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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, August 22, 2008

welcome, stranger

In the 1970s or perhaps the early 1980s there was a British documentary TV series called The Infinite Search, in which the presenter (forget who he was) visited practitioners and authorities of the various major religions of the world. In one of the episodes he visited a Zen monastery in Japan and interviewed the abbot, who could speak English.

At some point the presenter asked the Zen master what spiritual advice he could give to the Western viewers of the show. The Zen master answered, "I think it is important to know thyself."

In the words of my friend Brad, who first described this interview to me, it was a masterful reply. The dictum "know thyself" was of course the famous motto of the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, so with those two words the Zen master bridged East and West in one go. The deceptive simplicity of the advice makes it like a Zen koan in the sense that the more you reflect on it, the more provocative and bottomless it becomes.

According to Buddhist doctrine, of course, there is no self to "know"--but understanding this is far from easy. For from the Buddhist point of view, even though things are not real, neither do they lack reality.

In East and West, we're enjoined to investigate this unreality called our self and get to know it. The biggest obstacle is the complacency of thinking that we already know. Once you admit that you don't know, you open the door to the greatest mystery we can find. To a greater or lesser extent, we're all strangers to ourselves. And how do we treat strangers?

I feel strongly that my work relates to this quest, but I'm darned if I could tell you how.

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