July 02, 2010
In my opinion, one mark of a good Buddhist is the ability to put oneself in somebody else’s shoes, to see yourself walking with them. Reading Reginald Gibbons’ column “Elsewhere” in the latest issue of The American Poetry Review I was reminded that this ability can be cultivated through the practice of actively listening to and reading people.
Listening to ourselves; imagining ourselves as others when we read; coming to understand how we are others to those who speak with us, who read us—all this reminds me of the theory of fiction, if I may call it that, of the writer William Goyen, who remains for me one of the touchstones of my own sense of what writing accomplishes.
And he believed passionately that what he called the “teller-listener” situation is a moral or ethical as well as a dramatic human occasion. (See the remarkable recent essay by Clark Davis, “William Goyen and the Strangeness of Reading,” in the spring 2009 issue of Raritan.) That is, without an acute, attentive, very present listener, the teller cannot proceed fully; and without an experience of such intense listening, the writer—as Goyen, anyway, experienced this state of mind and of action—cannot get access to the deep springs of feeling, narrative, and idea within.
The “teller-listener” situation reminds the writer that the story cannot be properly told without the reader. Not only that, but that the story itself is affected by the reader. For Buddhists, I think this idea can be applied to how we relate to “the other.” After all, when we talk of compassion for others it isn’t completely selfless, right? It’s that compassion for others is the natural way to act when you understand emptiness—things are not what they are on their own, things come to be what they are through the influence and conditioning of other things, and therefore nothing has a pre-set permanent essence; all things are always undergoing change to become something other than what they are now. If that goes for everything, then we are all in this together and there is no reason to focus exclusively on myself. Compassion for “the other” is natural; the listener helps tell the story.