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June 2008

Writing Well

Zen and the Art of Writing Well

What does Zen have to do with quality writing? What is Zen, anyway?

As my favorite teacher, R.H. Blyth, has written –“Zen is the unsymbolisation of the world and all the things in it.

But isn’t writing all about symbols? Aren’t words, as the writer William H. Gass has taught us, the “ultimate minded things?” Numbers seem abstract but one finds them lurking within the ratio of diameters inside a chambered nautilus or organizing the elliptical orbits of the planets. Pi is hiding everywhere; scratch the surface of Nature and you’ll uncover pi hiding there like a vole in the rootballs of high grasses.

But words? Words are completely minded things. How can Zen – which is a discipline, a way of seeing, a way of unsymbolizing the world – possibly help us with the minded arrangements of words in the minded and totally artificial profession of plotting and story-telling?

Of course,” writes R. H. Blyth, “the Zen masters use metaphors and similes, they even use symbols, but these are not to be taken seriously.

Zen is not a religion. It is a way of seeing. Its history is not, as is the history of all religions, a list of holy men and miracles and sacred scriptures: Zen is a narrative of momentary encounters in which some very human teacher startles some very human student into a clear way of seeing. To say that Zen grew from Buddhism is true, but it is the equivalent truth of saying that humankind “grew” from primordial sludge 4 billion years ago. Buddha himself attained enlightenment, but he seemed piss-poor at being able to explain or communicate it to others. The best he could do was to recommend a moral and self-controlled life as a way to enlightenment similar to his . . . oh, and to admonish his followers never to build statues to him or to hold his corpse or ashes in any sort of veneration.

Immediately upon his death they built statues of him and worshiped what they thought were his ashes. Most of his disciples remained moral and self-controlled and blind and superstitious and unenlightened.

                     R. H. Blyth

What is Zen? “Zen is looking at things with the eye of God, that is, becoming the thing’s eyes so that it looks at itself with our eyes.”

The scientist nods here because this is what 16 billion years of the universe’s evolution and more than 4 billion years of planetary evolution have done to prepare us – We have become one of the universe’s eyes and hearts and minds by which the universe can contemplate itself. The mistake there is to start believing that you, part of that observing We, are somehow more important or central than the universe we are so imperfectly designed to observe. It as if one photoreceptive cell in one’s eye were to suddenly believe that it was the pinnacle of all evolution and the darling of creation simply because it can receive the impression of a photon.

But this is not enough,” says Blyth. “Impression must always be accompanied by expression. Impression without expression is not yet impression. Expression without impression is not possible. But impression and expression are not enough. Expession without reception is meaningless. It is not expression if it is to nobody. This is why all art, all music, all poetry requires two persons. Why only two?”

The Tattireeya Upanishad explained this –

                        “I am this world, and I eat this world.
                          Who knows this, knows.”

Zen masters cannot be masters unless they have students. The encounter between the Zen master and his student is very similar to the encounter between the novelist and his reader (warning! We are wandering into analogy here, which is antithetical to true Zen) – that is, the Zen master and the writer use the imperfect forms of words, similes, stories, koans, and – yes, symbols – to shock and surprise the student and reader into seeing the world and what lies beneath the world with a fresh and terrible clarity.

So in one of John Updike’s four Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom books (there was also a posthumous novella), decades ago, I read the line about Rabbit sleeping best during the day with all of the people in the house and outside “like upright nails holding down the world . . .” and I am enlightened.

Religions ossify into sacred texts and icons and crucifixes and Stars of David and “sacred places” (all places are sacred) – symbols that are like the fossilized bones of dinosaurs and other extinct animals from the past. To become fossilized is to have the bones of a once-living thing be replaced by minerals – for a once-living body to become a three-dimensional shadow of stone. All symbols of religions and the religions themselves  are such stone shadows.

Zen is life itself. It is the irrelevant and unimportant act of a dinosaur scratching its neck – or a sabertoothed cat licking its balls. It is a mastodon farting. It is life itself.

The great writers know that even if they do not say they know or know that they know. They impart sudden, sure, summer-heat-lightning-in-the-night glimpses of the world.

The Buddha taught us – or tried to teach us – that presumed messiahs, prophets, and saints spend their lives pointing upward at the moon or at some perfect blossom and their followers stare at the pointing finger and believe that the message is the finger.

                                    I am this world, and I eat this world.
                                    Who knows this, knows.

And John Updike in his near-perfect Zen story “The Music School” –

                        “The World is the Host. And it must be chewed.”


We can look for guidance toward writing well in the koans and statements of Zen masters, but it is difficult and tricky work.

One of my favorite teachers is Ummon, a famous Zen master in the 9th Century Tang-era China. Ummon is particularly known for one-syllable Zen – i.e. answering his students’ questions, however lengthy and complicated the question, with a single (Chinese) word.

A monk asked Ummon, “What is the Buddha?” Ummon replied, “A dried shit-stick.”

Hmmm. How is this going to help us write a good novel or story? In fact, what the hell did Ummon mean?

First of all, we should know that a koan does not “mean” at all, any more than a novel or poem does. As another Zen master, Archibald MacLeish, taught us in his poem “Ars Poetica” – “A poem does not mean but be.

