Will It Go Round In Circles?

By Rev. Jon Turner

When you first open a Word document to edit, it is still in its original state. The document still matches the file on the disk. You could think of this as T0 – the document at time zero. This is the beginning of time for that document in that session. The first edit you perform moves the document to a new, modified state at time one, represented by T1. And so on to T2 and then to T3. If you ever make the wrong edit or change your mind about a modification then you can always undo it by using <control>Z. This takes you back in time, from T3 to T2. You can even go back to the beginning of time, the original state of T0, if you keep doing an undo.

This is how our software application worked when I was a software programmer. But sometimes we had bugs and an undo would send us to the wrong state. We would gather around a white board and draw a horizontal number line with these T’s on it – moving backwards for undo and forwards for an operation. We all understood that time moves from left to right, from the beginning of time (when the file is first opened) until the end of time (the current state of the document).

One of the programmers I worked with was a Chinese national. She would always draw a circle instead of a line. For an undo she would move her dry marker from 12 counter-clockwise back to 12. For an operation, she would move clockwise from 12 back to where she started – again at 12. None of us ever understood what she was doing. Where did this circle come from? Then one day I realized that perhaps this was the influence of Buddhism in her culture. In Buddhism, things are always cycling. There is no beginning and no end like there is in Christianity which begins with Genesis and ends with the aptly named End Times.

In the West, we also debate what is happening on this time line as we move from left to right. Are things getting better or are they getting worse? The better view is optimistic. It is call utopianism. It is the idea that we are evolving and improving as a species over time. This is reflected very strongly in the original Star Trek series. Captain Kirk was always congratulating humanity for its ability to move beyond ignorance to a more enlightened consciousness. Spock also had the same history. The Vulcans were able to resolve their anger, ignorance and greed through logic and rationality. This reflected the strong personal philosophy of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek.

On the other side, rather than utopianism, there is what is called dystopianism. This is the philosophy that things are getting worse. We are not heading to paradise but to a calamity. There are many movies that take this view. For example, Terminator and Blade Runner. This is a pessimistic view of humanity and its future. But there is another approach and movie, one that sees time as my Chinese friend’s circle going around and around.

Many of my friends did not like the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi. They felt that Disney had just rebooted the story for a younger generation. Luke Skywalker was now represented by the character Rey and the role of Darth Vader was now replaced with the character Kylo Ren. It seems that the hopeful ending of Return of the Jedi had been destroyed by either the Clone Wars or Disney’s desire to sell more merchandise. Where have all the happy, dancing Ewoks gone?

I tried very hard to watch The Last Jedi without expectations and I really wanted to be entertained so I very much suspended my disbelief. What I realized after careful reflection was that the message of The Last Jedi is that we are trapped in a cyclic reality of alternating darkness and light. A struggle that continues from generation to generation without ever being resolved.

The Star Wars franchise is merely moving clockwise, beginning at 12 and around the dial back to where we started.  This very much reflects how my friend at work conceived the movement through time and how Buddhists have always modeled time. Each person is trapped in their own reality that repeats due to our ingrained behaviors and actions. Therefore, we shouldn’t really be surprised when our history keeps repeating itself.

I don’t see this interpretation as a positive or negative view of humanity. In my opinion, it is merely a realistic one. For Buddhists, it is the middle path that enables us to no longer be prisoners of our genealogy, our biography, or our biology. We can break this cycle by seeing things from a different perspective. This path orients our life from samsara to nirvana, breaking our habits but giving our lives a focus – one that ends our samsaric cycling. In this way, humanity has a chance at utopianism rather than dystopianism. This is the wish of the Buddha. Let us all try to share this wish with others.

In gassho, Rev Jon Turner