<< back to Teachings by Zoketsu Norman Fischer

On Buddhist Writing

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jan 02, 2003
In topic: Writing / Art / Creativity
"Trying to write about Buddhism is more difficult. It is something I mostly do not do. Mostly I wrote about immediate experience, and about writing, which is a kind of experience. People tell me that most of my writing sounds like it is about Buddhism, but I don’t really intend it to be that way."

 



I began to write as a boy out of a need to respond to the world by making something of my own. Words were the only things lying around available for my use. Besides, I loved stories and poems and naturally wanted to write them. This was not so easy as it looked. I went to the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop but what I learned there seemed not to help. For years I wrote constantly but none of it ever came off. In despair I began my Zen practice. Things were then still worse. My experiences in intensive meditation, more immediate and real to me than the biographical events of my life, simply couldn’t be explained in words or dramatized in scenes or stanzas. I felt forced to find a way to work with words beyond their explanatory or dramatic possibilities. I saw that I needed to get myself and my literary notions out of the way in order to allow the words themselves to come forward. Little by little, through reading and experimenting, and finally trusting what came out, I developed a sense of how to do this, and writing became quite easy.

Mostly now writing is a joy for me. It comes freely, and I never think or worry. I do revise, but even then the work has a feeling of play. Craft, but playful craft, a form of doodling. To me writing is like playing an instrument: you do have to practice, but once you develop your chops it’s easy to swing with the music.
Of course not everything I write is worth publishing; in fact most of it is unpublished and unpublishable. But this does not make it a waste of time. All writing is worthwhile, I think, and can be read with profit by someone. It is amazing that human beings, living always with such complexity, can say anything at all. So whatever anyone writes is worth reading, however clumsy it may seem according to canons of style.

Trying to write about Buddhism is more difficult. It is something I mostly do not do. Mostly I wrote about immediate experience, and about writing, which is a kind of experience. People tell me that most of my writing sounds like it is about Buddhism, but I don’t really intend it to be that way. If I am supposed to be writing about Buddhism I remind myself that writing about Buddhism is a dubious and probably impossible undertaking. Then maybe I can write something.

I give a lot of Dharma talks and often write them. This is again something different. Because I know I’ll be offering the words I’m writing to people in person, there is a friendly atmosphere already generated. The words don’t have to work so hard, because my being there with people, our mutual presence, will generate most of the meaning. The words can be almost incidental. It’s good if the words can be skillful, true, or beautiful, but even then this is as much a matter of the way the words are spoken as the way they are written. And people are usually meditating while I speak, which makes a difference.

I think the most difficult thing of all is sitting down to write a book about Buddhism. I tried to do this only once. I had a very tough time. To write about Buddhism is to write about a set of conventional notions whose real purpose is to help people radically change their lives. The notions themselves are not so important, and can even be counterproductive if they are taken too seriously. To write about Buddhism you have to take those notions seriously and at the same time let the reader know that they are not so serious. This is a bit of a trick. In writing a book about Buddhism too you face a audience you will never meet, with its presumed expectation that your words will make sense, be inspiring and wise. This makes the task even more daunting. When I wrote “Taking Our Places: the Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up,” I had a hard time adjusting to these new problems, finding the proper tone and voice. Before that, I always thought I was simply writing. But now there seemed to be so much more that needed to be going on.

Given all this, why would anyone write a Buddhist book, and why would anyone read one? Like all writers, Buddhist writers write out of personal necessity, and for fame and fortune. Some Buddhist teachers, who are not really writers, write because they find it challenging, and they enjoy challenges. I suppose too that people who write Buddhist books feel, as I do, that there is a benefit in trying to express Buddhist teachings in a more general and broad way, to more people than you would ever be able to meet and get to know. Readers of Buddhist books want to hear a voice reminding them that deep sanity is possible in a troubled world. This is the main thing. It also does happen from time to time that the reader of a Buddhist book finds something – an example, a phrase, an idea- that causes his or her world to shift. These moments do occur in reading now and then, in Buddhist reading, or any kind of reading.

© 2004, Norman Fischer