But . . . the Buddha is a dried shit-stick? If Zen insists that the Buddha must be present in every word on every page of every story and novel we write – damned Buddha! damned Zen! – then is our novel to be nothing more than a dried shit-stick?

While we ponder this 21st Case of the Mumonkan, a little context might help. For a long time, including Ummon’s era, pieces of wood were used as toilet paper in China. When the fresh wood ran out, people would pick up old used ones. This spread disease and killed off a lot of Chinese over the years and centuries, but the natural selection involved also led to the Chinese people being one of the most disease-resistant races on the planet.

So was Ummon saying that the Buddha – i.e., man – was the shit on the clean wood of the shit-stick?


Too easy. Too simple. Since Ummon was made up of the atoms that would become Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde, we can make a better guess that the Master was telling the questioner not to seek the answer to that particular question but to be satisfied with his question. This is the art of living in this world.

Another great Zen master named John Keats called this art of accepting the important question over the impossible answer “Negative Capability” and explained its meaning in his letter to George and Thomas Keats dated Sunday, 22 December, 1817 --

“I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously - I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

 And yet another great (and accidental) Zen master named Ernest Hemingway elaborated on Ummon by showing us that one must see the shit and the stick as equally important entities when he said –

. . . the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have it.”

The idea is not, always, to exclude the shit, but to be able to tell it from the stick.

A monk asked Ummon “What is it that surpasses the Buddhas, surpasses the Patriarchs?” Ummon replied, “Buns.”

The Buddhas and Patriarchs, like the Bible and Koran, like the presidency and generalship and the authority of a policeman, are things of the mind; but buns are real.

And also, as teacher Blyth explains, buns are something which Buddhas and gods and generals and presidents are not (except unintentionally); they are funny.

Perhaps the ultimate Zen master of the 20th Century, Charlie Chaplin, showed us this Truth best in his dinner-roll dance routine in “The Gold Rush.” Charlie’s dancing dinner rolls – he plants his forks in two rolls and turns them into little bun-shoes -- are the truth that surpasses the Buddhas and all holy men who have come before those buns.


Blyth tells us that according to Shinichi Hisamatsu’s book Zen to Bijutsu, “Zen and (Chinese and Japanese) Art,” Zen has seven characteristics as seen in painting, pottery, calligraphy, Nō, the tea ceremony, and so on. Perhaps these characteristics also apply to writing well. Perhaps they do not. Either way, or both, they will help us see.

  1. Asymmetry (avoidance of the geometrical and perfect; unsaintly saints)
  2. Simplicity (black and white preferred)
  3. Agedness (finished before it is begun; Wordsworth’s ‘bare trees and mountains bare”)
  4. Naturalness (innocence; thought-less-ness; no compulsion)
  5. Latency (translated as “profound subtlety,” the gentleness of the warrior; the subdued but not gloomy light of the tea-room; much in little)
  6. Unconventionality (indifference to contradictions; no “Idea of the Holy”)
  7. Quietness (inner, not outer)

Blyth goes on to say –

We should use these terms flexibly; they may include their apparent opposites. Quietness is heard in the roaring end of a Bach fugue, with organo pleno. It is seen in the writhing of a million maggots in rotting fish-heads. Unconventionality may be expressed in the wearing of a silk hat and frock coat. Zen has latency (yūgen) but is not symbolic. It is deep, but easy. Zen is natural, but there is little Zen in children and none in animals, which are near-machines. We must become children, but a man who has become a child is not merely a child.

Each of the above qualities is necessary; none can be omitted, because they are different names of the same nameless thing which is not a thing. When one is absent, all are absent. To these seven I wish to add four more:

      8.   Freedom (absolute freedom – to be symmetrical if we want to)
      9.   Humour (includes paradox and contradiction, and the blessedness which we attain to in their perception)
      10. Sexuality (“Eternity is in love with the productions of time”; this sexual relation between man and the world is
            Zen, and enlightenment is its orgasm; “All nature is my bride,” says Thoreau. Those human and necessary
            elements, sadism and masochism, are included here.)
      11.  Joy (youthfulness, Blake’s Glad Day; the early Wordsworth’s universe)


I’ll step fully out of Zen here to analyze these no-need-to-be-analyzed 11 steps to Zen Writing Well. (The 12th Step may have to join a 12-Step Recovery Program to recover from the 11 Zen Steps.)

One – “Asymmetry.”

How would the Zen and Asian principle of preference for asymmetry be applied to writing well? There’s the obvious – escape from symmetrical formula and escape from the strict guidelines of form in general. Perhaps this is why traditional screenwriting with its strict 3-act format and equally strict requirements of high points, sub-climax, climax, denouement, at set points on the journey, are so totally anti-Zen.

And yet the best films – say, “Casablanca” – are filled with Zen. Was it an accident? Oh, yes. All great Zen is an accident of encounter with now. And all such accidents are the triumph of asymmetrical beauty over strict form and tired formula.

So should we avoid careful outlines and plot wheels and various write-a-novel formulae in our Zen attempt to write well?

Mu,” says the Zen master. “No.” “Yes.”  “Unask the question.”

And then there is a cry of “Kwatz!” and the master’s heavy staff comes flailing down on our head and shoulders.

