Reading can bring us to the threshold of the spiritual life. It can introduce
us to it, but does not constitute it. —Marcel Proust
My friend Albert arrived early to our Zen center to pick up his wife following evening meditation. It being cold, he went into the Dharma hall to wait for the period to be over. An avid reader, not a Zen student himself and innocent of the prohibition against reading in the Dharma hall, he took his book in with him, sat down on a cushion and commenced to read. Afterward, his wife chided him for his breach of the rules. “What do they want me to do,” he protested, “leave my soul at the door?”
As a lover of books myself I am uneasily sympathetic with my friend. But as a Zen practitioner, I understand the caution against mixing reading—and especially non-Buddhist reading—with meditation. While on a retreat, or otherwise having my attention directed to formal practice, I willingly put my book away to take up the matter at hand: sitting on the cushion, washing a dish, taking a walk. But once I transfer my focus elsewhere, I eagerly open my book again, although rarely with complete confidence that in its turn it, too, could be the matter at hand.
At a monastery all one winter, after the evening meditation and lights out, I would dive under the covers to read— by flashlight just like any kid hiding from the parental eye—my Moby-Dick. At another training center, located deep in a cold coastal gulch, on my day off I would hike to a nearby beach with Dante’s Inferno in my pack, warming myself at its infernal fire. At yet another practice place, out from under the covers by now with my love of reading, I gave a talk on George Eliot’s Silas Marner, the story of a miser bringing up a child and opening to the richness of the shared life. I spoke of the book’s lessons as a turn on the Bodhisattva path, but Buddhist vocabulary aside, what I really wanted to bring forth, to a community rich in wisdom and compassion but dry of heart, was the water of sentimentality and melodrama. In the silence that followed my presentation, an unasked question hung in the air: What’s a nineteenth-century British novel doing in the Dharma hall? For years afterward I left my books outside the door and my soul outside the practice. Dharma is Dharma and literature is literature, and never the twain would meet.
The door between the two cracked a little one day, years later, when I attended a Dharma talk titled “Dante’s Divine Comedy as the Western Sutra,” in which the presenter extended sutra study to this classic of Western poetry. I began to make out, between literature and the Dharma hall, a threshold where inside and outside met. Not long after, I found myself turning to Dante’s Purgatorio (the second of the three volumes, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso) to help me come to terms with a punishing experience I was undergoing. I might have turned to any number of Buddhist texts for guidance, but the fact is, what spoke to me was an Italian epic I’d been devoted to in my college years. Even in translation, it reached me via narrative, allegory and image in a way most Dharma texts did not. It wasn’t as though one kind of text was opposed to another, or more or less than another, but that Purgatorio, as an exemplar of Western literature, served me particularly well in respect to morality, whereas The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, for example, served to further understanding. I saw the possibility that literature and Dharma could be in a relationship of collaboration.
Nearly all my favorite works of Western literature—from Homer to Thoreau to Marcel Proust—many of them first read in my school days, now revealed aspects and pleasures new to me since my study of Buddhism. Apparently I had, without intending it, learned something about a way of reading from the Way. Not that there was any special relationship between the two: just that now my reading seemed to be of my own life rather than of a text outside myself; more a process of musing upon and living with books, less an acquisition of knowledge or sophistication. This shift seemed to have everything to do with Buddhist practice, with its focus on the moment-to-moment attention to one’s own experience. As I began to gain comfort in hovering at this threshold, I discovered fellow readers in the sangha. My discovery of a place where two vital sides of my life integrated was not idiosyncratic, even if not well understood. What I did understand was that those two sides were in fact different sides, one inside and one outside, of something shared.
The problem with this inside-outside metaphor, however, is when it implies the judgment of one being primary and the other secondary, one being essential and the other dispensable. That, I believe, has been a misunderstanding that has kept most especially non-Buddhist reading out of the general Dharma discourse. The book has been left outside the zendo door as a diversion from the fundamental matter, the practice of bare attention, the focus on “just this.” Lately, however, there seems to be a movement in the Buddhist sangha to bring the book if not inside the door, then at least to the threshold.
Journalist Pico Iyer plays on Proust’s words above, writing that Proust and other non-Buddhist writers of his stature “map the threshold of the spiritual life.” That phrase helps broaden the threshold from a two-dimensional line to a territory all its own. It’s a territory, I’m beginning to realize, that’s long been open. American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, 150 years ago, took his Bhagavad Gita with him to Walden. Dipping his bucket into a Massachusetts pond, he dipped into the waters of epic India: “I meet [Brahma’s, Vishnu’s] servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well.” Our more immediate Dharma ancestors—Beat writers Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac—introduced many of us to Buddhism through novels and poetry. In the ’70s and ’80s, priest and poet Philip Whalen taught classes in literature to innumerable students at the San Francisco Zen Center. As I think back over Dharma talks I’ve heard, I call to mind references to Tolstoy, the Brothers Grimm, Parsifal and the Holy Grail, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf. The crafted word, borrowed from our own poems, novels and folktales, served to fix Dharma in memory. However, it was rarely featured in the discourse of the sangha. It was a dessert or an appetizer but not the main meal.
That’s fair enough, given that we come to a Buddhist center to study Buddhism, but the fact is that the transmission of Buddhism has never been accomplished without joining with the cultural and social forms into which it has moved, influencing them, being influenced by them. India has its Jataka tales, the teaching stories of the previous lives of the Buddha grafted onto a folktale tradition long pre-dating Buddhism. China has its stories of masters and monks, woodcutters and tea women, laced with its own folklore and compiled into collections like the Gateless Barrier and the Blue Cliff Record. Japan has its lineage of the poet-monk—Basho, Baisaō, Ryokan—especially as developed in haiku.
It seems that the Buddha’s medicine, dry and bitter as it can be, needs to be taken with a spoonful of sugar, a dollop of yogurt or a ladle of oatmeal: the pleasure of a well-told story, the relish of a well-turned word, the familiarity of locally treasured places and persons. The Buddha himself, in order to reach his spiritual goal, diverted from his too-single-minded approach long enough to nourish the appetites of body and soul. After years of ascetic practices, and for all that effort still unable to cross enlightenment’s threshold, he helped himself from a golden bowl of porridge concocted of milk, rice flour and honey. Nurtured, he went on to his great attainment, transmitted to countless generations of numerous cultures. An essential aspect of that transmission has been the food of the written and spoken word, not just in instruction, but the re-creation, with all the pleasures of recreation, of the essential message in new, culturally relevant terms, which, among many forms, will include the literatures of specific times and places. In the West, Eliot, Melville, Woolf, Proust, Kerouac offer just so many servings from the great golden bowl of our indigenous porridge: delicious in its own right or nourishing to the Path—amounting, at the end of the story, to the same thing.
Inquiring Mind itself is at a threshold with its “Books and Bodhi” section, which generally reviews Buddhist books. Along with the reviews of Buddhist literature and meditation guides, we plan, as a regular column in future issues, to include articles and interviews regarding the relationship between Dharma and literature, Eastern and Western. Your comments are welcome.