Zen and progress
Is Zen against progress? Zen is claimed to be a path of 'action' (often said in reply to criticisms about complacency). However I wonder if a society of dedicated Zen buddhists would ever cure cancer or invent computers or, in general, discover a better way to do X (insert your favorite activity, chore, job, etc)?
I ask this based on a few points I've picked up in various sources. I recall one story about an American who had joined a Japanese monastery. He observed how the monks went about their daily chores and one day realized that they were being inefficient. He went to the head monk and told him that if they changed x, y, and z they'd save at least 3 hours of work a day. The head monk considered this and replied "Then we'd have to sit zazen for 3 extra hours a day. We sit long enough as it is." So the idea was shot down.
When I think about this aspect of zen it speaks to me of the wisdom that there are more important things in life to balance against progress. That zen is not against progress as a rule, but only against the excessive focus on progress that is so persuasive in modern society. This speaks to a greater regard for sustainability. Progress cannot continue forever - the simplest example of this is the exhaustion of natural resources that can happen with unlimited population growth. Many human societies were able to live in the same location for thousands of years without exhausting their resource simply because they, essentially, did not change. Their life spans were not that long becuase their medicines were not that great, they had no ipods, life was hard. There was very little technological progress in these societies (some, like the Oholone natives of California, actually ostracized individuals who proposed changes to their technology). Some might call this stagnation, others call it long-term sustainability.
One of the reasons western society is so fixated on progress is the very anti-zen notion that this moment is not good enough. We must sacrifice this moment for the future. We must spend all our time and effort now to make things better later. A lifetime spent in this fashion is a pretty sad affair, but this fits very well with Christianity and similar religions, which tell their followers, it's OK to suffer now because you'll have eternal bliss in Heavan after you die.
In contrast, a society of Zen buddhists, who think this moment is all there is, would be, I assume, less likely to sacrifice the present for the future than most of modern society. This is why Zen is sometimes criticized as advocating complacency - contentment with the present seems to invariably lead to acceptance of the present (if not 100% acceptance, at least more acceptance than we see in modern culture which proclaims loudly, "This moment is flawed, we must fix X, Y, and Z NOW! Work harder!"
Island life is often called "slower" than modern life, but sometimes criticized as being the result of laziness. The same people who call islanders lazy, of course, love to vacation there because everyone is so much more laid back.
What if everyone was that laid back? What would life be like? I expect there would be less fighting but the reason for less fighting would be the same as the reason for less progress - "things aren't that bad right now - let's just enjoy life and keep things the way they are."
I expect Computer software produced by a zen buddhist company would have fewer bugs but fewer innovations too. No bells and whistles, just perfect code.
So, is advocating a dedication to Zen also advocating the slowing down of progress? I'd say it is.