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An Interview with Peter Matthiessen
Peter Matthiessen, author, environmentalist, and activist, began his Zen studies with Soen Roshi and Eido Roshi in 1969. He continued his studies with Maezumi Roshi, then with Tetsugen Glassman Sensei, from whom he received dharma transmission in 1989. Matthiessen's books The Snow Leopard (Viking, 1978) and Nine-Headed Dragon River (Shambhala Publications, 1986) both deal with his Zen studies. His latest novel is Killing Mr. Watson (Random House, 1990). He lives in Sagaponack, New York, where he runs a small Zen center. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Lawrence Shainberg, who first met Peter Matthiessen at the Zen Studies Society. Subsequently, Shainberg has studied Zen with Kyudo Roshi at the Soho Zen Center in lower Manhattan. The author of a memoir about Samuel Beckett (The Paris Review, Issue 104) as well as One on One, Brain Surgeon and Memories of Amnesia, Shainberg is currently working on a personal narrative about Zen. This interview took place at Peter Matthiessen's house in April.
Shainberg: In The Snow Leopard and Nine-Headed Dragon River, you wrote that your first experience of Zen practice was attending a weekend sesshin at New York Zendo early in 1969, in which you participated without having had any previous experience of zazen. I must say I find it hard to believe that one could endure a whole retreat—especially the sort they held there—without any preparation.
Peter Matthiessen, Sagaponack, New York, 1993
Matthiessen: I found it hard to believe too. I thought I had been hit by lightning. My late wife, Deborah, was a Zen student, and it was she who got me into it. Through her I'd met Soen Roshi [1907-1984] and Yasutani Roshi [1885-1973] as well as Eido Roshi, who was then the monk Taisan. I was very impressed by them, and that was part of it. I think Deborah thought this sesshin would finish off any interest I might have had. And after two hours, I was certain she was right. At rest periods, I'd literally weep with pain and rage. Then I got stubborn and macho. There was a monk there who was not only macho but a masochist, maybe a sadist, and he kept whispering to me behind his hand, hyping me up so I would stick it out.
Shainberg: Was the pain a teaching for you?
Matthiessen: Well, as Yamada Roshi once said, pain in the knees is the taste of zazen. Pain is certainly a teaching. You learn very quickly that if you give way to it and start shifting around, it will unravel through your body, whereas if you sit still, sit in the middle of it, you can focus on it, control it. It is just pain. But those are things you learn over the years. At that first sesshin I had no such understanding. I was just gritting my teeth and praying for the period to end. I thought it was one of the most barbaric experiences I'd ever had. Yet for all the pain and distress, and the terrific anger, I got hooked.
Shainberg: Can you say why?
Matthiessen: Something about zazen must have reawakened some primordial longing, though I didn't understand this at the time. I think most people who come to Zen practice have had an early glimmering, an opening, of mystical experience, like a glimpse of the lost paradise. Perhaps they suppressed it or at least didn't acknowledge it, afraid they were crazy, afraid of what others might say. They felt they'd be laughed at, as if they'd seen Bigfoot or something. But eventually they realize that something important has happened, and they go to a zendo to reaffirm this vision, know the truth. Why else would people go in there at dawn on a beautiful day and crack their knees all day long, when there are so many more tempting things to do in the so-called "real world"?
Shainberg: What can you say about your own first glimpse?
Matthiessen: The first one I recall was in a storm, standing fire watch on deck on a troopship going to Pearl Harbor during World War II. At the time it seemed overpowering, bizarre. I didn't dare try to describe it to anybody. It was a sense of unity with the universe—or as I saw it at the time, obliteration of P. Matthiessen in the wind and water. Not a profound experience, just a glimpse. Later, in the sixties, I was stirred by LSD—again that sense of becoming one with the world around. Later, I realized that the hallucinogens did not open the way to true mystical experience, there was separation in the very presence of the chemical, but it sure seemed astonishing at the time. I think many of us in Zen in the early days were acidheads who'd tired of that chemical presence, that loss of self which separated you from complete immersion in the Absolute. In a sense the experience of the troopship was more profound because there was no such separation. In any event, that first sesshin must have evoked an echo or reverberation of those other moments.
