An Interview with Peter Matthiessen
Shainberg: Can you say which of your books most expresses your Zen practice?
Matthiessen: Probably Far Tortuga. What's odd, however, is that the experiences on which that book is based, when I first went down to the Cayman Islands, occurred before I began to sit. In fact, I had already begun to write Far Tortuga by the time I began to sit. I had been reading a lot of Oriental literature, but with the exception of the experience I mentioned before, on the troopship, I'd had no real glimpse of any kind.
Shainberg: Are there other books in which you have tried to realize a Zen point of view?
Matthiessen: No, not even in Far Tortuga. It was only in retrospect that I realized that a lot of that book seemed to have been written from a more "unified" perspective.
Shainberg: You've never tried explicitly for a dharma insight in your writing?
Matthiessen: No. I wouldn't know how.
Shainberg: There are certain writers, like Beckett, to name my own deity, who can be associated very directly with a Buddhist point of view. On some level, however, there seems to be a split, a way in which the literary form seems to prevent or even contradict a direct embodiment of realization. As Beckett once wrote, no direct contact is possible between subject and object, "because they are separated by the subject's consciousness of perception. . ." Some Beckett scholars, those who are also familiar with Buddhism, say that he embraced the first two Noble Truths but not the third. In other words, he did not believe desire could be transcended. It was as if he refused the dharma resolution.
Matthiessen: Assuming I know what you mean by "the dharma resolution." . . . In Zen practice, isn't it the subjective consciousness that falls away? When that occurs, the dharma resolution is no longer refusable. It simply is. Who is there to refuse it?
In your memoir about your encounters with Beckett, he said many things that were close to Zen thinking. It was dazzling! But it's true that it wasn't quite the Buddhadharma. Perhaps this was because his own reading and training had prepared no ground for making the jump involved in dropping the subjective consciousness. It seems to me that this is what Zen training is about, preparing the ground. Without such training, transcendence is very difficult. One arrives at a place where dualisms have lost their meaning, yet there seems to be nowhere to go from there.
Near the end of Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, Henderson approaches mystical experience. The entire book seems to build toward this epiphany, this liberation in a unifying vision. But Bellow, for whatever reason, does not break through, does not go all the way. This seems to me the one serious flaw in his best and most adventurous book. Like Beckett, he is exceptionally intellectual, cerebral, which makes it all the harder. Everything in their Western training would resist a leap into the unknown that transcends words or even thought. Yet both seem very aware of something beyond thought that holds astonishing significance.
Shainberg: Do you know a writer who in your view did not back off? Someone who had not come from an explicitly Buddhist point of view?
Matthiessen: Do you mean so-called "religious writers?" Rabbi Nachman? St. John of the Cross? Kabir? Or do you mean more-or-less "accidental mystics" such as Wordsworth? Do you know Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows? There's a chapter in that book—a so-called children's book!—called "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn." Pure mystical experience, apparently spontaneous! I'm sure he never thought of it as anything like that, but it is unmistakable. Then you have Wordsworth, who in his later life almost explicitly repudiated mystical experience, and yet his early work is full of it. It's as if he were awed by it, frightened of it. And of course such an experience can be quite frightening if you have no preparation, therefore no idea of what is happening.
Do you remember what Daiman Konin, the Fifth Patriarch, said about Hui-Neng, the Sixth Patriarch? That Hui-Neng was the one student—out of more than five hundred—to whom he would give his robe and bowl because "he does not understand Buddhism." Hui-Neng came to the monastery entirely uneducated, illiterate, no ideas, no intellectual context. He was free. For an intellectual person, someone who has been accumulating ideas throughout life, it is very difficult to empty out that bell. When I was first practicing with Soen Roshi and came in with my koan presentations, he thought they were all right from one point of view, but he also thought they were too literary, too clever. And he would shout, "BE MORE ORDINARY!" Hui-Neng had no trouble being ordinary. He was ordinary. He was just-who-he-was in his own Buddha-nature.
Shainberg: What about doubt? Does any serious doubt about the practice come up anymore?
