Editor of The Zen Gateway website and practitioner of Zen Buddhism.
Blog: Can We Ever Truly Leave Omelas?
At a time when the price paid for western prosperity is being held under the microscope, it may be worth asking, can we ever truly separate ourselves from the society into which we were born?
Both fantasy fiction and science fiction have proved themselves as incredibly useful genres to explore questions of philosophy and ethics.
The recent acclaim given to the Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid’s Tale, televised by Hulu, explored patriarchy, totalitarianism and female subjugation and was well received by both the critics and the public.
The American writer Ursula Le Guin (1929-2018) wrote mainly in the science fiction genre.However, I was introduced to her writings via the Earthsea stories, a fantasy-based series about the training and life of a boy wizard. This was Harry Potter before Harry Potter, the first of these stories being published in the 1960s. It was a therapist friend who introduced me to The Wizard of Earthsea, the first book in the series, which my friend said was an excellent mythic exposition of the archetype of the Shadow. This was despite the fact that Le Guin said she had not read anything by Carl Jung prior to writing this story. Carl Jung formulated the theory of archetypes of which the shadow is one.
She was also a prolific short story writer and she used this form to explore difficult questions around some of her favourite subjects: feminism, anarchism, Taoism, the resolution of the opposites and the relationship between humans and nature. She was also interested in Buddhism.
Her short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, explores a moral question about living in a bountiful society that protects and provides for its people whilst simultaneously exploiting and degrading others. As I’m going to discuss this story you might like to read this four-paged story here first before going any further.
The city of Omelas is a wonderful place and Le Guin spends the first part of the story painting a chocolate-box image of an idyll which she then deconstructs with witty sides-swipes at her own picture-making. The idyll made, she then reveals that Omelas has a dark underbelly. In a dungeon below the city lives a single child, a girl, who is treated with utmost cruelty and who lives in total despair with no hope of release or redemption. The narrator makes plain that the total welfare of the city, its plenty, pageants and wealth is totally dependent upon this child being in the dungeon subject to her cruel jailers. The narrator makes no attempt to explain why this connection exists, simply that it does and that it is necessary for the survival of Omelas. The moral knife of conscience is twisted further by a ritual whereby all the boys and girls of a certain age are taken to see this miserable child at some point in their lives, so her existence is known by the entire population. But they learn to turn a blind eye and by that universal trait of human consciousness they learn to compartmentalise this knowledge so that it does not interfere with their lives in the wonderful city.
However, there are a few people for whom this knowledge pricks them too deeply and these few pack some belongings into a bag and in the middle of the night leave the city. These are the ‘ones’ of the story title. For these few, they cannot live off the suffering of that child and so choose to separate themselves from the monstrous set-up. Of course, we can see the point of this story; it raises questions about colonialism and its legacy, Third World interference by the First World, exploitative labour practices, technocratic rulership and so on.
The Huayen school of Buddhism was seen as the philosophical underpinning of the Zen school and it’s sutra The Avatamsaka or Flower Garland Sutra has as its central image Indra’s Net, a web that interconnects each and every thing to each and every other thing. This image evokes a wonderful sense of mystery and is the foundation for that classic 60’s phrase ‘cosmic consciousness’. It evokes a wonderful image of ‘oneness with the universe’. This thought can send the mind spinning and gives a ‘warm fuzzy feeling’! But there is a darker side to this inherent interconnection.
When Mother Theresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, she stopped off in London on her way to Stockholm. During this stopover she visited what was known as ‘cardboard city’ beneath Blackfriars Bridge in London where there was a sizeable number of homeless people living. There was a BBC film crew in tow with one reporter asking her: Whose fault is it for this situation? Is it the Government, is it capitalism? She replied; “It’s your fault… and mine, because we let it happen.” It struck me that Mother Theresa had a deep sense of this interconnectedness, that goes beyond the ordinary cause-effect relationship, which is allowed for under the framework of Indra’s Net. In this way of seeing even retiring to the top of a mountain in the remotest place in the universe will not allow us to escape this darker side to interconnectedness. In effect this would beg the question if we ever can really walk away from Omelas because that deeper connection will always create a sense of connection and therefore responsibility, the same responsibility that moved Mother Theresa to visit the homeless under Blackfriars Bridge. Of course, Le Guin makes an important political point by the actions of those who walk away which can have a symbolic effect to remind others of the uncomfortable truth. It may also be the beginning of an exploration to less harmful ways of living together. But there is an important point to be made even here. The problem with the sense of being able to walk away and to separate myself from the cause of trouble or ‘evil’, is to become vulnerable to ‘spiritual pride’, the sense of moral superiority that can arise when I believe in my own purity. If we know that we cannot wash away the stain of bad karma because of the interconnectedness of Indra’s Net, this allows for a sense of humility and a joint redemption with all beings which is reflected in the vows of the bodhisattvas,- that one cannot enter Nirvana without all others simultaneously.
 The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas: https://www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf
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