For over thirty-six years, I’ve dabbled in Zen Buddhism. For over forty-six years, since fourth grade when I wrote a Christmas poem about the Snow Fairy for my class, I’ve been a writer. These paths do not always converge.
Egolessness is a beautiful thing. Buddha taught that all suffering comes from the ego’s desire to feel pleasure and avoid pain. Writers are rarely, if ever, seen without their egos. I heard that Jack Kerouac went through a period in which he wrote all day and then burned his work at night. He spent some time dabbling in Buddhism; but at the end of his life he was bloated with alcoholism, living with his mother, and he had sort of returned to his Catholic roots. I think writing and then burning whatever you’ve written might be a good indication that you are experiencing a Zen moment. But then telling people about it would cancel out the egoless aspects of it.
It’s hard to want people to think you are cool, brilliant, an irreplaceable contributor to the world’s art, and at the same time try to disappear into the great selfless void. When your work is accepted for publication, when people actually show up for a booksigning, it’s easy to say, “I am not attached! Everything is perfect as it is.” But at some point you might find yourself, the Buddhist writer, spending an entire meditation period fretting about how you can get your latest manuscript published. This, clearly, is not transcending ego. This, clearly, is suffering, albeit on a pretty minor scale.
Some might say, “Forget the hippie Buddhist crap and admit that you want it all — you want fame, fortune. And okay, you also want people to stop being mean to each other as a result of reading your profound work.” But I’ve had one experience after another that told me this kind of indulgence has no good end. It creates a lot of anxiety. It creates doubts and fears; and anyway, all success comes to an end. The party is over, and you have to try to plan a bigger, better party. Yes, there’s momentary pleasure, as there is when one finally says, “What the hell! I’m going to eat the whole pint of ‘Chunky Monkey’ and have a damned good time doing it.” But that last spoonful comes, and then what? How long can you coast on “Wow — that was some fun eating that ice cream”?
I cannot deny the wisdom of Buddha. Ego and its limitless fears and desires should not be indulged. And I’d probably be a much more contented person if I had no ambition as a writer.
But I do.
And yet — there is a time when as a writer I have a little freedom from wanting and fearing — it is, of course, when I’m writing.
Any creative act is best when you forget time. And ambition is, after all, about the future. At my best, I am writing to write, not caring about anything, loving the magical appearance of a word, even a letter. The formation of the words and an insight about the character or the events I’m creating seem to happen simultaneously.
Another way my Buddhist intentions merge with writing is when I make a focused effort to see and listen to a character. It’s a character I’ve made up, but it isn’t “me” — not the “me” in the mirror or the “me” ordering from the L.L. Bean website. It’s often someone in an entirely different century. Yes, it’s part of my imagination, but removed from my day to day identity.
And finally, if I sit down with the intention of connecting to readers, breaking the barriers between my mind and the minds of others, I am making an effort to dispense with the delusion that we are lonely, independent, self-centered beings. Just as I have been able to see what a long dead writer once imagined, someone else will read what came out of my mind, and it will enter into his or her mind. That’s trippy! And it inspires a certain responsibility to try to make what you put into other people’s minds as good as it can be.