Zen-teachers and Zen-poets such as Robert Frost show us that the greatest freedom can be found by imposing restrictions, while also reminding us – say in regard to choosing rhyme and traditional meter over blank verse – that it’s more fun to play tennis with a net in place.

We, as Westerners, prefer the geometrical and perfectly symmetrical in much of our life – our architecture, our interior design, our landscaping, our thinking. Thomas Jefferson was a slave to symmetry and geometry. The awkward roof of his octagonal house leaked like a sieve. Eight fireplaces serving only four chimneys, a geometrical delight to him, caused the flues to clog and threatened to burn the place down. Jefferson’s huge vegetable garden – its layout, its fencing, its rabbit traps, its choice of vegetables to be grown – was a hymn to symmetry and geometric precision and scientific theory. It just didn’t grow many vegetables. Each year, Jefferson had to buy vegetables from his slaves – vegetables grown in their haphazard, unscientific, and very asymmetrical plots behind their slave quarters.

But, you point out, all writers strive for the perfect. Flaubert and F. Scott Fitzgerald and a few others came damned close to achieving it in their novels. There was much plotting there, much attempt at symmetry, much geometrical underpinning, and rewrite after rewrite in their attempts at perfection.

“Buns!” cries Ummon. Study the geometrical complexities of their wonderful, carefully planned and carefully executed novels and you will find an ingredient of pure chaos at play. The world – the Charlie-Chaplin-dancing-dinner-buns world of the real and surprisingly accidental, however carefully rehearsed – is very much in Madame Bovary and The Great Gatsby. Buns-chaos snuck in. And it stayed for dinner.


Second – “Simplicity.”

So simplicity in prose (“black and white preferred”) is the truest way to writing well? The answer is a strong and unequivocal “Yes.” The answer is also a strong and unequivocal “No.”

We’ve certainly argued strongly for simplicity in prose style in this Writing Well discussion. Flaubert shows us why it is the best of forms. Examples from James Joyce’s short fiction seem to confirm Flaubert’s theories and practice. Understanding why Scott Fitzgerald’s deceptively simple style is so powerful adds to the circumstantial evidence.

And then there is Hemingway.

For a man who seemed to have no Zen in his personal life, Hemingway’s writing – especially the early short stories – radiates Zen and Zen-truth. Someone compared Hemingway’s prose style to a clear stream through which we can see the pebbles at the bottom – the pebbles presumably being whatever Hemingway wanted us to see of his characters and his tale, vision never made murky by attempts at fancy style. (My friend Harlan Ellison refers to the cinematic equivalent of fancy, quirky style – the young director’s nervous use of odd-angle shots and weird compositions and jumpy cuts – the “Look at me and what a big dick I have!” school of directing.)

Hemingway may have shown that last attitude in his life, but his writing was Zen-simple, Shaker-simple, with a clear purpose for every well-made chair and staircase. To understand Zen in writing styles, one can study “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” or “Cross-Country Snow” or “Hills Like White Elephants” or “Big Two-Hearted River” or “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and see the pebbles through the stream and know that both stream and pebbles are Zen.

Where Hemingway is buried in the town cemetery in Ketchum, Idaho, at the north end of town  – (he committed suicide there at his home in Ketchum in 1961) --  there is an almost-Zen monument with words taken from a eulogy he wrote in 1939 for a friend, Gene Van Guilder:

Best of all he loved the fall
The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods
Leaves floating on the trout streams
And above the hills
The high blue windless skies
Now he will be a part of them forever

This might be a Zen-poem by Bashō or Hanshan (Kanzan) or Ryōkan or Ikkyū or another great Zen-master-poet save for that sentimental and redundant last line. There is no sentimentality in Zen. Hemingway bowed to his Christian heritage there and showed the hawk in the blue sky when all he had to do was to show the blue sky.

So simplicty is always preferred?

Mu. (and “Kwatz!” and thunk!)

We’ve savored the simplicity of style of Hemingway and Twain and others in this Writing Well discussion, but we’ve also celebrated the power of complex, even convoluted styles such as shown by Keats and Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov and the early Cormac McCarthy and others. If there was a moment of enlightenment here it came when we realized that both John Keats and F. Scott Fitzgerald were lying when they wrote about what they learned from earlier great writers. (Fitzgerald was lying to his daughter!) Neither Keats nor Fitzgerald – nor any of the greatest of writers – had learned or earned their style. The style was the man and the man was the style. And in the case of perhaps the greatest stylist of American letters – Emily Dickinson - -the style was the woman and the woman was the style.

So where is the simplicity?

Zen is never just the artistic or literary product; it is the producing of art and the engagement with producing art. Zen hears the sentiment “God is love” and answers with the statement “God is a dog pissing on a telephone pole.” Simplicity is being true to your nature – and to the nature of your medium and talent – even when that nature appears to be the antithesis of simplicity.


Third – “Agedness”

This doesn’t mean that Zen-filled art or Zen-filled writing should feel old and tired and stodgy – just the opposite. Zen-writing must be so filled with the energy of life that it becomes energy itself; it must feel pre-ordained in the way the birth of a child feels pre-ordained to loving parents. The characters who emerge from the chaos-swirl of your novel must do so in the way that Michaelangelo’s men and women emerged from the stone.

They were always in there. Waiting.

