Zen of Writing?

The Zen of Writing?

An oxymoron, I’d say.

talk to a stoneAt least, that’s my first reaction. In my mind, the act—but more specially the art—of writing requires you to be active and engaged. Bent over a ream of paper on a desk, pen in hand, or your fingers poised over a keyboard; in either case, you mine your mind and you turn out one word after another until you have built a world, a life, a dream that never existed before.

The whole act of creative writing seems to violate the spirit of Zen:

Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”
Zenrin Kushû (The Way of Zen 134, 222)

But Zen is such an attractive idea to Westerners that we invoke it when we can. A time was when using the word in a title gained you eyes for your words. Ray Bradbury did so for a collection of essays on writing. He called it Zen in the Art of Writing. Among the essays is one of the same title, where he admits he strung those words together for the “shock value.” His title attracts attention. It did mine. I saw an inherent contradiction between writing and my limited knowledge of Zen and knew that I must find out what he’s talking about.

So, of course, I read the essay.

Bradbury’s first admonition to achieve that Zen of writing: “Work.” Work? We all agree writing is work. Lots of it. So, is he already contravening himself so early in his crusade to convince us we can reach a Zen of writing? How is that remotely like “Sitting quietly, doing nothing?

He says: Write, neither for fortune nor fame, but to find your own truth. Finding your individual truth takes lots and lots of writing. And you must do it until you don’t even think about what flows out of your fingers onto the paper or computer screen. That’s the second part of his formula: Don’t Think. Now, I agree: “Don’t think” is Zen.

Implicit in this “Don’t Think” idea is that of letting go of control, being open to what presents itself, receiving what comes to you calmly. When you do, the story and its characters should write themselves. Then, you can: Relax—the third element in his formula. This, too, is akin to the way of Zen:

Entering the forest he moves not the grass;
Entering the water he makes not a ripple.
Zenrin Kushû (The Way of Zen 152, 224)

When you think about it enough, even his dictum to work is consistent with the way to Zen.

From the little I know of it, Zen is a religion and/or philosophy of life replete with teachings that practitioners learn and follow. You must work at it, for as long as it takes to get to that exulted state. The process demands discipline. When you achieve Zen, then, you live it. You can’t just turn it on or off:

When you reach the top, keep climbing.

You do live any vocation you’re passionate about, especially a creative one. I can honestly say I live writing.

But, what of finding your individual “truth”—to me a puzzling, very western idea? I always thought the way of the Zen assumes that you are part of nature, albeit a unique one. Your “truth” is nature’s truth and vice-versa. That to me is what being one with nature means.

These ways of the Zen challenge the myth of Western individuality:

Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,
萬物一體 The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance.
Zen Master Sêng-chao/Sõjõ (僧肇 384-414)

If you cannot find the truth right where you are,
where else do you expect to find it?
Dogen

Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish your opinions.

Now, I will have to mull over these Zen truths for sometime.

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