“What is the sound of one hand clapping?” J. D. Salinger inscribed in the opening pages of Nine Stories. An epigraph made in heaven: What on earth were his readers going to make of that? Whatever it was, coming from him it had to be good—precious, tender, not to be found in the phony world that stretched beyond the household of the Glass family. “A Zen Koan,” he added underneath. Koans were still an exotic rarity in the early 1950s. The great apologist of Zen, D. T. Suzuki, had lectured and written on them passionately and widely earlier in the century. In the 1940s the first small wave of Western Zen pioneers had gone to Japan to taste the austerities of the masters of the void. R. H. Blyth’s Zen and Classics of English Literature had appeared. Alan Watts, himself an Anglican minister and at an early age a leader of Britain’s Buddhist Society, had already published The Spirit of Zen. Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen would not appear for another decade, and the popularizing of Zen was even further away. Yet one of the very first American writers interested in Zen—before Ginsberg or Snyder, or even Kerouac—was Salinger. Zen was the first of various spiritual practices that caught his eye as he developed his own eclectic spirituality. Although he didn’t stick with it but went on to study Vedanta, as well as other spiritual traditions, Zen was one element that helped him to evolve his own idiosyncratic literary stance—which is surprisingly hard to pin down, even as it has seemed so palpable to the reader. The cycle of stories about the Glass family is where this is most highly developed. If one were to reduce it, the fictional position might be that something is rotten in the state and, more importantly, the state probably does not contain the necessary remedy. This represents a shift from, say, Victorian fiction, where in the last resort humankind contains within itself the seed of its own redemption. Be true enough to yourself, and you can find peace and happiness. But Holden Caulfield’s problem, in The Catcher in the Rye, is that he is being true to himself, and no one else is (with the exception of the children, Phoebe his younger sister above all). The question the book presents is how to enter the adult world without losing oneself. This is Salinger’s restatement of the moral problem much great fiction grapples with: in short, how to be good. In Salinger, unlike much twentieth-century fiction of despair, there does seem to be an answer, but it’s unclear what it is, and it’s always just out of reach. Salinger’s own spiritual explorations—Zen, the Orthodox Church, the Bhagavad Gita—infused and quietly informed his fiction, all the time addressing not just the question of how to live but the fundamental problem of life and death, the heart of the existential quest: Who am I, what does it mean that I will die? This question hangs over the Glass family like a sword poised in mid-fall, from the very first story of the Nine Stories, in which the intellectually and spiritually masterful Seymour, the golden child of the family, kills himself. Why? All the Glass family chronicles can perhaps be seen as a working out of this question. Seymour’s suicide isn’t a koan, yet there is something in its insistent irritancy, its motivating power, its infallible awkwardness that is somehow koan-like. Its effect on the reader may not be Mumon’s red-hot iron ball, but is surely a cousin to it. Salinger’s work is famously addictive to adolescents. Around the time I discovered it—at thirteen or fourteen—I was obsessed with finding out if I was fully awake. I didn’t mean whether life was all a dream. It might or might not be. But either way, how could I know if I was simply as awake as I could be? Was there a maximum setting to wakefulness? If so, who knew what it was, and how could anyone ever get inside my mind and tell me if I was there? As I walked home from school, satchel strap digging in my shoulder, I might be kicking a stone along, or thinking about a friend or my homework, when suddenly I’d realize I had no idea how I’d gotten from one lamppost to the next. Had I been asleep on my feet? What had happened to me over the missing 50 yards? And even when I was there, did I know what I was doing, could I know it even more? Even at those times, was I in fact only partly awake? Somehow that mysterious koan that opens Nine Stories, the sound of a single hand, seemed connected with my question. Both were equally impossible to answer and produced the same uncomfortable feeling, yet also held out a promise of brightness just round the corner. I remember the feeling that the epigraph roused in me when I first read it: a mixture of impatience and, somehow, hope. It was like being given a key, but you had to find out what to. There was some kind of truth the koan seemed to know about, an honesty of a sort our culture perhaps had little of. It is said that koans are dark to the mind, yet radiant to the heart. The koan was somehow cognate with the frankness of Salinger’s work, with the battered integrity of his protagonists, their horror of phonies, their sense that so much of the world was bitter, cruel, wasteful. This strange question seemed to promise another way, perhaps the same way that Holden, Seymour, Franny and the others were struggling to find. It’s not that Salinger was particularly faithful to the spirit of Zen training. Still, the problem that motivates his work—how to integrate spiritual meaning into life, in the context of Western, urban, educated, postwar ennui—spoke loudly, if also elusively, to the spiritual hunger of his audience. Salinger became an entry point into the dharma for me in two ways. First, that inherent seeking manifest in his characters, who, with their troubled integrity, seemed to be searching for a truer way of living spoke to me of my life. Second, there was that koan. But I got nowhere near finding the answer to it, or to my own troubling sense that I was disconnected from the source of what I intuited was life’s most vital knowledge. Now, instead, I threw myself into study—ancient Greek, Russian, and English literature. Perhaps I’d find the answer in books. I secured an early place at Cambridge, then decided