The Lathe of Heaven written by Ursula K. Le Guin has a strong religious meaning. It discusses the possibility of man becoming God. In the text we see an ordinary man gaining power and knowledge beyond their peers’. This text is best understood through the Buddhist faith. Its tenets and teachings fully account for the state George Orr finds himself. George Orr is a mortal with powers and abilities that can change the world; Orr is a Bodhisattva, mortal but ready to transcend. While Ursula K. Le Guin probably did not write The Lathe of Heaven with the context of the Buddhist faith in mind, the text does lend itself to an interpretation through this religion.
Buddhism is based on the belief of Samsara. Literally translated, Samsara means wandering soul. This is the process of death and rebirth. The nature of one’s reincarnation, or rebirth, depends on Karma, or the law of moral retribution. Within this cycle, a person can be born into many states; the highest status of birth being Bodhisattva, a near god, and the lowest status being within the depths of Hell. However, no state is permanent. A soul moves within these ranks according to the Karma they’ve gathered through out their life. The act of liberation, the cessation of rebirth, is known as Nirvana, literally the blowing out of the fire of ignorance and desire, which is the fuel of Samsara (Coogan 106).
In order for a man to reach a true point of balance, all desires must cease. “There are two extremes… The first is the habitual practice of those things whose attraction depends upon the passions… Second is the habitual practice of asceticism, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable. There is a middle path, O monks, avoiding these two extremes, discovered by the Tathagata [one who has reached enlightenment]. This path opens the eyes, bestows understanding, leads to peace of mind, to the higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, and to Nirvana!” (Van Voorst 68).
In the novel The Lathe of Heaven, we are introduced to the incredible George Orr. George is normal, average in every way save one: He can change reality through his dreams. This fits very well with the Buddhist belief system. Within it he would be seen as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened one who has yet to attain the Parinirvana. As a Bodhisattva, he is still a mortal man, but is also a Demi-God or a keeper of the Earth. George’s absolute normalcy is a requirement for the power he wields. Enlightenment and control of the universe can only be attained through a balanced soul. The Tathagata walk on the middle ground and when true neutrality is attained, the human transcends to Bodhisattva, gaining control of the Earth.
“‘That’s not unusual; what is, is the emergence of the same damn pattern everywhere, right across the board. If you put them all onto the same graph you sit smack in the middle at 50… Where there’s an opposed pair, a polarity, you’re in the middle; where there is a scale, you’re at the balance point. You cancel out so thoroughly that, in a sense there is nothing left” (Le Guin 133 and 134). Here, Haber strongly establishes Orr’s complete normalcy. He is walking the path of enlightenment, with absolutely no extremes. This is what has allowed him to reach Nirvana.
In the beginning of the book, Orr is a jellyfish. “Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of the ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, the darkness enters it.” (Le Guin 7). This is a very good metaphor for Orr’s state of balance and unification with the universe. He does nothing to oppose the tide, simply follows and obeys its summons. A passive creature. Yet, like the jellyfish, Orr has hidden strength and power. This metaphor serves well in demonstrating Orr’s balance.
As previously discussed, a person must be free from all desires to reach Parinirvana. This is Orr’s short coming. He harbors one desire; ironically it is for the dreams to loose their power. It is this fear that keeps him as a Demi-God rather than a God. “‘I’m… afraid of dreaming.’” (Le Guin 14). But it’s not really the dreams that he fears. At one point he tells Haber: “‘because I don’t want to change things!’…’who am I to meddle with the way things go?’” (Le Guin 18). What Orr has forgotten here is that the universe acts through man. We serve it. Orr, as a Bodhisattva, controls Earth by governing the cycles of death and birth through the laws of Karma. This is why Orr cannot dream us into a Utopia. As he shifts people through realities, he rewards or punishes according to the Karma they have collected, but he cannot give what has not been earned.
But, in the end, Orr is still partly human and capable of error. In this novel, Orr’s only mistake is allowing Haber to control power that was not allotted to him through Karma. At the end of the book, we see Haber living out his punishment.