So our battle cry continues to be taken from Horace – Dimidium facti qui coepit habet: sapere aude: Incipe – “To have begun is to be half done; dare to know; start!” – but we start or begin with the full knowledge that if the story or novel is alive with Zen energy, it is finished before we begin.


Fourth – “Naturalness.”

                                    There is a treasure in the deep mountains;
                                    He who has no desire for it finds it.

One of the great Zen stories of all time is John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston. Bogart’s Charles C. Dobbs character – perhaps his best performance – was all desire for the gold of the mountains. He finds it, mines it, hoards it, steals more of it, kills for it, and – as we all must do with everything – loses it. The gold dust blows back to the mountains from whence it came.

Naturalness for the writer here is the most thoughtful sort of thought-less-ness. We are driven by a compulsion to write but the words must come without compulsion. We set ourselves in harm’s way, which is the same as the Muse’s way, by fiercely disciplining ourselves – by writing every day, by setting aside time to write and to do nothing but write, by assigning ourselves goals of words, pages, scenes, by excusing ourselves from running all of the world’s errands as surely as does the Carthusian or Trappist (or Zen) monk in a distant monastery.

The preparation to write may be ambitious, ruthless, rational, reasoned, disciplined, and selfish, but the act of writing well must be thought-less and self-less.

The poet Robert Frost had no more Zen-peace in his life than did Ernest Hemingway. Frost, like Hemingway, was ferociously ambitious, bone-deep selfish, envious, frequently duplicitous, and more than occasionally ruthless. He was also – like Hemingway – a stone liar. Hemingway had his hairy-chested brawler-hunter persona; Frost adopted the shock-of-white-hair, wrinkled-avuncular-uncle-face farmer-philosopher façade. Both were as phony as a three-dollar bill. If Frost had been forced to survive only on his meager and grudging farming skills, he and his family would have starved to death. They almost did.

Frost was a lazy and selfish man who saved his true energy for writing poetry in solitude in the light of a lantern at the kitchen table with the children and wife asleep and out of his way while moths batted at the screens he never found time to repair.

But he was a Zen master. His poems are filled with Mu! contradictions, never resolved, celebrating questions well-asked but never answered.

In his “The Figure a Poem Makes” – an introduction, not a poem – Frost explains to us the reason for the requirement of “Naturalness” in Zen-true art:

It should be of the pleasure of a poem itself to tell how it can. The figure a poem makes. It begins in delight and ends in wisdom. The figure is the same as for love. No one can really hold that the ecstasy  hould be static and stand still in one place. It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion. It has denouement. It has an outcome that though unforeseen was predestined from the first image of the original mood – and indeed from the very mood. It is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last. It finds its own name as it goes and discovers the best waiting for it in some final phrase at once wise and sad – the happy-sad blend of the drinking song.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader . . .”

The figure is the same as for love, fellow writers. If you have never dared to love and then lost, you cannot be a writer for you have nothing to say. No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader. From delight to wisdom, as painful as that arc in a love affair – or in a whole lived life – must be.

The figure is the same as for love. Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. A poem may be worked over once it is in being, but may not be worried into being. Its most present quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it . . .”


Fifth – “Latency.”

The Zen artist knows that to paint a hawk, one dabs a brush-stroke of thin blue watercolor on the blank page.

Or better yet, a dab of gray wash rather than blue.

The sky is all there in that bit of gray-for-blue wash and where there is so much sky, there must be a hawk.

We live in a literary age, if that term can still be used, where the hawk is always fully depicted, however crudely, down to its last pinfeather and hawk-louse (if hawks have lice.) This does not make the hawk more present; it merely panders to dull minds who believe they have never seen a hawk and therefore cannot visualize or imagine one.

A 1943 radio-play of “The Shadow” is filled with Zen; no 21st Century TV show, whatever its production values, has even a trace of Zen in it. Indeed, the greater the production values (so sought after in an age where technique counts for all and soul for naught), the less chance of any Zen-truth sneaking in. Some of the original “Star Trek” series – where salt shakers stood in for futuristic medical instruments – approached, however accidentally, the Zen-fun and Zen-truth of live theater or radio or actual art or actual literature. As the slickness goes up, the human quality goes down. Real themes of friendship are lost in the cgi zip and zap of the anti-real quest for “reality.”

The subdued but not gloomy light of the tea-room is the “much in little” that all great writing gifts us with.

A true warrior does not have to threaten or bluster in order for us to sense his power and threat. A true samurai writes poetry in the garden.

A true Zen-writer sets down the slightest dab of blue to show the hawk. Or better yet, a dab of gray to stand in for the dab of blue which stands in for the sky which stands in for the hawk.


Six – “Unconventionality”

You have heard me say in this conversation on Writing Well that there are no good Christian writers, no good African-American writers, no readable women writers, no worthwhile men’s writers, no passable Marxist writers, no bearable feminist writers . . .

And so forth. And so on. Ad infinitum. Ad eternum.

Back when Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority were working hard to block Sandra Day O’Connor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, former Senator Barry Goldwater spoke for true conservatives and Christians everywhere – “I think every good Christian ought to kick Jerry Falwell’s ass.

