Edward Albertson, author of a book called Zen For The Millions*, recalled his first visit to the Japanese Zen Buddhist master Nyōgen Senzaki, one of the first Zen masters to reside in America. When Albertson entered Senzaki's zendō, the master said to him, "You won't find any Zen here." Exactly the kind of infuriating thing Zen has become synonymous with in the minds of the people who know little more than its pop-culture caricature, and also exactly the kind of thing that makes all the more sense once you study Zen in a more than trivial way.
I sometimes feel like books about writing should be prefaced in the same manner: "You won't find any 'literature' here." Or books about music: "You won't find any 'music' here." People who want to learn about something tend to go look for a book to tell them how to do it, or go find another person to teach them one-on-one. The latter is usually better than the former, but it's possible to make the same mistake in both cases — to expect that you'll have an encounter with Some Thing or Some One that will cause whatever it is you're looking for to be magically imparted to you.
When I was younger, I did that thing all naïve young people burning with the desire to create do. I went to most everyone I could find who was older and practicing some kind of creative path, and I bugged them with the one question they all hate: What's the secret? Do you have any advice for a beginner? How do I get started? Because those guys (and some gals) would always yield up the same frustrating answers: There isn't a secret. The only advice I can give you is to just keep doing it. There's no path to getting started other than to get started. If you're looking for a shortcut, you're wasting your time.
Nobody wants to hear this. Especially not young hotheads who look around and see people living the dream. But every now and then one of them slinks off from one of these disheartening encounters, sits down, looks at the empty page in front of them, and starts doodling or scribbling. And then, for moments at a time — and then eventually for more than moments at a time — they forget about the distance between them and the idols they were just haranguing. They do something, and the doing of the thing becomes its own reason. And then twenty years go by, and one day they realize there's all these young people standing around them asking, "So, uh, do you have any advice for a beginning writer?"
When a master says "You won't find any Zen here," it's only because he knows the only Zen you can find is the Zen you have been carrying around the whole time without ever knowing it. The only job he can do is show you how to find it, by demonstrating how to clear away all the crap in your eyes so you can turn them inwards without prejudice. The experts can only show you how to look for whatever it is you want to find, but they can't give it to you. That would be cheating, y'see. (You don't want someone else putting their fingers in your eyes, do you?)
We seem to really like the idea that whatever it is we're looking for, it isn't actually inside us. When it comes to technical knowledge, this is completely correct. I'm very much in favor of fledgling authors getting their hands on books of common grammatical and syntactical mistakes, and learning how not to sprinkle their texts with obvious and egregious booboos. But we seem to think that the things that are entirely and completely ours — our worldviews, our experiences, everything that's hard-won and alive from the inside — are things better gleaned from other people than dug out from inside ourselves. We like the idea that those things await us in a book somewhere, or by way of someone else's approval and transmission. It was like that with me for a long time.
What I'm not going to say is that anyone who doesn't get that right off the bat is an idiot. If anything, you learn things from struggling with this quest that you can't pick up any other way. The biggest of them being that the thrashing-around, the hard search for what's only going to be found inside, is what makes the realization feel so hard-won when it finally strikes home.
How did John Cage put it? Oh, yeah:
Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, “What is the difference between before and after?” He said, “No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground.”
When I was much younger, I had some sense that the only thing I could really draw on to make anything was myself. But that impulse was hampered by the mere fact that I was young and didn't yet have experience enough to do more than just recapitulate other things I'd read or seen in some form. And "experience" here doesn't mean I'd been deep-sea diving or shot at by guerillas; it just meant that I'd had my eyes open all the way for whatever living I was going to have. It took a while for me to learn how to open my eyes and see what was always in front of me, and inside as well.
* The "For The Millions" book series was a 1970s-era version of "Very Brief Introduction"-type books, including topics like UFOs and ESP (sigh), all now long out of print. This particular book gets points for making efforts to separate Zen from the free-for-all "Zen" that had become a beatnik staple at the time, and has some other useful attributes, but it places its most valuable and relevant material near the end of the book, and front-loads too much of the kind of history-lesson version of Zen that just makes the whole thing feel like a piece of antiquity instead of something that applies to our perpetually immediate moment. As Dean Sluyter put it, "The ancient Greeks had no idea they were ancient. They experienced themselves as living now, on the cutting edge of modernity, wearing the very latest styles in togas."
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