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Buddhadharma : Spri 2013
SPRING 2 0 1 3 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 39 and then return to the real business of enlight- enment. But as a novelist, my work is plodding, methodical, and time-consuming, and I carry my stories with me everywhere. Like a tortoise with a very heavy shell, I live inside my encumbering delusions. This seems very un-Zen-like to me, and unbecoming for a priest. HAVE YOU HEARD the one about the two monks crossing the river? An old monk and a young monk happen across a beautiful woman on the bank of a fast-flowing river. She needs to get across, and the older monk offers to carry her. The woman clambers onto his back, and he wades into the water. The young monk fol- lows silently, quivering with umbrage. When they reach the other side, the old monk lets the lady off, she thanks him, and the two monks go on their way. But of course, the young guy can’t let it go. He keeps thinking of the woman’s legs wrapped around his master’s waist, and the old man’s grizzled fingers clutching the white flesh of her thighs. Finally he can’t contain himself anymore. “How could you do that?” he cries. “Touching that woman! Breaking your vows!” The old man looks at his student and shrugs. “I left her back on the riverbank. Are you still car- rying her around?” I’ve always liked that young monk. He’s a novelist like me. In 2007, before my ordination, I’d started another novel and worked on it in fits and starts for several years. As with previous attempts, it grew into hundreds of dense, opaque pages before the bubble burst. But this time, when I gave up, I gave up more completely, and it was okay. As I prepared for ordination, I felt grateful that even though the novel-writing thing hadn’t quite panned out, I had a new vocation, and I was happy. I knew I would always write—nonfic- tion, essays, maybe even some poetry—and that this would be enough. But then, perversely, something else started to happen. I felt like my mind was changing, or my relationship with my mind was changing. My thoughts were slowly coming into focus again, and the beam of my attention was growing steadier and more precise. On a whim one day, I opened my old computer file and started toy- ing with the abandoned novel. Before I knew it, I was deep into the world of fiction again, only this time I was able to stay with the story long enough to penetrate its depths, untangle it, and find the way through. Several years and many drafts later, I finished it, and it will soon be pub- lished. It’s called A Tale for the Time Being, and it’s about a suicidal young girl, a 104-year-old Zen nun, and a novelist with writer’s block. It’s an I-novel, of course. We are all the stories we tell ourselves. As the heroes of our own I-novels, we never stop conceiving and reconceiving ourselves and those around us. Ever since I learned to hold a pen- cil, I’ve written myself into being over and over again: I am a novelist. No, I am a priest. Who is this “I” who feels torn between these identities and thinks she can only be one or the other? The problem is clearly one of dualistic thinking, and I don’t have an answer, except to say that by posit- ing these identities in opposition to each other, my relentlessly discursive novelist’s mind (a handicap for a spiritual practitioner) has probably created a problem where none need be. It’s an occupational hazard, since language, the tool of my trade, is also a tool of discriminative thinking and is, by its nature, divisive: it exists in order to distinguish this from that. But language has adhesive proper- ties as well, drawing us together by enabling us to share our stories. And in this regard, I like to think that novels are special. By inviting us into another’s skin, novels encourage us to practice empathy. And good novels celebrate the myriad complexities of individuals by creating ample room for all characters to have a voice. Birds live in air, fish live in water, and human beings live in language. That’s what Norman says, and I agree. We can no more remove our- selves from language than we can stop breathing. Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen, was an incorrigible writer. He agreed that language was a prison of delusion, but he had a more expan- sive view of the matter, maintaining that we can escape the thrall of language only through lan- guage itself. So as a student in Dogen’s lineage who remains hopelessly enthralled, I find com- fort in his wide and spacious embrace, which allows us characters ample room to be all of who we are. His all-inclusive approach has become my backbone, one that keeps me upright and enables me to write, or not write, as the case may be, and, either way, to hold my stories just a little bit more lightly.