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Buddhadharma : Spri 2013
SPRING 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 37 suffered anomie, and engaged in passionate or meaningless sex, and some of us (girls) even tried to commit suicide. We were brief but brilliant flames, fueled by the romantic-heroic ideal of the writer, burning up our lives and minds on the altar of our Art. Sustainability over the long haul didn’t interest us. SOMETIME BEFORE my ordination as a Zen priest, I was researching a uniquely Japanese genre of fiction called the I-novel when I came across the work of Harumi Setouchi. I-novels became popular in Japan in the early 1900s, when Japanese writers, responding to Western notions of individuality, began investigating the possibili- ties of the autobiographical self as hero. Harumi Setouchi was born in 1922, and as a young woman she led a dissolute life, abandoning her husband and child to run off with a young lover and later writing I-novels about her affairs. These were dismissed as pornography by the mostly male Japanese literary establishment, but needless to say, she was wildly popular among her read- ers. Then, at the age of fifty, she shaved her head, changed her name to Jakucho, and took Buddhist vows. After reflecting upon her life, she said in an interview, she realized that she’d done things she regretted and that if she were to continue writing, she would need a “backbone.” When I read this, I felt a jolt of recognition. Like Jakucho, I was reflecting upon my life in preparation for ordination and I felt unsure about my writing. But what really resonated was the deeper connection she made between writing and regret. My parents were intensely private people, and while they supported my writing, the publica- tion of my novels violated our unspoken family proscription against self-revelatory acts. I was devastated but not surprised when my father died a week before my first novel was published and again when my mother died shortly after the sec- ond one came out in paperback. I’d been expect- ing some kind of retribution from the moment I signed the contracts and turned in the manu- scripts to the publisher. I used to wake up in a cold sweat in the mid- dle of the night, thinking, Oh my god, what have I done? During daylight hours, I would console myself with the thought that the intensity of my mortification must correlate with the honesty, and therefore the worth, of the work, but at night the remorse returned, teeth bared and gnashing. There is something inhuman—or perhaps relentlessly human—in what writers do, in their naked attempt at truth telling. I’ve long been aware that I write from remorse, usually over something I’ve done or not done. My regret acts as an irritant, like a lump in a mattress that trig- gers a dream, and I then write in an attempt to understand my behavior, to test alternative pos- sibilities and outcomes, and to discover some- thing true. But every book I write misrepresents something else, generating more remorse, which I then must try to address in the only way I know, by writing another book. In trying to get at one truth, I distort others. It’s a process fraught with contrition, and I used to think this was good news, in that I would never run out of things to write about. But the bad news was that as my work got published, my sense of remorse intensi- fied, and I stopped being able to write. Publication is a kind of exposure. Writing, once published, exists in a public arena with a life and a karma of its own. Zen practice is a kind of exposure, too, only the arena of scrutiny is private. As I studied the precepts and prepared for ordination, my questions proliferated. How could I write with honesty and candor about the core questions of my life without implicating my family and friends? How could I write humor- ously without hurting others? How could I write dramatically without distorting the truth? How could I write fiction without lying or stealing other people’s stories? How could I take on the responsibility and consequences of representing the world with what I knew was my flawed and limited vision? Perhaps my writing problem wasn’t Zen’s fault, but Zen practice certainly was exposing the fault lines underlying my writing and bring- ing them into sharp focus. An old Zen aphorism, attributed to Qingyuan Weixin and variously translated in Buddhist writ- ing and pop culture, says: Before a person studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after he gets an insight into the truth of Zen, he sees that mountains are not mountains and waters are not waters; but after this, when he attains the abode of rest, mountains are mountains and waters are waters. RUTH OZEKI is a Soto Zen priest and an award-winning writer. Her novels include All Over Creation, My Year of Meats, and her forthcoming book, A Tale for the Time Being (Viking, March 2013). She lives in New York and British Columbia.