Shainberg: The diaries from which you have quoted in your books portray a practice that is very focused on mystical experience. Are you as interested in that now as you were then?
Matthiessen: No. But [laughing] I've got nothing against it. If a student asks if I think it's important, I say yes. However, I think there are other ways of attaining that understanding; it doesn't have to take the form of kensho [an "opening" or enlightenment experience, in which a glimpse of the "true nature" of existence is revealed]. We have all seen people walk into a zendo for the very first time, already in a clear place. "There are people outside in the street right now who don't need this so-called Zen," as Soen Roshi used to say to curb our spiritual ambition. He hated "the stink of Zen" so much. He was capable of saying "Zen" with real contempt!
Shainberg: Do you think Zen practice itself has changed? If my experience is any guide, the mystical-fixation is a romanticism we've outgrown. My teacher, Kyudo Roshi, a dharma heir of Soen, as you know, is less concerned with mysticism than teaching you how to wash your toilet. He seems to disdain any talk of mystical experience. As he once said, "All I know about enlightenment is that when I sit my legs hurt."
Matthiessen: I'm not so sure he's saying anything different. There are so many admonitions to avoid such traps as thinking about mystical experience, et cetera. When washing the toilet, if you're truly paying attention, you're actually enlightened, because you're in the moment, and that is the enlightened state. The fact that it doesn't take the form of an opening up, a great white light, doesn't mean that it isn't legitimate. In Kyudo Roshi's case, it could be just another way of coming at it, another way of striking sparks, as in teisho [a dharma talk]. Even in his lineage, after all, some people talked about kensho a lot. Soen didn't talk about it but quite a lot was made of it when it occurred. And there are other teachers who talk about it much more than he did—Yasutani, for one—who say that until you've had an opening you haven't really tasted Zen. I don't go along with that. I talk about it very little. But if it comes up, I don't back away from it, I eat it.
Shainberg: In Dragon River, you speak of something that occurred in dokusan fa private interview with a teacher] with Soen Roshi. You described an experience you'd had during sesshin, an episode when you felt as if you'd become invisible. And Soen said, "Please take good care of yourself." You wrote then that you didn't understand what he meant. I wonder if you do now.
Matthiessen: I think it was simply an affirmation. Eido Roshi in that same situation would probably have urged me on with the stick. I think Soen Roshi knew I was very open at that moment, very strong, but also very fragile, and he was just saying, Take care of it. Take care of the dharma, of which you are a part. When you're coming from a point of view of emptiness, there's no difference between you and the dharma or you and the Buddha. So perhaps he was telling me to just take care of the Three Treasures.
Lawrence Shainberg and Peter Matthiessen in Sagaponack, New York, 1993
Shainberg: Soen was no ordinary person, was he.
Matthiessen: He was extra-ordinary! There was no one like him. One felt a real egolessness in him. He was so light, no vanity, no arrogance. He was utterly free, completely wild and humorous, fearless. He wasn't hung up on how a Zen master should be. He'd try anything. He once took LSD.
Shainberg: What effect did it have?
Matthiessen: None whatsoever. Where could he go? He was already there.
One morning he came in here and drank a sample of everything I had, maybe a dozen different liquors, a half shot glass each. He finally got to a very bitter aperitif called Fernet Branca, which is only suitable for hangovers. I said, "Roshi, I don't think you are going to like that." He shouted, "DO NOT DISCRIMINATE! How can I not drink this one when I've drunk everything else?" But when the glass was about six inches from his nose, he got a whiff and realized he was in terrible trouble, so without a moment's hesitation, he growled and took up a skishi board [a prefabricated board for calligraphy] and, dipping his finger into the Fernet Branca, used up every last drop making this wonderful calligraphy. I still have it, The Face Before Your Parents Were Born. It was an amazing display of spontaneous moment-by-moment activity.