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Lions Roar : May 2015
You’ve said your writing comes from remorse. What do you mean? Remorse generates what-if propositions. What if I’d done something differently? What if this had happened instead of that? From those propositions, an imagi- nary world starts to grow because what if is a fork in the road. It’s where reality deviates from speculation. But with prac- tice, hopefully, you do less and less harm in the world. So, who knows? Maybe enlightenment is never having to write another novel! Your latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, deals explicitly with Buddhism. Yes, but Buddhist themes—especially themes like impermanence and interbe- ing—are strong in all novels. Buddhist principles, like novels, are about life. Novels depend on human suffering in order to be interesting. In that sense, it’s not a coincidence that Buddhist themes should find their way into stories, even if the authors aren’t Buddhist. Do you think writing is a way to transform suffering? Yes, all of the characters in fiction are facets of the self and through the writing process you’re giving voice to the differ- ent facets. You’re meeting them—under- standing them—and it’s through this study of the self that you transform your suffering. It goes back to Dogen’s famous statement: “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 the myriad things.” Zen seems to disparage words and concepts, yet the tradition is full of stories and poetry. How do you reconcile writing and practice? When you’re silent, you’re silent. When you’re speaking, you’re speaking, and when you’re writing, you’re writing. When you start to think about how writing rec- onciles with Zen practice, they become irreconcilable because you’ve moved into a conceptual frame of mind. But every- thing we do is an expression of our pres- ent dharma position, so writing is simply that. This has to do with my feeling about zazen. It’s not that you sit zazen in order to gain enlightenment or be a better per- son. It’s that you are who you are, and if you’re sitting zazen, then zazen is the creative expression of who you are in that moment. You’re not trying to do anything. What’s your favorite dharma book? Dog e n’s Shobogenzo. What’s wonderful about Shobogenzo is that it’s boundless—it’s alive. But then again all dharma books are alive. They change depending on the cul- tural context in which they’re being read. Did you grow up as a Buddhist? My parents didn’t raise me in any reli- gious tradition, but my first memory is of my grandparents sitting zazen. They came to visit us in Connecticut when I was three. I’d never met them before and they arrived late at night while I was asleep. So, when my mother sent me into the bedroom to call them for breakfast, I saw them for the first time. They were sitting next to the bed, cross-legged. Because they were on the floor, we were the same height. I imprinted on that image like a little duckling. And five years ago, you ordained as a Zen priest with Zoketsu Norman Fischer. When I met Norman, I learned the tra- dition of my Japanese ancestors from a teacher from Pennsylvania who was Jew- ish. It was perfect. What can I say? ♦ Q&A All Novels Are Buddhist Buddhist principles are like novels, says RUTH OZEKI. They’re all about life. PAIGEGREEN Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being is about Japanese hostesses in French maid costumes, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, and a diary that washes up on the shores of Canada in a Hello Kitty lunchbox. It was nominated for the Booker Prize. SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2015 15 CULTURE • LIFE • PRACTICE