2001: A Space Odyssey
In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, we are introduced to a completely unremarkable David Bowman. David is bland and empty of any real humanity. He shows no passion, no fear, no hate, nor love. He is nothing. According to Buddhism, this is what set him up for his Nirvana, then subsequent Parinirvana. His emptiness left him to be filled.
In the beginning of the movie, we see blackness. Nothing. Then comes the Dawn of Man, with the rising of the sun. We see the ape men in their very lacking state. Then the monolith, as the word of God, comes among the apes and gives them the first pieces of knowledge required for enlightenment. As a man is reborn into his subsequent lives, he aquires more and more knowledge, until the stage is finally set and we meet David Bowman.
Frank Poole, David’s only awake companion, receives a birthday greeting from his family. He reacts with nothing. This is one of the many times we see the pair behave without emotions. When Poole dies, David seems completely unaffected and we never see him react to the deaths of his sleeping companions. We see nothing but David’s flat effect until it’s time to undo HAL. Then he has the beginnings of an emotional response. He mourns the killing of an entity he views as higher than himself.
When David reaches Jupiter, he sees the monolith and enters a new reality. Here, he has attained Nirvana and has become a Bodhisattva. He lives in the small room until his death. With death, he reaches out to the Monolith again appearing before him. He crosses the threshold of Parinirvana and dies his final death. His final rebirth, thus follows, uniting him with God. The movie ends with a gigantic baby of light approaching Earth. This is David, the new aspect of God.
Orr Vs. David
When comparing 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Lathe of Heaven, it is essential to look at the two figures representing God. They have many things in common and yet, maintain several differences.
Among their similarities is their normalcy. Both are average in every aspect. Neither has much in the way of emotional response or investment. They are balanced and detached. But, here the differences begin. Orr fears his powers while David searches them out. Orr never achieves Parinirvana, while David does. Thus, Orr remains a Bodhisattva and David becomes an aspect of God.
Haber Vs. HAL
In the novel The Lathe of Heaven, Haber tries to steal Orr’s power for himself. Haber said this to Orr: “ ‘You speak as if that were some kind of general moral imperative… But, in fact, isn’t that man’s very purpose on Earth – to do things, change things, run things, make a better world?’ “ (Le Guin 82). This is the direct opposite from the truths that led Orr to his powers. This is one of the extremes that Buddha warns us against.
Haber wants Orr’s power, directly, so he can set himself up to be a God. Haber tells Orr of the upcoming change. “ ‘We can’t stop – we’ve just begun! We’re just beginning to get any control at all over this power of yours. I’m within sight of doing do, and I will do so. No personal fears can stand in the way of the good that can be done for all men with this new capacity of the human brain!’ “ (Le Guin 144). Ultimately, Haber does grasp hold of Orr’s power. He takes Orr’s power and tosses him aside like an over used doll. But, Haber cannot control the power he has stolen and in the end, he has nothing.
HAL follows a similar path and shares Haber’s fate. HAL is given a powerful position on the ship, he has control over most everything. This gives him an air of Godhood to begin with. Like Haber, HAL is arrogant and self righteous, seeking power for personal gains. He has fatal flaws in his programming and tries to destroy the crew so that he can take ultimate control of the ship. However, his actions also lead him to his demise.
Both of these power hungry characters end the story with nothing. Both are driven by selfish needs for recognition, preservation and Godhood.
Both these works promise humanity Godhood for those who walk softly upon the Earth. And they issue a loud resounding warning against trying to defy God the very God we strive to join through petty efforts to force Godhood.
Coogan, Micheal D., Ed. The Illustrated Guide to World Religions. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.
Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven. New York: ESO, 2000.
Van Voorst, Robert E. “Dhammackkappavattana Sutta”. Anthology of World Scriptures. Ed. Robert E. Van Voorst; Belmont: Wadsworth publishing company, 2000. 84-85.