Any art, including writing, that is subservient to an Idea is no art at all. People elevate their faith and politics and various theories on life, all abstracts to the highest degree possible, to positions of great importance in their otherwise very real lives, but trying to shoehorn those abstract Ideas’ pumped-up sense of importance into writing ruins the writing and weakens the Idea. Anyone bragging that they are a feminist writer or an African-American writer or a Christian writer should do us all a favor and leave out the word “writer.”

There is no religion based on humor. Every Protestant minister (and some Catholic priests) and most rabbis – Reformed, at least – make a personal attempt at humor every sabbath day, but religions per se tend to fear humor (and for good reason, since humor is the enemy of self-righteous and pompous posturings.) Zen is based on humor. No, that’s not right – rather, in a real sense, Zen is humor. There is Zen in every sincere laugh. The essence of humor is surprise – witnessing something that you were not prepared for, being startled into awareness, into enlightenment, even if only for a fleeting few seconds.

One day Hofuku (Paofu), a fellow-disciple with Kuzan, was talking together with another monk, in the Tea Hall. Seeing this, Kuzan said, “Don’t weave into subtleties and complications!” Hofuku said, “We’re not. We are making Buddhism (Zen) clearer, see?” Kuzan made as if to strike him. “Where am I wrong?” asked Hofuku. Kuzan gave him a blow.

One hopes that Kuzan clobbered his colleague Hofuku with his handy Kwatz!-stick. Such painful surprises are the salt (in the wound) of Zen. To think or to speak properly is to perform and no teacher should be without a hefty Kwatz!-stick.

Neither Zen nor writing well can be achieved by being talked about or written about or read about. As with life, as with each thought and action and emotion in life, Zen and writing well must be performed – performed with the whole and undivided mind-body – if it is to mean anything or be anything.

After the act is performed, after something is done, one can talk about Zen. After strong writing is achieved – preferably through an unconventional way – one is then permitted to talk about writing.


Seven – “Quietness.”

It seems absurd to talk about inner quietness in the lives of such great writers or poets as Tolstoy or Joyce or Frost or Keats or Yeats or Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Capote. Their lives were hurricanes that swirled across those around them, over those who loved them, and even across and over any innocents who got in the way of their ambitions or desires.

But even a hurricane has an eye and the stillness there in the eye is where the Zen-artist resides. This eye at the center of the terrible storm is precisely the eye the universe has created in order to view itself and to have it look back at us.

A monk asked Kisu, “What is the Buddha?” “If I tell you,” said Kisu, “will you believe me?” The monk replied “The master’s words are so momentous, how could I not believe them?” Kisu said, “Simply – You are it.” The monk asked, “How can we maintain this state?” Kisu said, “If your eye is just a little clouded, flowery illusions are rampant.” The monk was enlightened at this.

Terence, this is treacherous stuff. First of all, I suspect that the monk should have been enlightened – or at least warned – by Kisu’s dangerous question “If I tell you, will you believe me?” This is always the operative question of the Christ or the Prophet or the Buddha himself. We, as hopeful disciples, always believe that the monk’s response – “How could I not believe you, Master?” – is the proper response and the one wished for by the Teacher, but this isn’t the case.

Kisu’s question should have shown the monk that he, the monk, was ready, willing, and eager not just to believe anything Kisu said, but everything. Then Kisu told the monk a lie – “You are the Buddha!” It’s the lie that all prophets and saviours and political candidates tell their eager faithful – “You are who we’ve been waiting for!” And as is true of all Zen lies, it is the truth. But then Kisu warns this budding Buddha –“But if your eye is just a little clouded, flowery illusions are rampant.”

All men’s eyes are clouded, and most of the time rather than a little, especially in our eagerness to hear and to believe good things about ourselves, and foremost of all flowery illusions – one might say it is an entire cascade of illusionary blossoms – is the self-lie that we are the Buddha, that we are who we have been waiting for. Kisu was the monk’s  optometrist and opthamologist informing him that his vision is perfect except for the cataracts that have grown almost too thick to admit any light beyond a vague milky glow of self-satisfaction.

Today’s young person brags “I can write my school paper with my i-Pod blasting grunge music in both ears while simultaneously text-messaging friends on my phone and checking MySpace online.”

Kisu would not have argued with the young person. He might have said, “Congratulations, you are the Buddha! But your school paper – as well as your music-listening and the quality of your text-sending and your-online-viewing – have all been diminished to used shit-stick levels. Good job!”

There has to be quietness at the center of the heart of the center for Zen to be heard or seen, much less understood or created. That quietness is audible as a steady, high-voltage hum to the informed listener/writer.

Charlie Citrine, the worn-out, beat-up, divorce-clobbered, pussy-whipped, gangster-hassled, writer-hero Zen master of Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift put it this way when he was thinking about his poor, dumb, dead, formerly pussy-whipped and ambition-hassled crazy poet friend Von Humboldt Fleischer –

Where are the poet’s power and interest? They originate in dream states. These come because the poet is what he is in himself, because a voice sounds in his soul which has a power equal to the power of societies, states, and regimes. You don’t make yourself interesting through madness, eccentricity, or anything of the sort but because you have the power to cancel the world’s distraction, activity, noise, and become fit to hear the essence of things.

This, of course, is a succinct definition of enlightenment.


Eight – “Freedom.”

We are now on R.H. Blyth’s list of Zen characteristics rather than in Shinichi Hisamatsu’s seven-Zen characteristics, but this makes little difference. After all, the Buddha was very much in Blyth, just as it was very much in Hisamatsu and is very much in you. (Kwatz! Thud. Ow!)

