Author Archives: Chris Beal

CLASSIC BUDDHIST FICTION He’s Leaving Home: My Young Son Becomes a Zen Monk by Kiyohiro Miura (Charles E. Tuttle, 1988; English translation, 1996) Reviewed by Chris Beal

How do the parents feel when a child decides to become a Zen monk? This is the territory explored in this exquisite little volume, translated from the Japanese by Jeff Shore. Told in first person from the father’s point of view, the story explores the emotional journey a family takes as the son disengages from his birth family and is adopted by the priest at a temple.

One of the many strengths of this novel is the realistic way the father’s ambivalence is explored. He is the one who first takes his son to the temple to do Zen, when he is still in primary school. The boy expresses a childish desire to become a monk, but it is the father who clings to this notion, as well as the woman priest. She is quite a character in her own right, and the father likes her but also becomes suspicious of her motives in wanting to take his son away from him. All of this is complicated by the attitude of the mother. We only know the mother, of course, through the father’s eyes, but as time goes on, she blames her husband more and more for the fact that they are losing their son.

The awkward title reads more simply in Japanese. The original title was Chonan no Shukke, but expressing in English the culturally dependent, complex ideas embodied in this phrase isn’t easy.Shukke” means “to become a Buddhist monk,” but the characters, translated literally, would mean “home-leaving.” Thus, both the title and subtitle express aspects of the meaning of this word. “Chonan,” too, carries cultural meaning. Literally it means, not “young son,” but “eldest son.” In Japan, of course, the eldest son is the one who carries the family line. In Miura’s story, while there is a younger daughter, there are no other sons, and therefore, no other heirs to the family name. This issue isn’t explicitly explored in the text, but a Japanese reader would, of course, understand the gravity of the situation.

In the West, Zen is not even considered a religion by some of its practitioners, and certainly it isn’t part of our cultural tradition. So probably the most analogous situation for readers in English-speaking countries would be when a Catholic child decides to become a monk or nun. Parents’ attachment to their children is, after all, universal. But the Buddhist emphasis on detachment makes the story all the more poignant. The priest, in fact, tells the father that the loss of his son is his koan (a riddle Zen practitioners are given to advance their spiritual understanding).

It would be an unforgivable omission not to mention one of the facets of the book that makes it so charming: the fanciful illustrations by J.C. Brown. The drawings in themselves tell the story of the boy’s maturation and coming to terms with a monk’s life.

Miura spent time in the United States when he was young, receiving a degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. Perhaps the insight he gained from living in the West explains, at least in part, why this book has such appeal to English language readers.

In Japan, Chonan no Shukke received the Akutagawa Prize, an esteemed award for fiction. This book deserves to be a classic of Buddhist fiction in its English translation as well.

SID, by Anita N. Feng (Wisdom, 2015) Reviewed by Chris Beal

Do we live again? Is there reincarnation? Anita D. Feng answers these questions and more in Sid, a lyrical novel that is two tales in one. Or, rather, it is three tales if you count – and you should – the marvelous drawings by illustrator Linda Davidson. Life is just life, whenever and however it is lived, the novel lets us see. The forms change but the essence is the same. And we are that essence.

The structure of the book works to convey this truth. Inhabiting two different eras, that of the historical Buddha and the modern one, the dual cast of characters sport similar names: Siddhartha and Sid; their respective mothers – Mahamaya and Maya; their fathers – King Suddhodana and Professor Sudovsky; their nanny/midwives – Avalokitesvara, bodhisattva of compassion, and her counterpart Ava; and their wives – Yasodhara and Yasmen. Rahula, the son, bears the same name in both stories. There are, in addition, symbolic characters, such as Homeless Woman, identified as “Old Age, Sickness, and Death.” The plots of the two tales are likewise parallel, making it clear that the story of Siddhartha is still happening today.

This is a folktale-like world of archetypes: everything is perfect and then . . . The initial paragraph gives the flavor: “Ask anyone and they will tell you that Kapilavastu is built out of a fragment of sky mixed with a bit of Tusita heaven. The city walls spread thick like clouds of buttery light, and every house within exudes a splendor that even its residents can’t quite believe. Precious stones litter the paths. Precious blossoms embroider the trees. Within the city’s magnificent gates, darkness is as alien as a hungry ghost.” (p. 3)

Or, later, after Siddhartha marries his beloved, we learn that, “their joy creates days, months, and years of perfect weather and bountiful pleasure for all that are blessed to live nearby. . . . Prince Siddhartha never says anything that is not beautiful to Yasodhara’s ears, nor does he see any aspect of his beloved that is not sweet and pleasant to his eyes.” (p. 57) We are, indeed, in the realm of fairy tales.

