Interview with Ruth Ozeki about her new novel: A Tale for the Time Being, by Chris Beal

Thank you so much for giving your time to this interview this afternoon. To begin, please say something about how your Zen practice and your involvement in Buddhism have contributed to this novel.

If you sit on the cushion for any amount of time, you understand vividly how much of the time we are in the past, in the future, and how difficult it is to stay in the present moment. In a way the whole book can be read as a parable or metaphor for what happens in the human imagination. In our minds we are time travelers. So the idea of this fictional character projecting into the past and into the future was a way of performing in fiction the kind of thing we do in our minds all the time.

Could we say, then, that the whole novel is a model of what we do in our minds?

Absolutely, and I think that all novels are.

You could argue that everything is.

Yes, and many people have. I mean, Buddhism is all about that, right? This is more overt because it’s pointing to the ways we do that all the time.

You quote Dōgen quite a bit and he’s also talking about time.

The quotes are mostly from Ugi or Genjō Kōan, or actually there’s another – The Merits of Home-Leaving. In that, he also has a lengthy discussion of the number of moments in the day.

That’s in the appendix, too.

Yes. He breaks time down into 6,400,099,980 moments in a day.

What do you see as the purpose of his doing that?

He’s playing with scale. He’s also de-familiarizing. He’s taking the most common thing in the world – a day – and blowing that up. And then he also says that the snap of the finger is 65 moments and every one of those moments is a moment to wake up and to turn your life around and to do things which will create beneficial karma. And so he’s also urging his young monks to do zazen: every moment you’re doing zazen is an opportunity to wake up. So ‘don’t shirk.’

It’s tremendously encouraging because we always think time is going by so fast. We have slow motion cameras and various other means of depicting that now, so we can photograph a humming bird and I suppose that the slow motion video of a humming bird is almost proof that Dōgen is right. But he was slowing it down in the only way he could back then, which is through language.

So playing with scale is also something I was also doing in the book, where Ruth and Oliver are talking about old growth tress, for example. That was a kind of playing with scale. And the discussion of whales and extermination. And Oliver’s project, the neocene – all of that is just sort of playing with different notions of time – geologic time. Just shifting, shifting.

So you brought up the ecological concerns in the book.

The tidal wave appears in the book as a reality, but it also appears metaphorically, talking about, for example, information, or when Jiko talks about “person, wave, same thing.” She uses the metaphor of a wave to talk about impermanence and dependent co-arising. That was there before I started writing about the tsunami, but it gained potency once I realized I could include the tsunami in the book and, in fact, that the tsunami needed to be an essential part of the book.

Both main characters – Nao and Ruth – go back in time.

Especially the whole notion of ghosts comes from Nao’s section of the book. And that does tie back into a pilgrimage made to Japan in 2010 with Norman Fischer. A bunch of priests went to Japan with Norman Fischer for a Zuisei ceremony, which certifies you as a a full-fledged priest. It’s something that in Japan a young priest leaving Eiheiji or Sōjiji would do at a very young age, but for a lot of the priests in the West, it’s a big deal to go to Japan.

You have to do it in Japan?

Well, no – there are Zuisei ceremonies here too but the Sōtō Zen hierarchy in Japan knows about Norman and that he’s a distinguished priest in the West so the lineage wanted him to come. And many of the Sōtō Zen priest in the States have now gone back to do this.

Anyway, while we were in Japan, we traveled around to various temples including Suzuki Roshi’s home temple. And one of things that really came home to me was how Zen is so much about the caring for and veneration of the ancestors. Ghosts are very palpable in Zen lineage – that there’s a real sense of the dead as being very much with us.

In Japanese culture in general, that’s true.

In Japanese culture in general. And so in O’Bon, the dead come back and you have to feed them and send them away again and it’s so much a part of Japanese culture that I thought it was completely appropriate for Nao to meet her great-uncle in ghostly form.

The 104-year old nun’s name is Jiko Yasutani, and Nao’s family name is likewise Yasutani. As you probably know, Yasutani was the name of a famous Roshi who greatly influenced American Zen. Was this a conscious coincidence on your part? If so, how is Jiko similar to the Roshi?

I knew, of course, that Yasutani is a famous Zen Master but that wasn’t why I chose the name. It was just there – it seemed like the right one. It very often happens that the name will just be there. Although to some extent, knowing Yasutani was a famous Zen Master was in the back of my mind somewhere. Also there was a movie that had something about Yasutani in it – and it was a bit of a wacky movie, too. So that was kind of in the back of my head, too, that it wasn’t a name that was completely foreign.

How do you define enlightened consciousness and do you see the book either in form or substance as reflecting or pointing to such consciousness?

I really don’t think that much about enlightened consciousness and I certainly don’t spend any time going after it, whatever it is.

That’s very Sōtō.

It’s very Sōtō. I truly am a product of my lineage. So, yes and no. When I’m writing a book, I’m concerned about the book being an expression of my mind and my awareness at that moment. I’m trying to understand and express my mind at any particular moment. I think that when novelists write, we’re trying to express some kind of truth. And that’s why we write fiction because we understand that truth isn’t something that can be expressed by trying to express it. Truth is not something that can ever be expressed.

And I think that may be the same with enlightened consciousness, whatever that may be. It’s not a term I use. But that I write fiction to express my understanding of truth, that’s something I can say – and fail to do. Because it’s impossible to do – there’s no way to ever express more than a fleeting glimpse or moment. So the failure is built into the effort. But the doing of it is the expression. When Dōgen talks about zazen, he talks about practice and realization being the same thing. When you sit zazen you are an expression of enlightened consciousness. You are an expression of things as they are. That’s the kind of writing I try to do.

What did you learn from writing this book?

I think that what I’ve learned through the writing of this book – which took six years – is that books are time beings too – they take the time they take – and you can’t really do much about that. You have to keep showing up. This is Zen again. Just coming back over and over again. We talk about zazen as a practice of return. And writing is like that too, just showing up, not whether you’re doing it right. It’s just the showing up that counts. And that’s wonderfully encouraging. And so I do have more faith in that practice as a result of having written this book.

Anything you want to add that I didn’t address?

There are so many ways of doing philosophy. And in the West we have one way which is very analytical. And if you read, let’s say Heidegger – because being/time is his theme – it seemed clear to me that Heidegger’s thinking was in some way influenced by Japanese Buddhism and by Dōgen. I’m pretty sure there was a Japanese Zen Master who was in Germany in that time and whom Heidegger had met and I’m pretty sure there is historical evidence of that.

But you read Heidegger’s work and you see philosophy being done in one way, and you read Dōgen’s work and you see it being done another way. So it interested me to take these philosophies of time and being and to do them in another way. It’s a different kind of expression that raises the same kind of issues and takes these larger questions and turns them and turns them and looks at them from different points of view and does that in a way that opens up these questions in a way that is certainly more accessible and more interactive.

I like the way you say “opened up” because when you think of philosophy, you think of people laying down what the premises and conclusions are in a straight line –

And really it’s more in line with how Dōgen does it – it’s not in a straight line at all.

So I was playing with how you write literary fiction that somehow embodies and performs these kinds of questions. And it’s not about just laying them out in the text but about somehow performing them. It’s almost between the lines.

It’s all the blank space.

It’s the holes.

Well, thank you so much Ruth. This has certainly been illuminating – and a lot of fun as well.

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