Yes, this is really about Zen and Mega Man. The title is convenient AND accurate, not just sensationalized.
While working through finals, after having finished my paper on Zen Buddhism as well as my test containing sections on said religon/philosophy, but before beginning the rest of my work, I found myself playing with an old familiar childhood friend: Mega Man. In specific, Mega Man 2 which has always been to my mind the classic Mega Man -- after the lessons had been learned from the original in terms of technology and gameplay, but before such innovations as sliding came into play -- it also contains, in my mind, the best music of the series. But i digress.
I had played through the game just a few months ago, in emulation, making full use of the freeze state ability given my by NESten to save before difficult points so that i could go back and try that point again until i succeeded, without needing to go through the rest of the level. In order to vary my playing a little, i decided to try taking on the end bosses with only the mega blaster and, in order to make this task at least partially difficult, to play through each stage without saving during the stage. I also made another decision: I would play the heat man stage early on. Now, i must note here that whenever playing Mega Man 2, as i am wont to do, I leave Heat Man until the last. I do this because in the middle of the level there is a huge lava pit that you must get over either by a) using the Jet to cross it or b) jumping across a series of blocks that turn on and off in sequence. I had never before, in all my years of playing, jumped across the pit, and this time i decided to do it. But I had also made the resolution not to freeze in a level, so i did it the hard way, each time i fell i had to go back and try again, sometimes from the beginning of the level.
I thought that I would get frustrated at this, as i am a man of limited patience. And yet somewhere while I was playing, my instruction in Zen meditation techniches came back in -- in particular my readings in mindfulness meditiation. In short, the concept of Mindfulness in Zen Buddhism essentially means being aware of the moment you are in, living for that moment and not for what will came after the moment. Wash Dishes merely to Wash Dishes, says Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the more prolific and active (as in activist) monks of our era, having been shaped by the war and american involvement in his native Vietnam some years earlier. As i began to become frustrated, for each time I fell from a dissapearing block a part of my chest clenched against the action trying to change it in futility, i started to check myself. Suddenly, jumping from block to block became the only thing there was -- not making it to the end of the pit, not even staying alive, only jumping from each block to the next as they appeared. I went through many trials but i eventually reached the other side of the lava pit, and now when going back i could perform the same movements nearly automatically -- the lava pit had become a part of me, and i had also gained some calm.
This action turned the playing of a video game, a seemingly very goal oriented excercise, into a meditation session using the characters and tasks as mere focus. Letting go of the goal, I allowed my subconscious to learn the best way it can, through trial and error, while my mind simply sat back and kept watch on itself, keeping itself placid and smooth.
And then it occured to me where this Video Game had been produced: in Japan. I also recalled talking to my friend about a certain breed of console game that were referred to as the Japanese Frustratogame. This definition applied to games in which reaching the end was a prohibitively hard to genuinely impossible enterprise and where one invariably would have to retrace some or all of one's previous steps many times to get there -- such games are common in the console world, and typically come out of Japanese companies. Even those games with save features, such as Final Fantasy, originally required inordinate amounts of essentially mindless level building, where one repeated the same actions over and over again in order to become more powerful. My mind drew the connection quickly between Zen as a part of the Japanese worldview and the production of these video games in said island nation. This brand of video game was nothing short of a direct product of the Japanese world view, and it is for this reason that so many games in Japan, such as the original Super Mario Brothers 2, were either not released to the US or were released in easier form, such as Final Fantasy 3 US, and the Super Mario Brothers 2 as included on Super Mario All-Stars -- which had a save function. Quite simply, Americans do not like retracing their steps -- once they have accomplished one thing they move onto another, for the Western Mindset is very oriented on the goal, and less on the process. But in the Zen mindset, this is not the case -- the goal is in the process and the way one handles it -- acheiving the goal is, to some extent, secondary, or is at least an incidental biproduct of Mastery of the process. For one cannot simply accomplish a series of tasks and call oneself enlighted. Rather, one must perform the tasks over and over again until one sees that the task is incidental, until one recieves sudden enlightenment.
If one can enter such a mindset, where the task becomes a meditation in and of itself where one is becoming more aware of one's self and the world around one rather than simply performing the task to acheive the goal, Video Games become invaluable tools for focusing of the mind and the clearing away of outside thought. If one can separate the process from the killing in the game and rather than projecting one's ego onto the main character of the game instead letting the game pass as it will without arousing strong emotions, one can take a step toward bringing this approach to one's self in the world -- as merely an acting form, affected by but at the same time untouched by, the surrounding world.