The book is organized into sections labeled, “Birth,” “Youth,” “Love and Family Life,” “Leaving Home,” Meditation,” “Return,” and “Death.” Each of the sections has a chapter on Siddhartha and one on Sid, and within each section, the story is told from the point of view of a number of characters in turn. And then there is a third section of each chapter: Zen-like drawings by Linda Davidson of animals or other natural scenes, with a short explanation on the opposite page, which together tell the story in still a third, more metaphorical, way. For example, early on we have “Hare,” and his imputed words: “Please do not distract yourselves with the irrelevant argument about what you see. Is it a hare or a man in the moon? Who cares! As for me, I am only grinding the elixir of life into golden dust between my jaws, letting the dust scatter at your feet.” (p.33)

Sid is whimsical, poetic, transcendent, and unique. Its author, Feng, is a Zen master teaching at the Blue Heron Zen Community as well as a poet and sculptor. In Sid, she displays not only her spiritual wisdom but her ability to use her creative skills to reveal that wisdom. I recommend a digital version of Sid if you have that possibility, as the typeface is quite small. But whichever version you read, this book is a gem that may move you to see more clearly how life and enlightenment are inextricably bound together in an eternal web of Truth.

BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN, by Richard C. Morais, Reviewed by Chris Beal

The still-developing genre of Buddhist fiction remains loosely defined. But when a novel’s main characters are all Buddhists, most of them grappling with some aspect of their faith and practice, such a book obviously meets the definition.  Such is the case with Buddhaland Brooklyn (Scribner, 2012).

Aside from the criteria specific to the “Buddhist Fiction” categorization, I want a novel generally to give me well-developed characters, richly defined settings that reflect what the author is trying to convey, and a story that keeps me engaged. At the same time, I’m hoping that the work will move me or make me ponder rather than try to convince me of some idea. (We have nonfiction forms for the latter.)

In all of these respects, Buddhaland Brooklyn succeeds. And while the story is, in a narrow sense, about the intersection of Buddhist belief and practice with lived reality, it has much broader implications: a Catholic priest thrown into another culture, for example, may face challenges similar to those faced by the Japanese Buddhist priest in Morais’ tale. Indeed, anyone coming into an unfamiliar setting with an agenda will find himself or herself so challenged.

The narrator of the novel is Seido Oda, a priest of the fictitious Japanese Headwater Sect of Buddhism. He begins the story with his childhood in a small mountain town, where his family owns an inn that primarily caters to pilgrims to the Headwater Sect temple nearby. Although his brother longs to become a monk while Seido himself feels no calling, he, in fact, is the sibling inexplicably given over to the temple while still a young boy. But not long after he leaves home, a tragedy befalls the family and Seido silently carries the guilt about what happened in his absence into adulthood.

Seido Oda becomes a quiet but stubborn priest who specializes in teaching art and has found his niche at the temple while going out of his way to avoid any surprises in life. But when his superior tells him he must go to Brooklyn to help the believers there build a temple, he is incredulous. Surely there is someone better for this task! No, his superior insists, there is no one else.

Oda’s first months in New York are chaotic and, for him, distressing. He can’t stand the Americans and thinks they practice their faith lazily and without understanding. He insists that he must teach them the proper forms in word and deed – “proper” being defined in terms of how things are done in Japan. In one scene, he converses with a New York Headwater believer who conducts a series of lectures on Buddhism:

“’And the lectures are based on what study material?’

‘Ton of books. The Reader’s Digest Encyclopedia of Religion, Tales of Siddhartha, Buddhism for Dummies. The list goes on and on.’

Buddhism for Dummies? I am not familiar. . . .’

‘Don’t let the title deceive you. Heavier than it sounds. Excellent text.’. . .

‘I see . . . . very interesting choice of doctrinal material.’. . .

‘The Believers here know all about karma. All about it. I spent three sessions explaining the concept.’

‘This is very efficient. In Japan we believe it takes a lifetime to understand karma. At deep level.’

‘Yeah, well, you’ll find things go a lot quicker in America.’” (pp. 86-87; ellipses added).

The Brooklyn setting, too, is keenly observed, with all of its abundant chaos. But as Oda changes, the way he sees Brooklyn changes as well, reflecting the key theme of the novel – that we make our own reality.

Here are some questions readers may wish to ponder:

How is Oda’s experience as a child and a young man in Japan a set-up for what happens later, in America?

Do you think Oda’s superiors sent him to Brooklyn because they knew what he needed?

