Not long ago someone said to me, "I noticed you have a great many notes about Buddhism and Zen on your blog. Does that mean you are a Buddhist?"
My short answer was, "I'm not sure."
My long answer is much more involved.
I'm hesitant of labels. If you know me, you know this about me. Labels are a great way to not get people to think about something too deeply. If you label someone with a political, religious, cultural, sexual, or vocational affiliation (note that none of these things excludes the presence of the other), you've allowed a lot of your own thinking about the thing in question to be subsumed into the label.
This is one part of why I'm hesitant to take the label entirely, because it tends to kill more nuanced thought. The specific way it does that is the other part of why I'm not sure.
I started getting interested in Zen and Buddhism right around the time I left college and got a fulltime job (1994). It took a lot of exposure to the field and the work being done in it to make me realize that a lot of how the West has talked about the subject and cultivated it has been riddled with problems. Sometimes it was bad translations of things, but the single biggest culprit — something Brad Warner has called out unequivocally many times — was the way Buddhism and Zen have been boiled down into trendy pseudo-spiritual stress reduction techniques. You don't study Zen to become better at handling stress, you study Zen because it's worth studying in and of itself, and if you get a cooler head as a nice by-product, that's fine.
Worse, the irony was that there wasn't anything all that complicated about Zen to begin with — that was the whole idea! — but because it was from another land, etc., we treated it as if it was this alien artifact that had to be surrounded with mystique, and not something that literally anybody anywhere could pick up on and work with in their lives. And when we did do that, we ended up turning it into a hipster product. You can't win!
When I saw that most of the people I was meeting, even fairly educated and intelligent people, held views like that about Buddhism and Zen, I realized I was facing an uphill battle if I identified myself with any of it. I didn't want to take on a label that was inaccurate, and I didn't want to waste my time trying to persuade them everything they thought they knew was wrong. I also didn't want to get into pedantic arguments about meat-eating or whatnot (yes, I still eat meat, but I try not to be married to it). If people found out I sat zazen, I'd talk about it then, if they asked, but for the most part I wasn't interested in advertising.
In fact, I'll take this a step further. I don't think the point of this stuff is to advertise it anyway; it's to practice it in your own life and let the results speak for themselves. Proselytization doesn't interest me. The point isn't to "spread Buddhism" anyway, but to make the world a little bit less crummy for yourself and others, and to be able to deal with both your own pain and the pain of others that much more effectively. But, again, people respond to labels; they assume that whole package of goodies has to come under a collective name, because how else can they recognize it?
The other aspect of all this I want to touch on is how Zen informs my creative work, because it's been clear to me for a long time that it does. It's not something where I'm consciously trying to add any such message, though; it's more like one of a pool of themes that I can draw on with confidence because I have come to know it well. Summerworld was informed by this; Vajra was, too (as if the name wasn't a total tipoff!) It's also something I have drawn on to a lesser extent for other works, but those are where it's most visible.
And again, the main way I try to do it is by having it as one of a number of systems of insight, ways to look at things, that I can draw on directly because I've been sitting (literally, ha ha) with them for a long time now. But it's not something I want to make into a conscious message, because that's a guaranteed way to get people to not take either you or it seriously. (If they do, it's a sign you don't want them taking you seriously.)
So, I don't call myself a Buddhist. But I do sit zazen, and I have made the study of Buddhism a big part of my life over the past decade. I hope that distinction isn't totally meaningless.
Want to see what kind of writing was informed by this worldview? Check out my (new!) novel Welcome To The Fold, and showing your support for it by registering at Inkshares and adding the book to your "Follow" list! Failing that, you can always buy one of my existing books, available on Amazon Kindle and in dead-tree format.
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Other Lives Of The Mind