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Buddhadharma : Spri 2013
38 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2 0 1 3 For me, mountains were no longer moun- tains; writing was no longer writing. I couldn’t continue to write—or to live—in the old ways. I wanted to change, and Zen practice was enabling me to change in ways that felt right, but as my ordination approached, I found myself facing the biggest question of all. The abode of rest sounded promising, like a writing retreat in the Berkshires, but would I ever reach it? And would I need to give up writing completely to do so? Ordination is a renunciation. Jakucho said that when she was ordained, she was ready to throw away her typewriter, but instead she con- tinued to write, and now, at age ninety, she is still publishing books and is more prolific than ever. I was not so sanguine, but I knew that were I to continue writing, I would need a backbone, too. On the morning of my ordination, after my head was shaved, I felt light and clear, as if a weight had been lifted. I could feel every ephem- eral breeze against my scalp. When I looked in the mirror, I saw myself for the first time. There you are! Where have you been? Suddenly, there was no place to hide. But there was no need to hide, either, and this was a powerful feeling. Thomas King, a Canadian aboriginal writer, wrote, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” My old story is that I am a novelist. My new story is that I am a priest. Ordination didn’t eliminate one story; it just added another plotline, and the two often feel irreconcilable. Novelist, priest—these words describe voca- tions, but can vocation, a singular calling, be plural? Is one allowed to have two? Writing a novel is an act of devotion. It requires unthink- able amounts of time, day after day, to sink deep and find the still, clear place that is the source of stories. You could say the same is true for Zen practice, only what’s required in Zen is the opposite of what’s required for fiction. In zazen, we become intimate with thought in order to see through it and let it go. In fiction writing, we become intimate with thought in order to capture it, embellish it, and make it concrete. Fiction demands a total immersion in the fic- tional dream. This is not compatible with sit- ting sesshin, which demands total immersion in awakened reality. You can’t do both at once. Believe me, I’ve tried. And then there’s the sticky problem of lan- guage. Linguistic representation is an unreliable and even dangerous business, which is why reli- gion views language with wary circumspection and requires such a range of strategies—from fundamentalist Christianity’s insistence on the lit- eral word of God to Buddhism’s partiality toward silence—to cope with its slippery and ineffable complexities. The Buddha wordlessly transmit- ted the dharma to Mahakasyapa by twirling a lotus flower, and Mahakasyapa received it with an equally silent smile. Bodhidharma gave his transmission, the marrow of his teaching, to the student who remained silent. His lineage, my lin- eage, Zen, seems almost to disparage the written word, as this verse, attributed to Bodhidharma, describes: A special transmission outside the scriptures, Not founded upon words and letters; By pointing directly to one’s mind It lets one see into one’s own true nature and thus attain Buddhahood. —from Zen Buddhism: A History, India and China, by Heinrich Dumoulin; translated by James W. Heisig and Paul Knitter Still, for a lineage not founded upon words and letters, Zen is filled with stories, which means there is also a long tradition of reluctant and apologetic Zen writers. This should be com- forting to me, but it’s not, because most of these writers are poets. Zen poets can be forgiven. Their expression—an irrepressible diamond flash of insight, delivered onto the white page in bold brushstrokes of black ink—is brief and spontaneous. They do not dwell, carrying their cumbersome stories around with them on their backs. They get their writing over with quickly In zazen, we become intimate with thought in order to see through it and let it go. In fiction writing, we become intimate with thought in order to capture it, embellish it, and make it concrete.