When the historical personage known as Siddhartha Gautama awakened and became the Tathagata, or ‘awakened one’, or, as we all know him, the Buddha, his immediate thought was that no one was going to get it. No one would possibly understand what he had finally seen. Because, see, it’s not a thing to figure out: it’s already there, right in front of you, you are it, it is you, and yet it has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with everything. No chance, he thought – if people haven’t seen it for themselves, I can’t make them. Then, after some more meditation, he thought, no, most people won’t get this, and I certainly can’t show anyone anything, but there are a few who are ready, who – if they can see into their own mind – through concerted effort and practice will see for themselves beyond themselves. Just those few will help spread this truth.
It’s of course ridiculous to begin a ‘Notes on Craft’ piece for Granta by invoking the historical Buddha and a story about him, fictional or not. Because then you might think I’m going to compare myself to him. Don’t worry, I’m not. I begin with this story for another reason, which is very simple. Generally speaking, most people don’t want to look at the truth. Better put, most people don’t want to look at reality, or what Shohaku Okumura calls, ‘immeasurable reality’. This is an incredibly difficult fact to get one’s mind around – that of the seven billion or so people on this planet, very few really want to and can look at and exist in reality. Me too. Escape, entertainment, distraction, television, the news, movies, the internet, games, food, alcohol, social media, fashion, music, culture, none of it, as Terrence McKenna famously said, is your friend. Or, to stick with a Zen Buddhist, it’s what Robert Aitken said: ‘[The] things of the world are not drugs in themselves. They become drugs by our use of them.’ Just look around: we take the most basic things that appear full of care – like, say, being a vegan in order to help the planet – and turn it into an identity, a way to reify ourselves, a way to show how important, understanding, and compassionate we are. Basic selfishness, with a kernel of care lodged in there. The idea is that by making the things of the world into drugs of the self, we live in delusion. This was what the historical personage known as Siddhartha Gautama saw: we willfully live in delusion, and this delusion is our drug, and our drug is our self, what we call our ego. And we’re all sick with it. Our sickness is our self-concern, our endless narration about ourselves and others and the world out there, the unceasing idea that we are the center of the story, that our consciousness is what matters above all else, that our ideas are the right ones, that our views are the most correct, that our suffering is the most deep, that our pain is the most significant or real, that our existence matters – in the positive or the negative – above all others; what’s even more subtle and difficult here is that we convince ourselves that we aren’t selfish, that this is just the way the world is, that we’re enlightened, honest people, with maybe some parts to improve, but generally speaking, Woke.
For seven years before I began writing my first novel, Mountain Road, Late at Night, I meditated day and night. I went on what in the Zen tradition are called sesshins, extended retreats, in which, again as the Zen Buddhists say, I turned the lamp inward. What I found was unpleasant indeed. My mind, my consciousness, my thoughts, my actions were all driven by self-concern, and even when I saw that I did care deeply for my daughter, for my wife/partner, for my family and friends, it was still that ‘I’ cared for ‘them’, that ‘I’ feared losing ‘them’, that ‘I’ hoped they saw ‘me’ in a good light, and that ‘I’ hoped the best for ‘them’. In other words, an essential division: self and other. Living in this way, even my care was selfish. This is so subtle, most people won’t even begin to investigate: even our care is wrapped up in our fear of loss, a basic, elemental selfishness. This is what the Buddha saw: it’s why we suffer. What he also saw was that most people don’t want to talk about or even begin to acknowledge just how selfish they truly are – to do so would mean having to face up to not only some hard work, but a lifetime of work, and not being distracted by the drug, the self, but to see through it, to begin to see through it.
This was where I began with Mountain Road, Late at Night.
It came to me that the thing I could do after all these years was to go down into the depths of a certain form of consciousness, and report from there – the unceasing flow of thoughts, the confusion stemming from a belief in a solid and separate self, the relentless self-concern, especially in a time of tragedy, real or perceived, the craving and aversion, which are really just the same thing, wanting to get or wanting to avoid, both selfish wants. This is the prose style for Mountain Road, Late at Night, a constant vacillation between confusion, suffering, clarity, with brief moments in which self drops away and the world is illuminated.
