Six years after publishing my first novel, Inference, I’m thrilled to finally announce the release of my second book, A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast, which brings together twenty-nine short science fiction and fantasy stories to make you bug your eyes and burst your heart. Most were originally featured in Denver’s Birdy Magazine, where I’ve been a monthly contributor for the last four or five years, with many inspired by artworks selected by Birdy’s editors, moving the stories in directions unexpected even to me. Ninja witches, Chinese fables, Lovecraftian mysteries, telepathic aliens, post-apocalyptic space stations, trash-picking goblins, demonic matchmaking, comedy, tragedy, romance and revenge: A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast careens to the limits of the imagination and then leaps cackling off the edge.
Stories include “Filthy Animals”, “Scrimshaw”, “Prism and Prison”, “The Mouse Told the Wolves”, “Jang! Sang the Kangaroo” and the never-before-published “Neith, Queen of Murkfen.” Buy it today!
For those in Denver, I will also be hosting a book release (and going-away party) Friday, April 7, so keep an eye on your inbox for an invitation.
After some initial fiddling to get the hang of the slightly irritating interface via Discord, I’ve started to dig into the capabilities of the generative AI Midjourney. And my mind is reeling.
This technology is revolutionary. It’s the biggest leap forward since the Internet itself.
While I’ve been following recent developments in AI with keen interest, some initial experiments with Dall-E 2 left me underwhelmed. It was still impressive—it’s an AI creating images from scratch, for God’s sake—but the specific results often seemed far from what I imagined, and Dall-E seemed to balk at creating the kind of gritty and gruesome images I conceived in relation to my own fiction.
Not so Midjourney. However the Midjourney team is training their black box, it’s highly attuned, not only for sci-fi and fantasy images, but to a host of often unexpected uses.
But let’s start with sci-fi and fantasy.
Initially I was trying for very specific images, with mixed results. Like Dall-E, the AI often took my prompts and delivered something that was close but not close enough. Consider the prompt “a horse with black alligator skin and a raptor head, full body”: seems simple enough, right?
Close, but no cigar. Or half a cigar, and half a bird sticking out of your butt. Don’t look a raptor horse in the mouth, I guess.
This kind of thing happens a lot, and no doubt there’s a lot you can do to fix it, but I’m just starting out. Similar experiments were similarly problematic. For a while I kept trying to get it to create “a black horse with shiny snake scales,” which seems direct and intuitive enough; but the system kept creating horses with half scales and half mane, or scales that were far too tiny for my purposes (a reference for a hand-drawn piece I’m working on). On the other hand, a slight change in the prompt—”a horse with black alligator skin, full body”—delivered some perfectly usable images.
Maybe not as natural as I’d like, more plastic than animal, but as in all these images, I’m immensely impressed by the AI’s ability to create textures and model light around volumes—some of the great challenges of drawing.
But this is the tip of the iceberg. Let’s look at “a beautiful and intricate wooden sculpture of kannon bodhisattva, with a beautiful face and flowing robes, against a background of carved wooden leaves and branches, in the style of baroque european altarpieces, in the style of master h.l.”
With a few phrases, the AI conjures works of real beauty, a Baroque Buddhist art tradition that never was, or has yet to be. No, they’re not perfect; but consider the astonishingly graceful way Midjourney renders drapery, the folds cascading, wrapping, flowing, circling around the limbs. As an artist, I know that modeling drapery this way requires enormous skill. The old masters studied for decades to accurately render the way cloth hangs on the body. And now, with a few words, anyone can do it.
Or, more to the point for my own work, I can take these images as templates for compositions. I can keep the sinuous folds, but correct the misshapen hands; I can note the way the light falls on the carved branches, but alter the paths of the branches themselves; copy the texture of the leaves, but adapt the shape to become fig leaves, oak leaves, cherry blossoms.
