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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, August 02, 2007

boneless tongues

I probably need to make a lifestyle adjustment in order to get back to writing. As time goes on, I will need to make a regular place for paying work, and right now that's sitting right smack in my usual writing period of the day. In the past I have bumped my writing period to first thing in the morning, over my morning coffee, but this is not my preference; it has the flavor of duress. Of course the problem of creation vs. earning has always been central to many artists' lives.

In some sense I'm not (yet) too exercised about my long tarrying at chapter 30, since the problems I have been tussling with in it--and solving--reach far beyond the confines of that chapter. On the other hand, no matter how slowly this train moves, I don't feel comfortable when it's just sitting at the station.

For the time being, over my morning coffee, I'm keying notes from A Study of History, volume 1, by Arnold J. Toynbee, and from A History of Israel, volume 1, by Theodore H. Robinson. I continually ingest more research books and convert these slowly into typed notes for myself. I suppose this process will not end until I have polished my last draft for the last time. Indeed, the only thing that will probably end it will be the taking up of reading for my next project, whatever that might be.

Yes, folks, I love reading. I always have loved it, and a day in which I don't read is both rare and, for me, feels rather wasted. I feel that I've cheated myself of what I love the most.

When I was first exposed to Buddhist thought while traveling in 1979--in the form of books, of course: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig and The Way of Zen by Alan Watts--I discovered that conceptual knowledge, the kind derived from books, can never lead one to an accurate relationship with reality. I found this to be both liberating and disappointing. Liberating, because it seemed to confirm a sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction in trying to learn the truth from books. Disappointing, because I felt that what I had always loved to do was now, in some sense, a waste of time.

This tension followed me in the ensuing years. When I took up meditation in 1986 I learned again that enlightenment can never be attained conceptually; it can only be a matter of direct experience. Nonetheless, the meditation center offered courses in which books were studied, and this type of study was encouraged. I latched on to it and studied dharma books--along with my regular diet of reading, which I never gave up.

Luckily, as I progressed in my Buddhist practice and studies, I became more relaxed about the role of reading. While concepts were still regarded as a faulty and incomplete way of knowing, they were still essential for the student. The real problem was in clinging to concepts: solidifying them as "true" and thereby creating stumbling-blocks for oneself.

I remember attending a dharma talk given by the late Tibetan teacher Jamgon Kongtrul in Vancouver. He was a young man (soon to die in a car crash in India). As I recall, the teachings were on the bardo--the "in-between" state that we inhabit between successive births. In the Tibetan teachings, a number of vivid, phantasmagoric events happens to us in this state. The question came up as to whether such experiences were real or not.

Jamgon Kongtrul responded that "these experiences are beyond duality, so you can call them real or unreal, just as you please."

This struck me. On the one hand it seemed annoying and irritating that there was not a clear answer as to whether something was real or not. But on the other, I felt power being placed in my hands--in the hands of all of us. Whether we call something real or not, in any given situation, is for us to decide. How we term things, how we see them, how we choose to respond, is a power that always lies with us. Even "reality" is situational: something that is useful in one moment, but not in the next.

I recalled another thing I had read, a commentary by some Zen master on the enigmatic statements of another master: "His tongue has no bone." At first it was a baffling image, but soon it clicked: our boneless tongues can move any which way. They're not constrained or forced by anything; they are not limited; they are free. Free to say "real" one moment, and "unreal" the next.

When I was at the shedra or monastic college at Gampo Abbey in 2002 I did lots of reading and writing--more than I did meditating. There we were taught to regard study itself as a practice, like meditation, undertaken with discipline and a certain attitude. We were still taught that a buddha's mind is free of concepts, like a cloudless sky. But I was and I remain skeptical of this. As far as I was concerned, if a buddha was using words, he was using concepts. It seemed to me people were too eager to usher concepts out the door, like unwanted relatives at a party.

But then again, what does it matter? We can call them concepts or not, just as we please.


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