A Tortoise with a Heavy Shell

By Aamir Kaderbhai


‘Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories’ – so says Nao’s great grandmother in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. While I have no problem accepting the first of these claims, the second is a little harder to stomach. Out of context it sounds uncomfortably similar to a cheap self-help slogan like ‘life is what you make it’, an adage trying to smooth over the undramatic and disappointing aspects of life – which, for so many, is far from any story that they would choose to write. But when Ozeki, who is not only an acclaimed writer but also a Zen priest, sits down with me to discuss Buddhism, the novel, and the fundamental interconnectedness of life and story, I cannot but leave my cynicism at the door. Ozeki uses the idea that ‘life is only stories’ not to avoid realities but rather to bridge her perspectives as a writer and Buddhist practitioner.


The combination of Zen priest and novelist seems quite unlikely at first glance. While the novel relies on language as a means of representation, Zen (perhaps more so than any other religious philosophy) is sceptical of language’s ability to capture truth. The mythical account of Zen’s origins narrates the Buddha wordlessly raising a flower in front of an assembly of monks, and Mahakashyapa wordlessly responding with a smile. The Zen tradition claims that in this moment Mahakashyapa penetrates into the core of the Buddha’s teaching, an insight which can never be put into words. Passing directly from master to disciple, this ineffable insight was later exported from India to China by the monk Bodhidharma, who famously defined Zen as ‘a special transmission outside the scriptures, not founded upon words and letters’.


As rooted in Zen as she is, Ozeki is nevertheless fascinated by words and letters – her profession demands it. As a novelist she is obliged to spend much of her time with her characters and their worlds, walking the beaches and exploring the libraries of her imagination. In her essay ‘Confessions of a Zen Novelist’, Ozeki writes: ‘my work is plodding, methodical, and time-consuming, and I carry my stories with me everywhere. Like a tortoise with a very heavy shell, I live inside my encumbering delusions’, a burden that can seem ‘very un-Zen-like’.


Intrigued by this tension, I begin our conversation by asking Ozeki to elaborate on the relationship between her religion and her profession. To my surprise, rather than speaking of some sudden illumination, when she once and for all figured out how Zen and writing could work together, she describes how the separation ‘just kind of collapsed’. While for a time she was ‘creating a conceptual dichotomy’ around this distinction, telling herself that ‘this is writing novels and this is Buddhism and they’re different’, there came a point where the two started to appear more alike than different: ‘Now writing is my practice in the same way that Zen is my practice and there’s not really much of a rupture between them’.


When she describes this unintentional merging of practices, part of me feels disappointed – one of my hopes for my conversation with Ozeki had been to find a way of overcoming my own struggle to hold scholarship and Buddhist practice together. Zen’s promise of a direct, experiential insight was a revelation for me and sparked my first interest in Buddhism, but sometimes it feels as if my subsequent studies in Buddhist philosophy have hidden my initial conviction under layers of un-Zen-like intellectualism. Like Ozeki, I have felt far from Bodhidharma’s wordless wisdom when lost in my mind-made, academic worlds. But when she describes how at a certain point this distinction ‘just collapsed’, I realise that Ozeki does not reconcile this tension in the way that I had expected. While my inner academic had hoped for a conceptual synthesis of the two, through the course of our discussion I sense that Ozeki offers a way of looking at the world in which the separation between words and wordlessness ultimately disappears.


Hoping to make this philosophy concrete, we begin with practicalities and discuss some of the ways in which meditation and writing can overlap. ‘When we are writing,’ Ozeki says, ‘the hindrances are those discursive, self-critical thoughts, the judging thoughts, all of that. And when we are meditating those come up too. I think at the beginning of meditation your thoughts drift and you’re like, “damn, there I go again.” There’s that little judgement that you’re not doing it right: “what’s wrong, why am I so uncomfortable?”’ In Buddhist terms, these niggling doubts are a form of suffering or duhkha, which stem from wanting things to be different than they are. To Ozeki, in both writing and meditation, ‘the more you notice the duhkha involved in the process, the more you are able to just relax and let go’. The key to cultivating this ability is repeated practice: ‘through repetition, through the practice of return: noticing it and relaxing, allowing it to go, coming back, coming back, coming back, that’s where faith comes from. You start to develop a faith in your mind, in your sentences, in your plotlines, in your characters, in whatever it is you’re hoping will emerge.’


