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Fiction as Zen Practice

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Giving thanks! So much to be thankful for in this stormy world. Thankful to all those who are out there everyday, doing good for others. Especially thankful to Emma’s Place for all they do to support grieving children and for welcoming our Zen group to their cozy cottage on the grounds of Snug Harbor. In gratitude, our group members are each raising a mala to support the work of Emma’s Place. I’d love to have you on my mala. Did you see my blog two weeks ago? https://www.zen-ken.com/post/mala-again. If you missed it, check it out. Will you help me? It’s easy. Just log onto https://emmasplacesi.org/donate/ . In the message space, please write “Ken’s mala.” If you donate $108, I’m going to burn your name on a bead on my new mala. I’ll wear it everywhere. You will be with me on my journey. I would love that.


Last week, I talked about how surprised I was to find myself writing a novel. The even bigger surprise was that writing this novel turned out to be an extraordinary Zen practice.


To me, the most powerful directive on Zen practice comes from Eihei Dogen Zenji, the 13th century Japanese philosopher, poet, Zen Master, and founder of the Japanese Soto lineage in which I received transmission from Bernie, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”


I have been studying myself all my adult life. When senior students at the Zen Community of New York challenged my readiness to ordain — I’d only been a Zen student about 7 years — I was shaken. Jishu reminded me, “You’ve been studying yourself for a very long time.” I am still studying my Self.


The Ox Classes, the core of the ZCNY study program were all about studying the self, although the Self study was wrapped in a package which made it look like we were studying Buddhism. We worked with the Skandhas, the Precepts, the Paramitas, all important teachings of the Buddha, as vehicles for Self reflection. Koan study was — at least for me — about recognizing the ways in which I tried again and again to “think” my way through to answers, only again and again to learn to allow myself to let go of thinking and respond from a deeper place. To see my thinking was to become aware of the limitations of my thinking, the limitations of my point of view. As I became aware of this limited perspective, the specialness of my point of view, of my me-ness fractured and began to fall away.


When I began blogging — the original intentions were framed in terms of the potential benefit to our schools — it took me a while to find my voice in a mix of charter school how-to, Zen lore, and memoir. The memoir aspects were crucial because they were making available to the blog reader the experience that led me to see things the way I saw them, to keep showing that what I was sharing was my experience, my limited perspective, and not some objective reality. In this way, blogging became an important part of my Zen practice, an ongoing part of the work of studying my Self, and of my practice as a Zen teacher, which is to keep reminding students, everyone that my words are not THE truth. I feel a great affinity with Bernie’s “It’s just my opinon, Man,” his signature comment during the last years of his life. It was as if Bernie had internalized his own Greek chorus, always reminding his “audience” of his limitations.


I stumbled into fiction when Dee told me that blog drafts were too revelatory. “If you want to expose yourself,” she said, “that’s your business, but you can’t go around exposing other people.” She was right. There were blogs accumulating in a file called “Unpublishable,” when the idea occurred to me that some of the stories that could not be told as memoir might be told as fiction.


I hesitated. The thing, I thought, that made blogging Zen practice was the honest showing, the self-revelation, clay feet, warts, the whole deal. Fiction, I thought, was hiding. And in a sense, it is.


But I have discovered another sense in which fiction writing is not hiding. In my first novel, I am not telling my story as I had been in the blog. I am telling Jake’s story, and Jake is a fictional character. I invented him. He is not me. He is living through things which I didn’t think I could even imagine until I wrote them. But he is also an alter ego, and he is living through things as I imagine I might live through them if I were Jake.


And not only Jake. Every character in the novel is a part of me. It’s not just that I have used details of my life in creating the characters — there is a lot of that — but I am breathing through them. I am still telling the truth. It is the truth that you eventually find in the koan. Not the truth that you begin by worrying about.


There is a famous koan in which Nanchuan kills a cat. I suspect that on first confrontation, most contemporary American Zen students react in horror. “Did Nanchuan really kill the cat?” We obsess about that. Eventually, if we’re lucky we learn something about ourselves. Can I allow myself to imagine myself killing the cat? It is the lesson I learned at the Auschwitz Retreat. Can I allow myself to imagine the life which led me to be the guard in the tower with the rifle? That was so much harder than imagining myself as the Jew being herded to the gas chamber.


Fiction writing is a new form of Zen practice for me. I am not sure that writing a novel would be Zen practice for everyone. I am not sure that writing any novel would be Zen practice for me. But this first one has been. In this novel, I am telling a story from a particular character’s point of view — Jake — presenting the world as it appears and occurs to him. Jake is not reacting to the world as it exists. Who knows what that is? He is reacting to the world as he experiences it. Just as we all are. For Jake to be real to the reader (and to me), he must act in ways which are consistent with and arise out of the world as he experiences it. That’s important.


Now, here comes the Zen kicker.


As I am creating the world as Jake experiences it, I am realizing at each moment that he is not seeing everything. I am becoming ever more conscious of the particularity with which each person sees the world. In the writing process, in the discipline of looking through Jake’s eyes, it becomes clearer and clearer to me how limited is the view which I see through my eyes. It is in that awareness of the self that the self falls away. To see that is the big “wow” that Dogen was pointing to. To study Zen is to study the Self. It is in the awareness of the self as forming our experience that the Self falls away.


Not all at once. First, perhaps, in little things. I’ll give you an example.


I have always made plans in my head. And then I get excited about my plans. The problem has been that my plans often involve other people. Let’s say it’s Dee. Sometimes she has other plans. I end up frustrated and disappointed and sometimes angry which always makes things worse. In the last couple of weeks, since the first draft of the novel went into the drawer, I’ve been making two plans. Dee wants to go for a walk or Dee doesn’t want to go for a walk. Then I can wait to see which plan she chooses.


Fascination rather than frustration.


Not a big deal, you say. Maybe not to you, but it’s increased the peace in my life, and I am pretty certain that I learned to do this by writing my first novel.


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