Living And Writing: Thoughts Inspired By Zen And Chekhov


Writing can be a wonderful way of deepening oneself, sensitizing oneself, and becoming aware of things below the surface, if one is honest and gives oneself fully to the experience. And yet, it seems that there are times that writing can also become an escape, an activity which stunts growth, and isolates the writer from reality, cutting him off from the magnificence of life, as it may be purely experienced, and turning life from something to be lived, into something to be used. From something infinitely valuable in its own right, into something valuable only as a raw material for the creative process. Observation, one of the greatest of human powers, can, if it is misapplied, end up removing one from the full impact of life by stranding one on its side with a pen and a notepad in hand: just like the man who spends his time looking at a river flow by, rather than jumping in and swimming in it. Sometimes, a great deal may be missed by seeing things instead of living them!

I have often had this sense when watching photographers at work. In the city, which has its own wealth of miracles, faces, and secrets - or in the countryside, where nature waits for our wounded souls with its mighty, healing force. I remember one day standing by the sea - a bay, actually - and observing the seagulls, and a beautiful flock of Canada geese, whose power is beyond words, and also two white swans floating across the water like Eloise and Abelard, and a lone white egret, visitor from a place of mystery. These magnificent birds, and the sound of the waves of the sea, and the sky, and the shore, and me standing there, somehow all became a part of the same deep trance, the same timeless, immortal moment that was pure feeling, beyond words and before words - pure belonging, pure love, transcendence. While in the midst of this almost religious experience, entranced like the visionary children at Fatima, I caught sight of a woman entering the park with a camera slung over her shoulder, hanging down from the edges of her winter coat. Not long afterwards, out came the camera and in a moment, she was walking all about this sacred space, snapping pictures of the wild geese, the swans, and the egret, turning this moment of intense communion into a giant photo shoot. Without judging this woman, who seemed kind and artistic, to be respectful of nature, and to be enjoying herself, I could not help but think that she was missing the full impact, the full possibility of this scene, because instead of standing back to absorb it in its totality, she was trying to make it fit inside the sights of her camera. She was breaking it down into little pieces - into shots - and surrendering the now in order to capture and preserve faded bits of it for the future. In extracting a permanent record from it, she was giving up the magnificence of what is ephemeral, giving up the fullness of her own relation to it, and losing crucial dimensions of it, perhaps, even, its very essence!

Is it possible, I wonder, that many writers may sometimes do the same? Wander through life with the camera of their mind, concentrating on "taking pictures" and capturing something of reality, rather than experiencing it? In the manner of the comedian, whose mind is shaped, by his profession, to begin to see the world in terms of the jokes that can be elicited from it, even from its tragedies. In the manner of the general, whose mind is shaped, by his profession, to begin to see the world in terms of wars, and how they can be won. (And thus, the green mountain becomes a place to imbed machine guns, the deep valley becomes a place to hide troops in preparation of an ambush, the beautiful river becomes an obstacle, inspiring images of pontoon bridges, which obscure the life force of its raging torrents, sweeping into the world from the birthplace of all things.)

The dangerous ability of writing to sometimes obstruct life in this way is nowhere better expressed than by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov in his brilliant play, "The Seagull" (1895). Here, he has the burned-out, semi-famous writer Trigorin tell Nina, the starry-eyed admirer, who is mesmerized by her image of the writer:


"Whatís so wonderful about it? ÖWritingÖ Youíve stepped on my favorite sore toe - I think thatís the expression - and Iím getting upset and a little angry. All right, letís talk, shall we? Letís talk about my bright, interesting life. Where shall we start? (Thinks a bit.) Sometimes people get obsessive about things, ideas, like a man who spends all his time, letís say, thinking about the moon, staring at the moon. Well, I have a moon of my own. All I think about day and night is having to write. I have to write, I have to. I finish one story, and then I have to write another one, and then a third, and after that a fourth. I write without stopping, like an express train; itís the only way I know how. Now, I ask you, whatís so beautiful and bright about that? Itís a stupid life! Here I am talking to you, Iím all worked up, and still I canít forget for a minute that Iíve got a story to finish. I see a cloud, like that one, shaped like a piano. And all I can think is: I have to use that, one of my characters has to see a cloud shaped like a piano. I smell the heliotrope, I make a mental note: a sickly-sweet smell, a widowís color, use it to describe a summer evening. Every word you and I are saying right now, every sentence, I capture and lock up in the back of my brain. Because someday I can use them! When I finish working, I go out to the theater, or go fishing, to relax and get away from everything. Do you think I can? No, a great iron cannonball starts rolling around in my head, an idea for a new story, and Iím hooked, I can feel my desk reeling me in, and I have to go write and write. All the time! And I never get any rest. I feel like Iím devouring my own life." (Translation, Paul Schmidt, from The Plays of Anton Chekhov. P. 132-133.)