Matthiessen: Practice? Or the teachings? I have no doubt about the practice. Doubts about myself as a teacher perhaps, about my ability to manifest the teaching. I may always have that. But no doubt about the teachings or the practice itself.
Shainberg: I'm speaking about it in terms of means. The dangers of the practice. Of self-consciousness, for example. Willfulness. Compulsiveness. All the rigidities and pride the practice can engender.
Matthiessen: Well, perhaps I don't recognize all these dangers sufficiently. And maybe we'd better separate the practice from the teachings. I have no doubt about the teachings. To live right here now, moment after moment. So simple, and so very difficult. The extraordinary teaching of the Buddha, with echoes and reverberations in every direction throughout space and time.
Shainberg: You've never had doubt?
Matthiessen: Oh, yes. How can one be a true seeker without doubt?
Shainberg: At Ryutakuji [Soen Roshi and Kyudo Roshi's monastery in Japan], as you know, I'm sure, they call the Meditation Hall the Hall of Great Doubt.
Matthiessen: Because of certain clues and intimations, one has a very powerful faith in something immanent, something of the greatest importance that must be penetrated. But until it has been truly experienced, there is so-called Great Doubt:, which could also be called Great Faith.
Shainberg: To be consumed with that doubt is a great help to the practice, isn't it?
Matthiessen: Yes. Because the other side of it is the urgent need and longing to penetrate, to burst through it, to be liberated.
Shainberg: One is driven by the other?
Matthiessen: In a sense, they are the same.
Shainberg: And what of your doubt about being a teacher?
Matthiessen: My life as a writer was twenty-five years along when I became a Zen student. Perhaps if I were a true Zen teacher, truly qualified, I'd give up writing, and someday it may come to that. I don't have a romantic view of writing. In fact I have a very practical view. Most American writers go on writing much longer than they should. It's hard to name a well-known American writer who didn't keep writing after he or she was finished, whose work did not weaken toward the end of his career. This seems to be less true of Europeans. Here, where there's so much media hype, writers seem to burn out faster. I hope that I will know it when my work becomes repetitive or stupid or senile or I'm just coasting, sneaking by on past work. Then maybe I will have sense enough to quit writing, give more time to Zen studies and to teaching.
Shainberg: How do writing and teaching conflict with each other?
Matthiessen: Time, in the main.
Shainberg: Only in that concrete sense? What about the spiritual consequences of description, the separation of subject and object to which Beckett refers?
Matthiessen: We hope for a glimpse of the absolute reality, but the linear reality—so-called separation—is reality too. Remember what Kyudo Roshi said to you about attachment to emptiness. Separation is all right so long as one perceives the unity behind it. But with separation, of course, comes the problem of self. A writer must be very wary of his ego, all the more so if his work becomes well known. If one accepts, as I do, that the modern writer, as Camus said, must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, then advocacy is "right livelihood" in the Buddhist sense, and a reputation gets the writer a hearing and makes that advocacy much more effective. I am involved with the environment, American Indian matters, social justice. To the degree that I have a reputation, I am more effective in drawing attention to Leonard Peltier, or an endangered species, or even to the benefits of Zen practice. It's a very narrow line I walk between ego and effectiveness, and sometimes I stumble. The trap of self can lead to self-deception. Sitting practice helps, of course. It's a good thing that public attention to my work came a bit late. I don't think I'd have handled it well in my twenties. I had a lot of vanity and arrogance, I was very cocky. But these days, the main problem is time. I never have enough of it. One wants to help whenever one can, yet I find that it's very difficult to keep my own work going while trying to handle all these other matters and still be available to my students and my family. I travel a lot, and I'm constantly trying to catch up, all the while yearning for a simpler life.
Shainberg: That's all through Dragon River, isn't it, your hunger for simplicity?
Matthiessen: I dream of simplicity, but I'm as far from it as ever. That is my practice, how to be in the world and remain simple. One day perhaps I'll accept the fact that I am never going to find the simple life. Maybe the first step toward simplicity will be to accept that my life will never be simple even if I go live in a cave and subsist on green nettles like Milarepa.