Of course, true and talented artists and poets and writers don’t have to be told that they have the freedom to do what they wish in pursuit of their art, including ignoring all of these Zen rules and all other “rules” of the game. This goes without saying for them. Unfortunately, false and untalented would-be artists, poets, and writers also enjoy ignoring or breaking – or for the most part never learning -- rules that might have helped them produce some semblance of quality in their work.

For most people in the West in the 21st Century, “freedom” has come to mean license to do what you want to do (even at other people’s expense.) For the writer, however, this freedom includes the secret reserve clause of “ . . . do whatever you want to do as long as it improves the quality and honesty of your work.

The longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, reminds us –“To the frustrated, freedom from responsibility is more attractive than freedom from restraint.” But this is the Zen-catch of total freedom to the artist; there can be no freedom from responsibility when it comes to your art, no matter how frustrated one becomes.

Perhaps the pious Christians of the Middle Ages or the Muslim faithful today understand this basic Zen paradox better than can modern Western men and women. It is, essentially, that the ultimate freedom – perhaps the only possible absolute freedom – lies in the act of surrendering freedom and submitting totally to something larger and more important than yourself.

The Zen master and poet and master calligrapher Ryōkan (who once said that what he hated above all else were poets) lived so simply that he made Thoreau at Walden Pond look like a modern decadent cosmopolitan consumer. Ryōkan did absolutely nothing for that most pernicious of abstractions – mankind – and very little for himself, refusing to work even Thoreau’s indolent and grudging three days a week. But Ryōkan left us this insight:

                                    The wind brings enough
                                    Of fallen leaves
                                    To make a fire.

This was a teacher who understood that he had the freedom never to teach; a born preacher who exercised his freedom never to preach. A student and master of Zen, he never mentioned Zen until this last poem before his death –

                                            What shall I leave
                                     As a memento?
                                            Flowers in the spring,
                                    The hototogisu in summer,
                                    Tinted leaves of autumn.

Our teacher Blyth reminds us that when Thoreau was on his deathbed, he was asked if he had made his peace with God. Thoreau responded –“ I have never quarrelled with Him.”

Ryōkan would have understood the Zen-truth in that, but perhaps he would have also noted and celebrated the deeper Zen-truth of the atheist Voltaire’s deathbed comment when, pressed strongly by his bishop friend to renounce Satan before it was too late, Voltaire coughed and responded – “This is no time to be making new enemies.”


Nine – “Humor.”

Those among us, including those writers and would-be writers who are not comfortable with eternally unresolved paradox and contradiction, have no real humor. No one admits to being humorless, but many are. This is worse than being colorblind; worse than being sexually impotent. It is worse than being blind, although it is a kind of blindness.

Instead of meditating and sitting zazen tonight, O Student of Zen, go rent Laurel and Hardy’s video or DVD “The Music Box.” (What’s that? You own it? You are well on your way to enlightenment, Grasshopper.)

The plot of this two-reeler isn’t too taxing. Laurel and Hardy are in the moving business. They’re moving a huge upright piano for someone. They and their horsedrawn wagon arrive at the address to which the piano is being delivered and see that it is up 300 . . . or perhaps 500 . . . maybe even 700 (but surely fewer than a thousand!) .  . . steps.

The rest, as they say, is mere genius.

Zen is humor. When Zen-master Oliver Hardy forgets to let loose of the runaway piano near the top of the steps and is dragged down 659 steps behind it, going “Ouch! Ooh! Ouch!” all the way down while Stan Laurel watches and scratches his head, do you feel Oliver’s pain while you’re laughing? Or do you feel Stan’s bemused mixture of concern and indifference? Both and neither are Zen.

Anyone who’s even thought about Zen or – more importantly - -thought about anything else in a Zen-way, knows that we are the idiots Laurel & Hardy as they wrestle that clanking and toinking piano up and down that endless flight of steps over and over. And we also know that we are not those idiots Laurel & Hardy and never could be. We are that world and we eat that world, but in the meantime – we laugh.

And when, after much punishment and pain. L&H get the tinkling, cloinking piano to the top of the hill and the sidewalk to the house they’re delivering it to and the passing mailman tells them that there’s a street that leads around the side of the hill right up to this very walkway, we know that Stan and Oliver will then drag that huge, heavy, clanging piano all the way down those stairs again so they can laboriously load it back into their delivery wagon so they can drive back up to where they just were.

We are Laurel and Hardy and we eat Laurel and Hardy. Who knows this, knows.

What happens next, when no one answers their knock and Oliver decides to hoist the huge piano up to the tiny balcony on the second floor and Stan helpfully walks through the unlocked front door and goes up the steps to help him with his hoisting . . . well, there is such a thing as Zen to the tenth power. Or there should be. Or there is now.

If you can’t write your serious novel with this logic or have your tragic characters think with this logic, then don’t bother writing. Shakespeare, the greatest and perhaps only true master of all Zen masters in the history of all writers writing, knew that humor and tragedy are so deeply linked that they are inseparable. Neither can exist without the other and no true art can exist without both.

