We -- meaning the circle of creative-minded friends I'm in -- got to talking about influences the other night, and I mentioned that one of mine was Zen Buddhism. Influential in the sense that once I started to take my study of it seriously, it altered the way I saw and thought about everything, and that in turn changed the kinds of stories I wanted to write.
I'd always wanted to write stories that did more than just entertain, but I was also always unsure how to go about doing that. Profundity isn't something you can add the way you can put a coat of paint on a wall. The first long-form fictions I wrote (mercifully gone from this world, as they sucked mightily) took futile stabs in that direction.
What lacked was any cohesion or discipline in the worldview. I latched onto ideas because of their aesthetic component, not because they made sense in the context of what I was doing. Maybe that wasn't the worst thing; maybe I was just taking cues from the other authors I'd read who did the same things, and didn't know any better. But I always felt vaguely dissatisfied by that approach, not just because I was merely aping my influences, or because I wasn't executing my work in the same context they had (and so any move I made like theirs was wasted energy), but because some part of me didn't want to be doing it that way anyway.
By the time I started practicing Zen in earnest I'd been casually aware of it for the better part of my life. I just didn't have a practical understanding of it. Then came some circumstances in my life I won't detail here, but which gave me incentive to start practicing. A few years of that, combined with a renewed version of the intellectual study of Zen, and a lot changed. Or maybe all that happened was I wiped the grime from my eyes.
When I started producing fiction from this new point of view, it wasn't as if I started writing about dharma or the Noble Truths or any of that. Self-consciously "Buddhist" fiction is about as interesting to me as self-consciously "Christian" fiction; that is, not very, if at all. The whole point of Zen is that you can find it anywhere anyway, so there's no need to shoehorn it into what already exists. If there was an opportunity for me to have a story element make good use of a Buddhist insight, then I let that illuminate what was going on as naturally as I could; if there wasn't, then I left good enough alone.
If Zen influenced my work most in some way, it was not in the content but the approach. How I gathered the ideas, investigated their significance, found a way to embody them in the story, polished the results, connected it all back up to something human and felt, etc. A story can be about anything, and what Zen taught me was not how to write "Zen stories", but how to see my way towards any story with the clearest possible eyes.
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