In fact, meditation was so helpful for writing that, for a time, Ozeki’s biggest distraction while sitting on the cushion was having new ideas and panicking that she might forget them. To combat this, her own Zen teacher Norman Fischer told her to keep a notebook by her side and quickly jot down anything that came up. (An instruction that he, funnily enough, denies ever giving.) In time, she learnt that if she could relax and trust herself, whatever needed to be remembered would be remembered: ‘What I slowly started to experience was that the trying itself was chasing it away, and that’s what I was getting scared of. Instead, by relaxing and widening, the thought, if it was important, would find some place in the body where it wouldn’t be forgotten. I hadn’t chased it away like a small animal.’


When thoughts are allowed to enter the mind without obstruction, they can wander like drifting clouds and find their natural path. Fischer describes this type of meditation as a ‘practice of return’, in which the actual exercise is not aimed at achieving some particular mental state and staying there but rather at returning to the present moment whenever the mind gets swept away. In Ozeki’s words, it is about ‘relaxing into a rhythm of return’. In this practice, we need not create any absolute dichotomy between ourselves and our thoughts, between reality and the words we use to describe it. ‘When you’re meditating, it’s not like you’re trying to push your thoughts away,’ Ozeki says. ‘That is, first of all, impossible. Second, it’s creating a kind of false dichotomy between me sitting on the cushion and the thoughts I need to push away because I have this objective of an empty mind or whatever. It’s more about relaxing into the way things are, including my daydreams, including my wandering thoughts.’


A problem that writers must face is their impatience: ‘We don’t necessarily want to write; we want to have written.’ Accepting this inevitability, Ozeki offers an image of the writing process informed by her experience of meditation. In writing, ‘there is a tension that is generated between not knowing, which is where we start on the page, and knowing, which is the end of the project.’ Though it arises from words on a page (or more often, the lack of words on a page), Ozeki sees this tension as ‘a physical tension,’ which is experienced as a feeling of urgency in the body. Sadly, meditation cannot cure this – but it can help us to ‘sit comfortably and not jump up from our seat, you know, if we have an itch or if we’re hungry or if we suddenly want to check our emails… We gain the ability to sit there, understanding that the tension is uncomfortable, but seeing that it is a necessary part of the practice.’


At the heart of Ozeki’s Zen is a silence that gives birth to words rather than condemns them. It is a silence that is full of generative potential. Being outside words and letters need not mean denying their value; it can instead mean embracing them through finding their source in an awareness of mental processes and the field of bodily sensations. From this encompassing perspective, being a novelist seems far less ‘un-Zen-like’.


And indeed, Ozeki’s last two novels make no great effort to conceal the importance of Zen in her life: wise Zen nuns figure prominently, offering the protagonists ideals of wisdom and compassion, and A Tale for the Time Being even manages to weave some meditation instruction. Despite this unembarrassed advocacy, Zen teachings are not forced on the reader but rather offered as possible ways of looking, which sit patiently alongside narratives that are stirring in their own right. A Tale for the Time Being traces 16-year-old Naoko Yasutani’s journey through bullying and suicidal ideation; The Book of Form and Emptiness follows 14-year-old Benny Oh, the violent death of his father, and his subsequent experiences hearing the voices of inanimate objects. The combination of coming-of-age story and Eastern wisdom could easily be a recipe for something saccharine or sanctimonious, but the novels rarely feel preachy. ‘I do not have any missionary, pedagogical or didactic intention when I’m writing a novel at all’, Ozeki tells me. ‘I’m very self-involved. I don’t really think about anyone else.’


