

Machines, automata, and development are critical to Steampunk and were what made the Victorian age what it was. “As machines become more and more efficient and perfect, so it will become clear that imperfection is the greatness of man.” – Ernst Fischer. Willingness to take a leap, create something, build something, experiment without knowing what will happen – these are all things that made the development then what it was and that many people feel has been largely lost today. “If you want something you can have it, but only if you want everything that goes with it, including all the hard work and the despair, and only if you’re willing to risk failure.” – Philip Pullman, Clockwork.

Look at Zen and the adage telling you not to simply follow the paths of others: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.” – Basho This quest for knowledge is something dear to the heart of some of us. As Zen says “When an ordinary man gains knowledge, he is a sage; when a sage gains understanding, he is an ordinary man.”  Are we in Steampunk seeking an aesthetic or a wishful nostalgia, or are we seeking a possibility, a chance that with risk and a new path, we could see something different. Perhaps it isn’t escapism as much as opening the mind to possibilities, paths, and knowledge.

The place of the mind, reason, and imagination is the place of strength, development, and expansion. You cannot achieve what you cannot conceive anymore than you can succeed without risk. “Therefore the Three Realms are only mind” Ma-tsu Tao-i. In research and scientific advancement, one critical point to true advancement and real science is to not approach a test, experiment, theory, or idea clouded by opinion or expectations. Look again to Zen: “Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish your opinions.” Science then and now often sought to make life better and to serve humanity but “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery. But the changes are what stabilize society, stagnation kills any society. “Life is change, change is stability.” Change is not final, even when to destruction, another change will follow.

Vast emptiness, nothing holy! Bodhidharma

Previously, we briefly touched the topic of Steampunk embracing the development at all cost attitude of colonialism and imperialism but eschewing the technology that became the dominant development. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why.” The ethics were not relevant. “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
—Rumi. This is somewhat where Steampunk and much fiction lie, as does much science. But this reaching outside society and the restrictions of others to open the mind and imagination is what allows development, creativity, and innovation. “A civilized society is one which tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity.” – Robert Frost

 Texas Road near Monaville

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