An Interview with Peter Matthiessen
Shainberg: Can we talk about the relationship between Zen practice and writing? Has the practice ever interfered with your work?
Matthiessen: No, but the writing's interfered with the practice. In sesshin, for example, when your mind is emptying day after day, resolutions of plots or characters may rush in to fill the void, especially in the early morning sittings. Sometimes I felt inundated with ideas. Finally, I went to Eido Roshi and told him about it, and he said, Look, if you're really thinking about it, that's zazen too. If you're not just daydreaming and vaporizing, that's fine. So think about it. That is your zazen. And in the rest period go up and write it down and then you're clear of it. I took his advice and it worked. I'd be scribbling away right after breakfast to get those ideas down.
Shainberg: What's that line you once quoted from Muso Roshi—about literature being the lowest form of endeavor?
Matthiessen: Well, that's a slightly different matter. Muso was a fourteenth-century teacher in Japan. In Rinzai practice at that time, many monks and teachers were involved in culture in a sort of dilettantish way. Culture had become a corrupting influence, so many teachers inveighed against it strongly. I don't think this is such a problem today. I see no fundamental way in which writing interferes with practice, nor any in which the practice interferes with writing. If anything, the practice enriches creativity through these clear insights. I'm not speaking about mystical experience, just seeing very clearly moment after moment.
Soen Roshi, Peter Matthiessen, and Eido Roshi in Sagaponack, New York, 1972
Shainberg: When I first began to study with Kyudo Roshi, I often found that I couldn't write a word after morning sitting. The deeper I went during sitting, the less I was able to work when it was over. I told him about it once, and he said, "Your problem is you're attached to emptiness." It was a perfect description of me, but it doesn't seem as if you've ever had this problem.
Matthiessen: Well, that's not exactly true. But the period in which I was most hung up on emptiness, on small Zen miracles, was when I was keeping the diaries that appeared in The Snow Leopard and Nine-Headed Dragon River. I ended those journals some years ago. By the time I was in Japan with Tetsugen Sensei, making the pilgrimage on which the last part of Dragon River is based, that stage was pretty well over. I didn't turn against mystical experience when I left Rinzai practice in 1976, but in some way I kind of grew up. And Soto practice, as you know, emphasizes kensho less than Rinzai does. People can really mess up their sesshins, being attached in this way, going into them with preconceived ideas of enlightenment or emptiness. At times it's kind of comical and touching, but the teacher must be rough with such people, knock that down. It's much more important to clear the way, empty the bell all stuffed with leaves and sticks so that it can ring again.
Shainberg: Kyudo Roshi likens the breath during zazen to a windshield wiper, each inhalation and exhalation simply cleaning the dust from one's mind the way the wiper cleans a windshield.
Matthiessen: Kyudo's teacher, Soen, always cried, "FEET ON THE GROUND!" Eido Roshi too. They seemed to despise so-called "mystical experience," knowing that in feet-on-the-ground practice you really are living moment after moment, breath after breath, moment by-moment awakening of mind, and in such a condition an opening is almost inevitable, so why talk about it? These teachers, of course, are not repudiating realization. They're simply saying: Pay attention to this moment. Clean your toilet. Have a cup of tea. I could give teisho for a hundred years and all I'm ever teaching, in the end, is moment-by-moment awakening of mind. Again: Pay attention to this moment. Right here! Now! Pay attention! Pay attention! Pay attention!