Modern Koans

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

With us, there are always more tasks in the task cloud than we can accomplish every day. We try to find the most efficient and least stressful order of things, known as the critical path in project management parlance. Inevitably, priorities shift, course corrections are needed, and emotions can skyrocket.

We've learned that segmenting large tasks helps. That way, we can at least fall asleep knowing that we've completed one or more stages of what was advertised as a "simple task", but which turned out to have seven or eight devilishly complicated preliminary stage gates to pass. .

We try not to let perfection be the enemy of good. I confess that I am very happy to receive adulation for the 80% of a day's tasks that have been completed, but I bristle when I am reminded of the 20% that I have forgotten or, in my mind , considered less of a priority, only to be taken aback by my partner on this point. Then there are those days when everything goes awry and all plans are shelved.

When friends and family ask, "How are you these days?" I'm likely to tell them my graphite planes metaphor. Do you know the molecular composition of graphite pencil? Carbon rings are made up of six atoms tightly bound in two dimensions, floating next to other rings above and below. the low coefficient of friction between the planes allows us to leave our mark. Likewise, our consciousness floats from plane to plane as we experience different aspects of our being: mystic, celebrant, parent, worker, computer operator, body, etc. Sometimes a traumatic event can leave us trapped in one of these dimensions, unable to access the others. Sometimes this trauma can be so extreme that the ties are severed completely and we become schizophrenic. But most of the time we manage. It is a koan of our time but, alas, no amount of circumambulation or prostration can get us out of it.

Naturally, some form of meditative balance and reflection reveals the inner workings of where and how we become pinned down.

Life today in our middle-class Canadian society is incredibly complicated. Do you want to access your medical file? There's a portal for that, and it's a perfect example of how a simple request leads to a rabbit hole that many digital immigrants of my generation are unable to cognitively follow, without a lot of wobble and stress. But you get the idea; you can apply the same script to request a refund for something you bought online or to monitor your credit score or. . . .

It takes a lot of infrastructure to make it all work. Eject even one of the myriad supports and any of us could fall through the hole in the social safety net when our stool tips over. You don't have to look any further than the evening news to see what it looks like.

It is true that I have a bad feeling about the future of humanity and there are so many voices around me that reinforce this message without offering an alternative perspective.

On a deeper level, my critical path through this cloud of possible future scenarios is not just a meditative balance and reflection, but a creative and positive imagination of the “best of all possible worlds” – the Pure Land. I know the way Voltaire used this phrase in his satire, Candid. Unintended consequences come, part and parcel, with aspirations. However, a still flame does not flicker.


I recently had the experience of walking around Toronto's flagship mall looking for a small clock to give as a gift. There were at least 10 stores selling high-end watches, the kind of stores with fearsome security guards at their doors. The double irony is that almost everyone has a cellphone and a smartwatch, so no one really needs a watch like the ones these stores sell, and conversely, most of us could never afford to make such a purchase. So really, these stores are telling us that we are unworthy but should yearn to be able to buy such useless items just as status symbols. The underlying message seems to be that we are not allowed to be happy.

By the way, the only place I found a clock was in a bookstore that had largely given up selling books and turned its retail space into higher-margin items. The two furniture stores did not sell clocks. After all, who needs a clock with all of our digital devices close at hand? Most of the other stores in this mall were international designer brands or fast food kiosks selling carbs and sugar to keep you fit while eyeing your best.

It was tiring. If I never walk through a mall like this again in my life, that's fine with me. It showed me how far I was from society's expectations of me as a practicing Buddhist. The life offered at the mall is unattractive, unsustainable and toxic.

As I pushed a wheelchair across polished floors past a crowd of stylish shoppers posing for selfies or meandering through endless cosmetics shelves, I couldn't help but wonder how to reconcile this life with the suffering experienced in other countries right now. I can't. The plane of the carbon ring I exist in is so drastically different from their lived experience that I can't imagine anything beyond a generalized sense of misery, just as I can't imagine the dimension that pleases the inhabitants from the mall who yearn for the realm of the devas.

They will all be attracted to different lights in the bardo. I prefer to dance in the mandala.

* * *

A college professor friend tells me that he is inundated by his students with ChatGPT essays. Already! He says, “I'm drowning in ChatGPT-related work here; I have three meetings with students this morning to discuss their AI-generated papers, with more scheduled for later in the week. He estimates an additional 40 hours to assess and evaluate the 3 assignments his employers expect of him. What human could score 500 assignments in the first place? He thinks the art of writing will follow the path of cursive writing. It's time to rethink.

When I started this Bodhisattva 4.0 column more than two years ago, it was based on the premise that we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution, this one involving AI. Well, here is a perfect example. The future is totally different from the past and teaching young people to achieve the status quo rather than navigate tomorrow's society is fundamentally wrong. We must teach with and about strategic foresight.

* * *

Many institutions are struggling to meet their newly discovered need to address diversity, equity and inclusion in their mission statements. Their efforts are commendable. But if they get stuck in this dimension without addressing other dimensions, they will move forward, creating other unintended consequences in positive feedback loops. Like everything else in our modern world of drop-down menus and checkboxes, organizational change resides in the dark matter of the universe. We need an entirely different lens to see it, and to do that we need to look up from computer screens and jewelry store windows.

Like all other koans, these are unanswered questions that demand an answer. Bring me the rhinoceros fan.

You cannot have positive societal change without changing positive values. And that's where bodhisattvas come in.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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