How we learn by looking in the wrong place
The revelation opens him up to a different kind of resolution, one he would have struggled in vain to find deliberately. His own efforts to sort out his life are eclipsed by a religious discovery that overwhelms him. All of a sudden, his problems find their answer in a source far other, and far wider, than where he was looking.
Many great creative lives seem to proceed by a kind of misdirection, too. Tolstoy, for example, hoped to be seen as a great philosophical and religious figure. He considered his true life’s calling to have been Christian monasticism, something for which a man of such famous passions and appetites was probably not well suited. He discounted and even disparaged his own achievements in literature. Yet perhaps his poor aim in his life’s objectives helped him. He saw himself as a larger thing than a novelist, and the novels as a means to that; but he was no good at the larger thing, and in the end the novels were the larger thing.
“Writers are often best at their second-best calling,” said the late Wordsworth scholar Robert Woof. Even Hemingway set out to be a poet in his early years in Paris, with the writing of stories a second best. When novel-writing replaced poetry as his main act, it was still in the relegated form, the short story, that he continued to excel. D. H. Lawrence likewise took the English novel as his arena for greatness, yet his best work is a handful of poems and his occasional prose. There is a great deal to be said for having a major project in life, though it’s possible that its greatest service is to provide a shelter in which our most truly valuable activities can germinate and grow.
This is comparable to the way some works achieve their greatness by fighting against their own grain. The original story of Hamlet was a simple revenge tragedy. But it is the young prince’s ambivalence about that story line, his resistance to it, and then his resistance to that resistance, that generates all its greatness. The Iliad appears to be a tale of warriors and their martial prowess. Yet as the poet Peter Levi has said, “Homer’s is the poetry of the defeated”: the true subjects of the epic are vulnerability and forgiveness, as becomes clear in the scene near the end when the two sworn foes, Priam and Achilles, weep in each other’s arms. It is surely one of the most moving moments in all literature. It is as if art, like life perhaps, succeeds through a contrary. Likewise in our spiritual lives, the lofty project of a great awakening is something we both work toward and chafe against. Within its shade, all kinds of smaller openings and maturations may spring up.
The Lotus Sutra is probably the preeminent text in East Asian Buddhism, and it is often referred to as the king of sutras. In fact, as the scholar Jacqueline Stone has noted, it makes a claim very much like this for itself, proclaiming that it is the ultimate sutra, the supreme teaching of the Buddha. Yet it then proceeds to offer no real doctrinal content, no explicit teaching as such. It never expounds the great doctrine it keeps saying it is going to present—it is like a great lead-up to something that never happens. There are, however, many teachings within it. One of the most famous is the parable of the burning house, which explains earlier Buddhist teachings almost exactly as misdirection. From the standpoint of the Lotus, other teachings are skillful means, which essentially means misdirection—stories told to get people out of the “burning house” of samsara at all costs. Yet at the same time that it characterizes other teachings as misdirection, the Lotus Sutra is itself a work of misdirection too, as it never actually proclaims the doctrine it promises.
One can discern various kinds of misdirection at work within Buddhism: that one can’t go directly at transcendence, but only askance; that no matter what narrative structure a given tradition offers, the structure necessarily leaves things out, and much that is significant in spiritual life may happen outside it; the idea of skillful means, that teachings are provisional and meant to lead the practitioner to emancipatory ends. The Lotus Sutra in particular exemplifies, though it leaves unsaid, something that we today have learned through studying religion and its literature comparatively: the meaning of religious texts is not entirely determinative. Much of their meaning is symbolic, pointing beyond itself at a living coherence that is larger and more encompassing than our ideas about the world. The meaning of a text is bound up with the living experience it unlocks. In Zen’s famous formulation, the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon. With some texts—and the Lotus is certainly one—this sensibility is built into the texts themselves and, more important, it is carried by their traditions of interpretation. So misdirection thrives, and must thrive, because the world we seek entrance to far surpasses our descriptions of it.
Sometimes we can see something akin to this in great literature, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace is exemplary. Henry James dismissively called the novel “a great mass of life,” and in a way he is right. War and Peace, by all standards, is a deeply flawed novel. It’s a very different beast from novels of more perfect form, such as Madame Bovary. Tolstoy’s long excursions on his philosophy of history, for example, are so dull that many readers simply choose to skip them. What’s more, they flagrantly violate, absurdly, a basic axiom of narrative writing: “Show, don’t tell.” Ironically, everything he has to say about history is already being shown in his narrative anyway, and to far greater effect. Yet despite these and other flaws, War and Peace has, since its publication up to today, been regarded by writers and critics more than any other book as the greatest novel ever.