A monk asked Jōshō, “What is the Buddha?” Jōshō answered – “The one in the Hall.” The monk said, “The one in the Hall is a statue, a lump of mud!” Jōshō said, “That is so.” “What is the Buddha?” asked the monk. Jōshō answered – “The one in the Hall.”

I have it on reliable testimony that this particular monk quit the monastery and went into real estate and is now one of the New Billionaires in modern China. Jōshō, meanwhile, continues – at least in memory – explaining to slow students that in a world where nothing is not the Buddha, even the lump-of-mud Buddha is the Buddha.


Ten – “Sexuality.”

The Zen-master poet William Blake explained – “That called body is a portion of the soul discerned by the five senses.” He should rather have written – “Body is soul seen by the senses.”

Which of the five senses do you not use when making love? Which part of the soul of your beloved do you not wish to see?`

Sex is an equal-opportunity path to enlightenment. Or as Horace wrote so many centuries ago – “Does the illiterate’s tool stand any less erect?” Blyth writes that Zen is nothing less than sexual relations between man (or woman) and the world, and enlightenment is its orgasm. “All nature is my bride,” said Thoreau. (You have to excuse me, but this reminds me of my favorite line in the old Gene Hackman movie “Night Moves” where Hackman, a private detective with his own hangups, is in a bar and asks a Hollywood stuntman about another, younger, narcissistic-acting stuntman and the old stunt pro says, “He’d fuck a woodpile on the off chance there was a snake in it.”) (Note: you get to see Melanie Griffith topless for an instant in “Night Moves,” but Melanie is only 15 or 16 years old.)

Do we have your attention, Grasshopper?

A novel or poem without sex is fine, but one without sexuality would be as dry and airless as the Gobi during a drought. The act of writing is an expression of sexual energy – libido, attraction, confusion, desire, foreplay, safe sex, unsafe sex, orgasm, coitus interruptus, self abuse, other-abuse – it’s all there in the act of writing. It’s no accident or coincidence that they call writing “that shameful thing you do, alone, behind locked doors.”

What is totally asexual art? It’s damned Soviet Realism is what it is. After (during) the fall of the Berlin Wall and then of the USSR, it’s no accident that the first thing the locals with guts did is get a noose and a cable around those countless statues of Lenin staring and pointing into the future and drag those ugly and useless hunks of bronze and iron and concrete down and have at them with sledgehammers. No one can be forced to stare at art that bad for that long without wanting and needing to kill it.

One of the scary things about Zen is that there is no dividing line – visible or otherwise – between the sacred and the profane.

When the great Zen master Jōshō died, the other master Sekisō was asked by a monk, “Did Master Jōshō quest after the Buddha-spirit?” and Sekisō answered, “He would have fucked a woodpile on the off chance it had an enlightened snake in it.”

Well, all right – that one’s not true. Historically speaking, at least. In terms of Zen though, it’s God’s honest truth. (And His good lie.)


Eleven – “Joy”

“I love my work with a frenzied and perverted love,” wrote Flaubert, “the way an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly.”

And Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet, “Last Wednesday I had to get up and fetch my handkerchief. Tears were running down my face.”

And after twelve straight hours work on Madame Bovary, we remember that Flaubert wrote – “I’ve reached La Baisade (the Big Fuck), I’m right in the middle of it. We are in a sweat and our heart is nearly in our mouth. This has been one of the rare days of my life which I have spent in a state of complete Enchantment, from beginning to end. Just now, around six o’lock, at the moment when I wrote the phrase ‘nervous attack,’ I was so carried away, I was making such a racket, and feeling so intensely what my little woman was feeling that I began to fear I was about to have one myself. I stood up from my writing table and I opened the window to calm myself down. My head was spinning […]. I am like a man who has just come too much (if you will forgive me the expression) I mean a sort of lassitude which is full of exhilaration. [. . .] It is a delectable thing, writing, not having to be yourself, being able to circulate in amongst the whole creation that you are describing. Today [ . . .] as a man and as a woman, as lover and mistress both, I have been out riding in a forest on an autumn afternoon, and it was the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words that they spoke to each other and the red sunlight that made them half-close their eyes that were brimming with love.”

The horses, the leaves – Hemingway’s The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods/
Leaves floating on the trout streams
– Ryōkan’s The wind brings enough / Of fallen leaves /To make a fire – they are leaf-beads connected by the water-wind string of joy.         

Bach’s joy is Blake’s joy is Zen’s joy.

Homer’s fierce joy is Keats’s sad joy is Emily D’s subtle-coy joy is Zen’s joy.

The Zen is the lion’s tale which stretches out into the void (kū), just as Gutei’s finger (Mumonken, No. 3) stretches toward the moon while the eye of the lion is found in Mu Chi’s Bull-headed Shrike on a Pine Tree and that eye (and yours) sees the universe (“Tiere sehen dich an”) with a lens of joy.


Twelve – “Empathy.”

Wait, there was no twelve.

Yes, there is, and it is my contribution. Hey, if Shinichi Hisamatsu can be filled with the Buddha-spirit and Kisu could impart wisdom through his Buddha-spirit and Kisu’s stupid monk could be enlightened and enter into the Buddha-spirit and, hell, if even you go out and claim the Buddha as part of your baggage after this conversation, then I get to make a contribution – in this case the Twelfth Characteristic of Zen to Bijutsu and Writing Well.