Outside of the explicit references to Zen, Ozeki uses her novels as opportunities to explore Buddhism by paying attention to the ways in which the very nature of novels reflects the dharma, that is, Buddhist teaching. ‘Any novel,’ she ventures to say, ‘is an expression of the dharma’. This is apparent, on one level, in the way that all novels orbit around duhkha, the Buddha’s central priority: ‘Most novels have a plot, they have an arc, usually they start with a precipitating incident of some sort which inevitably involves duhkha. And so the novel is about coming to terms with the causes of suffering.’ As I am sure is often the case, my earliest exposure to Buddhism was through hearing the life story of the Buddha: his life of palace luxury, his exposure to worldly suffering, his quest to overcome it and his eventual enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. No doubt a powerful religious tale, this story also contains the very basic pattern of the novel: it lays out a narrative arc that stretches between a precipitating incident (the vision of suffering) and a culminating resolution (nirvana, or enlightenment).


On another level, novels are exemplars of a central Buddhist idea: interconnectedness, the teaching that all things are in constant relationship with one another. The late activist and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh described interconnectedness using the word ‘interbeing’, which is the idea that ‘everything relies on everything else in order to manifest’. While this interbeing is commonly emphasised on the level of physical reality, the metafictional elements of Ozeki’s writing offer ways of seeing how language and story demonstrate the truth of interconnectedness. A Tale for the Time Being is a story about a struggling writer serendipitously finding and reading a young girl’s washed-up journal, thus inviting us to think about the ways in which story can connect people across time and space. Written as a conversation between a book and a boy, The Book of Form and Emptiness gives itself frequent opportunities to contemplate the place of books in the world. As the novel describes, in their constant conversation with one another, books have a ‘kinship that stretches like a rhizomatic network beneath human consciousness and knits the world of thought together’.


Novels ‘train us in empathy and compassion’, as Ozeki puts it, and they allow us to ‘enter another’s body and mind and look at the world through another’s eyes, experience life through another’s skin’. This is only possible because of the network of language in which we all participate: ‘Novels exist because the Buddhist understanding of reality is something that we all understand, that’s why people read novels and novels resonate with your own human experience. If we really were all separate, isolated individuals, if that were true, then we wouldn’t need novels because they wouldn’t work for us.’


Ozeki conceives of the reader-writer relationship as essentially a ‘collaboration,’ which ‘relies on an equal partnership with whoever it is that’s reading it’. ‘I’m not trying,’ she continues, ‘to transmit an idea directly to a reader and have that reader read it and understand it exactly the way that I’m understanding it. I’ve written too many things and had too many conversations; I know that’s not possible.’ As a demonstration, Ozeki gracefully points out this interviewer’s blunder, noting that I added a balloon to my memory of a scene from her latest novel. ‘There was no balloon in that scene; that balloon was your balloon. I was listening to that and I was thinking: “oh how lovely, there should have been a balloon in that scene.”’ What could have been labelled as a mistake Ozeki sees as a product of the essential reciprocity of story. ‘It thrills me when that happens, because I see the novel as an invitation to a field where we can all play together.’


And perhaps play is what we are left with when we expand ourselves to embrace all the conceptual dichotomies that we habitually create. ‘Singing and dancing are the voice of the dharma,’ writes Hakuin Zenji, an 18th-century Zen master. Certainly, Ozeki has helped me relieve the tension I had built up between my efforts at scholarship and my efforts at Buddhist practice, allowing me to see both more clearly. It is easy to see Zen as relegating language to the status of an empty sign that can only gesture towards the fullness of reality. Words, as the classic Zen parable suggests, are like a finger pointing to the moon – we ought to be wary of getting obsessed with the finger and missing the moon. While this image has an important place, in Ozeki’s view, the image presents a dichotomy that is ultimately false: ‘Language is our direct experience; it’s not separable from eating a peach or pricking your finger on a safety pin. They are all part of what we experience as human beings.’ This insight is eloquently summarised by Ozeki’s teacher Fischer: ‘birds live in air, fish live in water, and human beings live in language.’ Living in language is what we are fated to; there is no getting away from it. Ruth Ozeki invites us to accept this, to relax into it, and find a silence that embraces our stories.



AAMIR KADERBHAI reads for a DPhil in Theology and Religion at Lincoln, which is mainly a cover for his real passions: climbing trees in Aston's Eyot and spending too much money at the farmer’s market.


Art by Leya Jasmin.