to take a year off, a gap year, and went to work in South America, where I wrote my first book. “Whatever Master Gutei was asked about Zen, he would simply raise a finger.” “Show me your original face, before your parents were born.’” Koans can inspire profound impatience, as if they were designed with no purpose other than to infuriate. They can curdle the mind, tie the brain in knots. But by rousing discomfort and doubt, they can also lead to deep release. Sometimes when an “answer,” or presentation, arises in the student, it may bring with it a stream of laughter and tears, at the simplicity of it, the bare, bald understanding of it, the depth, the love, the revelation of life itself that seems to arrive with it. But equally, the value of a koan can lie in the mysterious trail whose start it suggests, which in turn demands that it be given time; away from the desk, away from our relationships, the shops, the gym. Holden Caulfield, in an inchoate way, seems to have understood the sense of another order of priorities, outside the conventional constructs of our world, where we drop the getting and spending with which we generally lay waste our powers. He was a seeker who didn’t know what he was seeking, but only knew what he didn’t want. Salinger’s work is full of incipient dharma—an apprehension of the truths conveyed through Zen training. The precocious children in whom a more compassionate wisdom abides, and who are the lodestone of the books; the adolescents who reject the adult world, which they perceive as a sea of hypocrisy; and the Glass family, living a kind of modern fairy tale, where children of unusual perceptiveness withdraw from the opacity of the city around them. There is Franny Glass, who openly embraces the mystical life, teaching herself, even if arguably for all the wrong reasons, to recite the “Jesus Prayer” continually, a standard Orthodox contemplative training. By the close of Franny and Zooey, it seems that Franny is less likely to continue with the prayer than to return to the adult world, with all its hypocrisy, and to try to be “in the world but not of it,” which is what she and Zooey, her brother, recognize as the path they must take despite their feelings of not fitting in. Although Salinger had little if any formal Zen training, his work is full of the kind of questions that might lead one to such a training. If the adult world is as dire as it seems to Holden and the Glass children, is there in fact any way to gain adulthood without losing one’s integrity? Is there after all a Catcher in the Rye who can stop us all from going over the cliff? Obviously, a spiritual answer must be an emphatic Yes. In the case of Zen, there is a refuge, the refuge of the Three Treasures—the “harbor and weir of the world,” as Dogen called it, the Catcher into whose arms we practitioners are lucky enough to stumble. Dogen said: “Directly upon encountering the dharma, we will abandon the law of the world.” In other words, once we discover the true order behind the appearance of things, our lives will no longer be dominated by the conventional values of society— the seeking to outshine, outrace, outgain. In Dogen’s day, this generally meant “renunciation” and “home-leaving.” Today, like the Glass family perhaps, most Western practitioners pursue lay lives. Once again, the Glass kids, with their uneasy, restless seeking, seem dharma students in the making. Like them, we too surely would prefer not to join conventional social life if all it contains is hypocrisy. Instead, we will follow the elusive trail in our hearts suggested by the koan. But in the end, this must surely lead us back to our own actual lives. All good literature, in a way, is an emissary from this other land of “truth.” Seamus Heaney speaks of the “redress of poetry,” which holds up an image of a realm of truth, intangible but undeniable. Why can’t we know this land directly, but only through ambassadors? Zen says we can, and when we do, we may find it is no different from exactly where we are anyway. But we have to go on a journey to get to where we are. We roll like a ball downhill, into exactly where we are. Sometimes, along the way, we make discoveries that truly “astonish the heavens and astound the earth,” as Master Mumon put it. We may even be fortunate enough to hear the sound of one hand. There are koans—Joshu’s “Mu” or “What is this?” or “What is the sound of one hand?”—that aim at pushing practitioners toward deep insights. Are these insights so different from the epiphanies found here and there in Western literature? In Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, for example, Edmund reminisces about an experience he had while crewing on a sailing ship: I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving 14 knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved into the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. Edmund’s epiphany is based on a journal entry that O’Neill wrote when he was in his early twenties, describing his own experience while at sea as a merchant seaman. Thirty years later he was still writing about it, it still tugged at him. When his ship docked, O’Neill went straight to the nearest dive and over the next several weeks nearly drank himself to death. The experience did not deliver him from despair but only deepened it. On the other hand, he named his last home, the house where he wrote Long Day’s Journey, Tao House, which seems to indicate that he continued to recognize in that early experience something of surpassing preciousness. But nevertheless he had no context that would deepen, stabilize, and make the experience intelligible, that would link it to the larger patterns of his life, and connect him to a community offering guidance, purpose, and inspiration. This can be the role of a spiritual tradition, whatever its methods—to give a context, to link a practitioner to a tradition that gives shape to our deepest intuitions. “To study the self is to forget the self,” said Dogen. If you try to find who you really are, you may discover you’re not there at all. Dogen also said: “To forget oneself is to be actualized by all things.” O’Neill’s epiphany seems to contain similar or even identical insights.