Do you think a Buddhist priest coming to America for the first time would experience Americans the way Oda experiences them? How much is the way Oda experiences the United States a product of his unique personality and how much is common to the Japanese character?

Because the story is told in first person, the language the Oda character uses to describe his experiences is very important in conveying his inner world and how it changes. Do you think Morais succeeds in conveying these changes?

Although it is extremely unlikely that a Japanese who has never lived in any English-speaking country would understand the idiomatic slang with which Oda is confronted when he lands in New York, it would not be funny to have the character constantly saying, “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Is artistic license justified here for the sake of some good laughs?

If you are American – and especially if you are a New Yorker – were you insulted by the stereotypes in the book? Do you think they were accurate? Do you think Morais can get away with this because he himself is American?

Although Morais avers in his Acknowledgements that the Headwater Sect of Buddhism is fictitious and based on a variety of sources, some not even Buddhist, he also says in at least one interview that astute readers will notice similarities to Nichiren Buddhism (and points out that many already have). In what ways does Morais capture the essence of Nichiren’s teachings? Are there ways in which he doesn’t? Based on your experiences of Buddhism in general, does Morais get the doctrine right?

How does the language Morais uses to describe Oda’s inner experience convey the changes he goes through?

Do the numerous haiku in the story enhance it? If so, how?

We love to get comments! Let us hear your impressions of this book.

Chris Beal is currently reading BUDDHALAND BROOKLYN by Richard C. Morais

Here is the publisher’s description of the book we’ll be reviewing next, Buddhaland Brooklyn (Scribner, 2012):

“Seido Oda spent his boyhood in a small mountainside village in rural Japan. When his parents hand him over to the monks at the nearby Buddhist monastery, he devotes himself to painting, poetry, and prayer—and avoiding human contact. But his safe and quiet existence is unexpectedly upended when he reaches middle age and is ordered by his superior to open a temple in Brooklyn.

“New York is a shock to the introverted Oda, who now must spiritually lead the ragtag army of eccentrics who make up the local Buddhist community. This motley crew provides for a host of hilarious cultural misunderstandings. But when tragedy strikes, Oda’s eyes are finally opened to the long-buried sadness and personal shortcomings in his own life. It is only when he comes to appreciate the Americans, flaws and all, that Oda finds in Brooklyn the home he has always sought.”

Check back in a couple of weeks for a more thorough discussion.  Happy reading!

Interview with Roland Merullo by Chris Beal

Roland Merullo (Rolandmerullo.com) is the author of sixteen books, two of which are particularly of interest to readers of Buddhist Fiction. BREAKFAST WITH BUDDHA (Algonquin, 2008)), previously reviewed here (https://buddhistfictionblog.wordpress.com/tag/spiritual-travelogue/), is currently in its fifteenth printing and has been translated into Korean and Croatian. Merullo’s latest, LUNCH WITH BUDDHA (AJAR Contemporaries, 2012), is a sequel to BREAKFAST, and picks up on middle-aged, upper-middle-class food book editor Otto Ringling’s sometimes reluctant journey into spirituality and his relationship with the Buddhist teacher Volya Rinpoche, who has now become his brother-in-law. (Note that it is not necessary to read BREAKFAST in order to enjoy LUNCH although doing so may result in a richer experience.)

Chris Beal:  For those who haven’t read it, could you describe LUNCH WITH BUDDHA in a nutshell?

Roland Merullo: It is, like BREAKFAST, another road-trip book, a look at America, at spirituality, at food and landscape and the interior life.  It begins with the whole family together in Seattle, and then, after an event I don’t want to describe here, Otto and Rinpoche head east in an old pickup truck and make their way across Washington State, Idaho, Montana and a bit of Wyoming, having various adventures along the way, talking, eating, meeting characters.

For those who haven’t read BREAKFAST, that book is a New Jersey-to-North Dakota road trip taken by the same characters. LUNCH is the next stage on that evolution, with Rinpoche bringing Otto deeper into the interior life, and Otto showing Rinpoche more and more of the American landscape and culture.

CB:  I find Rinpoche, with his eccentric mix of human foibles and profundity, to be an extremely engaging character.  He’s also the source of most of the humor in this tale as well as in its predecessor.  How did you come up with the idea for him?  Did you know someone like this or is he purely a work of imagination?

