The Rise of The Buddhist Novel: Brook Ziporyn's Omnipotence For The Millions

My previous post, "Contemplation of The Deluded Mind," was a brief sketch of the background and basis for the meditation techniques of Tiantai Buddhism. The gist is that for anything at all to exist, there must be contrast. Each contrast creates a field of relations between particular objects. One half of this contrast must be the overarching term which embraces and unifies the entire field of differences. At the practical level, Tiantai deploys the primary contrast of mind/matter (which proves to be equivalent to the splits between self/nonself, unity/multiplicity, and compassion/delusion). The practitioner is encouraged to contemplate this "moment of creation by mind," to isolate and intensify this experience as an instance of mind. This moment is a synthesis of diverse mental and physical objects, made possible by the workings of mind, of the "I" which excludes others. The student is instructed to search for mind or "me-ness" in every aspect of an experience, even and especially in its contrast to matter or "nonme." Once mind is seen to permeate all aspects of this moment, it negates itself: "one nature is no nature." Mind reveals itself to be and to have always been matter, and vice versa. The two opposites become reversible, capable of appearing as each other. Each moment can be described as neither mind nor matter, as both mind and matter, as entirely mind, or as entirely matter. The dualism is eliminated yet maintained--in fact, the contrast is heightened.

Brook Ziporyn is perhaps the first author to consciously apply the Tiantai maxim of "the more one dwells in it, the more one is liberated from it"
to an art form which is not native to Buddhist culture and practice: the novel. Omnipotence For The Millions is a ballsy narrative which sees the biased, alienated mind in everything, which attempts to explode the "I" (the illusory center of the universe) by fully realizing it. He manifests and isolates our collective delusion within his characters, allowing it to undermine itself. And he has created some of the laziest, some of the most selfish, duplicitous, and misanthropic characters ever placed on the page!

The story spins around the ever-changing fortunes of Mr. Smith and Mr. Smithers. Smith and Smithers are co-workers and rivals, drinking buddies who secretly despise and yet cannot escape each other. Despite his best efforts, Smither's fate becomes more and more entangled with that of Bill Smith. The two take turns playing the roles of boss and subordinate, supporting and sabotaging each other's careers in hilarious and ironic ways. And their backstabbing friendship spills over into their romantics lives. Smith hates his wife and is constantly cheating on her. Smithers is fucking Smith's wife. Smithers is also fucking Suzanne Goodfellow, Mrs. Smith's archrival. There's a lot of adulterous fucking in this book.

Much of Omnipotence's philosophical subtext is provided by the company which employs Smith and Smithers, Play To Win!, which writes and produces latenight infomercials to dupe the ignorant into buying its line of bullshit, subliminal self-improvement tapes ("Discover Your Inner Deserter," "Winning Through Intimidation," "How to How Look Good and Feel Great and Vice Versa With Apple Cider Vinegar"). Much to Smithers' chagrin, Smith bursts onto the scene as a natural self-help scam artist, masterminding a series of sold-out successes. Smithers vents his jealousy by inserting unflattering caricatures of Smith within his own infomercials. Later, Smith and Smithers encounter a crackpot named Charlie Goodfellow and begin to steal his ideas. Goodfellow is obsessed with his ever-expanding brainchild, a telephone service ("Only $4.99 a minute") which provides desperate seekers with a different worldview every time they call: "Everybody Secretly Loves Me," "Everybody Secretly Hates You," "Enjoy Quiet Time at Home," "Take Lots of Drugs," "Everything Is Worthless," "Pray to Everything," "Semen Is The Essence of The Eternal Life Force So Save It Up"--Goodfellow descends into madness elaborating his endless list of worldviews. And this dial-a-worldview scheme is a biting self-parody of Tiantai Buddhism's own omnicentric worldview.

The comedic pair of Smith and Smithers allows Ziporyn to explore the two-edged sword of intersubjectivity from the inside-out: To what extent is one's rival actually oneself? To what extent do we truly need our fellow man? These are crucial questions for any Buddhist, particularly those of the Tiantai persuasion, who view inescapable intersubjectivity as both suffering and as liberation. This is a must-read for anyone seeking the emergent edge of the New Buddhism.

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