Empathy is not sympathy. In most ways it is anti-sympathy. Do not get the two confused. Sympathy is for Christians with four aces up their sleeves. Sympathy is a safe emotion, combining as it does three parts noblesse oblige with two parts droit du seigneur.

One day Jōshū fell down in the snow, and called out, “Help me up! Help me up!” A monk came and lay down beside him. Jōshū got up and went away.

Need I say that the monk had been enlightened?

The student said to Mr. Simmons, “ Does the Buddha-nature feel sympathy toward the afflicted and oppressed?” Mr. Simmons asked the student, “Do you feel sympathy toward the afflicted and oppressed?” “Yes,” said the student. “Kwatz!” cried Mr. Simmons. (THUMP. “Ow!”) “Do you feel sympathy toward the afflicted and the oppressed?” Mr. Simmons again asked the student. “No!” cried the student. “Kwatz!”cried Mr. Simmons (THUMP. “Ow!”) “You did not feel it before since you had not experienced affliction and oppression, but you do now and will tomorrow,” said Mr. Simmons.

The student limped off toward the nurse’s office and was enlightened.

In a real sense, we cannot help other people in those situations where people most deeply need difficult soul-help, as opposed to easy physical food-and-shelter help. When someone loses a wife or husband or father or mother or son or daughter or lover or friend or someone else to Death, we say, “Let me know if I can do anything to help . . . anything at all.”

These are words at their most sincere but also at their emptiest. We know, through our own worst experiences, that we can do nothing. At least do nothing real to assuage or even share such bone-deep, soul-damaging pain and loss.

As R. H. Blyth said, “We cannot help other people, in things that really matter. We can only look or act our fellow-feeling.”

Christ and the Prophet and the Talmud cannot take us to Heaven. We go on our own wings or we don’t go at all. Zen understands that there is jiriki, self-power, and tariki, other-power but – as with all things Zen – there is a time when these opposites are one and the same thing.

The monk knew that Jōshūcould either lie there in the snow until he froze to death or get up and walk into the warm Hall to have his dinner. The monk, who knew, chose neither jiriki or tariki but rather the Third Path of showing his awareness of the rising or not rising of others – in this case, the rising or not-rising of Jōshū.

Writer, either have and use this Third Path of true empathy or do not presume to write.

It is easy to show empathy toward Gandhi and Christ and Martin Luther King. Even an unenlightened semi-human (such as a politician) can do this. To be a writer, you must be able to show empathy toward Adolf Hitler, if Adolf Hitler is your character. You must lie down in the snow next to Hitler – or in this case, in the flames – and rise, or not rise, secure in your hatred of all Jews.

If you’re a great African-American novelist who cannot see into the human soul of a white man or woman because all you see is racism and historical inequity, quit writing fiction. If you’re John Steinbeck who knows every niche in the human heart of the displaced and powerless Oakies but has no clue as to the thoughts and feelings of the lettuce-growers and ranchers, admit defeat and do not publish fiction. (Or, if published,  have your ghost call back the books and have them posthumously pulped.) If you have received the Nobel Prize for your sympathetic fiction-portrayal of the Oppressed and Downtrodden in South Africa but have no real understanding of why the landowner grandsons and granddaughters of colonists acted and thought as they did, pack it in. If you’re the screenwriter who drove Thelma and Louise triumphantly over the cliff of the Grand Canyon in a world where all men be slime, rent a Cadillac and go thou and do likewise.

It goes without saying that the reverse spin on all of these failures at empathy deserves the same fate. But it is easier to claim personal empathy when all one is feeling or showing is the somewhat smug and consensus-happy sympathy of the crowd secure on their pyramid-pinnacle of looking-back-at-history and self-pronounced enlightenment.

Still, it is always the writer of the majority, of the consensus, first to transcend sympathy with real empathy. But when one of those writers, say William Styron with his The Confessions of Nat Turner, does produce an act of honest and empathic art, it is shallow for others to attack the work and the man on the basis of the artist having the wrong skin color or gender or other “qualifying characteristic.” What qualifies one to write well and honestly is the ability to write well and honestly.

Every child is capable of sympathy for himself or herself, but few children are capable of real empathy and connection to others not serving their wants. A real writer has to put away the things – and the identifications – of childhood.

Writing well demands grown-up empathy, never my-group-hurts sympathy, and actual empathy one of the hardest things in the universe to achieve. Buddha called it satori. The word literally means “understanding.” Most of us struggling in the writing- and Zen-trenches have to settle for kensho, which is a brief, never permanent, glimpse of the true Buddha-nature. Glimpsing the true Buddha-nature is a clear but very, very brief peek at the true nature of human existence itself.

Kensho. Flashes of heat-lighting in the night, illuminating the world for a millisecond. Writers live for it. Readers of good fiction read for it.

Once, when Jōshū was still with Nansen, Nansen took an ox into the Monk’s Hall, and led him around. The head monk whacked the ox on the back three times, and Nansen took a sheaf of grass and put it in front of the head monk, who said nothing.

The head monk may have asked Jōshū that very day if an ox could have the Buddha-nature but – Mu! – unask the question. The pertinent question now is “Does the head monk have the ox-nature?”

                                    I am this world, and I eat this world.
                                    Who knows this, knows.


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