Midjourney, I concluded, is powerful for anyone—incredibly powerful. It democratizes the power of visualization, makes Baroque masters of us all. But for those who already possess artistic skill, for those who understand composition, light and color, it likewise amplifies their abilities.
Consider also: What’s to stop me from using another program to render the images as 3D models—and then simply print them out on a 3D printer? What’s to stop me from rendering these figures in the real world, as real altarpieces?
Nothing, of course, though I may be underestimating the obstacles. But for a more approachable product, consider these sort-of wooden Dharma wheels, again in a Baroque style:
Or these ivory pendants:
How hard would it be to manufacture these, one way or another—by 3D printing, or by rendering them as vectors and then cutting the shapes out of wood with a laser cutter? Fairly trivial; and more trivial still with an AI generator that creates 3D models directly.
Not just pixels on a screen: real altarpieces, real pendants. Real buildings, cars, computer code, electronic components, music, movies, chemicals, viruses: real everything, jetting from our AI daemons like water from a fire hose, faster than we can possibly absorb.
Speaking of demons, here’s the prompt that really blew my mind: “A demonic battle in the style of Hieronymus Bosch, with science fiction elements.”
These images are stunning. They’re as good (well, nearly) as anything the top fantasy illustrators in the world can produce (perhaps not entirely surprising, since as we all know, the AI was trained on their works). More: they’re wildly creative, wildly evocative. They tell stories, they introduce characters, settings, conflicts. There are obvious similarities between them in terms of style, but the specific images are astonishingly unique. A rhino sorcerer conjures flames in his hand, a vampire lord floats over a battlefield of struggling minotaurs, a spiked ball wanders with its fellows on a strange dusty planet. The AI dips into the ocean of human art, and summons monsters from the abyss.
Just metaphor? Pixels on a screen?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m excited. These tools are immensely well suited to my own work—to illustrate stories I’ve already written, to inspire new stories, to incorporate into drawings and designs. A flood of projects is about to spill the banks.
But in the wider world, I can’t imagine that we’re ready for this pace of change. What rough beast indeed?
I’m thrilled to announce that beginning in mid-April, I will be serving as resident manager at Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center near Ward, Colorado. I’ve loved this place and this community from the first, and the opportunity to live and work there is a dream come true.
This move also reflects a growing understanding that individual realization and its expression in the world is sharply bounded by cultural, social and political contexts. If, after all, we truly understand our intimate connection with all beings, then we can likewise see that our circle of concern must extend beyond our immediate social groups and personal concerns to include the entirety of the earth’s living ecosystems, upon which all the rest depends. Otherwise we may end up living hollow lives, ignoring the looming consequences of our ultimately unsustainable lifestyles, whistling past the dark. Conversely, to seek social change without a clear sense of connection (and without a clear understanding of the self and its limitations) is to act from a position of separation that all too often results in division and deepening strife. Author and writer David Loy calls this the “ecosattva path,” the understanding that the bodhisattva’s vow to liberate all beings from suffering really must include “all beings”—down to the microbes in the soil and the grass under our feet.
From RMERC’s website:
Since the natural world, including its innumerable species and processes as well as the most vulnerable human members of our planetary ecosystem, is unable to protect itself from our formidable systems and technologies, the ultimate question is how we can realize our non-duality with it, to love it and be loved by it, and in that way come to embrace responsibility for the wellbeing of the whole biosphere. Our intention is that in working for the healing of the earth, we are empowered, healed, and awakened.
Nearing completion on this piece, which I’ve been planning for many months and working on in earnest for the last three or four weeks. It depicts Shakyamuni in the earth witness posture (bhumisparsha), with the earth goddess rising up to call forth the waves of understanding to wash away the army of Mara, the forces of delusion.
What is the Sangha? I find myself returning to this question over and over. Some people say the Sangha is everything and every person in the whole universe. This idea is correct, but it can be misused – just as Hakuin’s words, ‘This very body is the Buddha,’ can be misused. Personal practice must implement the universal view of Sangha. Actualizing is our work, individually and socially.
