Thanks for all the suggestions. Today I’m working on rewriting Nishijima’s version of Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Song of the Middle Way. As I was typing away trying to explain a particular point he made, I put down the following paragraph:
“We say, for example, that a whirlpool is a spiraling current of water in a river. Then, when we communicate with each other, we can use the word ‘whirlpool’ to refer to something we all understand. However, the whirlpool is not really different from the river. It cannot exist except as part of the river. In the same way, the things and phenomena of the universe — including you and I — do not exist except as part of the universe. They are temporary manifestations of the activity of the universe as a whole in precisely the same way the whirlpool is a temporary manifestation of the activity of the river. We lose sight of this fact very easily, perhaps some of us never even gain sight of it to begin with. Our definitions of individual things and phenomena are based on the characteristics we rather arbitrarily assign to them. This way we are able to create mental representations of those things and to manipulate those representations in our minds. It is a mistake to think that the arbitrary divisions of the real universe that we make in our minds correspond to divisions in the real universe itself.”
Ugh! Heavy stuff.
So how about the topic of creativity and Zen? Or fantasy and Zen as some of you have said. It is true, I work in an industry devoted to creating fantasies. This seems utterly wrong for someone who is also devoted to a pursuit of the truth. It has, in fact, caused me a tremendous amount of consternation. This has come up a few times in my interactions with Nishijima Sensei. I remember once, I brought along a book about Ultraman to a retreat just as something to look at and as a way to study a little bit of Japanese. Nishijima saw me reading it and said, “Those TV shows teach children.” I kind of laughed and asked what he thought the shows taught them. “They teach them to believe in power.” Ack!
He was right, though. Superhero shows give kids the idea that they can be saved by outside forces with powers beyond their own. Religions teach exactly the same thing. So I made it my business to try and inject some doubt into that idea. I made friends with one of the chief writers of the show and had long conversations with him about various subjects. I submitted stories of my own for consideration. In ways both subtle and overt the theme of all of my submissions was to cast a shadow of doubt upon this belief in power.
I never succeeded in getting any of my stories on the air. But as time went on, I began seeing the little seeds of doubt I’d planted begin to grow. You’d have to watch a lot of Ultraman episodes very closely to see the results. But they’re definitely there. I’ve never seen another superhero show in which such doubts about the efficacy of power to save the powerless was ever questioned. I recently watched the new Superman movie and there’s absolutely no doubt at all that we little people need someone with super powers to save us.
If you can make even a tiny bit of difference, that can help. It’s better than doing nothing at all and it’s better than standing around complaining.
Zen is pretty famous for its creativity. Zen teachers always seem to have some kind of creative outlet. Some, like Dogen, are writers and poets. Some are calligraphers, painters and musicians. Some take a creative approach to things like archery or the martial arts. This has led to a certain degree of confusion in the West. We’ve never been exposed much to calligraphy, Asian styles of visual art, or their unique approach to certain sports like archery and the martial arts. So we’ve combined these things with Zen in such a way as to foster belief that these arts in particular are somehow “Zen” in and of themselves as opposed to other forms of art that are not “Zen.” Really, though, it’s not the style of art itself, but rather how the artist approaches it. I’d hate for someone who wasn’t exposed to much of Western culture to read my writings and decide that hardcore punk was somehow more “Zen” than other forms of artistic expression. I just use my expression in that field to try and talk about the way a person steeped in this philosophy approaches art in general.
Art is good. Art is necessary for human life. I once heard Nishijima talk about why he appreciated actors. I can’t remember his exact words. But it was something about how actors can express emotion without themselves getting caught up in emotion. All art performs an important function in society. I consider what I do here as a kind of artistic expression. To a certain degree, even the autobiographical parts of Hardcore Zen contain a certain amount of fiction. Not that I made up any of the stories, they all really happened. But when you try and write about things years later, you inevitably have to fill in the gaps in your memory with stuff you pretty much invent the same way a fiction writer invents the activities of a character.
In fact, if you really want to get into it, some of the greatest works in Buddhist literature are works of fiction. Virtually all of the Mahayana sutras have huge amounts of made-up stuff in them, stories that never “really” happened as matters of historical fact, but which are nonetheless absolutely true.
So do some art. OK?