Tolstoy’s great mass of life lays open the impossibility of containing life in a tightly coherent narrative structure. Life doesn’t work that way; it doesn’t fit. War and Peace is a sprawling work, and in that, it mirrors life’s complexity, its shifts in direction, the fact that coherence is found not in linear development but in the intricacy of the web of relationships that tie us together. Instead of structure, it offers a breathtaking empathy with a huge array of people and situations. The novel is a vast piece of actuality, rather than a form to be appreciated. Real life seems to steal into us as we read. It has the “maximal contact” with the world that the theorist Mikhail Bakhtin identifies as characteristic of great fiction. But it has more. It is itself of a piece with that “great mass of life.” Its omniscient narrator is not a neutral teller of events but someone with an embracing vision that infuses it all from top to bottom. After reading it, even if we feel we haven’t arrived at a clear end point, something has happened to us. We have taken in a measure of life’s immensity, and we are left with an unbridled empathic openness that leaves us astonished. We thought we were getting a novel; we were getting much more.
Near the end of J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Zooey goes after his sister Franny for her reciting of the mantra-like Jesus Prayer, accusing her of doing it to acquire “spiritual treasure,” which, he says, is no better than material treasure. Anticipating by a good 20 years Chögyam Trungpa’s idea of “spiritual materialism,” Salinger points at a deep dilemma in spiritual life: how does one seek for something that transcends the self, if the self, which is the problem, is doing the seeking?
In a famous passage from Genjokoan, Dogen leads us into the territory of this dilemma and points us toward a resolution. He writes that to study the Buddha Way is to study the self, and that this study of the self means the forgetting of the self. The kind of examination (study of the self) that he says Buddhism is about, is self-forgetting, and self-forgetting is itself awakening. But how does one forget the self? Aim at uprooting the self, and you’re still the one aiming, which means the self is not forgotten.
For Dogen, the key was faith.
In How to Raise an Ox, Francis Dojun Cook contrasts Dogen’s way, based on faith, with Buddhist approaches that tackle the project of liberation head-on. Like his contemporary Shinran, the founder of the Shin school of Pure Land Buddhism, Dogen was suspicious of practice based on an aim seen from the ego’s point of view, since that is the very thing we are trying to get past. Instead one starts with faith. For Dogen, this means faith in buddhanature; for Shinran, it means faith in Amida Buddha. For both Dogen and Shinran, a single practice—zazen (formal seated meditation) for Dogen, nembutsu (recitation of Amida’s name) for Shinran—done in faith makes present and expresses, fully and completely, original enlightenment. That in itself is the going beyond the self.
Give up the ego’s designs on practice and trust that zazen itself is the full expression of buddhanature: this may seem clear and straightforward enough, yet even here there is a kind of misdirection writ large. Faith here is not you looking toward Buddha out there in the world; it is Buddha looking out at the world through you. Not you gaining Buddha; but Buddha gaining you. For it is the whole experience itself that is the point, not the practice alone, and its meaning is not capturable in linear terms, but rather as an expression of life’s wholeness. Hence Dogen’s concern with the forms of practice. For while original enlightenment is without limits, its expression is always particular. We don’t live life in general; we live life in particular ways, and it is in its particulars that life is invested with wisdom and meaning.
Buddhist practice pulls both ways. From one perspective, it is a discreet activity, something we do. From another perspective, one which tends to emerge more clearly with time, it seems less something we do and more something we are; less a piece of life and more all of life. No wonder we, like Franny Glass, get confused, getting things back to front, chasing the carrot and fleeing the stick, assessing our progress as we move from here to, well, here. The good news may be precisely that our lives will never “work out,” no matter how well we arrange the pieces or play the game, whether of career, relationships, or indeed practice. Buddhist practice is especially recalcitrant; it just won’t “do” what we want, at least not for long, because what we want is the problem.
In a sense, any spiritual path is largely a matter of misdirection, something meant to conceal an appalling and marvelous fact that, in the words of the Zen master Yunmen (Unmon), “swallows the entire universe.” It’s a case of a metaphor—the process of practice—being all vehicle and no tenor. To really “get” the metaphor is to discover there never was a tenor to which it referred; it was only ever a “vehicle”—a metaphor for nothing. But if the whole narrative has been a setup from the start, like a mystery; if it turns out the journey of training was just a road painted on a stage scrim, seeming to proceed over hill and dale into the distance, but in reality being just a prop, paper-thin, going nowhere, then that may be no bad thing. Without following that apparent path, we could not have come to the realization that there never was a path, and that everything, just as it is, is only waiting for our love and attention. But that love and attention mean everything. Every step of the way, everything we could ever have hoped for was right here, all along.
Henry Shukman is a prize-winning poet and novelist. His most recent novel, The Lost City, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. He is a teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan Zen lineage.
Artwork by Thomas Jackson.