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Buddhadharma : Spri 2013
36 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY SPRING 2 0 1 3 joking—sort of. He shrugged and continued, “But I knew it was hopeless; it was already too late. You were in too deep already, and besides, I knew you wouldn’t listen.” If he said anything else, I didn’t hear it. All I could think of was this terrible question: Had Zen wrecked my writing? Ever since I first learned how to hold a stubby pencil, I wanted to be a writer. No, that’s not quite right, either. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to be a writer. I simply was one. I was a writer because I wrote. Some peo- ple have fond childhood memories of birthday parties and ski trips. My fondest memory is of choosing my first fountain pen. I was the only child of elderly scholar-parents, so writing was my refuge. The pleasures I took in words and stories—sensual and solitary, contemplative and creative—were urgent and undeniable. In elementary school, I wrote short stories and dreamed of the novels I would write one day. They would be long, muscular books about life—my life, real life, filled with passion, grit, and incident—writing that would make me me. I still have a battered canvas three-ring binder filled with pages of practice autographs, a testa- ment to my belief that by signing my name, I could somehow inscribe myself into being. In high school, I joined the editorial board of the school’s literary magazine. We held our meetings in smoke-filled rooms, where we read submissions and debated their merit with great fervor, exercising our strong preferences and newly forged opinions. We read William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath and Denise Levertov, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. We thought we were Virginia and Leonard Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, F. Scott and Zelda—or if we weren’t yet, we soon would be—so we drank heavily and behaved recklessly. We did drugs, kokoro, which means heart. That character was part of the dharma name he gave me, Kanshin Do-on, meaning generous (or ample) heart, voice of the way. I was both thrilled and scared to see myself reflected in this way. The name was a lot to live up to, especially since neither the alphabet nor my voice was working very well for me at the time. My Zen practice was working, however, help- ing me in myriad ways. Studying the dharma was transforming my understanding of the world. Zazen was giving me some emotional stability and insight into old habits of body and mind. And sangha was offering me the community that I’d always longed for. I wanted to give back, to be a part of this lineage and its continuity, so I asked Norman about shukke tokudo, or priest ordination. It seemed like the logical next step, and after putting me off for a year or two, Norman gave me permission to start sewing an okesa, the robe I would wear as a priest. I was overjoyed. The way forward now seemed clear, and if I noticed any hesitation or reluctance in my teacher’s manner, I ignored it. During this time, I brought up my writing woes in dokusan, a private meeting between student and teacher. I recall making a joke of it, saying that the problem seemed to coincide with the intensification of my Zen practice, and wasn’t that funny. But instead of laughing, Norman nodded solemnly and said, “Yes, I was afraid that might happen.” I was shocked. I pressed him for an expla- nation. “You were such a nice writer,” he said. “I was afraid Zen would wreck it for you. I’ve watched you getting so serious about your prac- tice, and I wanted to warn you. Practice will ruin everything! It will change you so you won’t be able to write in the same way anymore. Maybe you shouldn’t practice Zen so much.” He was smiling when he said this, so I knew he was 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.