RM:  He’s a mixture of spiritual teachers I have seen, taken retreats with, and imagined.  There’s a little of the Dalai Lama in him, a little of the Tibetan master, Sogyal Rinpoche, a bit of the late Zen master Soehn Sahn.  I went on brief retreats with the latter two, and found them to be very funny, engaging, impressive men.  But in Rinpoche I take that to another level, and have him do things that those teachers might not do.  In part, the book grew out of a magazine piece I read probably thirty years ago, the account of the Dalai Lama’s first trip to America.  One of his hosts was aghast that people had arranged for him to go to Disneyland, but the Dalai Lama enjoyed himself, went with the flow, with good humor, kindness, without judgment.  I wasn’t even interested in Buddhism then, but it impressed me so much to have a great spiritual leader with that kind of sense of humor about things.

CB:  How did you learn about the obscure branch of Siberian Tibetan Buddhism to which the Rinpoche belongs?  Did you choose it because it attracted you in some way or just because its obscurity gave you some freedom to play with the doctrine a bit?

RM:  It’s made up.  I know a bit about Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen especially, but I’m the last thing from a scholar.  I used my intuitive understanding of those teachings, but I chose this made up lineage because I did not want to be limited to the factual teachings of any one group.  One thing I love about Buddhist teachers is how they incorporate and respect the teachings of other faiths.  They will mention Christ, for example, though very few Christian teachers mention Buddha with the same respect.

CB:  But I researched whether there was a branch of Tibetan Buddhism in Siberia, and it turned out to exist. This is an amazing coincidence.  But if you didn’t know about it, of course it was made up for purposes of the novel.

RM:  I should have been more clear about that.  I did work in the USSR for almost three years between 1977 and 1990, and did once take the Trans-Siberian railroad, which passes through a place called Skovorodino.  And I did know that there were some Buddhist enclaves.  So that was in my thoughts when I was writing and having Rinpoche come from Russia.  But [the lineage] Ortyk is made up….unless by some weird coincidence it is also real.  

CB:  One purpose of the book seems to be to encourage people ask themselves questions about what is really important in their lives. Could you say something about the role of humor in accomplishing this purpose?

RM:  Religion is a tricky subject.  It’s especially tricky for someone like me, who has zero credentials.  I’m not a preachy type, in real life, and do not want to go anywhere near preaching to or trying to convert my readers. Humor helps with that.  The big questions are so big, and they can be so serious, literally matters of life and death and afterlife, that, I think, if you don’t approach them with humor the results can be awful.  I am trying to “provoke” people to consider things, but I’m not pushing anyone anywhere beyond that, and if the characters and story don’t work, then the ideas will fall flat.

CB:  The book suggests that communicating with the dead is possible. Have you yourself had any experiences in contacting the dead?  Can you talk a little about how you see this kind of communication?

RM:  No, I haven’t, but I do have friends who feel they have had some communication with lost loved ones.  And it is just very hard for me to believe that we form these deep attachments to certain people in this life, and then they end forever when one or both die.  Part of what I am trying to do in Breakfast and LUNCH (and now DINNER, which I am writing), is to counter what I see as the excessively materialistic views held by most of us in American/Western society.  I don’t mean materialistic in the usual sense–wanting things–but in the sense of believing only in the material, the measurable, the tangible.  It seems obvious to me that there is more going on, and while that other dimension of things can be the territory of the flaky and false, I think there is truth to it.  I think there is some connection that death doesn’t sever, and I wanted Otto to feel that in this book.

CB:  Certain plot elements are never developed in LUNCH:  the possibility of harm coming to Shelsa, the possibility that she is an incarnate Buddha, the menace posed by the hate groups.  Did you intend to set up these plot elements for further development in DINNER?

RM:  I don’t plan much, don’t outline, just write by the seat of my pants, by intuition, trying to have fun as I go.  But in DINNER, I am wrestling with some of those elements, how much to pursue or abandon them. It’s tricky business because the heart of these books is the spiritual evolution of Otto, and I don’t want to turn them into thrillers.  At the same time, I like to introduce something new in each book so I am not just playing the same song over and over again.

CB:  To what extent are Rinpoche’s views on spirituality your own?  Are there any ways in which they are not your own? If the answer is yes to the latter question, why did you decide to give him views that differ from yours?

RM:  They are mostly my own.  He is wiser and deeper than I am, and he lacks some of my flaws and troubles.  I have tried to put some of me into Otto for that reason, though Otto is very different than I am in many respects.  When Rinpoche says something in his teachings, those are things I have thought and wondered about myself, or read or heard from great masters. I try to be careful with that material, try not to simply mimic what I’ve heard, but also try not to have him say something that will be misleading to true spiritual seekers.  It’s a fine line sometimes.  I feel a responsibility to the truth, as I perceive it, especially in spiritual matters.  And while I joke about it in the book, at the same time, I take seriously what I have him say.  If it doesn’t work in my own life, or if it feels “off” somehow, then I won’t have him say it.