Some people say that Sangha is sanctuary. This idea is correct, but it too can be misused. We need a sanctuary for our zazen, just as we need peace in our hearts individually. But ultimately sanctuary is isolation. I am coming to feel that Buddha Sangha, and by that I mean zendo membership, is a cadre of change. It is a community of people secure in their vision of universal Sangha, grounded in their personal sanctuary, who seek to transmute the poisons of the world in organized and coherent ways. (Robert Aitken, Encouraging Words 109.)
These are Robert Aitken’s words, found in his book Encouraging Words, and like the old roshi I find myself returning to this question over and over. What is the sangha? What is its purpose? What, after all, are we doing here together?
For anyone new to Zen who may be unfamiliar with the term, Sangha is one of the Three Treasures of Buddhism, alongside Buddha and Dharma. Buddha can refer to the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, or to the many buddhas we meet every day—everyone sitting here and you yourself—and to the irreducible fact of existence, the boundless Buddha-nature of all things. Dharma is the teaching: the Buddhist canon of sutras, koans and commentaries, and the great teaching of the cosmos, the truth of how things actually are. And Sangha is the community: religious communities like this one, and the great network of all beings extending to the farthest reaches of time and space, bound together in an infinite web of interdependence.
As humans we are social animals, living our whole lives within extensive networks of social relationships. Social networks shape virtually everything we do and are, from our most basic motivations to the languages that form our conscious thoughts. In a real sense, we are our communities, and they are us: like fingers of the same hand, or ants in a hive. We are never separate; we are always connected. You are your mother, your father, your siblings and children; you are your friends, your coworkers, the grocery store clerk and the man begging on the side of the road. You are your city, your nation, and the whole human species, present in every cell and neuron, every word and gesture. As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Our communities provide countless benefits, providing us not only companionship but the fundamentals of life—food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and everything else. Wendell Berry wrote, “Only the purpose of a coherent community, fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live.” This is the virtuous action of sangha: “teaching us to preserve all things needful to make us glad to live.”
But if we reap the benefits of social networks, we also share their dysfunctions. War, violence, racism, sexism, authoritarianism, exploitation and oppression of all kinds are the ever-present shadow of human culture, as extant today as in ancient Egypt.
Harada Daiun Sogaku, a teacher in our lineage whose name we recite in our Ancestral Teachers chant, wrote in 1934:
The spirit of Japan is the Great Way of the [Shinto] gods. It is the substance of the universe, the essence of the Truth. The Japanese people are a chosen people whose mission is to control the world. The sword [that] kills is also the sword [that] gives life. Comments opposing war are the foolish opinions of those who can only see one aspect of things and not the whole.
Politics conducted on the basis of a constitution are premature, and therefore fascist politics should be implemented for the next ten years…. Similarly, education makes for shallow, cosmopolitan persons. All the people of this country should do Zen. That is to say, they should all awake to the Great Way of the Gods. This is Mahayana Zen. (qtd. in Victoria 137)
“The sword that kills is the sword that gives life.” Few phrases in Zen have been so abused. Here a master in our own lineage—praised by Philip Kapleau and Taizan Maezumi, among others—used it to defend fascism and Japanese imperialism. If the central insight of Zen is that form is emptiness and emptiness form, and everything else amounts to “the foolish opinions of those who can only see one aspect of things,” then it seems Zen can be twisted to any purpose whatsoever. What then are we to make of Zen training and realization?
My latest in Birdy Magazine, “Prism and Prison.” It’s fascinating how metaphors – which is to say, stories – can both offer new perspectives and lock us into just one. Ultimately all concepts fall short of reality, and the universe is always greater than our thoughts about it; but this is not to say it is something concrete, but rather is infinitely labile, wood turning to smoke, gasses condensing into planets.
“Humans are not machines, she told herself. The brain is not a computer.”