As I enter what the Zen Buddhists call ‘the blue dragon’s cave’, or the place of meditation, zazen, I watch my mind. I see how it works, how thinking thinks itself. We so often believe we’re in control of our thoughts, our emotions, but we’re not: they spiral of their own accord, and yet we cling to them as though they are real, as though we’re in control. If we were to let go of thoughts and emotions – what would happen? I remember once in meditation approaching a threshold. I was watching some very intense thoughts about my relationships to people. My body began shaking, I began to cry, and I felt deeply afraid as I saw these relationships recede, and my thoughts about them dissipate into wide open space, and suddenly everything vanished: there were no relationships, there was no me and other people, there was no body on the cushion any longer, just the burning flame of existence. Then I was back in the room. That was one moment of letting go. It was frightening. Zen practice is to let go every moment into the present. Why? Because you’re going to die. The ultimate letting go. So this was my project: to honestly depict the selfishness, the attempt at selflessness, and the neurotic mind of people in the United States. What I began to see off the cushion, as I learned to listen more, was that people would spiral out their inner stories for me if I asked the right questions, and in this way, I began to see that everyone has a similar inner monologue, a similar self-concerned narration of consciousness, in which they are the protagonist, and that all beings are selfishly, and beautifully, constructing their stories. Most people won’t investigate this about themselves let alone admit it – they view it as too negative, too ugly. But as Dogen says, ‘Those who greatly realize delusion are Buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.’ What does this mean? It means that some people acknowledge their own selfishness and delusion and attempt to work with it, while some refuse to believe that such a thing is even true. Another quote, which appears in my book, from Dogen: ‘Because the blue mountains are walking they are constant […] Those without eyes to see the mountains do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear this truth. They who doubt that the mountains are walking do not yet understand their own walking.’
Mountain Road became a book that was nearly plotless, a book about four minds in various states of understanding their own delusions and selfishness amid a terrible tragedy. How do people react in such a crisis? I wondered. How would it be to finally begin to see the nature of one’s self-concern, forced to, because of a tragedy. Four minds attempting to find a way out of the trap of self, the thing the Buddhists say doesn’t exist in the first place. Does it? Does it not? The Buddha says, Don’t trust me, test it yourself. Are you a separate individual, a self? Really look, though. It’ll take years and years. A lifetime. Even more. In Zen, all things pass away; this makes some people sad. But sadness is only the self fearful of what it will inevitably lose – what happens when that self doesn’t exist, never existed in the first place? The whole universe emerges and lives through this little consciousness that we call our self.
In the last chapter of the novel, as Nicholas is dying, he vacillates between self-concern, regret, awe, love of his family, fear of losing them, fear of losing his own life, to complete presence in ‘immeasurable reality’. He lets go: breathes in, breathes out. Here. The universe, all reality, the mystery of it beyond our little selfishness is right here. Writing this book taught me something: to care for my selfishness and the selfishness of others because it’s our one common gateway, our heritage, to a larger reality beyond the self. This is the paradox: to get beyond the self we have to go into our selfishness. You have to go in and through and see it – this body and mind – and acknowledge it and not be distracted and not be afraid and then let go. Two lines of verse from a koan: ‘For twenty years, I have suffered bitterly / How many times have I gone down into the blue dragon’s cave for you?’ As mentioned, the blue dragon’s cave is the place of meditation. But who is the ‘you’ here? Who is the ‘I’? And after twenty years, longer, after a lifetime of going down into the cave of consciousness and investigating, what happens? The touching of minds – the bridging of self and other – the larger body of reality emerging – all the things that brought me to certain kinds of writing in the first place, certain other consciousnesses, who touched mine, transmitted something to my mind, and opened it beyond itself – the extinguishing of delusion and illusion – illumination – connection – interdependence – immeasurable reality.
Such are the mechanics by which I wrote Mountain Road, Late at Night, and such is reality understanding itself through my consciousness, a reminder and guide for myself as much as for anyone else, since, after all, my life in the end is not mine at all, and neither is yours.
Artwork by Yamamoto Shunshō