CB:  I believe I read that you meditate.  Is it a particular type of practice?  Are you affiliated with any particular spiritual group?

RM:  No.  No specific group.  It’s a hybrid meditation that grew out of a Catholic upbringing, some Buddhist reading and retreats.  It’s been an almost daily practice for 30 some years.  I start with a Hail Mary and an Our Father, sometimes do a little tonglen, the Tibetan giving-and-taking meditation, then try just to rest as quietly as I can.  I like Dzogchen because it seems simple, without a lot of visualizations and tricks.  I just watch the thoughts and try to return to some word, idea, or image, and occasionally have moments of calm.  In general, it has helped me tremendously.  Not that I have any great visions–I don’t–but it has helped me with anger and depression and other tough parts of life that I experienced more when I was younger.  Still a long long ways to go to get free of all the negative emotions, but it has helped me so much.

I’ve had a lot of physical challenges in my life–broken back, back surgery, back spasms, psoriatic arthritis, shingles, etc. etc. etc.  And meditation is so helpful with those kinds of things.  My wife and I were married 18 years without having children and I made retreats then.  Since the children have come into our lives, I try to stay home, but when they are grown I will certainly do more retreats. I’ve done Catholic, Christian, Buddhist (Tibetan, Zen), Protestant, non-denominational. It all feels about the same to me–an unplugging from the usual run of worries and thoughts.

CB:  Do you feel you have developed spiritually in the years since you wrote BREAKFAST?  If so, how was that development reflected in LUNCH?

RM:  I think we always develop.  Bringing up children, being married for a long time, suffering, traveling, meditating, writing, dealing with the ups and downs of life–all those things have contributed to my own spiritual evolution.  I think that happens for every single soul on this planet.  But I think if you pay attention to that, if you meditate, for example, or have some other practice, then the effect, the benefit of those experiences, spiritually, is heightened.  In LUNCH I wanted to touch upon what happens to a person who loses a loved one.  I have friends in that situation.  What happens spiritually?  What are the challenges?  How does one experience and deal with grief?   The trick was to have all that in a book with humor in it.  But I do see, even in friends who have lost spouses, that humor eventually resurfaces.  One never forgets, the pain is not erased, but I do think humor and hope resurface after a time.

CB:  Is there anything else that you’d like readers or potential readers to know about LUNCH WITH BUDDHA or about the way you work as a writer?

RM:  I think it is an upbeat and hopeful book, despite a strain of real sadness. The way I work is to write about what I care about, what I’m thinking about.  I try to put something good into the world, to entertain, yes, but also to provoke–not in the sense of upsetting people, but in the sense of encouraging readers to think about something they might not have thought about, or to pursue something they have thought about from a different angle.  In a sense, my writing is extremely personal. I don’t write at arm’s length, in a scholarly or particularly cerebral way.  I want my books to be engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking, fun, carefully written, the kind of book you might read a second or third time.  I feel like I just tap into some source–I don’t mean this in any mystical or special way–and take that and put it on the page.

CB:  Well, you have certainly succeeded in doing this. Thank you so much for writing such thought-provoking and at the same time entertaining books.

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.

Announcing New Buddhist Fiction: A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING, by Ruth Ozeki (Viking Penguin, 2013)

Three-time Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki is at it again. The plot of her new novel interweaves the stories of Ruth, a writer living on an island off the coast of British Columbia, and Nao, a Japanese teenage girl. Nao’s family is a mess – except for her great-grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun who has turned her own past tragedy into wisdom and helps Nao endure in a way no one else can.

When Ruth finds a Hello Kitty lunch box washed up on the shore of her island and begins to read the journal she finds inside, she learns of Nao’s difficulties – how she was forced to return to Japan after her father lost his job in Silicon Valley, and,  having grown up in California, is now treated like a foreigner in her own country, mercilessly bullied and tormented in school. Seeing tragedy looming in Nao’s future, Ruth wants to change the expected outcome for both Nao and her family. But can she intervene to effect change when the story presumably took place long before she is reading it?

With quotations from Proust and Zen Master Dogen setting the tone, this meditation on time and so much else makes us ponder how we can live in the face of the transient nature of existence, how we can care for each other along the way, and how we can be transformed in the most unexpected ways.

NOTE:  WATCH FOR A DIALOGUE WITH MS OZEKI TO APPEAR HERE IN THE NEAR FUTURE.