And, of course, the problem becomes worse as the writerís passion to write latches onto the quest for fame, in which case "reality" and his experience become detached from life, as they are approached only from the narrow angle of using them as vehicles for winning the approval of others. And one then becomes like a gold miner, passing by the beauty of the river, the spirit of the forest, the majesty of the mountains, to extract gold, and only gold, from this abundance of treasures: gold, which is what others want, and will reward you for. Until you begin to see value only in the gold, and to see the rest of the awesome wilderness, in which the gold is but a trifle - a molecule - as empty and valueless - and, in so doing, lose most of what life is.

Contrast this with the philosophy of Zen, which doubts the power of words to capture reality at all. Most of the time, when asked questions by their students, Zen masters end up doing something nonverbal, like hitting them with a stick, or throwing them into a river, or using words so irrational and obscure in their reply, as to drive their students out of the world of words, altogether! (The irrationality breaks down the verbal-intellectual system, forcing answers to be found on another plane.) As Daisetz Suzuki writes in his spiritual masterpiece Zen and Japanese Culture: "Zen is not necessarily against words, but it is well aware of the fact that they are always liable to detach themselves from realities and turn into conceptions. And this conceptualization is what Zen is against." (p. 5) There is a deep truth in the universe, pervading all things and accessible through all things, but contact with it - "enlightenment", when it is in its most intense form - does not occur on the intellectual or verbal plane. "It is no abstraction," insists Suzuki, aware that many doubt what cannot be explained verbally, just like the discoveries of the LSD trip are sometimes dismissed when all that can be brought back from it are incoherent words, words that make no sense, words that lost their halos as soon as they were lifted out of the act of living. "It is concrete enough [this truth], and direct, as the eye sees that the sun is, but it is not to be subsumed in the categories of linguistics. As soon as we try to do this, it disappears. The Buddhists, therefore, call it the Ďunattainableí, the Ďungraspable.í" (p. 7) Trying to catch this truth with the intellect, and intellectís words, brings to Suzukiís mind the well-known image crafted by a famous Japanese painter, Josetsu, which depicts a fisherman standing by the banks of a river, attempting to catch a catfish with a gourd.

Perhaps my favorite comment of all on the matter of pure reality, experienced for what it is, as opposed to reality, cut down to size and utilized as the raw material of art, is this poem by the Chinese master Po Chu-I, which I like so much that I have also quoted it in my book, The Journey of Rainsnow:

Donít cut it to make a flute.

Donít trim it for a fishing pole.

When the grass and flowers are all gone,

it will be beautiful under the falling snowflakes.

(Translated by Kenneth Rexroth in One Hundred More Poems From The Chinese: Love And The Turning Year, p. 73.)

Does this mean we shouldnít write at all? Of course not! What it does mean, I think, is that we writers ought to be aware that, powerful though our "craft" may be as a means of evoking truths, and communicating with others, it is not more powerful than the universe, and ought not to turn the universe into its appendage. We should live first, then write, approach writing as people who live, rather than approach life as writers.

Or, put another way, we need to find the right relationship between our living and our writing. Just as a spacecraft returning to the earth at too steep an angle - too lightly regarding the earthís power - may be burned up by the overwhelming heat of reentry, so the writer needs to establish the right angle of approach between his art and his life, so that his art does not end up destroying him, by taking life from its place in the center of the universe, merely to turn it into the fuel of something less than life.

Suzuki, and the Zen perspective, do value writing when the words used are "living" and not "dead" - words still connected to the living roots of truth, which do not attempt to define it and describe it to the point of replacing it, but which evoke it, and pass it on directly to others by awakening the quiescent knowledge of the truth that every human being carries inside himself. (p. 8-9) For this reason, Suzuki makes so much of haiku, the outwardly simple Japanese poem which minimizes verbal expression to maximize the attainment of deeper levels of understanding.

None of this, however, means that I in any way downgrade the value of words. Nor that I raise haiku above the level of the novel, or uphold Basho, the haiku master, as a greater artist than Cervantes, author of Don Quijote, or Voltaire, author of Candide, or Dostoevsky, author of The Brothers Karamazov. I am merely trying to say that writing, beautiful, powerful, bewitching though it is, is only a part of life, and that life ought not to be lost in the effort to capture it - for, ultimately, life can never be captured, only lived.

Let us write the most beautiful, the most important, the most meaningful, the most enjoyable or painful works that we can, receiving from life, but not stealing from it; filling our work with life, but not by hollowing life out; seeing and using the trees of life without abandoning the forest of life; expressing the low and blind things of life, when they serve a purpose, without succumbing to them beyond our artistic moment of being possessed by them. Let us find the gold of art, but not ignore the mountain that the gold came from, or kill for the gold. Let us use our writing, not to cut ourselves off from life in the insulated and utilitarian tower of the writer, but to become more fully immersed in it.


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